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Two Thousand Years of Murder from Rome to Boston

These crimes and offenses I committed solely for my evil pleasure and evil delight, to no other end or with no other intention, without anyone’s counsel and only in accordance with my imagination.
GILLES DE RAIS, Confession, 1440

I made fools of them.
ALBERT DESALVO, The Boston Strangler

Although not all serial killers are sex murderers, a significantly great proportion are. Historically, sexual crime can be defined as assault and/or homicide accompanying or substituting for sexual activity. The very act of cutting, dismembering, binding, torturing, and/or killing is often more important to the sex murderer than the actual sex act. This somewhat differentiates a sexual murderer from a “rapist-killer” who as an afterthought murders his victim to prevent her from reporting him to the police. The psychological dynamic is entirely different, and the sexual killer is more predisposed to repeat his crimes in a serial pattern.

Until the mid-eighteenth century, sex crime of any kind was virtually unknown, or at least largely unreported. One reason for this is the proposition that sex crime is a “leisure activity” requiring available time to develop and dwell on sexual fantasies and the freedom to act upon them. Prior to the industrial age the majority of people were just too busy to be fantasizing about sex. Most were desperately trying to feed themselves and survive various life-threatening dangers in the form of invading armies, bandits, revolts, and plagues. (This may account for the lower rate of serial murder in the nonindustrialized Third World, where the standard of living is much more tenuous for the average citizen.)

Rome—Empire of Hedonistic Killing

In the ancient world, the commission of serial murder was the exclusive prerogative of Roman Caesars, emperors, and barbarian nomadic chieftains who exercised absolute power over their subjects. In a sense, that kind of ancient imperial power over a human life is what a serial killer seeks today. It is difficult, however, to construct a modern criminal dynamic for the killings perpetrated by ancient despots such as Nero and Caligula. During an era when death circuses were attended by thousands of spectators in arenas, accusing Roman emperors of serial homicide would be like handing out traffic tickets at the Daytona Speedway.

Throughout the Roman Empire were hundreds of stadiums where systematic death was put on public display as a form of entertainment. The biggest facility, the Coliseum in Rome, held 50,000 spectators seated in various classes of tiers. There was a system of assigned seating with tickets, not much different from a stadium of today. Betting was big and the carnage was sexually charged, with prostitutes plying their trade beneath the coliseum arches. But unlike sporting events today, the gladiatorial games allowed for audience participation in the form of spectator voting with the classic thumbs up/down gesture as to whether a defeated gladiator would live or die.* Thus in a some senses, the games were a form of mass participatory serial murder. This is not a twentieth-century hindsight viewpoint; the Romans themselves were aware of this.51 Athenagoras, in Embassy 35, states that “seeing a man killed in the arena is much like killing him.” Seneca wrote, “Throwing a man to the lions is like tearing him apart with your own teeth.”52 Lactantius in Divine Institutes (6.20.9–14) defines the death game spectator as a particeps—“participant.”

The audiences were certainly obsessed with attending these death spectacles, which would last all day long, sometimes for weeks at a time. They lined up early in the morning and riots broke out when tickets were not distributed equitably, as they might today at rock concerts. In the morning the games featured either condemned prisoners exposed to attacks of wild animals or combat between trained and well-armed gladiators where the crowd could by their vote decide to save a defeated gladiator who they felt fought well or put to death one who disappointed them.

At noon, however, there was a special spectacle that the crowds apparently enjoyed the most—combat between prisoners condemned to death, wearing no armor and often only one of the pair armed with a dagger. There were never any survivors—the victor was disarmed and set upon by the next armed prisoner. It is said that the crowds favored this spectacle, because unlike with the gladiators, whose faces were often hidden by a helmet, the crowds could see the faces of the dying prisoners. The Roman writer Seneca observed, “In the morning they throw men to the lion and bears; at noon, they throw them to the spectators.”53

The Romans were highly aware of the different degrees of violence and had unique terms for them. Excessive violence with a purpose, such as crucifixion or mass public executions in arenas was classified as crudelitas, and was considered to be rational and have an objective, such as to prevent rebellion or to punish criminals. But irrational violence without profit (compendium), killing for its own sake, was called feritas. This violence was attributed to unreasonable ira (rage), and Seneca in his writings linked unlimited power to unlimited luxury, which he argued was the cause of excessive ira.54 Thus we can already see in the Roman era a belief that hedonistic murder is linked to an excess of leisure.

The spectators in Rome were pathologically engaged with the killing taking place and displayed addictive obsessions with the death. They derived a deep pleasure from the killing and a sense of power in their ability to choose life or death for the victims. The line between serial spectators and serial killers in the Coliseum was very thin.


Between the Roman games and Jack the Ripper, there are a few known cases of pathological serial killers. The ancient English epic Beowulf, believed to have been composed during the eighth century, describes a monstrous character named Grendel who for twelve years has been killing people by night and whose description is tantalizingly similar to the modern pathology of a serial killer: “crazed with evil anger”; “deprived of joys”; “He grieves not at all for his wicked deeds.”55

In the fifteen centuries that followed the Roman Empire, there were various murderous tyrants, chieftains, bandits, pirates, and emperors, but it is hard to distinguish their acts from political and financial gains. We know little of their personal pathologies. There were excessively zealous inquisitors of the Catholic Church with a suspiciously high propensity for submitting women suspected of witchcraft to torture and death, but again theological imperatives of those times cloud the question of personal pathology.

In later history, prior to the industrial age, Europe’s two most notorious individual sexual serial killers were aristocrats with plenty of leisure time on their hands: Marshal Gilles de Rais in fifteenth-century France and Countess Elizabeth Báthory in seventeenth-century Hungary. That those two were condemned for their crimes, despite their privilege and power, indicate the shift that society had taken since the era of the Roman games. The nature of their killing foretold of modern times to come.

 Gilles de Rais—Bluebeard, the Child Murderer

Gilles de Rais was born in 1404 into an aristocratic family near Nantes and came to be one of the richest men in France. He was the personal bodyguard and close companion of Jeanne d’Arc, at whose side he fought bravely, and it was whispered that he was her secret lover. When Jeanne d’Arc was wounded by a crossbow quarrel at the siege of Paris in September 1429, it was Gilles de Rais who valiantly carried her out of the range of further projectiles. For his valor, Gilles de Rais was appointed Marshal of France by the French king Charles VII and bestowed with a coat of arms of gold lilies on a blue field.

In 1432, at age twenty-eight, Gilles de Rais was ensconced back at his castles in Machecoul and Tiffauges south of Nantes. While Jeanne d’Arc was betrayed and burned at the stake, Gilles’s service to France had made him enormously wealthy. His annual income surpassed 2.5 million francs a year and his capital was 4.5 million, making him among the richest people in Europe at the time. This figure does not include his holdings of art objects, books, furnishings, and tapestries. In his history of Gilles, George Bataille writes:

He rode preceded by a royal escort, accompanied by an “ecclesiastical assembly.” A herald of arms, two hundred men, and trumpeters announced him; the canons in chapel, a kind of bishop, cantors, and the children in his music school made up his retinue on horseback, glittering with the richest ornaments. Gilles de Rais wanted to be dazzling, to the point of ruinous expenditure. In providing for the necessities that his delirium commanded, he liquidated an immense fortune without thinking. Some sort of dementia was at the heart of his propensity to spend money; he underwrote great theatrical performances accompanied by gifts of food and drink. He was compelled to fascinate people at all costs, but he lacked what a criminal quite often lacks on this order of things; this makes him recognize, in his confession, his excessive display of what necessarily should have remained hidden: his crimes . . .56

It was precisely in this period that peasant children, mostly boys, began vanishing in the regions around Gilles de Rais’s castles. There was no mystery as to where the children were going. His servants had taken in many as pages to Gilles’s household. In the fifteenth century for a peasant boy there were only two means of escaping crushing poverty—joining the Church as a cleric or monk or going into the service of a local lord. Many parents were happy that their son caught the eye of Gilles’s henchmen. They were overjoyed to accept the offer of giving up their child as a page. The depositions given at Gilles de Rais’s trial eight years later describe a situation where beggar boys flocked to the gates of Gilles’s castle hoping to be taken in. The most attractive would be chosen and then never seen again. There was the story of a thirteen-year-old boy who had been taken into the castle to be made a page and who returned to visit his parents carrying a loaf of bread from the castle’s bakery. He glowingly described his treatment in the service of the count but after he returned to the castle he was never heard from again. When parents inquired of their missing children, they were told that they had been assigned to more distant castles belonging to Gilles or that they had happily entered the service of faraway lords who on their visits to Gilles took a liking to the lads. At one point parents were told that the English had demanded twenty-four male children as ransom for a captured French lord.

Other children were simply snatched up by Gilles’s passing entourage while they were tending cattle in the fields, walking in the streets on their way to church or on an errand for their parents or employers. One boy regularly delivered bread to the castle—until one day he simply did not return from a delivery. Another was left at home to care for his younger siblings. When his parents returned he had vanished. Witnesses would later testify that although the entire region was now gripped in a mass fear for its children and that there were even rumors that “they ate children” at Gilles de Rais’s castle in Machecoul, nobody dared to raise a voice of suspicion or complaint against the great lord. In the archives of France are still preserved a series of witness depositions, some of them corroborated by several additional witnesses, describing the disappearance of at least thirty-seven children:57

The witnesses declare that it was public and common knowledge that children were put to death in the said castle.58


Certain neighbors of his had told Barbe and his wife that they ought to watch over their child, who was at risk of being snatched and they were very frightened about him; in fact, the witness had even been at Saint-Jean-d’Angély, and someone asked him where he was from, and when he replied that he was from Machecoul, that person marveled [was shocked], telling him that they ate little children there. [In Old French: sur ce, l’on lui avait dit, en se merveillant, qu’on y mangeoit les petis enffants.]59

In 1440 Gilles de Rais became embroiled in a dispute over the sale of some land. The party with whom Gilles was in dispute transferred the land to his brother who was a priest. In a fit of anger, Gilles de Rais rode to the church where the priest was celebrating mass and with an armed escort burst into the church, forcing the priest to relinquish the disputed land. As his attack on the priest was a grave ecclesiastical offense, the offices of the Inquisition immediately investigated Gilles. It was not long before the accounts of missing children reached the Church authorities. On September 14, 1440, Gilles de Rais was arrested and taken to Nantes. During the subsequent ecclesiastical and civil trials, the horrific fate of the missing children, estimated to number between 140 and 800, came to light. (In one of the ecclesiastical indictments, it was charged specifically that he “killed treacherously, cruelly, and inhumanly one hundred and forty, or more, children, boys and girls, or had them killed . . .”)

According to witnesses, Gilles de Rais would approach his victims very gradually after they were presented to him. At first he would treat them as his favorite servants, giving them much attention and remarking on their handsome beauty. De Rais would next caress the child and then begin grasping and pinching. At first if the child took fear and became upset, Gilles would dismiss his actions as playful and assure the child that he meant no harm. As soon as the boy would regain his self-composure, Gilles would pounce on the child and sodomize him. In the transcripts of the trial, which survive to this day, one of Gilles’s servants testified:

The accused exercised his lust once or twice on the children, then he killed them sometimes with his own hand or had them killed . . . sometimes they were decapitated and dismembered; sometimes he cut their throats leaving the head attached to the body; sometimes he broke their necks with a club; sometimes he cut their throats or some other parts of their neck, so that their blood flowed . . .

Often he loved to gaze at the severed heads and showed them to the witness and to Etienne Corrillaut, asking them which of the heads was the most beautiful, the head severed just then or the one cut off the previous day. And he often kissed the head that pleased him the most, and took delight in it.

The witness heard Gilles say that he took more pleasure in the murder of the children, and in seeing their heads and their members removed, and watching them languish, and seeing their blood flow than in knowing them carnally . . . while they were dying, he committed with them the vice of sodomy.60

Gilles de Rais himself confessed:

Because of my passion and my sensual delectation I took and caused to be taken a great number of children—how many I cannot say precisely, children whom I killed and caused to be killed; with them, I committed the vice and the sin of sodomy . . . and . . . I ejaculated spermatic seed in the most culpable manner on the belly of the children, before as well as after their deaths, and also while they were dying. I, alone, or with the help of my accomplices [list of names of de Rais’s servants] have inflicted various kinds and manners of torture on these children. Sometimes I beheaded them with daggers, with poignards, with knives; sometimes I beat them violently on the head with a stick or with other contusive instruments . . . sometimes I suspended them in my room from a pole or by a hook and cords and strangled them; and when they were languishing, I committed on them sodomitic vice . . . When the children were dead, I embraced them, and I gazed at those which had the most beautiful heads and the loveliest members, and I caused their bodies to be cruelly opened and took delight in viewing their interior organs; and was delighted to see them dying, and sat on their bellies and delighted in watching them die thus and I laughed at them with Corrillaut and Henriet, after which I caused the children to be burned and converted their cadavers into dust . . . These crimes and offenses I committed solely for my evil pleasure and evil delight, to no other end or with no other intention, without anyone’s counsel and only in accordance with my imagination.

During the ecclesiastical trial, there was some muddled testimony that concerned satanic rites associated with alchemistic practices, intended to solve the financial ruin approaching Gilles. Perhaps these accusations were merely an attempt before the era of psychiatric theory to somehow find some rational explanation for these murders.

Gilles de Rais was sentenced to death by both ecclesiastical and secular authorities, and on October 26, 1440, he was hanged and then burned. His last words were reported to be, “there is no sin, no matter how great, that God cannot pardon.” His accomplices were executed with him and their bodies were left to burn away. Gilles de Rais, however, requested that his body be taken down before it burned completely and be buried, allowing him in Christian theology the possibility of resurrection on the Final Judgment Day. Due to his high rank, the request was granted and he was buried at a Carmelite church in Nantes.

The details of Gilles de Rais’s assaults on his victims are indistinguishable from those of some serial killers today.

 Elizabeth Báthory—The Female Vampire Killer

With the kind of weird balance history sometimes provides all on its own, the other infamous serial killer from premodern times was a woman—Countess Elizabeth Báthory of Transylvania. Born in 1560 to George Báthory (Ecsed branch) and Anna Báthory (Somlyo branch), Elizabeth was a product of the intermarriage between the dwindling Hungarian noble families. The Báthory family was one of the richest and most powerful Protestant families in Hungary. From her family came two of the most important ruling princes of Transylvania, a number of war heroes and church officials of Hungary, and a great empire builder, Stephan Báthory, prince of Transylvania and king of Poland. Elizabeth’s other relatives included an uncle rumored to be addicted to secret rituals and worship of Satan; her aunt Klara, a well-known bisexual who enjoyed torturing servants; and Elizabeth’s brother, Stephan, who was a drunkard and a lecher.

The countess had a reputation for sadistic treatment of her servants, whom she would torture for the slightest mistake. Elizabeth, with her own hands, tore apart the mouth of one servant girl who had made an error while sewing. Every day, young servant girls who had committed some infraction were assembled in the basement of the castle for brutal torture. Elizabeth delighted in the torture of the young women and never missed a session. While torture of one’s servants in seventeenth-century Hungary was not a crime, it was by then considered “impolite.” Thus when traveling and visiting other aristocrats, the first thing the countess did was to have a private room secured where she could torture her servants in privacy without offending her hosts. It was noted that the girls chosen for “punishment” seemed to be always those with the biggest breasts. Elizabeth was obviously sexually motivated in meting out her tortures.

Elizabeth was married at age fifteen to a fierce Hungarian knight, Count Gyorgy Thurzo, known as the “Black Hero of Hungary.” Her husband, far from discouraging her sadistic practices, taught her some techniques of torture he had developed on the battlefield in the war against the Turks. It was, however, after he died that Elizabeth began her killing.

One day when Elizabeth’s maid accidentally pulled her hair while combing it, the countess struck her so hard as to draw blood. A few drops splashed on Elizabeth’s hand, and when she wiped them off it seemed to her that her skin appeared more transparent and rejuvenated. The countess became convinced that she had discovered a cosmetic secret for rejuvenating aging skin. Reportedly she ordered the girl’s blood to be drained into a bathtub and bathed in it. For the next ten years, Elizabeth bathed in blood daily, believing that the ritual would preserve her skin from aging.*

The ruse she used for finding victims was similar to that of Gilles de Rais. Young peasant girls would be lured to Elizabeth’s castle with promises of positions in the household staff. Upon their arrival they would be tortured by Elizabeth or her servants in nightlong sessions, and at dawn the countess would bathe in their blood.

In the countess’s murderous service was her manservant, referred to only as Ficzko (which means “lad” in Hungarian); Helena Jo, the wet nurse; Dorothea Szentes (also called “Dorka”); and Katarina Beneczky, a washerwoman who came into the countess’s employ late in her bloody career. Also, between 1604 and 1610, a mysterious woman named Anna Darvulia, who was believed to be a lesbian lover of Elizabeth’s, taught her many new torturing techniques.

One accomplice testified that on some days Elizabeth had naked girls laid flat on the floor of her bedroom and tortured them so much that one could scoop up the blood by the pail afterward. Elizabeth had her servants bring up cinders in order to cover the pools of blood. A young maidservant who did not endure the tortures well and died very quickly was written out by the countess in her diary with the curt comment, “She was too small.”

At one point in her life Elizabeth Báthory was so sick that she could not move from her bed and could not find the strength to torture her servant girls. She demanded that one of her female servants be brought before her. Dorothea Szentes, a burly, strong peasant woman, dragged one of Elizabeth’s girls to her bedside and held her there. Elizabeth rose up on her bed and bit the girl on the cheek. Then she turned to the girl’s shoulders, where she ripped out a piece of flesh with her teeth. After that, Elizabeth proceeded to bite the girl’s breasts.

It is said that Elizabeth became particularly desperate about her aging. Convinced that peasant girls’ blood was not pure enough, she began to murder young women of noble birth. At first she focused on daughters of the impoverished families of fallen gentry, who were invited to become Elizabeth’s companions. When questioned about the disappearance of the girls, she concocted a story that some of the girls had murdered other girls in her service and then committed suicide. Nonetheless, noble families began to refuse Elizabeth’s offers to take their daughters into her court, and the countess’s servants developed a ruse in which they would dress-up peasant girls in fine clothes and present them as nobility to Elizabeth.

In the beginning, Elizabeth saw to it that the dead girls were given proper Christian burials by the local Protestant pastor. But as the body count rose, the pastor refused to perform further funerals because too many girls were coming to him from Elizabeth who had died of “unknown and mysterious causes.” She threatened him in order to keep him silent and continued to have the bodies buried secretly. Near the end, many bodies, mutilated and drained of blood, were disposed of in a haphazard manner in conspicuous locations such as nearby fields, wheat silos, the stream running behind the castle, and the kitchen vegetable garden. This gave rise to lurid vampire myths in the region.

Traveling between Vienna and northwest Hungary, Countess Elizabeth Báthory murdered some 650 young women over ten years. As in the case of Gilles de Rais, many people knew that girls were disappearing in Elizabeth’s court, but no one dared to raise a voice of complaint against the countess, and those who did were quickly silenced by members of Elizabeth’s powerful family.

So far, Elizabeth had been protected by two circumstances. First, throughout her life there was a degree of lawlessness in Hungary following the war with the Turks. The fact that her husband was a noted warrior in the battle against the Turks gave her powerful status. Second, Elizabeth was a Protestant, and Protestant-Catholic rivalry lead to a delicate balance of power in Hungary that nobody wanted to upset. All of that changed after the peace of Vienna in 1608, when Protestant and Catholic provinces were united under the Catholic Habsburg crown. This was followed by Protestant uprisings in Austria, which were brutally put down by the king. These factors eroded Countess Elizabeth Báthory’s power, and the numerous reports and complaints about her began to gain momentum.

In the winter of 1610 Elizabeth still felt that her social position made her virtually untouchable before the law; she had her servants toss four murdered girls from the ramparts of Castle Cséjthe. This was done in full view of the Cséjthe villagers, who reported this latest atrocity to the king’s officials.

The Hungarian parliament finally ordered an investigation, and officers of the crown searched Elizabeth’s castle. There they found numerous bodies of young women, drained of blood, their hair torn out, their breasts cut off, and their genitals burned.

In 1611 Elizabeth’s servants were tried for the murders and executed, but Elizabeth herself, still powerfully connected, was not put on trial. Although she was sentenced to death by an executive order, her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in her castle. She was bricked up inside her bedchambers in Castle Cséjthe, with only a small port left open through which food could be passed to her. She died four years later at age fifty-five.

The entire episode was so embarrassing to Hungary’s aristocracy that the matter was hushed up and kept secret until the 1720s, when a Jesuit scholar uncovered the transcripts of the official investigation.

Serial Sexual Crimes in Premodern History

Aside from the cases of Gilles de Rais and Elizabeth Báthory, there are few accounts in history of any pathological serial murder prior to the nineteenth century. In Scotland, in the Galloway region somewhere between 1560 and 1610, Sawney Beane and his family of cave-dwelling cannibals are said to have killed and eaten thousands of travelers over a forty-five-year period. His family, the product of incest consisting of eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons, and fourteen granddaughters, fed on human flesh that was found by soldiers and pickled and smoked in the caves. They were all put to death in Leith without standing trial. The historic authenticity of this episode, however, has not been resolved with any finality, as no contemporary documentation for the event has been identified.61

In 1577 Nuremberg, German hangman Hans Schmidt wrote in his autobiography that he put Nicklaus Stüller to death because “First he shot a horse-soldier; secondly he cut open a pregnant woman alive in which was a dead child; thirdly he again cut open a pregnant woman in whom was a female child; fourthly he once more cut open a pregnant woman in whom were two male children.”

During the same period in Cologne in 1589, Peter Stubbe (Stumpf) stood charged with the rape, murder, and cannibalization of fifteen women and children near the village of Bedburg over five years. Their remains were found scattered around the village fields. Some of his victims were pregnant women from whose wombs he tore out the fetus and ate it. One of his victims was his own infant child, the result of incest with his daughter, whom he killed and ate. Stubbe, it was charged, had made a pact with the devil to turn into a werewolf, in which form he would attack his victims. He was executed in Cologne on October 8, 1589.

Another case of “werewolf” serial homicides is recorded in France in 1603, when a fourteen-year-old boy, Jean Grenier, was arrested after being beaten back by a girl he had attacked. Grenier confessed that he would take the form of a werewolf while mutilating and eating young children and pretty girls. The judge of Chastellanie and Barony of La Roche Calais questioned the boy, paying particular attention to the issue of werewolves. According to the surviving transcripts:

Asked what children he had killed and eaten while thus transformed into a wolf: said that once, as he was going from Coutras to Saint Anlaye he entered a house where he saw no one but found a one-year-old child in a cradle and took it by its throat between his teeth, carried it behind a garden fence, ate as much of it as he wanted.

That near the parish of Saint Antoine de Pizon, he hurled himself upon a young girl wearing a black dress and watching over lambs, killed her and ate as much of her as he wanted. But here is something remarkable: he said that it was he who had pulled her dress down without tearing it. It has been observed that real wolves tear with their claws, and werewolves tear with their teeth, whereas men know how to despoil girls they wish to eat of their dresses without tearing them.62

That the girl’s dress was not torn took on crucial forensic significance in this case. Physicians were called to examine the boy and concluded that he did not really turn into a werewolf, but only imagined he did, as a result of “demonic possession.” In other words, he was insane. As a result, Jean Grenier was not put to death, but instead confined for life in a monastery.

The remaining few cases that are noted in history are either series of assassinations for political motives or murders by bandits, highwaymen, and pirates systematically killing off witnesses to their crimes. There were frequent accounts of serial killing for profit, including several of female killers poisoning their victims. Serial killers preying on victims for pathological need or pleasure were rarely if ever heard of, but we cannot rule out the possibility that legendary accounts of vampires and werewolves are actually factual descriptions of human serial killers.


The earliest recorded episode of a fetish-driven serial sex crime crops up in April 1790 in London. A “Monster” is reported by contemporary description, having committed a series of “nameless crimes, the possibility of whose existence no legislator has ever dreamed of.” The Monster stalked well-dressed women in the streets, abused them with indecent language, and then slashed at their clothing. In some cases, he wore some kind of knife apparatus on his knees, allowing him to approach women in a crowd and slash at their clothing discreetly from below. More than fifty women were attacked this way between 1788 and 1790. Occasionally the assailant would cut too deeply and wound his victims, but many avoided being injured by the fashion of the day, consisting of multiple thick petticoats and bloomer-type underwear.

London was as shocked and alarmed by these extraordinary and inexplicable attacks as they would be by Jack the Ripper a hundred years later. Rewards were offered for the capture of the Monster and descriptions of his activities were posted everywhere, but they varied. The attacks appeared to escalate when some women on the street were approached by a man holding a small bouquet of artificial flowers who would ask them to smell it. Those who bent over to do so would be slashed on the face with something sharp hidden in the bouquet.

In June 1790, one of the victims thought she recognized her assailant, and he was arrested. He turned out to be an artificial-flower maker named Renwick Williams. Not all the victims identified him, and his trial was very complex because nobody knew what to charge him with. The prosecution spoke of “a crime that is so new in the annals of mankind, an act so inexplicable, so unnatural, that one might have regarded it, out of respect for human nature, as impossible.” Due to the peculiarities of the criminal code at that time, attempted murder was merely a misdemeanor, and the authorities were hard pressed to find an appropriate felony with which to charge Renwick Williams. At first they considered the Coventry Act, which made it a felony to lie in wait with the purpose of maiming or disfiguring a person. But there was no evidence that the Monster ambushed his victims. The Black Act made it a felony to go about armed while in disguise, but Williams was not obviously disguised. Finally the magistrates discovered a 1721 act that was passed when English weavers, in protest against cloth being imported from India, slashed the clothes of those they saw wearing it. The act made it a felony punishable by transportation (usually to Australia) for seven years, to “assault any person in the public streets, with intent to tear, spoil, cut, burn, or deface the garment or clothes of such person, provided the act be done in pursuance of such intention.”63

Williams was convicted of the charge, but a superior court decided that it did not apply to his case. He was tried again on the misdemeanor of attempted murder and sentenced to six years in prison. He denied being the Monster to the end. Upon his release, Williams married, fathered a child, and vanished from history.

In the decades that followed, several similar cases are on record in France and Germany. In Paris in 1819, women on the street were attacked and cut about the thighs and buttocks by piqueurs. The term picquerism is still used today to describe stabbing or slashing committed as a substitute for sex. At the same time in Augsburg, Germany, a Mädchenschneider— “girl cutter”—began to cut and slash young women in the buttocks, arms, and legs. His reign of terror lasted eighteen years, claiming some fifty victims, until the arrest of a wealthy thirty-five-year-old wine merchant named Carl Bartle. In his home, authorities discovered an extensive collection of edged weapons. Bartle confessed an aversion and disgust for women and stated that since age nineteen he would have an orgasm at the sight of blood. Like Williams, he was sentenced to six years in prison.

In the area of Bozen and Innsbruck, several women were stabbed with a small penknife in 1828 and 1829. The perpetrator, when arrested, also confessed to a sexual compulsion to stab women, which was enhanced by the sight of dripping blood. In Leipzig, similar attacks took place in the 1860s. In Bremen in 1880, a twenty-nine-year-old hairdresser, Theophil Mary, was charged with slashing the breasts of thirty-five women he had confronted on the streets. Previously he had committed a series of attacks in Strasbourg, but moved when the authorities intensified their search for the offender.

All of these offenses seemed a rehearsal for the attacks committed by Jack the Ripper in London in 1888. For some reason, all these perpetrators never crossed the line to killing their victims. Their attacks ranged from hesitant slashing of clothing to violent stabs to the women’s bodies, but while they persisted for years, they never escalated to homicide.

Slouching Toward Whitechapel: The Rise of Sexual Murder

It was not until the nineteenth century, with the advent of leisure time for all classes, that the middle and lower classes began to indulge to any extent in sex crime and serial homicide. Sex crime was no longer the prerogative of only aristocrats or demented vagrants.

In 1808, police in Regensdorf in Bavaria arrested fortune-teller Andrew Bichel for murdering women who came to his premises seeking employment as servants. Two bodies were found buried beneath the woodshed, and chests of women’s clothing were discovered in Bichel’s house. It was determined that Bichel had a fetish for female clothing and killed his victims for it. Bichel would request that the girls being interviewed bring their wardrobes with them. He persuaded some of the girls to have their eyes covered and their hands tied behind their backs in order to show them their future in a magic mirror. He then stabbed them in the neck.

One of the earliest documented sex murders was committed in the small town of Alton in England in July 1867. The perpetrator represented a new class with earned leisure time on its hands—the middle class. A young solicitor’s clerk named Frederick Baker approached an eight-year-old girl he knew and persuaded her to go for a walk. Several hours later when the girl had failed to return home and her friends informed her mother that she had gone off with Baker, the mother set out to look for her daughter. She encountered Baker returning to the town. He told her in a very calm and self-possessed manner that her daughter had gone to buy candies. The child’s body was found in a field several hours later, beheaded and cut up into many pieces. Her genitals were missing and were never found. Baker was immediately arrested but claimed to be innocent. In his office diary, however, police found an entry reading: “Killed a young girl today. It was fine and hot.” Baker was tried and executed. (During his trial, he stated that he meant to write: “Killed, a young girl, today. [The weather] was fine and hot.”)

Had Baker lived in a larger urban community where he was not known, he might have gone on to continue killing. When he encountered the girl’s mother, he was calm and collected, and his clothes were clean despite the fact that he had just dismembered a body. That suggested that Baker must have stripped off his clothes in a lucid and premeditated manner prior to butchering his victim. His behavior, when questioned by the police, was cool and calm, and he persistently denied committing the crime.


It is in Europe in the 1860s that the first modern pathological serial sexual killings begin to crop up in history. In France, Joseph Philippe murdered six prostitutes, while in Vittoria, Spain, a man named Gruyo strangled six prostitutes over a period of ten years. In Italy in December 1870, a fourteen-year-old girl, Johanna Motta, set out to a neighboring village but failed to return. She was discovered lying by a path in the fields, with her abdomen cut open and her torn-out intestines and genitals near by. She had been suffocated by dirt forced into her mouth and appeared to be strangled. Nearby, under a pile of straw, were found remnants of her clothing and a piece of flesh cut from her calf.

In August 1871, a twenty-eight-year-old woman, Fregeni, was found by her husband in a field when she failed to return home. She had been strangled and her intestines were hanging out through a deep wound in her abdomen.

The next day, nineteen-year-old Maria Previtali reported that her cousin, twenty-two-year-old Vincenzo Verzeni, had dragged her out into a field of grain and attempted to strangle her. When he stood up to see if anyone was coming, she managed to talk her cousin into letting her go. Verzeni was arrested and he confessed:

I had an unspeakable delight in strangling women, experiencing during the act erections and real sexual pleasure. It was even a pleasure only to smell female clothing. The feeling of pleasure while strangling them was much greater than that which I experienced while masturbating. I took great delight in drinking Motta’s blood. It also gave me the greatest pleasure to pull the hairpins out of the hair of my victims.

I took the clothing and intestines, because of the pleasure it gave me to smell and touch them. At last my mother came to suspect me, because she noticed spots of semen on my shirt after each murder or attempt at one. I am not crazy, but in the moment of strangling my victims I saw nothing else. After the commission of the deeds I was satisfied and felt well. It never occurred to me to touch or look at the genitals and such things. It satisfied me to seize the women by the neck and suck their blood. To this very day I am ignorant of how a woman is formed. During the strangling and after it, I pressed myself on the entire body without thinking of one part more than another.64

Verzeni admitted that he experienced sexual pleasure whenever he choked a woman. Previously he had experienced orgasms while pressing his victims’ throats without killing them, but in the case of the two murder victims his sexual satisfaction became so delayed that they died. He sucked the blood of his victims and had torn a piece from Motta’s calf to take home and roast, but hid it under a haystack for fear that his mother might suspect him. Verzeni stated that at age twelve he discovered that he derived sexual pleasure from wringing the necks of chickens. In the four years before the murders he had attempted to strangle three other women, including his former nurse while she slept sick in bed.

In the 1870s, physical features were linked to criminal character; therefore, close attention was paid to Verzeni’s physiology. (Later in this book, we will see how a hundred years later, counseling psychologist Dr. Joel Norris found frequent physical abnormalities in serial killers he observed.) The clinical assessment of Verzeni concluded:

His cranium is of more than average size, but asymmetrical. The right frontal bone is narrower and lower than the left, the right frontal prominence being less developed, and the right ear smaller than the left (by 1 centimeter in length and 3 centimeters in breadth); both ears are defective in the inferior half of the helix; the right temporal artery is somewhat atheromatous. It seems probable that Verzeni had a bad ancestry—two uncles are cretins; a third, microcephalic, beardless and one testicle wanting, the other atrophic . . .

Verzeni’s family is bigoted and low-minded. He himself has ordinary intelligence; knows how to defend himself well; seeks to prove an alibi and cast suspicion on others. There is nothing in his past that points to mental disease, but his character is peculiar. He is silent and inclined to be solitary. In prison he is cynical. He masturbates, and makes every effort to gain sight of women.65

The description of the first known sexual serial killer is remarkably typical of the ones of today. Verzeni was of average intelligence and showed no signs of mental disease but was “peculiar and inclined to be solitary.” Vincenzo Verzeni was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1872.

The same year in Vinuville, France, a young man named Eusebius Pieydagnelle surrendered to authorities and confessed to killing seven people. He explained that he was obsessed with blood and would have an orgasm at the sight and smell of it. All of his victims were extremely mutilated. According to the evidence presented in court, Eusebius came from a “highly respectable family” and was well educated. His home was located across the street from a butcher shop; according to Eusebius, “The smell of fresh blood, and appetizing meat, the bloody lumps—all this fascinated me and I began to envy the butcher’s assistant, because he could work at the block, with rolled up sleeves and bloody hands.” Although his parents were opposed, Eusebius found employment with the butcher, intending to apprentice. He was overjoyed at the opportunity to butcher animals all day long. But his father eventually took Eusebius away and apprenticed him to a notary. This threw Eusebius into a deep depression and he began killing people; his first victim was a fifteen-year-old girl whom he stabbed and mutilated. He killed six more times, the last victim being the butcher he first worked for. Then he surrendered.

Across the ocean in the United States, in 1874 in Boston, a fourteen-year-old youth named Jesse Pomroy was sentenced to life imprisonment for the torture murders of a ten-year-old girl and a four-year-old boy. The boy had been found with thirty-one knife wounds; the girl, who had disappeared the month before, was found buried in the basement of the house that Pomroy lived in. Because of his youth, Pomroy was sentenced to life imprisonment. He served the first forty-one years of his sentence in solitary confinement and died on a prison farm in 1932 at age seventy-two.

The same year in Boston as well, Tomas Piper, a church bell-ringer in his midtwenties, battered to death and raped two women and a five-year-old girl. A few days before his hanging in 1876, he confessed to an additional four homicides.


At the time these crimes occurred, none of them were recognized as sex crimes. The killers were all characterized as “monsters” with animal-like appetites. They were paralleled with vampire and werewolf legends—they were no longer humans. It was during this period that Austrian psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing was working with the Berlin courts and witnessing all manners of sexual crimes. Krafft-Ebing was inspired to write Psychopathia Sexualis, a textbook on sexual abnormalities, including serial homicide, in which he identified and catalogued the sexual nature of homicides committed by so-called “monsters,” which he termed “joy murder” or “lust murder” (lustmord). Krafft-Ebing maintained that in such murders, the vicious mutilation of victims, and the killing itself, was sexually motivated and a substitute for normal sex.

Written in the 1880s, some of Krafft-Ebing’s conclusions are still hauntingly applicable today. The authorities, he wrote, are ill-equipped to combat sex crime:

This contest is unequal; because only a certain number of sexual crimes can be combated, and the infractions of the laws by so powerful a natural instinct can be but little influenced by punishment. It also lies in the nature of the sexual crimes that but a part of them ever reach the knowledge of the authorities. Public sentiment, in that it looks upon them as disgraceful, lends much aid.

Criminal statistics prove the sad fact that sexual crimes are progressively increasing in our modern civilization. This is particularly the case with immoral acts with children under the age of fourteen.66

Statistics in France had indicated 136 cases of sexual assault on children in 1826 but 805 in 1867. In England there were 167 assaults during 1830–1834, but 1,395 for 1855–1857.


Jack the Ripper—known in his time as the Whitechapel Murderer—is probably the most infamous serial killer of all time. He struck at the height of the Victorian era in London’s East End, butchering at least five prostitutes between August and November 1888. He made headlines worldwide and even today he continues to capture the imaginations of countless readers and moviegoers—and other serial killers as well. He appears as a character in at least twenty-eight major motion pictures, hundreds of fiction and non-fiction books, and several specialized books about other books on Jack the Ripper or studies of the press coverage he received in his time.67 There would be no point to dealing at any length here with Jack the Ripper’s crimes in the face of the torrent of material still being produced about him today. It is sufficient to say that his crimes, committed in a newspaper publishing capital, received unprecedented coverage. He was raised to mythical proportions for his abilities to evade the authorities and for his choice of prostitutes as victims whom few would pity: He did not kill children or “innocent” women. He set the stage for crime literature where the serial killer takes the leading role in an almost heroic capacity.

The early victims were killed on the street by having their throats slit, and were hastily mutilated. But as he progressed, Jack the Ripper gradually became more proficient at gaining control over his victims. The last victim, twenty-five-year-old Mary Jane Kelly, was found in her own room where the killer had privacy to unleash his deepest and darkest fantasies. London police surgeon Dr. Thomas Bond wrote the report describing the condition of Kelly’s body as it was discovered at the crime scene:

The body was lying naked in the middle of the bed, the shoulders flat, but the axis of the body inclined to the left side of the bed. The head was turned on the left cheek. The left arm was close to the body with the forearm flexed at a right angle & lying across the abdomen. The right arm was slightly abducted from the body & rested on the mattress, the elbow bent & and the forearm supine with the fingers clenched. The legs were wide apart, the left thigh at right angles to the trunk & the right forming an obtuse angle with the pubes.

The whole of the surface of the abdomen & thighs was removed & the abdominal Cavity emptied of its viscera. The breasts were cut off, the arms mutilated by several jagged wounds & the face hacked beyond recognition of the features. The tissues of the neck were severed all round down to the bone.

The viscera were found in various parts viz: the uterus & Kidneys with one breast under the head, the other breast by the right foot, the Liver between the feet, the intestines by the right side & the spleen by the left side of the body. The flaps removed from the abdomen and thighs were on a table . . . the neck was cut through the skin & other tissues right down to the vertebrae the 5th & 6th being deeply notched . . . The skin & tissues of the abdomen from the costal arch to the pubes were removed in three large flaps . . . The left thigh was stripped of skin, fascia & muscles as far as the knee. The Pericardium was open below & the Heart absent.68

Mary Jane Kelly’s missing heart was never recovered and Jack the Ripper was never captured, leaving behind more than a century of speculation as to his identity and to why he stopped killing.

What was clear was that Jack the Ripper was not some frenzied out-of-control individual, but someone who was able to disguise his insanity and appear normal to those around him. Jack the Ripper was ushering in the twentieth-century phenomenon of the serial killer.


While Jack the Ripper was a typically “territorial” type of serial killer, choosing his victims in London’s East End, France’s Vacher the Ripper was typically “migratory,” killing in different regions of the country. Joseph Vacher was a twenty-eight-year-old vagrant when he was charged in 1897 for the murder of a seventeen-year-old shepherd boy. The victim had been strangled and afterward his abdomen had been cut open. Vacher confessed to eleven previously unsolved homicides that had occurred in different parts of France between 1894 and 1897, and was suspected in fifteen more.

In 1893 Vacher had been discharged from military service after displaying confused talk, persecution mania, and threatening language. The same year he wounded a girl who had refused to marry him and then shot himself in the head. He survived his suicide attempt, which left him deaf in one ear and with facial paralysis, and was confined in an insane asylum. He was declared “cured” and released on April 1, 1894.

On March 20, 1894, he strangled a twenty-one-year-old woman, cut her throat, tore out a portion of her right breast, trampled upon her abdomen, and had intercourse with the corpse. In November he strangled a thirteen-year-old girl and in May 1895 he murdered a seventeen-year-old girl. In August he strangled and raped a fifty-eight-year-old woman; shortly afterward he cut the throat of a sixteen-year-old girl and attempted to rip her abdomen open. In September he killed a fifteen-year-old boy, cut off his genitals, and sexually assaulted the corpse. Traveling through France, he killed women, girls, and boys, by either cutting their throats or strangling them. He mutilated and violated their corpses, taking away with him their genitals.

On August 4, 1897, Vacher attacked a woman gathering pinecones but she successfully resisted him, shouting for her husband and children. They overpowered Vacher and took him into custody. Vacher was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for indecent assault, but during his incarceration he wrote the authorities with a confession to eleven murders. Although Vacher insisted he was insane, a panel of psychiatrists pronounced him sane. He was executed in December 1898.


The motives behind the extraordinary and brutal mutilation of female victims with edged-weapons remain a mystery even today. It is an act that seems to be largely perpetrated by angry heterosexual males on females or homosexual males on males—in other words, an act directed by males onto the object of their sexual desire.

Some argue that the formation of a serial killer is rooted to gender identification involving a boy’s ability to successfully negotiate his masculine autonomy from his mother—a challenge not faced by females. When a boy cannot achieve this autonomy or when there is no solid foundation for him from which to negotiate this autonomy, a sense of rage develops in the child, and he subsequently carries the anger into adolescence and adulthood.

A serial killer’s sexual assault on a victim can take one, or both, of two forms of expression. First, there are the primary mechanisms: intercourse and oral copulation. The killer does whatever is physically necessary to ejaculate during his attack. Frequently, however, no evidence of ejaculate is visible at a crime scene. It is here that the killer engages in secondary sexual mechanisms. These are a substitution for the primary act, a type of sexually delayed gratification. The actions that the killer performs will later lead to his climax when he is in a safe place. It is not a question of safety, however, but one of control. Having committed his act, and taken his souvenirs from the victim, the killer escapes to later masturbate until his sexual energy is drained. In this manner he exercises maximum control over his own sexuality and over his victim and is able to sustain himself between murders.

These secondary mechanisms take the form of torture, bondage, the posing of the victim’s body in humiliating positions, cannibalism, stabbing, slashing, and mutilation. The preference to use a knife for mutilating a victim beyond what is necessary to kill is called picquerism. The killer expresses his sexuality by penetrating the victim with a knife. The victim’s screams, the bloodletting, and the odors all create for the murderer a harmonic sexual experience. Some killers ejaculate uncontrollably without touching their genitals as they stab or hack at their victims.

Some experts associate picquerism with cultural construction of femininity, with its association with the body, bleeding, and birth, which link women with a mortality that provokes a dual reaction: anxious fear accompanied by erotic desire. If this duality slips out of control, the consequences can be horrific. Klaus Theweleit writes of dismembered murder victims:

It is as if two male compulsions were tearing at the women with equal strength. One is trying to push them away, to keep them at arm’s length (defense); the other wants to penetrate them, to have them very near. Both compulsions seem to find satisfaction in the act of killing, where the man pushes the woman far away (takes her life), and gets very close to her (penetrates her with a bullet, stabs, clubs, etc.) . . . Once she . . . is reduced to a pulp, a shapeless, bloody mass, the man can breathe a sigh of relief.69

As we become familiar with cases of serial murder in these pages, we shall see that this theory may have some validity to it.


The question remains: Why did sexual homicide and serial murder arise in the nineteenth century? Some may argue that these crimes had always been with us but simply had not been recognized or reported, or were disguised as werewolf and vampire myths. Nonetheless, when one looks at the few systematic records of pre-nineteenth-century crime, such as England’s Newgate Calendar, there are few references to sexual murder or “monsters.”

Another theory relates the rise of sexual crime with growing population density. In experiments with rats, researchers discovered that 5 percent of the animals were dominant. When put into highly crowded conditions, this 5 percent began to behave “criminally” by raping female rats, instead of going through their usual complex and protective courting practices. The rats also began to kill and cannibalize infant rats. These studies, however, do not fully explain the phenomenon because some of the earliest serial murders were occurring in the countryside and not in the densely populated cities.

English writer Colin Wilson suggests that two factors may have contributed to the rise of sexual serial murder—the expansion of the female workforce and a certain type of pornographic literature.70

Wilson maintains that today every man knows that the majority of women that one encounters in the city are unavailable. However, during much of the nineteenth century, the reverse was true. Thousands of impoverished, urbanized women turned to prostitution and were all available to any man with a coin in his pocket. But by the last two decades of the century, it was discovered that women made better typists than men did, that they were excellent shop clerks, and so on. Now men were faced with a large population of gainfully employed and unavailable women, to which was added the Victorian-era philosophy that sex was something forbidden and prohibited. Women became taboo objects of a forbidden desire—a guaranteed formula for a volatile cocktail of confused and lethally misdirected libido.

Colin Wilson also traces the nature of pornographic literature, noting that there were fundamental shifts in theme. In the eighteenth century, pornography described sex explicitly, but freely. It was something to be indulged in sensually, like a good meal. In the nineteenth century, pornographic literature took its cue from the Marquis de Sade. It described sex as something forbidden—a taboo to be overcome only by voyeurism, illicit seduction, bondage, force, and rape. In the nineteenth century pornographic novel, the virtuous Victorian woman could enjoy sex only if she was overpowered. A common theme was the capture of traveling Victorian virgins by pirates or lustful Turks, where the women discover the pleasures of sex by being raped in a harem. Children are portrayed as sexual creatures intent on seducing the family butler. Scenes of bondage, flogging, and sex are intermixed; sex is almost always linked to pain and the loss of female virginity—often in childhood and accompanied by blood. Sold in cheap, popular, magazine-like multipart editions, in an age when print encompassed all available media, this literature had a tremendous impact on the imaginations of bored and frustrated males, no doubt among whom dwelled Jack the Ripper.

It is interesting that while so many medical, psychiatric, sexual, and philosophical terms refer to ancient Greek gods or Roman-era Latin expressions, sadism is entirely a modern term, taking its name from a late-eighteenth-century persona: the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814). As Michel Foucault points out:

Sadism is not a name finally given to a practice as old as Eros; it is a massive cultural fact which appeared precisely at the end of the eighteenth century, and which constitutes one of the greatest conversions of Western imagination: unreason transformed into delirium of the heart, madness of desire, the insane dialogue of love and death in the limitless presumption of appetite.71

It should be noted that to this day, no clear link between the cause of sexual crime and pornography has been established. Some even suggest that pornography acts as a release from sexual tensions that might otherwise lead to criminal acts. What is evident, however, is that those already predisposed to committing sexual crimes are also heavy consumers of pornography. In the FBI study of sexual killers, the highest common denominator of various childhood and adolescent factors was their consumption of pornography—81 percent.72 (We will discuss this issue further in Chapter 6.)

Into the Twentieth Century

Whatever the reasons, sex crime and serial murder continued to rise at a steady rate into the twentieth century. Each decade brought with it a new twist in serial homicide.

In 1916, in a small Hungarian village during World War I, authorities arrived to search out hidden caches of gasoline. The villagers told them to look in the house of Bela Kiss, who was at the time serving in the army at the front. The man was disliked in the village and his housekeeper, whom he had fired for snooping, had gossiped earlier that she saw metal oil drums stored in his house. When police broke the seals to Kiss’s villa, they discovered seven oil drums, each containing a dead woman. They had all been strangled. The house was filled with women’s clothing and pawn tickets—Kiss had lured his victims through newspaper advertisements offering marriage agency services. When the police came to arrest Kiss, they discovered that he had been wounded and had died in a hospital. Medical records, however, revealed that the man who died was too young to be Kiss, who must have exchanged his identity disk with a dying soldier and escaped. Kiss was never captured.

Postwar Weimar, Germany, became legendary for its serial killers. Fritz Haarmann, age forty-five, was convicted of raping and murdering twenty-seven young men in Hanover between 1918 and 1924. Haarmann, who was a police agent and private investigator, lured schoolboys or drifters from the Hanover railway station back to his apartment. There he attacked his victims and killed them by chewing through their throats. Afterward he sold their flesh to local butcher shops and restaurants, claiming it was pork, while dumping their bones into the river behind his apartment. It was the finding of numerous skulls in the river that led to Haarmann’s eventual arrest.

Haarmann confessed to police:

I never intended to kill those youths. Some of the boys had come before. I wanted to protect them from myself because I knew what would happen if I had my way with them. I cried out, “Submit to me but do not let me loose control.” When I would go out of control I would bite them and suck their necks. Some of the boys at the Café Kröpcke liked to practice “terminal sex” and “breath play” (“dämpfen” und “Luft abstellen”—sexual asphyxiation: also know as “scarfing” or “bagging”). Sometimes we struggled for hours this way. It was sometimes difficult for me to get an erection. Lately it has happened more often. It used to worry me; “God oh God, where is it going to end?” I would throw myself with my full weight on these youths. They were worn out by the excesses and the debauchery. I would bit through their Adam’s apple and probably strangle and throttle them with my hands. I would collapse on the corpse. I would then go and make myself some strong black coffee. I would put the body on the floor and cover the face with a cloth so that he would not gaze back at me. I would open the abdomen with two cuts and empty the intestines into a bucket. I would dip a towel into the abdominal cavity and keep doing it until it had soaked up all the blood. Then I would make three cuts from the ribs towards the shoulders, grip the ribs and force them open until the bones around the shoulders broke. Then I would cut into that area. I could then extract the heart, lungs, and kidneys and chop them up and put them in my bucket. I would then sever the legs and then the arms. I would clean the flesh off the bones and put it in my waxed cloth bag. The remaining flesh went under the bed or in the cubbyhole. It would take me five or six trips to take everything out and dump it down the toilet or into the river. I would cut off the penis after I had emptied and cleaned the chest and stomach cavities. I would chop it up into lots of little pieces. I always hated doing this, but I could not help myself—my obsession was much stronger than the horror of the cutting and chopping.

I would take apart the heads last. I used a small kitchen knife to peel away the scalp and cut it up into little strips and squares. I would put the skull face down on a straw mat and wrap it in rags so that it would make less noise. I would then smash it with the blunt edge of an ax until the joins in the skull split apart. The brain went in the bucket and the bone chips into the river opposite the castle . . . I gave the clothes away or sold them.73

Haarmann was quickly tried and executed in 1925.

Peter Kürten, the “Vampire of Düsseldorf,” stabbed, strangled, and battered at least nine and maybe as many as thirty victims between 1913 and 1930. Sometimes Kürten’s victims went willingly with him to have sex, during which he would suddenly attack them with a knife. At other times, Kürten ambushed his victims, frequently children, on the streets and in parks. Kürten was executed in 1931.

While Kürten and Haarmann’s cases are both well documented because they went to trial, several other cases in Germany during the same period are more obscure. In Berlin, George Karl Grossman is believed to have killed as many as fifty people between 1913 and 1920 and sold their flesh at a hot dog stand he kept at the railway station. He apparently found his victims in the same station where he sold their remains to hungry passengers. He committed suicide, however, when he was arrested, and thus his crimes remain obscured in myth and gossip.

In Silesia meanwhile, in 1924, police found the remains of at least thirty men and women pickled in jars in the kitchens of Karl Denke’s inn. He had been serving the flesh of some of the guests at his inn to other guests. Denke kept carefully written records of various body weights of his victims. Denke also committed suicide before he could be brought to trial.

Bruno Ludke is thought to have killed as many as eighty-five women between the late 1920s and 1943, when he was arrested for strangling a woman near his home. Ludke stabbed or strangled all his victims and had sex with the corpses. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and was turned over to the Nazi SS for medical experiments; he died on April 8, 1944. Again, because the Nazis tended to suppress crime news in Germany, little detail is known about Ludke’s activities.

These serial murders in Germany had a tremendous impact on popular culture in the country. Fritz Lang’s movie M, with Peter Lorre in the role of a serial child murderer, touched a nerve in Germany and remains a cinema classic today.* Lurid paintings at the time by George Grosz and Otto Dix portrayed bloody scenes of mutilation, dismemberment, and sex murder.

Although many have suggested that the serial murders in Germany were the result of the total collapse of German society following its defeat in World War I, they overlook the fact that some of the Weimar-era serial killers began killing before the war ended, and most had sex crime records going back to long before the war. It is more likely that the postwar chaos unleashed serial killers who were already predisposed to commit their crimes. A similar situation seemed to happen in Russia in the wake of the collapse of communism—the country was plagued by serial cannibalistic sex crimes. Whether there are any links between the nature of the serial murders and the collapse of the two regimes is an open question at this time.


During the first half of the twentieth century, England and France had few serial murderers comparable in gruesome viciousness to those of Jack the Ripper or the Weimar killers. Between 1910 and 1914, George Smith in England killed three of his seven wives, while in France, Henri Desiré Landru killed eleven potential brides between 1915 and 1922. Dr. Marcel Petiot in Paris killed at least sixty-three war refugees between 1941 and 1944. All of these serial murders seemed to be profit-motivated.

Between 1943 and 1953 in London, John Christie murdered an infant and six females, including his wife, for sexual motives. Peter Manuel, a petty thief with a history of sexual crimes, began killing women after his fiancée rejected him upon discovering his criminal record. He killed nine people, including several males, in different parts of Scotland and England in 1959.

Back in the United States

Except for the cases of Jesse Pomroy and Tomas Piper, the United States reported few cases of serial sexual homicide before 1900. But in the entrepreneurial tradition of nineteenth-century America, there were many cases of profit-motivated serial homicides, such as those of the Bender Clan, who killed at least twelve travelers in Kansas in 1872–1873, and Herman Mudgett, who constructed a custom-designed “murder hotel” in Chicago during the World’s Fair and is believed to have killed at least twenty-seven victims.

By the twentieth century, serial murder in the United States was catching up with European patterns. Earle Leonard Nelson raped and murdered twenty-seven landladies between February 1926 and June 1927. Nelson was a migratory serial killer, leaving multiple victims in San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Barbara, Oakland, Portland, Oregon, Seattle, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Detroit, Chicago, and finally Winnipeg, Canada, where he was apprehended, tried, and hanged. Nelson was twenty-nine when he began killing, but he had a criminal record going back to age twenty-one, when he was arrested for attempted rape. We will see that Nelson also fit a certain characteristic that many serial killers have—a history of head injury. When Nelson was ten, he was dragged under a streetcar, resulting in severe head trauma.

In New York City in 1928, the grandfatherly Albert Fish, fifty-eight years old at the time and the father of six children, befriended the Budd family. He originally had come in response to a newspaper advertisement placed by one of the Budd sons seeking work. Using a false name, Fish visited the family several times and finally offered the son work at his fictional Long Island farm, no doubt intending to kill him. But at the last minute, the Budds’ twelve-year-old girl, Grace, enchanted Fish. He told the trusting parents that his sister was having a children’s birthday party and offered to take Grace to the party while the son was packing his suitcase to leave for the supposed farm. The last the Budds saw of their daughter Grace was her walking off toward the subway holding the kindly old man’s hand. A massive police investigation turned up no clues.

Six years later, the girl’s mother received a letter from Fish revealing what happened to her daughter. Fish wrote [with original spelling and punctuation]:

My Dear Mrs. Budd,

In 1894 a friend of mine shipped as a deck hand on the Steamer Tacoma, Capt. John Davis. They sailed from San Francisco for Hong Kong China. On arriving there he and two others went ashore and got drunk. When they returned the boat was gone. At that time there was a famine in China. Meat of any kind was from $1–3 Dollars a pound. So great was the suffering among the very poor that all children under 12 were sold to the Butchers to be cut up and used for food in order to keep others from starving. A boy or girl under 14 was not safe in the street. You could go in any shop and ask for steak-chops-or stew meat. Part of the naked body of a boy or a girl would be brought out and just what you wanted cut from it. A boy or girls behind which is the sweetest part of the body and sold as veal cutlet brought the highest price. John staid there so long he acquired a taste for human flesh. On his return to N. Y. he stole two boys one 7 one 11. Took them to his home stripped them naked tied them in a closet. Then burned everything they had on. Several times every day and night he spanked them-tortured them to make their meat good and tender. First he killed the 11 yr old boy, because he had the fattest ass and of course the most meat on it. Every part of his body was Cooked and eaten except head-bones and guts. He was Roasted in the oven (all of his ass), boiled, broiled, fried, stewed. The little boy was next, went the same way. At that time, I was living at 409 E 100 st., near-right side. He told me so often how good Human flesh was I made up my mind to taste it. On Sunday June the 3-1928 I called on you at 406 W 15 St. Brought you pot cheese-strawberries.

We had lunch. Grace sat in my lap and kissed me. I made up my mind to eat her. On the pretense of taking her to a party. You said Yes she could go. I took her to an empty house in Westchester I had already picked out. When we got there, I told her to remain outside. She picked wildflowers. I went upstairs and stripped all my clothes off. I knew if I did not I would get her blood on them. When all was ready I went to the window and Called her. Then I hid in a closet until she was in the room. When she saw me all naked she began to cry and tried to run downstairs. I grabbed her and she said she would tell her mamma. First I stripped her naked. How she did kick-bite and scratch. I choked her to death, then cut her in small pieces so I could take my meat to my rooms, Cook and eat it. How sweet and tender her little ass was roasted in the oven. It took me 9 days to eat her entire body. I did not fuck her tho I could of had I wished. She died a virgin.

The police managed to trace the letter back to Fish by its particular stationery and arrested him. He confessed to molesting more than four hundred children over twenty-years, and is believed to have murdered somewhere between six and fifteen children. Fish was executed in January 1936.

Minnesota-born Carl Panzram was thirty-nine when he was executed after killing twenty-one people. Panzram was a personality of almost mythical proportions—he committed his first burglary at age eleven and remained a professional criminal the rest of his life. In 1920, he brazenly burglarized forty thousand dollars’ worth of property from former U.S. president William Howard Taft’s house. In jail, he terrorized the guards and administration by inciting riots and burning down the kitchen and factory in one of the jails. At one point, he broke out of jail, stole a yacht, and sailed it to Africa and Europe. He lured sailors on board his vessel, then sodomized them, killed them, and threw their bodies into the water. In prison, Panzram wrote a book openly describing his sex crimes, confessing to some one thousand homosexual rapes. Panzram stated, “My motto is: Rob them all, rape them all, and kill them all.”

In 1929, Panzram was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for burglary and threatened in the courtroom to “kill the first person who bothers me.” Ten months later, he beat in the head of a fellow prisoner with an iron bar. For this crime he received the death sentence. When an anti–capital punishment group attempted to have Panzram’s sentence commuted, he raged: “The only thanks you or your kind will ever get from me for your efforts on my behalf is that I wish you all had one neck and that I had my hands on it . . . I believe the only way to reform people is to kill them.”

On September 11, 1930, Panzram was led out to the gallows and there asked if he had any last words. He replied, “Yes, hurry it up, you hoosier bastard. I could hang a dozen men while you’re fooling around.”

Many cases of serial murder were never solved and remain on the record as fragmentary reports. Moreover, as some of these murders occurred exclusively in black communities, the press often ignored them unless the victims were light-skinned blacks. In Atlanta, for example, between May 1911 and May 1912, an unknown killer stalked light-skinned black women on the street. He cut the throats of and mutilated twenty victims before he inexplicably ceased killing. Meanwhile, in Louisiana and Texas, between January 1911 and April 1912, somebody axe-murdered forty-nine victims. Again, nobody was convicted of the crime.

In Cleveland, Ohio, between 1935 and 1938, somebody killed and mutilated prostitutes and derelicts of both sexes. A total of twelve bodies were found before the murders mysteriously ceased. In Alaska, between 1930 and 1931, somebody tracked fishermen and hunters to remote locations and then killed them there. The murders were never solved.


During the 1940s and 1950s, the phenomenon of serial killings seemed to decline in frequency and intensity, but the nature of the crimes became more bizarre. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Charles Floyd stalked and killed seven women between 1942 and 1948 because they had red hair. Jarvis Roosevelt Catoe, an African-American taxi driver, confessed in 1941 to strangling nine women in New York and Washington. In 1946 in Chicago, William Heirens killed two women and an eleven-year-old girl. On a wall in the apartment of one of the victims, he wrote in lipstick, “For Heaven’s sake catch me before I kill more. I cannot control myself.” In Los Angeles, Harvey Glatman in 1957–1958 hired models to pose for him and murdered them after taking their picture—he killed three women. In 1957 in rural Wisconsin, Ed Gein was arrested for killing two local women and cannibalizing their corpses. In Virginia and Maryland in 1959, Melvin Rees flashed his headlights at night to pull over motorists. He killed the men and raped the women. He killed a total of nine victims, an all-time high for any identified serial killer in the United States during the two decades between 1940 and 1960.

It would be Albert DeSalvo—the Boston Strangler—who bridged for us old-world-era serial homicide with the post-JFK epoch.

 Albert DeSalvo—“The Boston Strangler”

There has recently been some serious controversy as to whether Albert DeSalvo really was the Boston Strangler. In 2000, the families of DeSalvo and of Mary Sullivan, his purported last victim, jointly exhumed her body and conducted DNA tests on trace material recovered from her corpse. The material, appearing to be traces of seminal fluid buried with the body for forty years, did not match the DNA pattern taken from DeSalvo’s surviving brother. But the testing was privately done and has not so far changed the state position that DeSalvo is indeed the confessed Boston Strangler. There are some conflicting reports as to whether DeSalvo’s brother is willing to cooperate with authorities in a state-sponsored DNA test.

If not the deeds, than at least the canonical story of Albert DeSalvo, who allegedly murdered thirteen women between 1962 and 1964, capped the industrial age of serial murder and ushered us forward into the new Ted Bundy epoch. Despite numerous cases of serial killings around the world since 1888, Jack the Ripper held his place as the worst in popular memory until the early 1960s. But in 1962 his primacy was shaken by the Boston Strangler, at least in the United States.

Like Jack the Ripper, the Boston Strangler focused on a very small “killing ground.” He killed in so-called lace curtain neighborhoods of Boston’s lower-middle-class districts. His victims lived among the dense rows of inexpensive low-rise apartment buildings. This type of focused killing had the effect of terrorizing the city, and as the press announced each new victim of the Boston Strangler, his reputation became legendary. After his confession, in the days before made-for-TV movies, Hollywood chose him as a subject worthy of a film. Twentieth Century Fox’s The Boston Strangler starred Tony Curtis as the killer and Henry Fonda as the detective who pursued him. While many know the moniker “Boston Strangler,” few remember the name of the man behind it: Albert DeSalvo.


Albert Henry DeSalvo was born on September 3, 1931 in Chelsea, Massachusetts. His mother, Charlotte, came from an old respectable “Yankee” family; her father was an officer in the Boston Fire Department. Charlotte was fifteen when she married Albert’s father, Frank DeSalvo, a brutal alcoholic delinquent (69 percent of sexual killers in a FBI study report a history of alcohol abuse in the family). The father was arrested eighteen times (50 percent of sexual killers had a parent with a criminal record). DeSalvo’s description of his childhood is horrendous. His earliest childhood memories are of his father beating his mother. He witnessed him once knocking out her tooth and breaking her finger. DeSalvo said that he himself was beaten severely by his father and once sold to a farmer in Maine along with his two sisters for nine dollars (42 percent of sexual murderers report physical abuse in childhood). After six months his mother found them. When Albert was twelve years old his father was jailed, and afterward his mother divorced him. (47 percent of serial killers report their father leaving before age twelve.)

The historiography of serial murder is inconsistent. Often descriptions of cases are written quickly and focus on the more lurid aspects of events. Attention to detail, authenticity, and fact is minimal and definitive case information is often locked up in inaccessible police archives. Such is the case for the question of Albert’s relationship with his mother. Dr. James A. Brussel, a renowned criminal psychiatrist who interviewed DeSalvo, wrote in 1968, “The mother, Albert said, was not the warm and loving woman who might have made his life tolerable. She was, at best, indifferent to the boy. She was out of the house most nights. ‘There was no home life. She didn’t stop the nightly beatings.’ ”74 On the other hand, DeSalvo’s biographer, Frank Gerold, wrote that Albert was his mother’s favorite (he had two brothers and three sisters) and that as an adult, he would visit his mother as often as possible.

Like 71 percent of the serial killers in the FBI study, Albert felt isolated in childhood: “I never allowed myself to get close to anyone . . . Maybe I wasn’t able . . . I recall, I used to run away as a kid. I hid out in a junk yard. There was a dog there: Queenie . . . tough . . . bit everyone. Maybe I was looking for affection, but I slept with that dog night after night, and it never bit me.”

According to Dr. Brussel, Albert’s father used to bring prostitutes home, and the children witnessed him having sex with them. (Thirty-five percent of serial sex killers report witnessing disturbing parental sex acts.) When Albert was five or six, he and his brothers and sisters began attempting sex acts. The circumstances of Albert and his sisters being sold to a farmer by their father are unclear, and Albert never talked about what happened during the six months they were there.

Albert claims that he began to have steady sex at age eight with girls and women and that he prostituted himself to homosexuals:

Some of them was amazed at how I could come and then five minutes later come again. The queers loved that they would pay for it, too, which was all right with me since I needed the dough and there was some relief from the urge that was pushing me to sex all the time, but it really was Woman that I wanted—not any special one, just Woman with what a woman has, not just to come, but to have the breasts and body to play with, to bite and kiss, then to go into . . . didn’t even care so much what she looked like, how old she was . . . it was Woman and not a pretty woman, or any special woman, but Woman that I wanted, even then.75

Like 36 percent of the sex killers in the FBI study, DeSalvo tortured animals when he was a child. Like 81 percent of the surveyed killers, DeSalvo began to steal in early adolescence. At the age of twelve he was sentenced for burglary to ten months in the Lyman School for Boys, a reformatory in Boston. His IQ was tested at the time and recorded as 93—low average. DeSalvo said that in reformatory one “can learn about every form of sexual perversion.” Just as with serial killers Ed Kemper and Henry Lee Lucas and thousands of other young men, early incarceration of DeSalvo served to better educate him in criminal techniques and expose him to darker frontiers of aberrant sexuality.

Once he was released from Lyman, DeSalvo began to commit a flurry of burglaries, never getting caught. There was a distinct sexual character to his burglaries. DeSalvo said, “There was something exciting, thrilling, about going into somebody’s home . . . I think now, too, that it had something to do with going into the bedrooms where women had been sleeping, or were sleeping and there was times when I would get a rail [erection] on just standing there outside the bedroom door listening to some woman breathe . . . so you see what urge was all part of this and it was only a matter of time before I would feel strong and tough enough to go into the bedroom where the woman was there and make her let me do what I wanted with her.”76

Once again there is a weak historiography on Albert DeSalvo’s school years. Dr. Brussel describes DeSalvo as a “model pupil” who pleased his teachers by cheerfully running errands for them and getting them coffee and sandwiches. DeSalvo told him, “I bulled [bullshitted] my way through. I always tried to be tops, like in book sales or where you got recognition or a certificate for doing something. I was always number one. Teachers knew I wasn’t doing my schoolwork properly . . . I actually had no schooling. I was jealous; I was looking for recognition.”

Earl James, however, in his police manual on the apprehension of serial killers, wrote: “Albert DeSalvo began school when he was six years old. During his early school years, he suffered from some medical problems. He had tonsillitis and some other childhood diseases. Because of these illnesses, he missed a great deal of school. He failed second grade and was put into a special education class when he was in fifth grade.”77

In 1948, at age sixteen, DeSalvo graduated from junior high school. His teachers there have no memory of him. DeSalvo went to work on Cape Cod as a dishwasher in a motel. He spent most of his free time on a roof watching couples through windows. As with many serial killers, his first sexual aberration was ostensibly a minor one—voyeurism.

In September 1948, when he turned seventeen, DeSalvo enlisted in the army and was sent to Germany. In the military DeSalvo apparently did well. He was trained as a military policeman, achieved the rank of sergeant, and was made colonel’s orderly twenty-seven times. He also discovered that he had abilities as a boxer and became the U.S. Army middleweight champion of Europe twice.

DeSalvo also claimed that he had numerous affairs with officers’ wives and that he practiced bondage with some of them. DeSalvo said that he was sought out by women and offered money or jewelry for his “stud” services. He claims that while he was able to satiate his growing sexual appetite, he was seeking love in his life.

In 1953, now twenty-two years old, DeSalvo married a pretty German girl from Frankfurt named Irmgard. He was intensely in love with her, but she was not a good match for his sexual appetite. DeSalvo recalled that she was innocent and scared of sex because of her strict family upbringing. He said he needed to have sex five or six times a day, often immediately after just having sex. She did not like it, he said, and he used to constantly ask himself what was wrong with him.

In April 1954, DeSalvo returned to the United States with his bride. He was stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey.


In December 1954, at about 9:00 P.M., DeSalvo knocked at the door of a house where there was a woman whose husband was working a night shift. DeSalvo told her that he was driving by her house and saw a prowler looking through the window. She allowed him into the house to look around but then became suspicious when DeSalvo began to ask when her husband would be coming home. She locked herself into another room. DeSalvo left the house and sat in his car parked in her driveway. The woman wrote down his license plate number.

Tracing the license plate, New Jersey State Police questioned DeSalvo several days later. DeSalvo told them that he was driving around looking for a place to rent when he saw a prowler at the woman’s house and had only wanted to help. There was nothing to charge DeSalvo with and no further action was taken.

On January 3, 1955, at about 2:00 P.M., a young mother went out to do some quick food shopping and left her nine-year-old daughter and two younger brothers alone. When she returned, the daughter told her that a soldier had come by “for the rent.” Since the family owned the house, this struck the mother as strange. On further questioning, the girl said that the soldier had felt and touched her chest and genital areas.

When the New Jersey State Police were called, they immediately remembered the soldier they had questioned just a few days earlier. The little girl and her brothers identified him. DeSalvo was charged with carnal abuse of a child and released on a $1,000 bond. The case, however, never went to trial because the mother did not want her daughter to go through the trauma of testifying. All charges were subsequently dropped.

It was in this period, in 1955, that Irmgard gave birth to DeSalvo’s daughter, Judy. She was born with a deformity of the legs that required special braces locking her limbs into a froglike position. DeSalvo tenderly massaged the legs of his daughter and tried to give the braces a more cheerful character by tying pretty colored bows around them.

Perhaps because of the sex crime charge or perhaps because of the birth of a crippled child, Irmgard withdrew from DeSalvo further. Referring to his murdering as having “stolen” life, DeSalvo wrote to his wife years later while in prison:

You will admit that if you treated me differently like you told me all those years we lost, the love I had been searching for, that we first had when we were married. Yes, Irm, I stole them. But why. What happened when Judy was born and we found out she may never walk. How you cried, Al please no more babies. Irm from that day you changed. All your love went to Judy. You were frigid and cold to me, and you can’t deny this. That’s why we were always fighting about sex because you were afraid to have a baby. Because you thought it would be born abnormal.

In 1956, Albert DeSalvo received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army. It is unclear whether he left the army as his own choice, or whether the charges in New Jersey had something to do with it. He returned to live in Chelsea with his wife and daughter and was arrested there in 1958 for a minor burglary.

In 1959, a son, Michael, was born. DeSalvo worked in a shipyard as a laborer to support his family. DeSalvo recalls attempting to lead a conventional life, being a provider for his family, but always being overpowered by his compulsions in the end. He said he was trying to “bring out the best” in himself, yet the “sickness” was always with him, forcing him to go out and “do things I knew was wrong.”

In 1960, DeSalvo began committing a series of almost comical sex offenses in the Boston district of Cambridge. Posing as a talent scout for a modeling agency, DeSalvo asked women for permission to measure them. While wrapping a measuring tape around their bust and hips, he would touch and fondle them. Many women did not even notice DeSalvo’s touch; complaints started to be filed with the police from angry women only when they realized that no photographer was coming to shoot their pictures. DeSalvo became known as the Measuring Man.

In March 1961, police observed DeSalvo breaking into a house in Cambridge and arrested him. DeSalvo confessed that before he was caught he had tried to break into an apartment where he had previously “measured” two women. He said he wanted to break into their apartment and wait for them to come home. Asked why, DeSalvo said nothing further.

DeSalvo was charged with lewdness, assault and battery, attempted breaking and entering, confining and putting in fear, and engaging in an unnatural and lascivious act. He was convicted of only assault and battery and attempted breaking and entering. He was sentenced to eighteen months in prison, and his term was reduced to eleven months for good behavior.

After he had committed the murders, DeSalvo commented on his Measuring Man activities:

Mostly, I got a big kick out of those girls around Harvard. I’m not good-looking, I’m not educated, but I was able to put something over on high class people. I know that they look down on people who come from my background. They think they are better than me. They was all college kids and I never had anything in my life but I outsmarted them. I was supposed to feel that they was better than me because they was college people . . . when I told them they could be models that was like saying the same thing: you are better than me, you are better than anybody, you can be a model . . . Anybody with any sense could’ve found out. They never asked me for proof.

They was times when I was doing that Measuring Man thing that I hated them girls for being so stupid and I wanted to do something to them . . . something that would make them think, even for a little while . . . that would let them know that I was as good as they was, maybe better and smarter.78

DeSalvo had been given a psychiatric examination at Bridgewater mental hospital, and it was recommended that he be put into a psychiatric unit instead of prison. It might have worked in this case, because it appears that DeSalvo was aware of his compulsions and sincerely wanted to be free of them.

When DeSalvo was in jail he told the psychiatrist of his slavish love for Irmgard: “I can hardly wait to get out so I can be with her and treat her the way a wife should be treated even if it means washing her feet.” But when he got home, Irmgard rejected him totally. She said that he was “dirty and sickening” and called him an animal.


Two months after his release from prison, Albert DeSalvo left his house on June 14, 1962, telling his wife he was going fishing. Instead he ended up wandering into a low-rise apartment complex with scaffolding outside. He knocked on doors at random until Anna Slesers, a fifty-five-year-old woman of Latvian descent, came to her door. She appeared younger than her age and had brown, bobbed hair. She was trained in Latvia as an agronomist but in America she worked as a seamstress. DeSalvo told Slesers he was from a work crew and that some repairs were going to be done in her apartment. She let him in.

Slesers was later found lying on her back on a runner near the door to the bathroom. She was wearing a blue robe, which was spread open, exposing her nude body. Her legs were spread wide apart, her left leg bent at the knee. She had been struck on the head and there was a quantity of blood underneath her head. She was strangled with the cord of her robe, which was strangely tied around her neck with a bow under her chin. Although she appeared to have been raped, no seminal fluids were found in her vagina or at the scene.

Her wastebasket was missing and its contents were strewn on the floor. Drawers had been pulled open and some of their contents thrown on the floor. The police assumed that the murderer entered the premises to commit a burglary, and was discovered by the victim, who was then struck, raped, and killed by the burglar.

DeSalvo said that after killing Slesers, he went into the bathroom to wash up. He remembers that he was wearing gloves. He ransacked the apartment and took $20 he found on a cabinet. He later would say that was the only time he ever stole something from his victims—other than their lives.

He removed his bloodied jacket and shirt and, after dumping the contents of the wastebasket, put his garments in it. He turned off the record player, put on a raincoat he found hanging by the door, and walked out carrying the waste basket.

He walked by a police car on patrol, got into his car, and drove away. He stopped a man on the street and told him he was having an affair with a woman and that her husband had caught him and he had to run away without his shirt; would the man mind accompanying him to a store so that he could buy a shirt in case there were any problems with him walking in without a shirt? The man agreed.

Afterward, DeSalvo went to the ocean, tore the bloodied garments into strips, and dumped them in the surf. He then went home to have supper with his wife and kids.

DeSalvo described a tranquil, trancelike state after he killed:

It was all the same thing, always the same feeling. You was there. These things were going on. And the feeling after I got out of that apartment was as if it never happened. I got out and downstairs, and you could of said you saw me upstairs, and as far as I was concerned, it wasn’t me. I can’t explain it to you any other way. It’s just so unreal . . . I was there. It was done. And yet if you talked with me an hour later, or half an hour later, it didn’t mean nothing. It just didn’t mean nothing.79

DeSalvo’s first murder was highly proficient. He wore gloves and left no fingerprints behind. He parked his car a distance away from where he committed the murder. He quickly disposed of his bloodied clothing and he engaged a stranger who could later testify to an alibi if he had been caught that day. His training as a military policeman was paying off.

Two weeks later, on June 28, 1962, DeSalvo knocked on the door of eighty-five-year-old Mary Mullen. He told her he had been sent to do some work on her apartment. She inevitably let him in. It should be noted that all the victims of the Boston Strangler lived in economical low-rise apartments, which were almost always in need of some sort of repair. Whenever DeSalvo called to say he had been sent to do repair work or repainting, it always made perfect sense to the tenants.

When Mary Mullen turned her back on DeSalvo, he wrapped his arm around her throat. She apparently died instantly, perhaps of heart failure. DeSalvo laid her out on the couch and left. When her body was discovered, authorities declared her death as being of natural causes. It was only after DeSalvo confessed that the authorities realized Mary Mullen was a victim of the Boston Strangler.

On June 30, a Saturday, DeSalvo told his wife he had to go out on a job early in the morning. He drove around aimlessly until he arrived at an apartment building on Newhall Street in Lynn, where he had been before in his Measuring Man days. He randomly knocked at an apartment door on the second floor. Helen Blake, age sixty-five, answered the door still wearing her pajamas. Using his usual approach, DeSalvo told her he needed to check her windows for leaks. Just before he entered, DeSalvo picked up some milk bottles left by the door and handed them to Blake. He handled them carefully so as not to leave any fingerprints.

In the bedroom as they inspected the windows, DeSalvo grabbed Blake from behind and choked her. She fainted quickly. Holding her with one hand, he carefully took her glasses off and set them down. He laid her down on the bed, took off her pajamas, and raped her with a foreign object. He tied a nylon stocking and her bra tightly around her neck and strangled her. He then looped the garments into a bow, which he tied under her chin. This bow would become a signature of the Boston Strangler. Asked why he tied the bow, DeSalvo simply replied, “I don’t know.” Some analysts speculated that the bow was somehow connected to the bows he tied around the orthopedic braces of his crippled daughter, but the connection is tenuous.

DeSalvo killed his fourth victim later that same day. He drove into Boston, randomly chose an apartment, and began pressing buzzer buttons that had women’s names on the address plates. Nina Nichols, age sixty-eight, was talking to her sister on the phone when DeSalvo buzzed. Her sister heard the buzzer, and Nina told her that she would call her right back. She never called back.

Nina Nichols was found posed on the floor, her legs spread wide apart, facing the entryway. Her pink housecoat and slip were pushed up to her waist and two stockings were tied around her throat in a bow under her chin. She had been raped with a wine bottle; seminal fluid was found on her thighs.

The apartment appeared to have been burglarized, with things strewn about and drawers pulled out. The desk drawer was pulled out and placed on the floor as if the killer carefully examined all the contents: stationery, stamps, pens, paper clips. Nothing, however, was found to be missing. Asked what he was looking for, DeSalvo again replied, “I don’t know . . . I didn’t have in my mind the idea of taking anything.”

When DeSalvo was confessing to Nina’s murder, he said that she had scratched him when he was strangling her and that the police must have found his skin under her fingernails. This revealed the extent to which DeSalvo was familiar with police investigative techniques.

At this point the police became aware that there was a multiple killer on the loose who had murdered three women (a fourth victim was thought to have died of natural causes.)

On August 19, 1962, DeSalvo murdered seventy-five-year-old Ida Irga. She was found on her back on the living room floor wearing a light nightdress that had been torn open, exposing her body. Her legs were spread wide apart and her feet were propped up on individual chairs. A pillow was placed beneath her buttocks and she was pointed in the direction of the door, so the sight of her exposed genitals would greet whoever would enter the apartment. A white pillowcase was tightly knotted around her throat. The posing of the victim had now become complex, but when DeSalvo was questioned about it, he could only say, “I just did it.”

Within a day or two, DeSalvo killed his sixth victim, sixty-seven-year-old Jane Sullivan. The precise date of her murder is unclear, as her body was not discovered until August 30, some ten days after the murder. She was found in the bathtub in a kneeling position. Her face was beneath about six inches of water and her bare buttocks were exposed. Her cotton housecoat had been pulled up over her shoulder and her girdle was pushed above her waist. Her underwear was down around her ankles. She was strangled with her own nylon stockings. The victim had been killed in another room and then taken to the bathroom and posed.

Such posing is a sign that the FBI describes as a disorganized-personality serial killer. (See Chapters 3 and 9.) Often the posing of the victim has some obscure meaning known only to the perpetrator. DeSalvo’s random targeting of apartment buildings also is a mark of a disorganized offender, as is his frequent use of weapons found at the crime scene—articles of clothing. At the same time, however, DeSalvo carried gloves with him, took meticulous care never to leave any fingerprints, and talked his way into the victims’ apartments, all characteristics of the organized personality. DeSalvo was that rare creature defined as a mixed-personality killer—both predictable and unpredictable at the same time—a homicide investigator’s worst nightmare. It made DeSalvo a unique case in forensic history, and DeSalvo was now about to go a step further.

After committing six homicides in a period of two months, DeSalvo suddenly stopped killing for four months. Then on December 5, 1962, he murdered Sophie Clark, a victim who defied the odds—she was black and twenty years old. It is rare for a sexual murderer to cross racial lines—usually whites kill whites, blacks kill blacks, and so forth. Even more rare was that having established a consistent pattern by murdering six elderly women, DeSalvo suddenly murdered a twenty-year-old. It caused havoc in the investigation, as detectives became divided on the issue whether there was one killer or two different stranglers. (Today this question is still being pondered about DeSalvo.)

December 5 was DeSalvo’s wedding anniversary, and that might have triggered his killing again. DeSalvo gained entry into Sophie Clark’s apartment using the usual repairman routine. He said, “I gave her fast talk, I told her I’d set her up in modeling. I’d give her twenty to thirty dollars an hour.” He then asked her to turn around so he could get a better look at her figure. As she turned her back to him, he grabbed her around the throat with his arm.

Clark was found on the living room rug. Three of her nylon stockings were tightly tied around her neck, as was also her white slip and a belt. A gag was stuffed into her mouth. She was on her back, her bathrobe open, and she was naked except for a pair of black stockings, a garter, and loafer shoes. Her legs were spread wide open and her bra had been ripped from her during the attack. A sanitary napkin was tossed under a chair nearby. Her glasses were broken. Seminal fluid was found in her vagina.

After DeSalvo killed her, he remained behind in the apartment leafing through her magazines and record collection. Then, without taking anything, he quietly slipped out. Sophie Clark’s apartment was two blocks away from Anna Slesers’s, his first victim.

On December 31, 1962, DeSalvo killed his seventh victim—twenty-three-year-old Patricia Bissette. Again, DeSalvo defied the odds: The victim was found in her bedroom lying face up on her bed, her legs together, and covered by a bedspread snugly drawn up to her chin—diametrically opposite to the grotesque and humiliating posing that had been committed previously. A victim who is found covered this way often reflects a sense of guilt or remorse in the killer. Later DeSalvo said, “She was so different, I didn’t want to see her like that, naked and . . . She talked to me like a man, she treated me like a man.”

DeSalvo had knocked on her door, pretending to be somebody who lived upstairs looking for one of her roommates. He had already gotten the names from the mailbox below. Bissette invited him in to wait and made some coffee. DeSalvo said that she was nice to him, treating him “like a man” and that he talked himself out of hurting her. He tried to find an excuse to leave her apartment and offered to go out and get some donuts, but Bissette said it was not necessary. DeSalvo said that at that moment he knew that he did not want it to happen but it would.

Despite his fuzzy warm sentiments for Bissette, he raped her and strangled her with her stockings, leaving them tied in what by then the police were calling the “Strangler’s Bow.”

DeSalvo had this to say about Bissette’s murder:

I don’t know if I done this for a sex act or for hatred or for what reason. I think I did this not as a sex act but out of hate for her—not her in particular, but for a woman. I don’t think that a sex act is anything to do. It is what everybody does, from the top to the bottom of the world, but that is not what I mean. It is one thing to do it when a woman wants you to do it and another when she don’t, you understand me? If women do not want you to do what is right and natural then it is dirty if they don’t. You are really an animal if you do it just the same, is what I mean, you see? But all I can say is that when I saw her body the sex act came in. I did not enjoy the sexual relations with this woman. I was thinking too much about that she would not have wanted me to do it. There was no thrill at all.80

For once, DeSalvo had come up with some valuable insight into his motives. Rape and other sex crimes are rarely committed out of a desperate lack of sex. Bundy was an attractive man with many girlfriends, and DeSalvo was able to seduce countless women, yet both used extreme violence in compelling the victims into sexual acts. In such cases, the sexual act is merely a component of the aggressive impulse. Sex and rape are used as a weapon to batter the victim, and not for the purpose of sexual gratification. Many cannot understand why an individual would rape a seventy-five-year-old woman because they cannot imagine such a woman as sexually attractive. In fact, however, sexual attractiveness or desire has nothing to do with it—it is a purely aggressive and hateful act against a victim. (Likewise in prison, male-on-male rape has less to do with homosexual desire than with aggressive dominance. Very few prison rapists are homosexuals.)81

On February 18, 1963, DeSalvo gained entry into the apartment of a twenty-nine-year-old woman. She was sick with the flu and at first didn’t want to let him in. He told her that he was from the construction crew working on the roof and that he needed to shut her water off. Indeed, there was a crew working on the roof and the woman finally let him enter. When he grabbed her, however, she bit his finger down to the bone and began desperately screaming. DeSalvo ran away. But the victim could not come forth with a useful description.

By now the police were in a frenzy and were meticulously checking every sex offender released from prisons and mental hospitals in the last two years. Unfortunately, DeSalvo had been convicted of assault and battery and breaking and entering, and therefore his name did not appear on the list of sex offenders.

On March 9, 1963, DeSalvo killed his ninth victim, sixty-nine-year-old Mary Brown. On his way into her building, he picked up a piece of brass pipe. Once he gained entry into her apartment, he struck her with the pipe. He then ripped her dress open, exposing her breasts. He picked up a sheet, threw it over her head, and then battered her skull with the pipe. Afterward he picked up a fork and thrust it into her breast.

On May 5, 1963, he killed twenty-three-year-old Beverly Samans. She was found lying on her back on a convertible sofa bed. She was nude except for a lace blouse draped around her shoulders, and her legs were spread apart. Her wrists were tied behind her and she was gagged. A nylon stocking and two handkerchiefs were knotted around her neck. Again, DeSalvo surprised the police with his versatility—Beverly Samans was stabbed more than twenty times.

Beverly Samans, who was partially deaf, was a month away from getting her master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling. In her typewriter was her thesis, titled Factors Pertaining to the Etiology of Male Homosexuality. For some reason, perhaps because of the bite he had received from his previous victim, DeSalvo did not grab Samans by the throat from behind. Instead he drew his knife and confronted her face-to-face.

Samans tried to put her counseling education in practice to save her life: She attempted to negotiate with DeSalvo, agreeing to let him “play around with her” but no intercourse. When DeSalvo began to rape her anyway, she complained to him that he had exceeded their agreed-upon limit. DeSalvo became enraged because, he said, she began to remind him of his wife, with whom making love was “like asking a dead dog to move.” DeSalvo said Samans made him feel unclean and unwanted. Making matters worse, because Samans was partially deaf but DeSalvo did not know it, she could not hear all of his instructions. He became enraged when no matter “how hard he tried to please her” his victim complained and struggled. Enraged, he stabbed her twenty-two times.

On September 8, 1963, DeSalvo killed his eleventh victim, fifty-eight-year-old Evelyn Corbin. He arrived at her door after trying several other apartments and failing to find a suitable victim. DeSalvo told her that the superintendent had sent him to check for leaks in the windows. At first she wouldn’t let him in. Often in such cases, DeSalvo used a clever twist of psychology: “Well, if you don’t want the work done, I’ll go. It’s your apartment.”

Like all the others, Corbin eventually opened her door to DeSalvo. Once inside, DeSalvo drew his knife and put it to her neck. He said that the first thing she asked was, “You’re not the Boston Strangler, are you?” DeSalvo assured her he was not and took her into the bedroom.

Corbin told DeSalvo that she was not well and could not have intercourse. DeSalvo sat down on the edge of the bed and had Corbin kneel before him on a pillow on the floor and perform oral sex.

DeSalvo then told her that he was going to tie her up and leave. He made her promise to give him time to go and not make a sound. He tied her hands in front of her and laid her down on the bed. He then stuffed a pair of panties in her mouth, straddled her body sitting on her hands, placed a pillow over her face, and strangled her with his hands. Finally he took some nylon stockings from her drawer and tied them in a bow. He spread her legs open in a forty-five-degree angle and tied another bow around the victim’s left ankle.


On November 24, 1963, while most of America had come to a halt because of the assassination of President Kennedy two days previously, DeSalvo killed his twelfth victim: twenty-three-year-old Joann Graff. Despite the fact that victim was very wary and would not even permit the landlord to enter her apartment, DeSalvo talked his way in.

Graff was found lying at a diagonal across the bed with her legs spread apart. She was strangled. Two nylon stockings were intertwined with the victim’s black leotard tied in a bow around her neck. DeSalvo said that afterward he drove home, washed up, played with the kids, had supper, and watched television. The murder of Lee Harvey Oswald was broadcast live on network TV that day.

On January 4, 1964, police found DeSalvo’s thirteenth and last victim: nineteen-year-old Mary Sullivan. She was found on her bed in a propped-up position. Under her buttocks was a pillow. Her back rested against the headboard and her head was resting on her right shoulder. Seminal fluid was dripping from her mouth onto her right breast. Both of her breasts were exposed. Her knees were bent and raised and her legs spread apart. A broomstick handle was inserted into her vagina. There were seminal stains on the blanket. A stocking was tied tightly around her throat and covered by a scarf tied in a large bow. Next to the victim’s left toes was placed a greeting card: “Happy New Year.”


The Boston Strangler was finished. DeSalvo now took on a new persona: the “Green Man.” Wearing green work pants and shirt, he broke and entered into women’s apartments, tied them up, and raped them. Often he ejaculated as soon as he tied up and touched his victim, and did not have intercourse. He apologized to the victim and loosened her bindings before he left.

In the eleven months during which he committed his Green Man attacks, DeSalvo never killed any of his victims. On November 3, 1964, a detective recognized a victim’s description of the Green Man as being similar to the Measuring Man. DeSalvo’s mug shots were shown to the victim and she quickly identified DeSalvo as the Green Man. DeSalvo was arrested and held at the Bridgewater Mental Hospital.

The police had no idea that they had the Boston Strangler in their custody. Because so many victims were elderly women, police were looking for a “mother hater”—somebody who was still living with a domineering mother. DeSalvo’s psychiatric prison records indicated that he had a good and loving relationship with his mother (despite Brussel’s assertion that she was “indifferent” to Albert). It was only in the spring of 1965, while still in custody, that DeSalvo began making his confessions. The police realized that they had had the Boston Strangler in their custody for six months already.

DeSalvo made a deal with the authorities: He would plead guilty to the Green Man rapes and take a life sentence if no murder charges would be brought against him as the Boston Strangler. Thus, in the end, nobody was officially charged or convicted for the thirteen murders.

Many in the law enforcement community were unconvinced that DeSalvo was a killer. They pointed out that DeSalvo did not need to kill for sex because he was adept at both seducing and raping females. The problem is that it is a slightly outdated notion that offenders rape for sex—in fact, rape as much as seduction or killing could have easily been a question of control or rage for DeSalvo, not sex.

The question remains, however: why did DeSalvo kill—and more important, why did he stop on his own? Psychiatrist James Brussel was brought in from New York by the Boston police prior to DeSalvo’s capture, as were several other psychiatrists. Brussel had been successful at profiling other criminals and had gained a formidable reputation in being able to project a killer’s personality by studying his crimes. (See Chapter 9.)

The panel of psychiatrists, Brussel recalls, were all deeply divided as to the personality of the killer. A faction insisted that there were two different killers. They all agreed that the killer had a mother-hate complex and that he was probably suffering from impotency. At the conference after the murder of Mary Sullivan, Brussel recalls that he felt very uneasy—as if a solution were at the tip of his fingers, yet eluding him. Brussel heard one of the psychiatrists say, “ . . . and this trail of semen, ranging from the thighs of the early victims to the mouth of the most recent, could hardly have been left by a single man.” He suddenly came to the solution, Brussel states, by following the trail of semen, figuratively. Brussel concluded that over the two-year killing period, DeSalvo was psychosexually maturing—passing from puberty to manhood in a most monstrous way.

Brussel noted that DeSalvo’s first five victims, elderly women, were not raped but manipulated or penetrated by a foreign object. Brussel saw this as sexuality typical of a small boy coveting his mother’s love and curious about her body and by association the bodies of women in general. But with the alleged absence of his mother’s love, DeSalvo expressed these longings with a rage—thus his murder and molestation of the first five victims.

Then, after a four-month hiatus, he turned his attention to younger women and girls. According to Brussel, DeSalvo was in a stage now resembling puberty, attempting intercourse but achieving only a half-potent immature kind of interaction.

In the end, DeSalvo grew up and “cured” himself through murder, Brussel concluded. He writes:

The last one, Mary Sullivan, was subjected to the final and complete indignity. The semen was in her mouth. The Strangler had said, symbolically, I throw my sex in your face. And where the sex should have been, he scornfully thrust the handle of a broom . . .

I think he has finished . . . He’s been seeking two things: to grow up sexually, and to avenge himself for his mother’s rejection of him or whatever caused his hang-up. I believe he has succeeded on both counts.

“With Mary Sullivan,” I said, “he perpetrated the final indignity, the final revenge. He threw his sex in her face. He used a broom handle to say that her sex no longer troubled him; he scorned it. I think Mary Sullivan may turn out to be his last victim. I think he has, in a way, ‘cured’ himself of his overtly sexual difficulties—though not of his other emotional problems.”82

Brussel’s theory is a fascinating one but problematic in certain areas. First, Brussel maintains that DeSalvo had a negative relationship with his mother. Other sources say the opposite, that DeSalvo loved and cherished his mother and that he was her favorite. If his mother was indifferent, why did she spend six months looking for her children after her husband sold them to a farmer? Second, unless Brussel was representing DeSalvo’s point of view, Brussel perhaps attaches too much of a value judgment on oral sex by referring to it as an “indignity” and to the vagina as “where the sex should have been.” Finally, if DeSalvo had been having extensive sex since adolescence and was such a prolific seducer, why would he engage in these few acts of “immature child-like” sex, followed by murder? Of course, there is a distinct possibility that DeSalvo was fantasizing about his sexual exploits. Perhaps women did not throw their jewelry at him in exchange for sex, and perhaps he was not the big bisexual neighborhood stud-muffin he claims he was. The only accounts of DeSalvo’s sexual history come from DeSalvo himself. What if Irmgard was his first sexual partner?

Canadian anthropologist and serial murder expert Elliott Leyton rejects the psychoanalytic model of Albert DeSalvo for a socioeconomic one. Leyton points out that DeSalvo made numerous statements attesting that he felt he came from very low-class status. Like his father, DeSalvo “married up” in class—Irmgard came from a respectable European middle-class family just as DeSalvo’s mother came from a respectable old middle-class Boston “Yankee” family. In the end, Irmgard rejected DeSalvo.

When he was arrested as the Measuring Man, DeSalvo told police:

I been a poor boy all my life, I come from a bad home, you know all that, why should I kid you? Look, I don’t know anything about modeling or cameras . . . I’m not educated and these girls was all college graduates, understand me? I made fools of them . . . I made them do what I wanted and accept me and listen to me.

DeSalvo preyed on victims in lower-middle-class and student low-rise apartment blocks, but for DeSalvo it was a step up. He thought of striking in a wealthier neighborhood called Swampscott, but didn’t have the confidence:

Now Swampscott . . . is a fancy place with big houses and lots of them smart and educated broads like I used to fool over around Harvard Square but they grew up and got married and now they got kids . . . and anyway I don’t go to Swampscott because I don’t like the way they make me feel like an animal, those kinds of broads, and that is why I always put something over their faces and eyes so that they can’t look at me.83

During his interrogation, DeSalvo turned to one of the state attorneys and said:

You are a man, you know what I mean, sure you have been to them high-class colleges and you got all them big excuses, but you have had that thing in your pants too—I think this is one of the troubles, sir, that guys like you, who have played with yourselves, who have looked with real lust on women, some of them far too young, way out of your range of possibility with a great deal of lust are afraid to admit it because somehow it takes you down from the goddamn pedestal on which society places you—but you are only a man.

Let me say this, sir, to you who sits across the table from me with such a shocked face, just let me say this . . . I ain’t got nothing to lose no more, you know, and I couldn’t give less of a goddamn for your world which is a nice society for you as long as you have money . . . have you ever thought of what it would be like for your ass if you didn’t have dough? I bet you ain’t.

At one point DeSalvo suggested that he stopped killing because his Irmgard treated him better, but even then he expressed it in socioeconomic terms: “My wife was treating me better. I was building up, you might say, my better self, the better side of me. I was very good at my job, they liked me, I got two raises.”

DeSalvo had wanted to confess earlier, but according to him, his wife had threatened to commit suicide and kill the children if he confessed to being the strangler. At some point DeSalvo began to believe that his wife never really loved him and was kind to him in the last months only because of his increased income. This angered him so much that he confessed to being the Boston Strangler. He told his wife, “Our last two months together you made me feel for the first time like a man. You gave me love I never dreamed you had to give. But why—only because you had just about everything you dreamed of . . . everything you wanted, house fixed up, all the money coming in.” Confession was his revenge.

Leyton wrote that in the end, DeSalvo found what he was searching for in all those apartments in the last victim’s home—the Happy New Year card—the ultimate insult to society, placed at the foot of society’s precious young woman, raped and dead.

Whether Brussel’s psychoanalytic model or Leyton’s socioeconomic theory is more valid, we will probably never know. Any hope of further questioning Albert DeSalvo vanished on November 26, 1973, when he was stabbed through the heart in his prison cell. His murder remains unsolved, as does the mystery of exactly why he began killing and why he ceased.

America Tumbles into the Sixties: 1966, “The Year the World Went Mad”

In the wake of the Boston Strangler, the escalation of violence that swept through America during the 1960s was dramatic and heralded by two notorious acts of mass murder in 1966: in Chicago, Richard Speck killed eight nurses in a dormitory, and in Texas, sniper Charles Whitman killed sixteen people. Both events shocked the nation and were major headline news stories. Serial crime historian Michael Newton recently wrote:

Reporter Charles Kuralt once labeled 1966 “the year the world went mad,” prophetic words as we reflect upon a quarter-century of random killers run amok. That year, God died on the cover of Time Magazine and the Church of Satan opened its doors in San Francisco; the sexual revolution and hippie-drug subculture burst into the headlines; the Vietnam war entered American living rooms through a television tube and brought thousands of protesters into the streets.84

From the assassination of President Kennedy, the disorder in the streets over the war in Vietnam, and racial rioting to the oil crisis of the early 1970s and the disillusionment of Watergate, America suffered a cultural collapse comparable to that of postwar Germany or post-Soviet Russia. In economic and political terms, the inflation-driven collapse perhaps was not as severe as those of Germany and Russia—but in social terms, it was as drastic. America of the 1950s was as different in spirit and values from the America of the 1970s as was the Soviet Union from today’s Russian republics or imperial Germany from the Weimar government. Something in those kinds of radical cultural transitions unleashes serial murderers. Perhaps it’s a collapse of once-treasured values, or a loss of any vision of a future, but those already predisposed to kill seem more likely to act in such times.

Today we stand on the brink of even worse times. The American dream of each generation advancing to the next socioeconomic class is stalled. In fact, a huge proportion of Americans have actually fallen back from the status of their parents and are faring worse. Real income continues to shrink. The middle class is no longer the safe-haven destination of the impoverished nor the guaranteed springboard to better things. Oceans are no longer a guarantee of physical safety, education of advancement, and corporate employment of financial security. For some, the only dream remaining is a dream of continual murder.