If you’re looking for the perfect gift for someone who’s riveted to television shows like CSI, you won’t find a better one than Dr. Katherine Ramland’s latest book, THE HUMAN PREDATOR: A Historical Chronicle of Serial Murder and Forensic Investigation (Berkley Hardcover; Oct. 4, 2005). It’s an extraordinarily well-researched book, written in a flowing, easy-to-understand style. You’ll not only learn about serial murder but also the historical background of forensic science in its response to this phenomenon.
Some 25 years ago, a terrifying creature burst into our consciousness: the serial killer, who looked just like you and me, appeared normal much of the time, but killed repeatedly for no apparent reason. Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy and the Green River Killer became household names. People started to look with a new apprehension at the next door neighbors, the postman, and the grocery store clerk. It was a new form of psychological terrorism.
And suddenly they seemed to pop up everywhere. The 1980s proved to be an important milestone in the chronology of serial murder, and Dr. Ramsland wrote this astounding statistic: during the ‘80s throughout the world, “a serial killer was caught, suspected, or in clear operation at some point on an average of one every three days.” Either serial killers were proliferating or police were becoming more adept at identifying them. The media coverage soon focused on the problem, helping to create an industry that includes scores of books and movies about serial killers.
Yet despite the enormous public interest in serial killers, there are still widely held misperceptions. For example, there’s a tendency to think of their emergence as comparatively recent phenomenon, composed primarily of white American males in their twenties and thirties, and that Jack the Ripper was the first one. Ramsland proves the error of these beliefs, as she uncovers serial killers of both sexes in every age group, in every era, and on every continent. Astonishingly, one is ten years old. And she’s female!
In all likelihood, serial killers may have always been among us, but the earliest documented offender was Locusta, a female poisoner who enjoyed the protection of Nero until she fell from favor and was executed in a particularly brutal fashion: She was torn apart by wild animals.
THE HUMAN PREDATOR is the first book-length chronicle of the serial killer from ancient Rome to the present day, and it becomes clear that cultural factors influence their manifestation. While not every killer could be included, lest the book become encyclopedic, key cases from different time periods are analyzed for the “specific cultural conditions, individual processing of those conditions, and opportunity” that affected that criminal’s development. In the Dark Ages, for example, wealthy nobles like French hero Gilles de Rais and the Countess Elizabeth Bathory made Jack the Ripper look like a Boy Scout.
Threaded throughout this absorbing narrative is how both science and psychology evolved alongside the history of the serial killer, providing not only the tools to catch these criminals but a growing understanding of their psyche. It is surprising how early these forensic sciences began to develop. For example, in 1247, a Chinese lawyer produced the first work of forensic science, which included instructions on how to tell the difference between a suicide, homicide and natural death. Even the word “forensic” is from the Latin, meaning “before the forum.” At the more recent end of the spectrum, the U.S. has led the development of a body of knowledge about serial killers, mostly through the FBI’s legendary Behavioral Science Unit (now Behavioral Analysis Unit) that played a key role in the most famous serial killer movie, The Silence of the Lambs. Ramsland knows firsthand the pioneering contributions of this important group of profilers, John Douglas, Robert Ressler and Roy Hazelwood, having written about and with them.
There are startling facts in this book as well. While the growing body of knowledge about serial murder is thought to be the province of law enforcement, Ramsland makes the frightening observation that serial killers study one another by reading the many books and articles that become increasingly available: They learn from the mistakes that caused other serial killers to get caught. That means that to catch the clever ones, law enforcement must refine its methods and procedures. The good news is that forensic science is making strides that even the smartest killers can’t yet fathom.
Importantly, at least to Americans, Ramsland dispels the myth that the U.S. is home to an overwhelming percentage of the world’s serial killers. In fact, there are serial killers wherever there are people, but many societies are not yet proficient at identifying them (and some under-report them). In her chronicle, she points out cases all over the world and from every continent, but also explains in language the layman can readily grasp the societal and psychological context in which they have operated. This book is unique in the field. For anyone interested in either forensic science and psychology or serial murder, this book is unique in the field a must-have.