6 of History's Most Notorious Serial Killers

Updated on February 28, 2017
Jaynie2000 profile image

With a degree in Sociology & concentrations in English & Religion, Jaynie has a keen interest in politics, social norms & mental health.

History is full of hair-raising tales of some of the most gruesome crimes one can imagine. While it is hard to fathom some of the cruelties that human beings are capable of inflicting on one another, there are few tales that both intrigue and repulse quite like those of famous serial killers. There has been much speculation about the variations in brains of serial killers that might account for their detached sensibilities and propensity toward violence. When one thinks of mental illness, they tend to think of schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder and delusional thinking. Mental illness tends to cloud judgment and impair one’s ability to function normally in the world around them. Serial killers however, are often able to blend into their surroundings with seamless normality. They typically hold jobs, often have families, and occasionally occupy positions of standing within their communities. This ability to live a seemingly normal life may suggest that there is more at play than the standard notion of mental illness. While some serial killers may have been driven into unconscionable acts by environmental influences from their own childhoods, that does not explain the actions of others, who grew up in loving homes and were well-educated with intact social networks.

Environmental influences may include having been subjected to severe abuse by one or both parents or by other persons whom they were meant to trust, however, this need not always be the case. In some cases, the serial killing tendencies may have been instilled following the death of a beloved parent or role model, by the lack of love and parental nurturing even when the parent is present, or by an inconsistent and confusing application of discipline.

Studies conducted on the brains of serial killers show that genetic abnormalities often also exist. As many as 38% of psychopaths have abnormal brain wave patterns as revealed through EEG. Children have slower brain wave activity which speeds up as they age, however, the psychopathic brain wave activity does not progress at a normally anticipated rate. It does not gain momentum until later in life, which might explain why most serial killers tend to be under 50 years of age.

Serial killers have the intellectual capacity to understand that society deems their behavior to be deviant. They typically have an intact sense of right and wrong, however they differ from the average person in that the laws and norms of society do not concern them, nor are they deterred by the potential consequences of their actions. Most are unapologetic. Some seek to blame their victims for the crimes they were subjected to, perhaps in an attempt to rationalize their own behaviors. For example, John Wayne Gacy expressed distain for the “worthless little queers and punks” that he killed while Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe, boasted that his actions were an attempt to “clean up the streets of human trash.”

If serial killers were purely evil, acting on impulse without the ability to be concerned with self-preservation, they might target any person at any time. This is not the case. Most serial killers have a preferred “type” of victim. Most tend to focus on either men or women. Victims are often persons that the killer believes society may also deem “unworthy” such as prostitutes, drug addicts, homeless people or homosexuals. By selecting victims from among the disenfranchised and troubled sectors of the population, they target those that are least likely to be missed, significantly reducing their chances of getting caught.

While there have been cases of women serial killers, such as Aileen Wuornos, the vast majority of killers have been male. And while there are incidents of partners or couples committing acts of serial murder, most commit their crimes independently.

The following are some of the most notorious serial killers in history.

#1 Jeffrey Dahmer

Jeffrey Dahmer was a Milwaukee resident who targeted young boys and men in his hometown. His crimes included the rape, murder, dismemberment of his victims as well as necrophilia and cannibalism. He was convicted in 1991 of the murders of 17 young men. He was raised in a traditional household. His parents divorced when he was young, but his history is does not contain any known abuse by his parents. Like many budding serial killers, young Jeffrey took an early interest in dead animals, performing his own crude autopsies. He was a chronic alcoholic by the time he graduated from high school. By all accounts, he struggled with his sexuality, and found himself attracted to young men. His crimes, were by his own accounts, an attempt to force his victims to remain with him forever. Jeffrey was sentenced to prison in the Columbia Correctional Institute, where he was beaten to death by a fellow inmate in 1994.

#2 Ed Gein

Ed Gein was another notorious serial killer from Wisconsin. By all accounts, he was a shy, loner with an almost unnatural attachment to his mother. He remained in his family home all his life, and was reportedly devastated by his mother's death in 1945. Ed had one brother, who by some accounts, may have been Ed's first victim. While Ed exclusively killed women thereafter, it was thought that he had killed his brother as a result of his brother's lack of emotional attachment to their mother. Ed's parents remained married until his father's death in 1940, though they had a notoriously unhappy marriage. As a result, his mother projected her anger and resentment onto her two sons, routinely abusing them and refusing to allow them to make friends with neighborhood children. Ed's mother also had an extreme attachment to her religion, using passages from the Bible to justify her cruel treatment of her sons. They were raised to believe they were evil and unworthy.

This abusive upbringing is likely what shaped Ed's future deviant behaviors. He began killing women after his mother's death. He strung them up in his barn, dressed them out like deer, and used their skin, hair and bones to craft furniture. Like Dahmer, he was said to have cannibalized his victims. He was arrested in 1957 after the death of tavern owner Mary Hogan and spent the remainder of his life at the Mendota Mental Health Institute in Madison, Wisconsin.

#3 Ted Bundy

One of the most recognizable serial killers was the charismatic, handsome Theodore Robert Bundy. Bundy once described himself as the "meanest son of a bitch that ever lived." His crimes included the rape, bludgeoning, strangulation and murder of an undetermined number of women. Some speculate that he was responsible for as many as 100 women. He was also said to have engaged in necrophilia.

Bundy grew up without a father and was subject to varying accounts of who his father actually was. He was raised by his grandparents and led to believe that his mother was actually his sister. By all accounts, Bundy was intelligent and appeared to be socially well adjusted. He held important positions in the Republican party and developed a personal relationship with then Washington Governor Daniel J. Evans. His foray into the world serial killing and his intense hatred of women may have been born out of his unusual dynamic with his mother and his rejection by a young woman whom he had fallen in love with in college, though he did engage in a significant long term relationship with another woman following the demise of that pivotal experience.

Bundy was executed in the electric chair for the murders of two college coeds in the Chi Omega Sorority House in Florida in 1989.

#4 David Berkowitz

David Berkowitz is perhaps best known as the Son of Sam, a notorious serial killer that terrorized New York City between 1976 and 1977. Though his reign of terror was short lived, his name lives on in true crime legend. Berkowitz claimed that his crimes were instigated at the behest of the neighbor's dog, which had been possessed by demons that told him to kill. His crimes differed from those of Dahmer, Gein and Bundy in that they did not appear to include any psychosexual elements. Instead, Berkowitz shot his victims with a .44 caliber pistol. He was convicted of 6 murders, to which he confessed, however he later recanted and claimed credit for only three murders and the wounding of 4 others. He claimed that other murders attributed to him had been committed by members of a satanic cult of which he had been a member.

He was placed for adoption as an infant with a loving family, however his adoptive mother died of breast cancer when he was a teen and his father remarried. David was not fond of his stepmother and stated that his stepsister practiced witchcraft, a hobby in which David himself later took an active interest.

He was convicted in 1977 and sentenced to 365 years in prison.

#5 Andrei Chikatilo

Not all serial killers are American born. In 1992, Russian Andrei Chikatilo was convicted of the murders of 53 women and children that occurred between 1978 and 1990. He was executed in 1994. Like many serial killers, he was given a nickname, The Butcher of Rostov.

He was raised in poverty by farmers in a one room house. He shared a bed with his parents and was routinely beaten by his mother for offenses including chronic bed wetting. His psyche was allegedly also influenced by reports that his older brother had been apprehended and cannibalized by their starving neighbors.

As an adult, Chikatilo married and had two children. He was gainfully employed as a teacher until reports surfaced that he was sexually abusing children of both sexes. He may have equated sex with murder when, after he abducted his first victim, 9 year old Yelena Zakotnova, he was only able to achieve and erection and ejaculation after stabbing her. Her murder came as the result of his frustration over failing to achieve an erection during the attempted sexual assault, and after Yelena fought back.

His body count rose steadily until 1990 when he was caught by police while leaving the scene of a a 22 year old female's murder. While in prison, Chikatilo presented a challenge because child rapists and murderers are immense targets for violence by fellow inmates. Even during his trial, he was required to sit in a metal cage to protect him from the angry families of his alleged victims. He was convicted and finally executed in 1992.

#6-7 Fred and Rosemary West

Not all serial killers act alone. Some have partners though it is rare. Such is the case of Fred and Rosemary West. Both grew up in severely abusive homes and it was likely their violent upbringings that helped them to find one another and immediately bond. Rosemary was repeatedly sexually abused by her father, a man that later became a regular client when Rosemary turned to prostitution as a means of generating additional family income. Fred had been married prior to meeting Rosemary and later divorced his wife. The two had a child together, who later became Rosemary's first victim. Fred's ex-wife was a subsequent victim.

Over the years, the two had 7 children together, another of which they killed and buried under the family's patio. Other victims were known to be borders in the home or young women that they picked up at rest stops or bars and brought home for sex. The women were tortured for days before being killed, dismembered, decapitated and buried at the family homestead.

Rosemary was convicted of killing 10 girls and women including her 16 year old daughter, her stepdaughter and 8 others including a woman that was 8 months pregnant at the time of her death. One victim was found inside of their home while the 9 others were buried on the property. Fred was found guilty of killing 12 victims, but claimed up to 20 more. He committed suicide in prison by hanging himself, while Rosemary remains incarcerated in England. She began blaming her husband for the killings after his death.

Questions & Answers

    © 2011 Jaynie2000

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      • Jaynie2000 profile imageAUTHOR

        Jaynie2000 

        5 years ago

        Scary. I'm originally from Milwaukee, but fortunately never knew Dahmer. Since so many serial killers appear normal in public, I guess we can never be sure what kind of people we know. Thanks for reading.

      • jimmar profile image

        jimmar 

        5 years ago from Michigan

        Interesting, well done. I have a friend who claims to have attended kindergarten and a few years of elementary school with Jeffrey Dahmer. Ironically (or maybe not) Dahmer bit him one day while in kindergarten. I live near a city that is always at the top in the nation for violent crime. We had a serial killer here a few years ago who roamed the streets at night and randomly stabbed people. Ironically (or maybe not) violent crime was way down during that time.

      • Jaynie2000 profile imageAUTHOR

        Jaynie2000 

        6 years ago

        No problem. (-:

      • cherylvanhoorn profile image

        cherylvanhoorn 

        6 years ago from Sydney

        Apologies for the above, I put the wrong name down as author, sorry Jaynie!

      • cherylvanhoorn profile image

        cherylvanhoorn 

        6 years ago from Sydney

        An excellent and well researched hub, Austinstar. I have had a fascination for serial killers and have studied a Bachelor of Psychology in a previous life! One of the studies I did during this was serial killers so I am very familiar with the cases that you have presented here. The piece that you have presented was thorough, well presented and very, very well researched and presented in a factual but chilling display of the extremes that we humans are capable of without judgement but with the facts and with the style of a great researcher.

        I would like to say that I enjoyed this, as I did but due to the nature of this topic it kind of makes me feel rather unseemly saying that.

        Good work, very well done.

      • Jaynie2000 profile imageAUTHOR

        Jaynie2000 

        6 years ago

        Well said.

      • Druid Dude profile image

        Druid Dude 

        7 years ago from West Coast

        Many can be classed as socio-paths. They don't experience emotion like a "normal" person. They can't feel sympathy, empathy, or compassion. It can be associated with nature/nurture, but, many mental illnesses can be rooted in ecological chemical contamination. All the more reason to clean up the mess! In some situations, a high kill record wins you a medal, not that any of these guys warrant one.

      • Jaynie2000 profile imageAUTHOR

        Jaynie2000 

        7 years ago

        Funny. (-:

      • DanielBing1 profile image

        DanielBing1 

        7 years ago from New Hampshire

        Hey, lets not judge. Just because someone kills 30 or forty people does not necessarily make them a bad person. Any one can have a bad day. Or two. Or thirty.

      • profile image

        cquintin8968 

        7 years ago

        Yeah Ive heard of the Zodiac Killer.

      • Jaynie2000 profile imageAUTHOR

        Jaynie2000 

        7 years ago

        Interesting. Then of course, there'e the Zodiac Killer. He was never caught. He just stopped killing. Law enforcement speculates that he either wound up in jail or died. I think he was back in the 60s or 70s.

      • profile image

        cquintin8968 

        7 years ago

        Yeah I didn't see the 2nd one right away. I heard of one that hired women to work for him and then planned a vacation with them once they started to go out and it was all fake and the guy kills them but I can't remember the name. There are some messed up serial killers. If you like reading about them I had to read a book in criminology about a serial killer it was called Bestial I believe it was. The guy starts off in the states and goes to Canada and targets certain people. It is long but a good book. I gave it to a friend taking the class so I dont have the author of it.

      • Jaynie2000 profile imageAUTHOR

        Jaynie2000 

        7 years ago

        Thanks. I have never heard of the alligator man. I'll have to look into that. I actually have 2 such hubs, and I did include Gacy in the other one. Thanks for reading.

      • profile image

        cquintin8968 

        7 years ago

        I agree most of those are, some I haven't heard of yet. I am talking criminal justice classes. Think a few more could be added to the list though. Joe Ball aka Alligator Man who killed at least 20 women, John Wayne Gacy aka Killer Clown who killed at least 33 people. To many to go through though hard to choose good job.

      • Jaynie2000 profile imageAUTHOR

        Jaynie2000 

        7 years ago

        I forgot a lot of people. What's up with W's legal troubles? I haven't heard anything for awhile. I'm sure he'll get off. Most American's do, even when they should be held accountable.

      • profile image

        Cookie Policy 

        7 years ago

        You forgot Tony Blair and George Bush...

      • Jaynie2000 profile imageAUTHOR

        Jaynie2000 

        7 years ago

        Very, very true. One of my favorite TV show is Criminal Minds. They deal with a lot of this kind of stuff and the reasons why killers kill. It is fascinating. I love to see how they go about profiling these types of criminals. It's a bit insightful...but immensely disturbing. Have a great day!

      • Austinstar profile image

        Lela 

        7 years ago from Somewhere near the center of Texas

        Man is known as the most dangerous animal on earth for a reason. Perhaps there are throwbacks to the killing instinct in some people and that is why they kill. It could be genetic. At any rate, it always pays to be careful.

      • Jaynie2000 profile imageAUTHOR

        Jaynie2000 

        7 years ago

        These people are damaged for a variety of reasons, most of which do include horrific abuses. What is frightening is how they can blend so easily into society while committing these insane acts on the side. Gives me the chills. I majored in Sociology and always found the psychopaths and sociopaths to be the most fascinating of our species.

      • Fossillady profile image

        Kathi 

        7 years ago from Saugatuck Michigan

        What we humans are capable of doing to other's. In every case there was abuse in their young lives, some maybe we don't know about, but something happened to lead them to kill!

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