Serial killers — you’d be hard-pressed to spot them in a crowd. They look just like everyone else. In fact, most of them are soft-spoken and polite. Their monstrous nature comes through only when you delve deeper into 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 or verbally. It’s as if this activates some psychological trigger in their minds, increasing the feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness, and causing them to seek out their own heinous form of release.
There have been hundreds of serial killers in the history of America, and there are a few that tend to stay in the minds of citizens, becoming “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 more famous killers that truly shocked us.
Ed Gein (Killings between 1947 and 1957)
Known as history’s most inspirational killer, his character became a central element in many films, including Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Psycho and the character of Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, among others.
Gein was a serial killer who skinned his victims, exhumed corpses, and decorated his home with parts of his victims’ bodies. Human skin was used to make dust bins, furniture, and even clothes.
Gein was born in 1906 as the younger 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.
His father died as a result of his alcoholism and later his brother Henry, who used to criticize his mother about Gein’s unhealthy attachment to her, died in a mysterious fire. The younger boy was later suspected.
With nobody to control him after his mother passed away, Gein became obsessed with sexual fantasies and female anatomy. Fascinated by the human experiments performed in Nazi camps, he started robbing graves to perform experiments of his own, including exhuming his own mother’s body. The experiments became gruesome and cannibalistic. He had the desire to turn himself into a woman and would create breasts out of human skin and drape them over himself. 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 a variety of gruesome sights — hanging corpses with their throats and heads missing, bowls made of skulls, pieces of jewelry made of human skin, hanging lips, skin upholstery for chairs, and masks made of facial skin and vulva (including his mother’s) that were painted silver. The most shocking discovery was perhaps his mother’s heart, which was found in a pan on the stove.
Killings and Sentence
Police counted 15 women as his victims. 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)
Ted Bundy proved that even the devil can be attractive. Bundy was one of the most infamous serial killers in American history. He was handsome, charming and cultured, all traits playing a role in his ability to rape and murder numerous young women. He even engaged in necrophilia (sexual attraction or involvement with corpses).
Bundy had unique techniques of luring his victims. He would drink alcohol before approaching potential victims, even in a crowd or in 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 old. Many of his victims are said to have a physical resemblance to his first girlfriend.
Bundy was born Theodore Robert Cowell in 1946 in Burlington, Vermont to an unmarried mother of 22. He gets his name from his stepfather. He was made to believe by his grandparents that he was their son and that his mother was actually his sister.
He was a good student, and like most young people devastated when his first love left him. Bundy didn’t deal with the grief as most people do though. He spent years trying to get her back, and 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 after confessing 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, in addition to the reason he committed these crimes.
Reason for Killing
Berkowitz gave an odd reason for killing – he claimed that 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 which Berkowitz believed was possessed. 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 letters to the police and media, essentially taunting them with details of his killings.
David Berkowitz, born 1953, was an adopted son of a middle class family in the 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 relocated to Florida, leaving him behind when he was 18.
Later he found out that his natural mother was alive and that he had a sister. There was a reunion, butit was too late for him by then as he preferred his isolation and delusions.
Killings and Sentence
Berkowitz received a 365 year prison sentence and told the FBI that he invented the “Son of Sam” stories to convince the court that he was out of his mind. He then said the real reason he killed was partly because he hated his mother for leaving him and partly 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 seemed 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. He’d then dare the youth to free themselves. Once the boys were handcuffed, he would use either 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. Gacy deeply loved his father and strived to please him, but failed.
He had the ability to persuade an manipulate people, likely because of how normal and harmless he seemed on the outside. He later got married and had two kids of his own, but his wife left him when he was arrested for trying to coerce a fellow employee into homosexual acts.
Another thing to note is that he injured his head by falling off a swing when he was 11 years old. He suffered from blackouts until he was 16, and then 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” (similar to multiple personalities) — one was a contractor, another a clown, one a politician, and the fourth went by the name Jack Hanley, and he 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 their limbs), necrophilia, and cannibalism.
He was arrested first when caught fondling a 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. That’s 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 he had a fascination with dissecting dead animals. By the time he was a teenager, he was an alcoholic and a loner. He dropped out of college and his father forced him to enlist in the Army. 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 himself 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, 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 — Gary Ridgway.
The Green River Killer 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 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.
The killings continued and police couldn’t find a clue, so the “Green River Taskforce” was formed in 1984. The death toll had 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 was born in 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 she was never pleased with what he did. Ridgway’s IQ was 80, which signified a slight mental deficiency. He had a troubled adolescence and stabbed a six-year-old kid when he was 16. He always had an obsession with prostitutes.
He was married for fourteen years and he managed two totally different identities: one the life of a wonderful husband going on romantic vacations, and the other of the infamous 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 spared him execution in exchange for helping to locate the remains of all of those women by providing details. This created a lot of controversy as many people believed that a person who murdered so many people should not be spared the death sentence.
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)
Unlike many other female killers, Gunness didn’t poison her victims — she slaughtered them. She 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 wasn’t suspected. After moving to La Porte with the rest of her children, she married Peter Gunness who died after just nine months. She collected another insurance payment. Over the next few years, other men that came into her life vanished without trace.
She became famous for being a black widow — 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 at 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 in Stoersetgjerdet in Norway. One story goes that she got pregnant with a man and he kicked her in her stomach in public causing her to lose her child. He disappeared soon after. According to her sister, Belle was said to be crazy for money.
In 1908, Gunness’ farmhouse caught fire and burned to the ground. When it was put out, the remains of several people were discovered — men, children, and even a woman. The children were identified as hers. The woman was assumed to be Gunness herself, although there was no head. It was thought she died in that fire.
Many butchered bodies were found around her property, carved like turkeys. The heads were cut off, arms removed, and legs sawed off at the thigh.
Despite the assumption that she died, her ranch hand and lover, Lamphere, claimed that he helped Belle fake her own death and run away when he was arrested. Officially, she was presumed 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. She left him with his aunt or grandmother most of the time. She was arrested on armed robbery charges and sent to a penitentiary, leaving Manson to live with his aunt and uncle. Even after she was released, his mother didn’t want the responsibility of looking after him. She was even willing to trade him for a drink. His father was never in the scene from his birth.
Manson turned out to be a troublemaker himself, and he was sent to a reform school at the age of nine. By the time he was 26, he was charged with rape, drug charges, stealing, pimping, and more.
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. Manson focused on an Armageddon, where the blacks would rise to power and kill all whites and the Manson family would be the only white family living. He felt the blacks wouldn’t be able to stay in power because of an inferiority complex and that the Manson family would then rule the world.
When this did not happen, he started having people killed by his “family” members.
Killings and Sentence
His first murder was that of Sharon Tate, wife of director Roman Polanski. 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 may have been 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 and 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. as the youngest of four children. 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. That’s said to be when he began to realize that he enjoyed physical pain and felt aroused by it. 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, which continued even after his marriage and the births of his 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 his genitalia. X-rays later revealed a total of 27 needles inside him.
It was at the age of 55 that he started experiencing hallucinations. He believed God ordered him to castrate young boys. This was diagnosed as religious psychosis and is what led to the several mutilations and murders he committed.
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)
Mudgett’s criminal career started as a medical student who stole corpses from the University of Michigan. He used those corpses to collect insurance money on policies taken under fictitious 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 when they were killed there. He also used to lure women to his “torture castle,” promising marriage. He would then throw them down the elevator shaft and gas them to death. But before he did 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, often bullying his son. He had a well-known fear of the local doctor’s office and because of 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, 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 areas were used as his office. There were more than a hundred rooms without windows, and there were doorways that opened into brick walls. There were also stairways to nowhere, doors that could not be opened from the inside and several other such oddities. This was to become his killing den.
It was here that the killing spree sprouted over a period of three horrible years. Female victims were mostly his employees who were required to take a life insurance policy where 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 as they suffocated. There was a chute that took the bodies to the basement, where some bodies were dissected, flesh removed and turned into skeletal 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 charred debris. He was later caught and hanged.
Richard Angelo (Killings between April 1987 and October 1987)
Angelo 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 tried to do good things and help 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 states. 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.
Angelo was a former boy scout and always wanted to be a hero. He was 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. One of the nurses then took his urine sample and the test proved positive for the drugs, Anectine and Pavulon, which had 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 soft-spoken intellect who had a flair for languages and discussing world affairs, was a handsome, lavish and boastful young man who associated himself only with the social elite. He earned many dubious distinctions. One was for 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 onto the “prestigious” list.
There was no modus operandi discovered for Cunanan. 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 and with different weapons.
Cunanan was born in National City, California and was a homosexual since high school. He was known for his erratic ways. He graduated in 1987. He was also rumored to be a lover to 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 a lot of weight.
At this point another emotion reared its ugly head — jealousy. 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 reached great heights professionally while he remained stagnant.
The jealousy grew to such an extent that he eventually went to visit them, killing both of them just days apart from each other, beginning his life as a serial killer.
Killings and Sentence
One of his victims was Gianni Versace, the Italian designer. The FBI found Andrew, as he left his name signed on the pavement in front of Gianni’s house. The FBI felt that it was his way of trying to get 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. He shot himself to avoid capture.
What you have witnessed here is just a fragment of the world of savage and sadistic minds who have transformed this act of murder from a monstrous anomaly into an everyday horror. These mythic monsters capture the attention of the entire nation and end up as terrifying household names.
Looking into the psyche of a serial killer, doctors say that every individual develops positive attitude towards life and people in their early years, and this attitude is rendered negative with abuse — physical and emotional. That abuse can also come in the form of refusal to acknowledge the boundaries of an individual through excessive expectations, possessiveness, and doting, all of which are as abusive as incest or beatings.
Researchers attempting to understand how fantasies warp the serial killer’s mind say that bizarre fantasies thrive in isolation and eventually the killers feel the need to live them out. They dwell on the murder act for days before committing it, completely caught up in their fantasy. But they find that even murder never fulfills the fantasy completely, and this leads to the serial nature of their crime — always looking for satisfaction they never actually find. Many of these serial killers also keep souvenirs of their crime which helps refuel the fantasy.