Serial killers are not the same as mass murderers who commit multiple murders at one time; nor are they spree killers who commit murders in two or more locations with virtually no break in between.
A serial killer is typically defined as a person who murders three or more people over a period of more than 30 days, seemingly in a random fashion. However, all of the killer’s victims often share a common trait. These victims have usually activated some psychological trigger in the killer’s mind, or they may share similar physical appearances to someone in the killer’s past.
Many serial killers are found to have come from dysfunctional families. Often, they suffer from complex emotions such as inadequacy or worthlessness, all the while proving their superiority through violence.
Ironically, these damaged people, who often feel invisible, become infamous through their brutal acts – proving that they do hold some power over us… even if it’s born of fear.
12. Albert Fish – Gray Man
Number of murders: 5—100
Period of killings: 1919—1930
One of America’s most vile pedophile/serial killers/cannibal, Albert Fish 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.
Hamy Fish (his birth name) was born in Washington D.C., the youngest of four children. After his father’s death, his mother put him in an orphanage where he was whipped frequently. That’s said to be when he realized he enjoyed physical pain and was aroused by it. At the age of 12, he explored homosexuality as well as perverse practices like 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.
Fish also developed an unusual interest in castration and visited brothels where he got himself whipped and beaten. He liked to insert 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 Fish started experiencing hallucinations. He believed God ordered him to castrate young boys. This was diagnosed as religious psychosis and is what led to the mutilations and murders he committed.
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 cannibalism or molestation. He was executed by electric chair in 1936.
11. Belle Sorenson Gunness – The Lonely Hearts Killer
Number of murders: 49
Period of killings: 1900—1908
Bell Sorenson Gunness 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 was said to have died mysteriously. 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, at which point she collected another insurance payment.
Over the next few years, through the placement of matrimonial ads in newspapers, other men came into her life. Several hopefuls traveled to La Porte carrying their life savings with them. She would then drug them and cut them up, wrap them up in oilskin and bury them at her farm. She killed several of her husbands, ranch workers and adopted children.
In 1908, Gunness’ farmhouse caught fire and burned to the ground. When it was put out, many butchered bodies were found around her property – the heads cut off, arms removed and legs sawed off at the thigh. The remains of several people — men, children, and even a woman — were discovered inside the burned-out barn.
The children were identified as hers, and the woman was assumed to be Gunness herself, although there was no head for identification. When her ranch hand and lover was arrested, he claimed that he had helped Belle fake her own death and run away. Regardless, she was officially presumed dead.
In total, Belle Sorenson Gunness was said to have killed 49 people.
10. Carl Eugene Watts – The Sunday Morning Slasher
Number of murders: 80—100
Period of killings: 1974—1982
Serial killers are said to kill people of their own race; however, African American Carl Eugene killed mostly whites. He admitted to drowning over 80 women – claiming he saw evil in their eyes and wanted to prevent their spirits from escaping.
Watts, whose killing spree started at the age of 20, was not caught for eight years. He was finally arrested for breaking and entering and attempted murder. At that time, investigators began to suspect him of a string of recent local murders. However, there was very little evidence to prove it. He was offered a plea bargain granting him immunity from those murders if he confessed and gave details.
After Watts confessed to about 80 murders (insinuating there were more), the Michigan authorities changed their minds about the deal and gathered enough evidence off the confession to convict him of murder. Watts was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. He died of prostate cancer in 2007.
9. Andrei Chikatilo – The Butcher of Rostov
Number of murders: 53
Period of killings: Late 1978—1990
Russia’s most feared serial killer murdered most of his female and child victims in the Ukrainian town of Rostov. Known as Butcher of Rostov, The Red Ripper or The Rostov Ripper, Andrei Chikatilo would mutilate his victims – sometimes with only his teeth.
He was coaxed into confessing under the promise that he could plead insanity. After confessing to 56 murders, he was declared legally sane by the prison psychiatrist. He was convicted of the highest number of serial killings in modern Russian history and executed by firing squad at Novocherkassk prison on February 16, 1994.
8. Jeffrey Dahmer – The Monster
Number of murders: 15+
Period of killings: 1978—1991
Jeffrey Dahmer was a serial killer who operated in Milwaukee, murdering boys of Asian and African descent. His murders were gruesome and involved torture, forced sodomy, dismemberment, necrophilia and cannibalism.
He committed his first murder at the age of 18 in 1978. Initially, Dahmer killed sporadically, sometimes years would pass between murders. But by 1991, he was murdering one victim every week.
The police caught Dahmer that year when a would-be victim escaped and alerted them. He was held responsible for 15 murders. He pled not guilty by reason of insanity, but after a two week trial, he was found guilty and sane and was sentenced to 15 life terms.
Dahmer later expressed remorse for his actions and wished death upon himself. He was beaten to death by a fellow inmate and died of severe head trauma in 1994.
7. Gary Ridgeway – The Green River Killer
Number of murders: 90+
Period of killings: 1982—1984
Gary Ridgeway, better known as “The Green River Killer,” is the United States’ most prolific serial killer.
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, who had the habit of raping and strangling his victims, then finding a landmark and leaving a group of dead bodies in “clusters.” Driving by these clusters and remembering them gave him a high.
Ridgeway’s death toll reached 26 victims when the “Green River Taskforce” was formed in 1984. They worked tirelessly to find the killer. They even enlisted the help of another serial killer, Ted Bundy (who was on death row).
Ridgeway was arrested in 2001, and again in 2003, and pled guilty to 48 charges (but claimed to have killed 71 women). A controversial plea bargain spared his life in exchange for helping to locate the remains of all his victims. This created a lot of controversy, as many people believed that a person who murdered so many people should receive the death sentence.
Ridgeway was sentenced to 48 life sentences and is currently incarcerated in Washington at the Washington State Penitentiary.
6. Luis Garavito – La Bestia
Number of murders: 138-300+
Period of killings: 1990s
The most prolific serial killer of all time, Luis Garavito, was the child-murderer, torture-killer and rapist known as “La Bestia” a.k.a. “The Beast.” The native of Colombia was convicted of killing 138 victims but is suspected of murdering over 300 people, mostly street children. He would coax them with gifts or money, gain their trust, take them for a walk, and take advantage of them once they got tired.
Captured in 1999, Garavito was sentenced to over 1,853 years in prison, but because of Colombian legal restrictions, could only be imprisoned for 30 of them. His sentence was reduced to 22 years after helping investigators find the bodies.
5. David Berkowitz – Son of Sam
Number of murders: 6
Period of killings: 1976—1977
Between 1976 and 1977, David Berkowitz, known at the time only as “Son of Sam,” killed six people and wounded many others. His crimes became famous because of his letters to the media and police – in addition to the reason for his crimes. Berkowitz claimed he was plagued by demons. In order to quiet them, he started doing what they wanted. He claimed howling dogs were the voices of these demons, and that they were asking him to kill women.
He was convinced that his landlord was part of the demon conspiracy as well as the commander in chief of all the dogs. He moved into a new apartment only to find out his new neighbor, Sam Carr, had a black Labrador, which Berkowitz believed was possessed. He shot the dog. That did not provide any relief, and he started to believe perhaps Satan himself possessed Sam Carr. Each night these demons told Berkowitz to kill and quench their thirst for blood.
Berkowitz, who admitted to killing six people over this two-year period, 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 because of his failure with women. He has been denied parole five times. His next hearing is slated for May 2012.
4. John Wayne Gacy – The Killer Clown
Number of murders: 40
Period of killings: 1974—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 clown at children’s parties, John Wayne Gacy seemed as normal as they come – even though he would go on to murder 40 young boys.
Gacy’s modus operandi was to lure his victims into handcuffs with the pretext of showing them a trick he used in his clown act. He’d then dare the victim to free himself. Once the boys were handcuffed, he would use either a rope or a board across their throats to kill them while he raped them.
After a six-year killing spree, Gacy was arrested. He told police, “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. Jack 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 by lethal injection on May 10, 1994. His last meal consisted of fried chicken, Coke, french fries and strawberry shortcake. His last words: “Kiss my ass.”
3. Ted Bundy
Number of murders: 40
Period of killings: 1974—1978
One of the most infamous serial killers in American history, Ted Bundy (born Theodore Robert Cowell) was handsome, charming and cultured — all tools he used to rape and murder numerous young women across the country. He even engaged in necrophilia.
Although Bundy was next on the police’s “To Be Investigated” list, it was a traffic stop that led police to him. Bundy was convicted of killing 23 young women, yet he confessed to 40 murders. He was executed by electric chair in Florida in 1989.
2. Edward ‘Ed’ Gein
Number of murders: 15
Period of killings: 1947—1957
One of history’s most gruesome killers, Ed Gein inspired characters for many films including Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs. Gein was known to skin his victims, exhume corpses, and decorate his home with parts of his victims’ bodies. Human skin was used to make dustbins, furniture, and even clothes.
Born in 1906, the younger of two boys, Ed had a weak alcoholic father and a domineering mother who was deeply religious. She taught him about immorality and the evils of women and sex – discouraging his sexual desires. Not surprisingly, he turned into an effeminate and shy boy.
After the death of his mother, 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 he needed fresh bodies for a full sex change and thus began his killing spree.
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, 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.
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.” He was admitted to Waupan State Hospital and died of cancer at the age of 78.
1. Jack the Ripper
Number of murders: 5
Period of killings: 1888
The most famous serial killer of all, Jack the Ripper, murdered five prostitutes in the Whitechapel area of east London. The victims’ throats were cut prior to abdominal mutilations.
The removal of internal organs from at least three of the victims led to proposals that their killer possessed anatomical or surgical knowledge. In fact, during his killing spree, the killer sent a letter to the media (later known as the ‘From Hell’ letter) along with a half-preserved human kidney.
Prime suspects included Polish barber Severin Klosowski, also known as George Chapman, and Montague Druitt, an unsuccessful barrister, who committed suicide within weeks of the Ripper’s last killing. Despite huge police resources being thrown at the case, nobody was ever caught.
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Actually, Bestia is not the most prolific serial killer of all time. That particular title belongs to a woman. Countess Erzabet (Elizabeth) Bathory killed 665 young women in her quest for eternal youth. She began killing her servants and when she could not longer obtain young women from the surrounding villages, she went after a noble’s daughter. That led to the king saying ‘enough’. She spent the rest of her life walled up in a tower with only a gap to allow in food.
We also have Gil de Reis who may have killed upward of 400 young boys.