How long have serial killers been around? And why do they exert such a powerful, baleful influence on us all?
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by Chris Summers 2 August 2018
Even before Jack The Ripper – probably still the most famous of his kind – serial killers were in our midst, luring victims and creating ripples of fear in polite society.
Ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt were all plagued by the phenomenon with poisoning one of the most common ways of dispatching victims and in the 15th century a French knight, Gilles de Rais, was hanged for torturing, raping and murdering more than 140 children.
The first female serial killer was Hungarian noblewoman Elizabeth Bathory, the so-called Blood Countess, who tortured a number of servant girls to death in her home – Čachtice Castle in what is now Slovakia – before being caught in 1610.
In the 19th century Jack The Ripper’s crimes filled the pages of British newspapers while on the other side of the Atlantic the public were mesmerised by murders carried out by Herman Webster Mudgett, better known as HH Holmes.
Holmes, who was executed in 1896, had committed many of his crimes at a hotel in Chicago which he bought and transformed into a “Murder Castle”, complete with soundproofed rooms, secret passages and a maze of hallways and staircases.
The term “serial killer” was coined in the 1970s by the FBI’s Robert Ressler, the father of “offender profiling”, and it caught on quickly.
By then there had been many notorious serial killers in the US – the Boston Strangler, Zodiac Killer in California – and many others around the world – John Christie in London, the Moors Murderers in Manchester, Bible John in Scotland and Peter Kürten, the Vampire of Dusseldorf, in Germany.
Ressler spoke to dozens of serial killers during his FBI career and in 1993 wrote a book, Whoever Fights Monsters, in which he described what he had learned by studying them.
But he almost did not survive to write the book after an encounter with California serial killer and cannibal Ed Kemper.
Ressler was locked in a cell with Kemper, who was six feet nine inches tall and weighed almost 18 stone (250 pounds) and had been jailed for life for murdering and decapitating ten victims in California.
When the interview was over Ressler pressed the buzzer to be let out but no guard appeared.
“If I went apeshit in here, you’d be in a lot of trouble, wouldn’t you? I could screw your head off and place on the table to greet the guard,” Kemper told him, getting up to tower over him as if to emphasise the point.
But Kemper, who had an IQ of 145, was only playing with him and Ressler lived to tell the tale.
In his book Ressler described the differences between “organised” and “disorganised” serial killers.
The first category would be intelligent, socially skilled, sexually competent, usually lived with a partner, targeted strangers and showed anti-social and psychopathic personality traits.
Classic examples include Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, Fred West and also Dennis Rader, the BTK Killer in Kansas, who sent taunting messages to the police (pictured, left).
They would plan their killings in advance and usually hide the bodies or hide any evidence that could be traced back to them.
Disorganised killers were the polar opposite – usually of low intelligence, socially and sexually inept, loners who showed signs of severe mental illness and had often been physically or sexually abused as a child.
Examples would include the US serial killers Ottis Toole and Henry Lee Lucas (pictured, below).
While serial killers have not changed a great deal since the 1970s or 80s the police’s forensic armoury has improved.
There is now DNA, CCTV footage, mobile phone cellsite evidence and a range of other weapons which the police can unleash against serial killers.
But that does not make the “killer on the loose” any less frightening.
In November 2006 women began vanishing off the streets of the English town of Ipswich.
They were prostitutes and often drug addicts and their bodies would turn up in streams or fields a few miles from where they were last seen.
As a journalist I arrived in Ipswich just as the body of the third victim, Anneli Alderton, 24, was discovered in a field at Nacton.
I remember interviewing women in the town centre and they were terrified.
Although they were not prostitutes, nobody felt safe and few women were venturing out after dark.
Two weeks later Steve Wright, a fork-lift truck driver whose girlfriend worked nightshifts, was arrested and charged with the murder of all five women.
He was later jailed for life and Ipswich’s streets were safe to walk again.