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I always had a fetish for murder and death. — David Berkowitz

Serial Killers Through History

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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.

Indeed, recent scientific evidence suggests that a taste for savage cruelty is encoded in our DNA, an evolutionary inheritance from our earliest primate ancestors. In his book Demonic Males, Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham demonstrates that chimpanzees (who are “genetically closer to us than they are even to gorillas”) routinely commit acts of torture and mayhem as appalling as anything recorded in Psychopathia Sexualis. Not only do they prey upon vulnerable members of their own species, but their assaults “are marked by a gratuitous cruelty-tearing off pieces of skin, for example, twisting limbs until they break, or drinking a victim’s blood-reminiscent of acts that among humans are regarded as unspeakable crimes during peace time and atrocities during war.”

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.

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 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 the United States 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.