I write about things I find interesting, and although I am not an expert, I have fun learning as I research. I hope you like the results!
Serial Killers Defined
When talking about serial killers, the first thing we need to establish is a working definition of the term "serial killer."
Serial killers have a unique definition that separates them from mass murderers. Let’s look at the two phrases and familiarise ourselves with the distinction:
- A mass murderer is defined as someone who kills multiple victims in a single incident.
- A serial killer is someone who murders two or more victims over a period of time, often employing a similar modus operandi for each murder.
An Unwanted Female First
The first chronicled example of serial killing dates back to 331 BC, in Ancient Rome, when an unknown number of men were thought to be dying of plague.
Eventually, one of the women involved in the poisoning ring confessed their crime, and a total of 170 women were subsequently arrested. Two of the first women arrested said that their concoctions were purely medicinal and drank it to prove the veracity of their statement, promptly dying.
Nearly 400 years later came the infamous poisoner Locusta, who in 54 AD was charged with the task of killing Emperor Claudius, by his wife Agrippina. She succeeded by feeding him a dish of poisoned mushrooms.
A year later, after being charged with poisoning another victim, she was rescued from execution by Agrippina’s son, the Emperor Nero, on the condition that she poison Claudius’s son Britannicus.
After succeeding at the second attempt, Nero rewarded her with a large estate and sent people to study her methods. Crime eventually didn’t pay for her though, as she was executed after Nero’s suicide in 68 AD.
America, Land of the Free...and the Serial Killer
Despite its long history stretching back to ancient times, serial killing is not an officially recognised crime in any single countries legal system, even in the USA, the indisputable home of the serial killer. Rather, the killers are charged with multiple counts of murder and receive their sentences based on each case individually.
America has produced 3,204 serial killers that we know of, and this total will be growing as you read this. To put that in perspective, the second-highest producing country is the United Kingdom with 166.
Doubters may say this is due to the population size of the US, but take into account the fact that Russia has had only seventy-three cases and India comes in at number nine on the list with eighty, despite having a population almost four times greater than America.
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Coining of the Term 'Serial Killer'
Fittingly then, it was in America that the modern term of ‘serial killer’ is commonly cited as being coined by FBI criminal profiler Robert Ressler in 1974.
That said, there is evidence it wasn't an entirely unknown term already in parts of Europe. The term 'Serienmörder', which translates as 'serial murderer' from its original German, was used by Ernst Gennat, who went on to become the director of the Berlin criminal police. The term was used by him when describing Peter Kürten, also known as the ‘Monster of Düsseldorf’ in 1930.
Ressler defined the term 'serial killer' as a case “involving at least four events that take place at different locations and are separated by a cooling-off period.”
This has changed to the definition described above over the ensuing years, with some treating two murders as a serial killing, and others as many as the original four before it as considered such.
The Profile of a Serial Killer
Most serial killers are traditionally believed by many to be white Caucasian males, in their mid to late twenties. However, this doesn’t tally with the findings of Dr Mike Aamodt, of the Serial Killer Information Centre, at Radford University in Virginia.
His database suggests that whilst most serial killers are indeed male (94.4%), only 52.1% of them are white and only 27% are in their mid to late twenties.
- Many killers are often said to be 'normal' or 'ordinary' by friends, neighbours and relatives after they have been apprehended by police.
- They tend to move home quite frequently, possibly to distance themselves from their crimes.
- They tend to be in unstable relationships and employment, favouring jobs that they aren't tied to, such as driving, which allows them to move around and look for victims.
- Often, but not always, they are 'loners' who prefer privacy.
- They show an extremely low level of empathy for others
- Manipulative by nature.
- Usually, they have a background of criminal activity for minor offences such as assault.
- Childhood abuse is often found in their backgrounds.
Typically, serial killers choose a similar type of victim each time they perpetrate a murder. Race, gender, age, or a common feature such as blonde hair on a woman for example.
The motives vary as widely as the victims chosen, ranging from political or religious ideology, financial reasons, hatred for a particular type of person or trait within a person, the feeling of power and control, sexual gratification, gaining something not available through normal means, or simply the need for attention or perceived glory from their heinous acts.
Most prefer the up close and personal methods of killing their victims. Taking souvenirs or leaving things behind is also not uncommon. One suggests a need to relive the crime, whilst the other suggests the killer may be playing a 'game' with the police, daring them to catch him if they can.
The video below shows how police use profiling and other tactics to work out the possible identity and location of the killers.
Medieval Serial Killers and Beyond
It is believed by some that many of the myths and legends with which we grew up, vampires and werewolves, for example, were based on the activities of medieval killers.
In parts of Africa, there are tales of leopard men, or lion men, very similar to the European version of the ‘wolf man’ or werewolf.
It is easy to see how the changing anthropomorphic state of these fanciful creatures would reflect the change needed in a normal human being’s state of mind, to commit such callous crimes.
It is my personal belief that conjuring up such bestial creatures may also have been an attempt to distance the rest of humanity from the evil nature of such brutality.
One such example is that of Peter Stumpp, the 'Werewolf of Bedburg', who is alleged to have killed at least 18 victims spanning 1564 to 1589.
Whilst it is probably true that he did kill, many of the claims written about him have to be taken with a pinch of salt, purely due to the manner of his 'confession'. He confessed to his crimes whilst being tortured and stretched out on the rack.
Peter, a farmer, also had only one arm. It was rumoured that his missing arm was amputated whilst he was in wolf form, lending even more credence in the eyes of the people, that he was indeed a werewolf.
The pain induced by this method of investigation probably created a lot of false confessions over the years. Indeed, one could draw a direct comparison to the witchcraft trials that took place and convicted a lot of innocent people of being in league with the devil.
Grisly details were also added to his list of crimes, including relationships with his daughter, who was inexplicably executed alongside Stumpp despite being innocent of any known crime herself.
It is these details, often erroneously added to the crime in the ensuing years that build up legends and lead to books and Hollywood movies. These add further false details and further build its mystique in the eyes of an audience eager for sensationalism and entertainment.
Would they be so eager if they knew what the myths were built upon?
Another infamous character from 16th Century Europe is Countess Elizabeth Báthory.
Elizabeth was born into a noble family of the Hungarian Kingdom and she is considered to be the world’s most prolific female serial killers.
As many as 650 victims could have fallen under her heartless reign of terror.
Most of her victims were adolescent girls, mainly from a peasant background, but as she started to feel more invincible, she started to also target girls from the lower gentry’s class too. Usually lured to her castle home under the guise of well-paid jobs as maidservants, or as students of etiquette.
Due to her family connections, she never faced a trial for her crimes. Instead, she was confined to a windowless room in Csetje Castle, which is situated in what is now a part of modern-day Slovakia. She died there five years later.
She is probably best remembered for her penchant for bathing in a virgin’s blood in a misguided attempt to retain her youth.
Her infamy no doubt contributed to the tales of Vlad Dracula, combining to give us the modern-day picture of vampires.
Again we see rumour, myth and folklore adding to the reputation of a serial killer and forming a whole new concept.
You can find mention of Stephen Báthory, also of this notable family, in the article I wrote about Vlad Tepes III - Tyrant or Misunderstood.
Jack the Ripper
Probably the most infamous serial killer of all time was the unidentified perpetrator (probably male) of the Whitechapel Murders. He was given the nickname ‘Jack the Ripper’ by the media.
‘Jack’ killed at least five women, and maybe as many as eleven, in the East End of London between 1888 and 1891. The five that are known to be the work of this character, however, all took place towards the latter end of 1888.
He targeted prostitutes for the most part and because these murders were never solved conclusively, they have become the subject of much research and people putting forward their own view on who ‘The Ripper’ was. Indeed, it has even spawned its own terminology, with those who choose to study the case being known as Ripperologists.
This is probably because it signalled the beginning of the sensationalism of such cases by the media. Jack was good for business as far as the press was concerned.
Some of the thousands of letters the police received were even said to have been sent by journalists in an attempt to ramp up sales of their newspapers. One of the most famous of which can be seen below. It was received along with half a human kidney, lending it some extra credence with investigators.
So there we have a brief overview of:
- The history of the serial killer
- The profile of what makes up the typical perpetrator
- The motives usually behind the crimes
- A few synopses of infamous killers from history
- Links to further reading on the subject
- Statistics for the levels to which the crimes are committed
I hope you have found this article informative. I have not gone into any gruesome details of the cases because that is irrelevant to the intent of the article. There are many sites available that are only too willing to give all the graphic details and pictures of the victims if that is what you are looking for.
The intent of this article is rather to show that the serial killer is not a new or modern phenomenon, although there are more and more cases as the population grows. If you want to dive deeper down this rabbit hole, you might want to check out a book called Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the Present by historian Peter Vronsky, who assesses the phenomenon of serial killing as a continuation of prehistoric anthropological and evolutionary behavior.
I have also chosen not to talk about 20th century cases. Some of the victims’ families are still alive and in mourning for their loved ones and I think it is highly disrespectful therefore to sensationalise the actions of the person who took their lives from them.
At some point in the future, I may do an article on the perplexing reasons for why the USA is head and shoulders above all other nations combined in relation to individuals deciding to kill in large numbers over a period of time, but for now, I hope you have enjoyed reading this.
Thank you for taking the time to get this far.
- 10 Forgotten Serial Killers From The Middle Ages | Listverse
Serial killers are a special kind of evil. Since being coined by FBI investigator Robert Ressler, the term “serial killer” has come to denote any murderer coldly commits their crimes in a series of separate events over a stretch of time.
- Who was Jack the Ripper? The Suspects so Far
Scores of names have been put forward as Jack the Ripper's real identity since his heinous crimes in 1888.
- Casebook: Jack the Ripper - Main
- Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers
Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers From the Stone Age to the Present by Peter Vronsky, a new book on the history of sexual serial murder from the author of the bestseller Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters and Female Serial Kil
- Serial Killer Statistics | Radford University
- Locusta the Poisoner: Ancient Rome’s First Female Serial Killer | Classical Wisdom Weekly
Involved in the deaths of countless people, Locusta the Poisoner—possibly the first documented female serial killer in history—played a crucial role in the history of the Imperial Family.
- Robert Ressler | Wikipedia
FBI agent and author Robert Ressler played a significant role in the psychological profiling of violent offenders in the 1970s and is often credited with coining the term "serial killer,"
- The Damnable Life and Death of Stubbe Peeter | George Bores (London Chapbook of 1590)
A 1590 chapbook detailing the trial and execution of Peter Stubb, a serial killer and alleged werewolf.
- Hungarian Countesses’ Torturous Escapades Are Exposed | History.com
Bathory was infamous for her torture and murder of servants and peasants. Her bloodthirsty activities have led many to cite her as one of the first vampires in history.
© 2021 Ian