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Serial Killers

Reviewing the history of serial murder is a tricky proposition, since it’s hard to know exactly where to begin. On the one hand, serial killing seems like a uniquely modern phenomenon, a symptom of the various ills afflicting late-twentieth-century America – alienation, social decay, sexual violence, rampant crime, etc. On the other hand, the savage, sadistic impulses that underlie serial murder are undoubtedly as old as human kind.

Any historical survey of serial murder would have to begin at least as far back as ancient Rome, when the Emperor Caligula was busily indulging his taste for torture and perversion. During the Middle Ages, depraved Aristocrats like Gilles de Rais (the original “Bluebeard”) and Elizabeth Bathory (the “Blood Countess”) fed their unholy lusts on the blood of hundreds of victims, while psychopathic peasants like Gilles Ganier and Peter Stubbe butchered their victims with such bestial ferocity that they were believed to be literal werewolves. Other homicidal monsters of the premodern era include the Scottish cannibal Sawney Beane and Vlad the Impaler, the real-life Dracula.

Most crime buffs agree that the first serial sex-killer of the modern era was Jack The Ripper, whose crime – the ghastly slaughter of five London streetwalkers – sent shock waves throughout Victorian England. One hundred years later, the serial slaying of prostitutes has become such a commonplace activity that (to cite just one of many examples) when, in July 1995, a former warehouse clerk named William Lester Suff was convicted of killing thirteen hookers in Southern California, the media barely noted the event. That shift sums up the history of serial murder in the twentieth century: its appalling transformation from a monstrous anomaly into an everyday horror.

Jack the Ripper’s American contemporary, H. H. Holmes, who confessed to twenty-seven murders in the late 1890s, is regarded as America’s first documented serial killer. Two full decades would pass before another one appeared on the scene: the unknown maniac dubbed the “Axeman of New Orleans,” who terrorized that city between 1918 and 1919.

Though it was a violent and lawless decade, the Roaring Twenties produced only two authentic serial killers: Earle Leonard Nelson – the serial strangler nicknamed the “Gorilla Murderer” – and the viciously depraved Carl Panzram. Serial killers were equally few and far between in the 1930s and 1940s. The cannibalistic pedophile Albert Fish, and the anonymous psycho known as the “Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run” (aka the “Cleveland Torso Killer”) are the only known serial killers of Depression-era America. The roster of 1940s serial killers is also limited to a pair of names: Jake Bird, a homicidal burglar who confessed to a dozen axe murders, and William Heirens, famous for his desperate, lipstick-scrawled plea: “For heaven’s sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself.”

It wasn’t until the post-Work War II period that serial murder became rampant in this country. Its shadow was already beginning to spread during the sunny days of the Eisenhower era. The 1950s witnessed the depredations of Wisconsin ghoul Ed Gein; the voyeuristic horrors of Californian Harvey Murray Glatman (who photographed his bound, terrorized victims before murdering them); the crimes of homicidal scam artists Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez (the “Lonely Hearts Killers”); and the bloody rampage of Charles Starkweather, who slaughtered a string of victims as he hot-rodded across the Nebraska badlands.

The situation became even grimmer during the 1960s, a period that produced such infamous figures as Melvin “Sex Beast” Rees, Albert “Boston Strangler” DeSalvo, Richard Speck, Charles Manson, and the still-unknown Zodiac. By the time the 1970s rolled around, the problem had become so dire that, for the first time, law enforcement officials felt the need to define this burgeoning phenomenon as a major category of crime. The 1970s was the decade of Berkowitz and Bundy, Kemper and Gacy, Bianchi and Buono (the “Hillside Stranglers”), and more.

By the 1980s some criminologists were bandying words like plague and epidemic to characterize the problem. Though these terms smack of hysteria, it is nevertheless true that serial homicide has become so common in our country that most of its perpetrators stir up only local interest. Only the most ghastly of these killers, the ones who seem more like mythic monsters than criminals – Jeffrey Dahmer, for example – capture the attention of the entire nation and end up as creepy household names.

In view of the grim chronicle, it’s hard not to agree with Voltaire’s famous definition. “History,” he wrote, “is little else than a picture of human crime and misfortune.”