Dirty Dozen: America's 12 Worst Serial Killers
Where has humanity gone wrong?
Serial killers are largely a product of modern times. There’s something about packing people close together in a highly technological setting that turns some folks into heartless murderers. Strangely, most serial killers have done their dirty work - perhaps three-quarters of the estimated world total - in the United States. Is it the relative freedom found in this country? Or the large number of cars, which give serial killers needed mobility?
Regardless of what makes a serial killer, why make a list of them? One reason is morbid fascination - the same reason people line up to see horror movies or rubber-neck at automobile accidents. Moreover, people have always been captivated by death, because we’re all headed that way, sooner or later. Of course, those aforementioned dastardly guys and gals don’t need to press the issue, do they?
Incidentally, this article won’t present the grisly details of murders or the names of victims; books, documentaries or articles on the Internet can provide plenty of that. The purpose of this article is to point out each killer’s gruesome legacy and not necessarily body counts.
One very good book on the subject is entitled Serial Killers: The Stories of History’s Most Evil Murderers by Brian Innes, who wrote, “Serial killers are not monsters: they are human beings with tortured souls. The motive is intrinsic, an irresistible compulsion, fueled by fantasy, which may lead to torture, and/or sexual abuse, mutilation and necrophilia.”
(Unless otherwise noted, all quotes in this article come from Innes’ book.)
Now let’s read the list of the Dirty Dozen: America’s 12 Worst Serial Killers:
1. Carl Panzram may have been one of history’s first identified sociopaths. This man showed no conscience or compassion and never expressed the slightest regret for murdering 21 human beings. Panzram’s trouble started at the age of eight when he was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct. Then, at a reform school, Panzram drew a loaded pistol on a teacher and pulled the trigger - but the gun didn’t go off. While awaiting execution by hanging, Panzram wrote, “If in the beginning I had been treated as well as I am now, then there wouldn’t have been so many people in this world that have been robbed, raped and killed.” In 1930, when about to have his neck stretched, Panzram said, “Hurry it up, you Hoosier bastard. I could hang a dozen men while you’re fooling around.”
2. Edward Theodore Gein was a grave robber and murderer whose foul deeds inspired some of the most frightening characters in horror films. Gein was a mama’s boy who also wanted to be a woman. He robbed nearby cemeteries and murdered women for body parts, so he could “dress himself up” to resemble a woman. When the police caught up with Gein, they discovered that his house was a slaughterhouse and morgue, body parts scattered everywhere. Gein’s evil exploits led to the movies Psycho, Deranged, Silence of the Lambs and others. Gein’s ghoulish ways also became part of Mid-West mythology in the middle 1950s. Mothers told their children: “Don’t go down to the river or play on the railroad tracks. Ed Gein will get you.” Gein’s influence on popular culture may be the greatest of the serial killers.
3. Charles Manson had a terrible childhood like most serial killers. He had no known father and his mother was a criminal who eventually rejected her son. Manson spent almost all of his early years in reform school or jail. But when Charlie got into his thirties he became a guitar-strumming hippie with charisma. Fancying himself a kind of messiah, Charlie eventually formed a kind of “family" out in the desert, brainwashing his hippie followers while they tripped on LSD. Then he sent them – mostly women – on a murderous campaign in L.A., hoping to start a race war he called Helter Skelter. Once busted, the shocking tale of the Manson Family became the most sensational trial of the century (Until O.J?). Thereafter, hippies were no longer viewed as innocent flower children banging on tambourines, and LSD wasn’t exactly given a resounding endorsement either. Perhaps Charlie’s most memorable line was “You made me,” when referring to how he thought society had made him what he was.
4. The Zodiac Killer played games with the authorities by sending letters to the San Francisco Chronicle back in October 1969. In one letter he wrote, “Schoolchildren make nice targets, I think I shall wipe out a school bus some morning.” (His letters had the sign of the zodiac on them, hence his name.) Fortunately, this ultimate bogeyman never carried out this threat. But until perhaps early 1974 Zodiac shot or stabbed numerous young men and women, usually as he found them alone in the country. At times, the Zodiac Killer called the Chronicle on the phone. One time after sending them a cipher in the mail, he said, “Could you print this new cipher on your front page? I get awfully lonely when I am ignored, so lonely I could do my Thing!!!!!! Such letters stopped coming from 1974 to 1978. Perhaps Zodiac was locked up somewhere. The ending in the final letter read, “I am now in control of all things.” Chillingly, the Zodiac Killer was never identified with certainty. Is he or she your next-door neighbor?
5. Henry Lee Lucas may have been America’s most prolific serial killer, murdering over 200 people, though Lucas confessed to as many as 600! Authorities have eventually concluded that many of Lucas’ claims were exaggeration and/or references to other peoples’ murders. Be that as it may, from 1960, when Lucas murdered his mother, to 1983, he and sometimes accomplice Ottis Toole began murdering people just for the thrill of it. When Lucas was finally apprehended he wrote the sheriff: “I killed for the past 10 years and no-one will believe me. I cannot go on doing this. I also killed the only girl I ever loved.” When Lucas’ wife, Frieda Powell, wanted to confess her sins regarding her knowledge of her husband’s murders, Lucas killed her. Many of Lucas’ murders were substantiated because of the establishment in 1982 of the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, which, among other things, defined serial murder.
6. John Wayne Gacy grew up to be a veritable pillar of society in Cook County Chicago. At times, he would appear as “Pogo the Clown,” performing feats of magic for the kiddies. Gacy even considered running for major in Waterloo, Iowa, where he ran in 1964 a string of KFC franchises. Then rumors began circulating of his unusual sexual tastes, such as wife-swapping, prostitution and having sex with teenage boys. Eventually, Gacy began abducting young men with whom he had sex, and then tortured and murdered. In need of a place to dump the corpses, Gacy simply buried them under and around his house. Finally arrested in 1978, Gacy confessed to murdering 33 young men. At his trial, Gacy claimed insanity, attributing his heinous offenses to his alter-ego “Bad Jack,” but this plea only led to his conviction on all counts. Finally, in May 1994 Gacy was executed by lethal injection.
7. Ted Bundy certainly didn’t resemble your typical serial killer (assuming any of them do, of course). Bundy was good looking, well-dressed, charming and witty. He definitely had what it took to attract women, and this he did to the demise of 40 or more young women in the 1970s, many of them raped, battered and strangled. At times Bundy impersonated a police officer so he could more easily snatch and handcuff his victims. (Other serial killers have used the same ploy.) Once apprehended in 1977, Bundy escaped jail twice and murdered more women until they nabbed him again. Finally convicted of numerous shocking murders, Bundy tried every appeal possible, while confessing to other murders – even those of other serial killers – hoping to save his life, until they finally gave him the “hot seat” in January 1989.
8. Donald Henry Gaskins was dubbed the redneck Charles Manson, because of his short stature, his exalted sense of self-importance, and because he was locked up often at a young age. First incarcerated at 13 in 1946, Gaskins was raped repeatedly, assaults which almost certainly damaged his psyche. By 1968, Gaskins was a raging psychopath, killing 80 men and women, though he could have killed scores more. Incidentally, along the way, Gaskins also raped and murdered his niece. In the book Final Truth written by Wilton Earl, Gaskins was reported as declaring: “I have walked the same path as God; by taking lives and making others afraid, I became God’s equal. Through my own power I come to my own redemption.” Finally running out of appeals in September 1991, Gaskins had life jolted from him in the electric chair.
9. Donald Harvey did not come from the dysfunctional family background typical of most serial killers. He was his mother’s pride and joy and a teacher’s pet, though he was also a loner, a common trait for serial murderers. From 1970 onward, working as an orderly or nurse’ aide, Harvey had access to numerous patients, many of whom he either poisoned with cyanide or arsenic, or asphyxiated. Showing a particularly twisted side, Harvey infected some patients with serious diseases and then nursed them back to health. Then in 1978 police searched Harvey’s apartment and found incriminating evidence for his nefarious misdeeds. Harvey was eventually convicted for committing some 70 murders, at which point his mother stated: “My son has always been a good boy.” Harvey’s first parole hearing is scheduled for 2047.
10. Gary Ridgway became known as the Green River Man by dumping many of his victims’ bodies in or near the Green River around Seattle, Washington. Ridgway began his murderous ways in 1982, strangling a 16-year-old woman. All of his victims were young women and many of them prostitutes. Through the early to middle 1980s, Ridgway became a prime suspect, but the police couldn’t amass enough evidence to bring him to trial; he even passed a polygraph test. But in 1988 the police took a sample of Ridgway’s DNA and soon matched it with that from the bodies of three of his victims, making him one of the first serial killers convicted with the use of forensic DNA evidence. Ridgway confessed to 48 killings but the total could have been as high as 60. He just couldn’t remember for certain.
11. Aileen Wuornos is the lone woman on this list, though there have been a fair number of female serial killers in American history. Coming from another broken family, Wuornos got pregnant by the age of 15 and soon became a wandering prostitute, hitch-hiking from state to state. From a young age Wuornos developed an obsessive hatred of men and, in a fashion, eventually killed like a man, cutting a swath of terror through Florida with her blazing .22-caliber pistol in 1989 and 1990. Apprehended in early 1991, Wuornos confessed to six homicides, all of them men, though she claimed she had killed them all in self-defense. Wuornos averred that one of the men, Richard Mallory, had raped and beaten her, so she had to defend herself. Nevertheless, the jury didn’t acquit Wuornos, sentencing her to death for the murder of three men. Wuornos died in the electric chair in October 2002. Actress Charlize Theron portrayed Wuornos in the movie, Monster.
12. Jeffrey Dahmer started out as many serial killers have done by torturing animals. He was also sexually molested as a child, perhaps triggering his subsequent treatment of homosexuals. In 1978, Dahmer killed his first victim, a 19-year-old man he picked up hitch-hiking. Dahmer, a la John Gacy, buried his victims under and around his house, keeping body parts here and there, his depraved mind considering them trophies perhaps. Dahmer also practiced necrophilia with his prey and sometimes engaged in cannibalism as well. In 1991, Dahmer was finally caught and confessed to 17 murders. Once convicted, the court imposed a prison sentence totaling over 1,000 years! Then, in November 1994 while incarcerated, Dahmer was murdered by a fellow inmate. Regarding Dahmer’s gruesome influence on pop culture, one time when miffed by a critic while hosting a program on the Sci-Fi Channel, author Harlan Ellison groused, “I hope Jeffrey Dahmer . . . eats your face!”
No matter how many people they destroyed, it may do us little good to revile or condemn serial killers, because, after all, we all affect each other’s behavior. Nobody exists in a vacuum. In a sociological sense, Charlie Manson may have been speaking an element of truth when he said, “I’ve killed no one. I’ve ordered no one to be killed. These people who come to you with knives, they’re your children. I didn’t teach them, you did.”
Regardless of whose fault these murders are, it’s society’s task to find out why they happened, so few if any more serial killers rise from the melting pot and force their murderous cruelty upon us. Since compassion may be the greatest weapon against savagery, keep your eyes on your neighbors and kindness in your hearts. Attention often wins.
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© 2010 Kelley