Spotting them in a crowd is not possible, as they look like normal people; in fact most of them are soft-spoken and polite. Their monstrousness comes through only in their personalities, actions and habits. Reading the gruesome tales of serial killers sends a chill up the spine. Most of them seem to have had a dysfunctional family setting and were abused as children; emotionally, sexually, verbally and this activates some psychological trigger in their minds, increasing the feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness. There have been hundreds of serial killers in the history of America and there are a few that have registered in the minds of people and became “famous.” Here are just a few of the in(famous) serial killers that have walked the streets of our nation, in no particular order. There may be many others that are notorious or have killed more people, but we picked a few of the famous killers that shocked us with their monstrousness.
Ed Gein (Killings between 1947 and 1957)
Known as history’s most inspirational killer with his character becoming the central theme for many films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller “Psycho” and the character of Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” among others.
He was a serial killer who would skin his victims, exhume corpses and decorate his home with parts of his victims’ bodies. Human skin was used to make dustbins, furniture and clothes.
Edward Theodore was born in the year 1906 as the youngest of two boys. He had a weak alcoholic father and a domineering mother who was deeply religious. He was said to be very attached to her. She taught them about immorality and the evils of women and sex and discouraged their sexual desires. He turned into an effeminate and shy boy. Ed’s father died of alcoholism and later his brother Henry, who used to criticize his mother about Ed’s unhealthy attachment to her, died in a mysterious fire, and Ed was later suspected.
With nobody to control him after his mother passed away, Eddie became obsessed with sexual fantasy and female anatomy. He was fascinated by the human experiments performed in Nazi camps. He started robbing graves to perform experiments, including removing his own mother from her grave. The experiments became gruesome and cannibalistic. He had the desire of turning himself into a woman and would create breasts out of human skin and drape it. He believed that for a sex change, he would need fresh bodies and thus started his killing spree, which was said to be because of his love-hate relationship with his mother.
House of Horrors
When police finally caught up with him, they found – hanging corpse’s with throat and heads missing, bowls made of skull, various pieces of jewelry made of human skin, hanging lips, skin upholstery for chairs, masks made of facial skin and vulva, including his mother’s, that were painted silver. The most shocking was his mother’s heart that was found in a pan on the stove.
Killings and Sentence
Police counted them as 15 women. Gein told the police that he never had sex with any of the dead women as “they smelled too bad.” His fascination with women was because of the power they held over men. Gein was admitted to Waupan State Hospital and died of cancer at the age of 78.
Ted Bundy (Killings between 1974 and 1978)
He proved that even the devil can be attractive. Ted was one of the most infamous serial killers in American history. He was very handsome, charming and cultured. He has raped and murdered numerous young women. He engaged in necrophilia, which is being sexually attracted to corpses.
He had unique techniques of luring his victims. He would drink alcohol before approaching potential victims, even in a crowd or broad daylight, and gain their trust by faking an injury with his arm in a fake cast or a sling. He would at times act as a policeman or fire department personnel. After luring victims to his car, he would hit them on their head with a crowbar. He then raped and assaulted them sexually before strangling and mutilating them. This good looking maniac used to visit the corpses several times at the Taylor Mountain body dump site, apply makeup to them and sleep with them till they putrefied.
One of the theories says that he started killing people as early as 14 years of age. However, later, many of his victims are said to have a physical resemblance to his first girlfriend. Theodore Robert Cowell was born in 1946 in Burlington, Vermont to an unmarried mother of 22 and gets his name from his stepfather, Bundy. He was made to believe by his grandparents that he was their son and his mother was his sister. He was a good student who was devastated when his first love left him. He spent years trying to get her back and finally when he did, he started killing innocent people and then dumped his girlfriend just as she dumped him.
Killings and Sentence
He was executed in 1989 and confessed to 40 murders. Before his execution, he revealed that his addiction to pornography led him to do what he did. He said that there are many people out there who were addicted and nothing is being done about them. One of Bundy’s famous quotes – “We serial killers are your sons, we are your husbands, we are everywhere. And there will be more of your children dead tomorrow.”
David Berkowitz – Son of Sam (Killings between 1976 and 1977)
Better known as the Son of Sam or the .44 killer, David Berkowitz is a New York City serial killer who killed six people and wounded many others. His crimes became famous because of his letters to the media and the police, and the reason he committed these crimes.
Reason for Killing
He gave a weird reason for killing – to keep the demons quiet he started doing what they wanted. When dogs howled, he started believing that these dogs were demons asking him to kill women. He was convinced that his house owners, Jack and his wife, were part of the demon conspiracy, and Jack was the commander in chief of all the dogs. Later, he shifted into another apartment but was still controlled by the demons in his mind. His new neighbor, Sam Carr, had a black Labrador who Berkowitz believed was possessed and he shot the dog. That did not provide any relief as he began believing that Sam Carr was possessed by the biggest demon, and perhaps Satan himself. Each night these demons told Berkowitz to kill and quench their thirst for blood. He also used to write weird letters to the police and media, with details of his killings.
David Berkowitz, born 1953, was an adopted son and the family lived in a middle-class neighborhood in Bronx. Although, his parents loved him, Berkowitz carried a lot of anger and guilt inside him as he felt responsible for the death of his natural mother, who he was told died giving birth to him. Experts believe that could be the reason for his aggressive behavior. He was devastated when his mother died of cancer and his father remarried and shifted to Florida, leaving him behind when he was 18. Later, he found out that his natural mother was alive and he had a sister. Although, there was a reunion, it was too late for him by then, as he preferred his isolation and delusions.
Killings and Sentence
He received a 365 year prison sentence and Berkowitz told the FBI that he invented the “Son of Sam” stories to convince the court that he was out of his mind and the real reason he killed is because he hated his mother for leaving him and his failure with women. He felt sexually aroused when he killed women and he killed six of them.
John Wayne Gacy (Killings between 1972 and 1978)
A respected member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, a precinct captain in the local Democratic party, the owner of a contracting business and a performing joker at children’s parties, John Wayne Gacy is as normal as they come. He came to be known as one of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history.
Gacy lured his victims into handcuffs in the pretext of showing them a pair of trick handcuffs he used in his clown act and then dare the youth to free themselves. Once the boys were handcuffed, he would pull either with a rope or a board across their throats to kill them, while he raped them.
Gacy was born into a blue-collar family in 1942 and had two sisters. His father was an abusive alcoholic who verbally and physically abused his children. He deeply loved his father and strived to please him, but failed. He had the ability to convince people. He later got married and had two kids, but his wife left him when he was arrested for trying to coerce a fellow employee into homosexual acts. Another thing of note is that he had a head injury by falling off a swing, when he was 11 years old, and suffered from blackouts until he was 16 years old. He was diagnosed with a blood clot and the condition was corrected.
Killings and Sentence
When Gacy realized that police were about to arrest him, he surrendered himself. He told them, “There are four Johns,” and that one was a contractor, the other a clown, another a politician and the fourth went by the name Jack Hanley who did evil things. Gacy confessed to more than 24 murders and drew a map to 28 graves under his house and garage. He also said he threw five others into the Des Plaines River. He was executed with a lethal injection on May 10, 1994. His last meal consisted of fried chicken, Coke, French fries and strawberry shortcake. His last words were, “Kiss my ass.”
Jeffrey Dahmer – Monster (Killings between 1978 and 1991
This Milwaukee serial killer murdered boys of Asian and African descent. His murders were gruesome and involved torture, forced sodomy, dismemberment (removing the limbs by cutting them or by some other means), necrophilia and cannibalism. He was arrested first when caught fondling a young 13-year-old boy in Milwaukee and was sentenced to one year in a work release camp. After serving ten months, he was released on probation for his good behavior and that is when his killing spree began. He committed his first murder at the age of 18, shortly after being released and his first victim was a 19-year-old hitchhiker.
There was a much-talked about story about a 14-year-old boy who almost escaped Dahmer in 1991. He wandered into the streets without clothes, with Dahmer in pursuit. Police believed Dahmer’s story that the boy was 19 years old and was his partner, and took the boy to Dahmer’s house. In spite of noticing a weird smell there, they left without investigating. Soon after, the boy was killed and Dahmer kept his skull as a souvenir.
Dahmer was the son of an analytical chemist and as a child had a fascination for dissecting dead animals and by the time he was a teenager, was an alcoholic and a loner. He dropped out of college and his father forced him to enlist in the Army. But after just two years, he was discharged because of his heavy drinking. Since he did not want to face his father, he moved in with his grandmother and lived with her for six years. His grandmother asked him to move out when he was arrested for exposing in public.
Killings and Sentence
Dahmer was caught by the police when a would-be victim escaped and alerted them. He was held responsible for 15 murders and sentenced to 15 life terms. Dahmer then expressed remorse and wished death upon himself. He was beaten to death by a fellow inmate and died of severe head trauma.
Gary Ridgway – The Green River Killer (Killings between 1982 and 1984)
“I hate most prostitutes. I did not want to pay them for sex. I also picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up, without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away, and might never be reported missing.” These were the words of one of the worst slayers in American history, who was said to have killed more women than any other serial killer.
The drama unfolds at Aurora Avenue on the banks of the Green River, where hundreds of prostitutes hang around and where on July 15, 1982, the body of a 16-year-old woman prostitute was found. She was the first victim of the infamous Green River Killer and was raped and strangled to death. He had the habit of finding a landmark and leaving a group of dead bodies in ‘clusters,” to remember easily. Driving by these clusters and remembering them gave him a high. While the killings continued and police could not find a clue, the ‘Green River Taskforce” was formed in the year 1984 as the death toll reached 26 by then.
Ted Bundy’s Help
Another serial killer, Ted Bundy, who was sitting on a death row, offered to assist the police and gave them several clues into the working of a serial killer’s mind, until the time he was executed.
Ridgway’s birth place is Salt Lake City, Utah and he had two brothers. He had a domineering mother who constantly yelled at their father and controlled Ted completely, and was never pleased with what he did. Ridgway’s IQ was 80, which signified a slight mental deficiency. He had a troubled teenage and stabbed a kid of six when he was 16. He always had an obsession with prostitutes. He was married for fourteen years and he managed two totally different identities: a wonderful husband going on romantic vacations and the other of the serial killer.
Killings and Sentence
The Green River Killer caused mayhem for two and half years during the 1980s. He pleaded guilty to 48 charges in 2003 but claimed to have killed 71 women. A controversial plea bargain he entered into spares him execution in exchange for helping locate the remains of all those women and provide details. This created a controversy as many people believed that a person who murdered so many people should not be spared execution. He was sentenced to 48 life sentences and is currently incarcerated in Washington at the Washington State Penitentiary.
Belle Sorenson Gunness (Killings between 1900 and 1908)
She did not poison her victims like many other female killers, she slaughtered them. Belle was a 42-year-old Norwegian immigrant who purchased a property in La Porte, Indiana, using her first husband’s insurance after his death. Her husband and two of her children were said to have died mysteriously, although she was not suspected. After moving to La Porte with her children, she married Peter Gunness, who died after just nine months. She collected the insurance payment. Over the next few years, all the men that came vanished without trace.
She became infamed for killing several of her husbands, ranch workers and adopted children.
She would place matrimonial ads in newspapers and promised men marital bliss and a life filled with love. Several hopefuls traveled to La Porte carrying their life savings with them. She would then drug them and cut them up as she cut her hogs. She would then wrap them up with oilskin and bury them in her farm. A letter she wrote reads – “My heart beats in wild rapture for you, My Andrew, I love you. Come prepared to stay forever.”
There are various accounts of her background. She was said to be one of eight children and was born at Stoersetgjerdet in Norway. One story goes that she got pregnant with a man and he kicked her on her stomach in public and she lost her child. He disappeared soon after. According to her sister, Belle was said to be crazy for money.
In 1908 her farmhouse caught fire and burned to the ground and when it was put out, the remains of several people were discovered, men, children and a woman. The children were identified as hers. The woman was assumed to be Belle, although, there was no head. It was thought she died in that fire. Many butchered bodies were found around her property and the bodies were carved like turkeys. The heads were cut off, arms removed and legs sawed off at the thigh. However, Belle’s ranch hand and lover Lamphere who was arrested claimed that he helped Belle fake her own death and run away. Officially, she was considered as dead. She was said to have killed 49 people.
Charles Manson (Killings in 1969)
Called the “most dangerous man” and the “devil,” Charles Manson was the terror of the 60s.
He was born in 1934 to a 16-year-old mother who was a troublemaker and left him with his aunt or grandmother most of the time. She was arrested with armed robbery and penitentiary and he went to live with his aunt and uncle. Even after she was released, his mother did not want his responsibility. She was even willing to trade him for a drink. The father was not in the scene since his birth.
He turned out to be a troublemaker and was sent to a reform school at the age of nine. By the age of 26, he was charged with rape, drugs, stealing, pimping and other frauds. He was religious and used this to manipulate people into following him. When he was 34, he formed the “Charles Manson Family,” by attracting a group of followers, mostly young women with troubled pasts. He used amphetamines to alter their personalities and they started calling him “Jesus Christ” and did everything he wanted, including physical favors.
He was a music lover who believed that the “Beatles’” were prophets sent to earth to warn of an upcoming revolution. Charlie focused on an Armageddon, where the blacks would rise to power and kill all whites and Charles Manson and family would be the only white family living. He felt the blacks will not be in power because of their inferiority complex and the Manson family would rule the world.
When this did not happen, he started getting people killed by his “family” members.
Killings and Sentence
His first murder was that of Sharon Tate, wife of director Roman Polanski and the next was the LaBianca family. He was sentenced to death but later reduced to life imprisonment, when California Supreme Court eliminated death penalties temporarily. He is currently an inmate at Corcoran State Prison.
Albert Fish (Killings between 1919 and 1930)
Albert Fish was America’s most vile pedophile, serial killer and cannibal. He is known by many names; Gray Man, Brooklyn Vampire, The Boogeyman and the Werewolf of Wysteria. He was a gentle-looking, benevolent grandfather, a total contrast to the monster within him. His wife considered him a wonderful husband and his children believed he was a model father. Some of his crimes seem unbelievable.
Hamy Fish (his birth name) was born in Washington D.C. He was the youngest of four. Several of his family members had mental health problems. After his father’s death, he was put in an orphanage by his mother and he was whipped at the orphanage frequently and that is when he began to realize that he enjoyed physical pain and felt aroused. Then he entered into homosexual relationships at the age of 12 and was introduced to other perverse practices of drinking urine and coprophagia. His weekends were spent visiting public baths to watch boys undress. This led to male prostitution and this continued even after his marriage and six children.
Turning into a Psycho-Masochist
He also developed an unusual interest in castration and visited brothels where he got himself whipped and beaten. He pushed needles into his body, including in his private parts. X-rays later revealed 27 needles inside him. It was at the age of 55 that he started experiencing hallucinations and believed God ordered him to castrate young boys. This was diagnosed as religious psychosis and is what led to the several mutiliations and murders.
Killings and Sentence
Although, he was a suspect in five killings, he stated that he “had” around 100 children in all states. Nobody knew whether he was talking about cannibalization or molestation. He was executed on an electric chair.
Herman Webster Mudgett – Dr. Holmes (Killings between 1893 and 1895)
His criminal career started as a medical student who stole corpses from the University of Michigan and using those corpses to collect insurance money taken under ficticious names. He then started a drug store empire and constructed a huge hundred-room mansion with trap doors, lime pits, fake walls, acid vats and secret entrances.
He would rent rooms to visitors and then try and collect the insurance. He also used lure women to his “torture castle,” promising marriage and would then throw them down the elevator shaft and gas them to death, but before that he would force them to sign all their life savings over to him.
Herman was born in New Hampshire and his father was very strict and often bullied his son. He had a well-known fear of the local doctor’s office and due to this, other students in his school would often force him to touch human skeletons. What was meant to be a scare turned out to be a fascination, which led to him stealing corpses while in medical school. He started using the name “H.H. Holmes” after moving to Chicago and got engaged in a lot of shady activities. He is also a bigamist and married a second time and a third time, while still married to the first wife. He was known to be a charmer and a ladies’ man.
His huge castle with secret passages had a drugstore and other shops on the ground floor and the upper offices were used for his office. There were more than a hundred rooms without windows and doorways that opened into brick walls, stairways to nowhere, doors that could not be opened from the inside and several other such rooms. This was to become his killing den.
It was here that the killing spree unearthed over a period of three horrible years. Female victims were mostly his employees who were required to take a life insurance policy and Holmes would pay the premiums. Soundproof rooms with gas lines fitted in were used to kill people. These victims were asphyxiated and their screams went unnoticed and they suffocated. There was a chute that took the bodies to the basement, where some bodies were dissected, flesh removed and created into skeleton models. He sold these skeletons and other organs to medical schools. He also performed illegal abortions in the castle and many of his patients died.
Eventually police grew suspicious about the activities in the castle and when he knew he was getting caught, he burnt the castle and vanished. Remains of more than two hundred people were found in the burnt debris. He was caught later and hanged to death.
Coral Eugene Watts – (Killings between 1974 and 1982)
He was the first known serial killer in the nation’s history to have legally acquired immunity and at one point it even looked as if he would be released in 2006, in spite of having committed between 80-100 murders. When a detective said that he did not have enough fingers and toes to count all the murders he committed, Watts replied that there were not enough fingers and toes in the room. (There were four men in the room).
Usually serial killers are said to kill people of their own race; however, Watts, who was an African American, killed whites mostly. He admitted to killing females because he saw evil in their eyes. He drowned women in a bathtub in order to prevent the spirit from escaping. He was not caught for many years because he killed in different jurisdictions and different states. DNA tests also did not prove anything because he did not dally with his victims, unlike other serial killers.
Watts would drive a couple of hours to commit his murders. He stalked women in his car, park ahead of them, get out of the car and approach them. He killed females between the ages of 14 and 34, by strangulation, drowning and stabbing, and at times also used tools and other metal objects.
He started killing at the age of 20 but did not rape them, and some of his murders occurred without him touching the women. For him, the thrill came from the hunt and attack.
Watts’ parents divorced when he was two and he lived with his mother and step-father. He was said to act weird when he was a kid. He was never good at academics but excelled in boxing. He started having dreams when he was 12, and they always revolved around killing women. In his dreams, he would punch their evil spirits and usually fell off his bed. When asked by psychiatrists later whether these dreams disturbed him, he said, “No, I feel better after having them.”
These dreams slowly turned into reality and he started watching, stalking and looking into the women’s eyes to find evil. By the age of 15, he began hitting and choking them. Ultimately, this was not enough to hurt those women, and he had to kill.
Killings and Sentence
Due to lack of enough evidence of murder, a plea bargain granted immunity from murder if he confessed to his murders and gave details. Due to this and his good behavior, Watts could have been released in 2006. However, after Watts confessed to about 80 murders, the Michigan authorities refused to go in with the deal and got witnesses to come out and speak of a couple of murders. Watts was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. However, he died of prostate cancer in the year 2007.
Richard Angelo (Killings between April 1987 and October 1987)
He was a killer with a different mindset from all others. He made the entire nation scared of hospitals. The desire to be a hero in others eyes made him a monster. He was 26 when he went to work at the Good Samaritan Hospital on Long Island in New York. He was a former Eagle Scout and always did good things for others.
His inability to achieve the level of praise he always desired made him a dangerous serial killer of a totally different kind.
He took advantage of the graveyard shift at the hospital to satisfy his desires. He would inject Pavulon and Anectine into patients and bring them to a near-death state. He would tell them that he was giving them drugs that would make them feel better. After injecting these drugs, the patients begin feeling numb and their breathing became constricted. They also lost their ability to communicate with the doctors and nurses. Then he would show his heroism by helping to save his victims, impressing everyone in the hospital. Death came upon many of these patients as he was unable to intervene and save them from his deadly injections.
He was a former boy scout and always wanted to be a hero. He was always said to crave for attention from his parents and everyone else around him.
Killings and Sentence
He is said to have killed 25 people and was caught when one of his victims managed to use the call button for assistance after being injected by Angelo. One of the nurses then took his urine sample and the test proved positive for drugs, Anectine and Pavulon, which have not been prescribed by the doctors. All the bodies of suspected victims were tested and found positive for drugs.
Angelo confessed and said, “I had no confidence in myself. I felt very inadequate.”
He was charged for second-degree murder on multiple counts and sentenced to 61 years to life imprisonment. He is currently in the Clinton Correctional Facility in New York.
Andrew Cunanan (Killings between April 1997 and July 1997)
Andrew Phillip Cunanan, a softspoken intellect who had a flair for languages and discussed world affairs, was a handsome, lavish and boastful young man who associated himself only with the social elite. He earned many dubious distinctions; one is of killing the famous fashion designer, Gianni Versace and the other is being listed by the FBI on their Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. He was the first person from San Diego to get into (un)prestigious list.
There was no modus operandi detected as such. In the beginning he killed his former lovers who he felt were having an affair behind his back. The others that were killed may also have had connections with him, but nobody knows for sure. They were killed differently with different weapons.
He was born in National City in California and was a homosexual ever since high school and known for his erratic ways. He graduated in the year 1987. He was also said to be a lover for older and wealthy gay men. His mother called him a “high-class homosexual prostitute;” however, his father denied his homosexuality, calling him “an altar boy” who has a good Catholic upbringing.
It is said that in homosexual circles, once a person crosses mid-20s, he is considered old. When Andrew turned 28, he was deserted by his wealthy lovers. He was left to pay off credit cards which exceeded limits, and this left him broke. He stopped taking care of his usually very trendy appearance and gained lots of weight.
In this situation, he suffered another emotion – jealousy, when he spotted two of his young lovers seeing each other behind his back. Another thing that bothered him was the fact that both of them had achieved great heights professionally and he remained stagnant. The jealousy grew to such an extent that he eventually went to visit them and killed both of them, just days apart. That’s when the killings began.
Killings and Sentence
One of his victims was Gianni Versace, the Italian designer. FBI found Andrew, as he left his name signed on the pavement in front of Gianni’s house. FBI felt that it was his way of craving for attention, saying “Look at me. I’m the one that did this.” He led authorities on a massive manhunt for his killings. He killed himself eight days after killing Gianni Versace by shooting himself, obviously to avoid capture.
What you have witnessed here is just a fragment of the huge territory occupied by the savage and sadistic minds who have transformed this from a monstrous anomaly into an everyday horror. These mythic monsters capture the attention of the entire nation and end up as scary household names.
Looking into the psyche of a serial killer, doctors say that every individual develops positive attitude towards life and people in the early years of life, and this attitude is rendered negative with abuse, physical and emotional. By “abuse” it also means refusal to acknowledge the boundaries of an individual – excessive expectations, possessiveness, doting – are also as abusive as incest and beating.
Researchers attempting to understand how the fantasy warps the serial killer’s mind say that bizarre fantasies thrive in isolation and eventually they feel the need to live out their fantasies. They dwell on the murder act for days before the act, completely caught in their fantasy, but they find that even murder never fulfills the fantasy and this leads to the serial nature of murder. Many of these serial killers also keep souvenirs of their crime, which helps refuel the fantasy.