Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

What Makes Serial Killers Tick?

Early Killers: How Did They Explain Their Evil?

The Baron Gilles de Rais

This15th century French aristocrat murdered hundreds of peasant children. Gilles blithely declared that torturing the innocent was "entirely for my own pleasure and physical delight, and for no other intention or end." Gilles was unbelievably bold in gathering victims — he would send servants out to round up children and haul them back to his castle, as if he were collecting his rightful harvest from the peasant population. Why would a military hero and companion to Joan of Arc torture children? Gilles' excuse is precociously modern — he blamed his parents. They didn't physically abuse him, however; the monstrous aristocrat whined that he was the hapless victim of their amoral attitudes. While lax parenting doesn't sound like a familiar prerequisite for today's serial killer, it was an arch offense by Medieval standards — one had to be a diligent guard against the Devil's cunning ways. As a child Gilles said evil descended "when I was left uncontrolled to do whatever I pleased and to take pleasure in illicit acts."

Was Gilles de Rais the sole sadistic multiple murderer of his era, or were there others who used more discretion, choosing victims who were less likely to be missed? It is impossible to say. Some, like Elliott Leyton, argue that "the curious phenomenon of the murder of strangers is extremely rare in so-called 'primitive' societies," and that it is primarily in "modern, industrializing societies that stranger-murder becomes a major homicidal theme. "We can only speculate. It can be said, however, that the major archetype of the serial sex slayer emerged in the grimy, gaslit streets of industrialized 19th century London.

Jack the Ripper

Jack the Ripper's infamous Whitechapel murders baffled the police and terrorized London. As the first sensationalized serial killer, the Ripper became the prototype of the lust murderer. The mystery of his identity paralleled the mystery of his motive. Nothing like this was seen before — why would anyone go lurking in the dead of night, eviscerating poverty-stricken prostitutes? Clearly the Ripper was insane, thought the police. They explored the insane asylums, looking for a raving, woman-hating madman. Crazed immigrants, lunatic butchers, and even syphillis-ridden royalty were suspect. Most believed Jack the Ripper had to be an immigrant (Americans were a favorite suspicion) because no Englishman would commit such horrid crimes. The Ripper's bladework had some speculating he was a deranged doctor. In any case, as the insane asylums were searched and suspicious whispers echoed in respectable bourgeois homes, it became clear that the Ripper could be anyone. The uncivilized monster behind Victorian society's prim veneer had acted out in the ugliest of deeds.

Popular Explanations

In the 19th century, civilization stopped looking to the Devil as the sole force behind violent, sadistic behavior. Instead, scientists and writers began searching for the beast within. As Fred Botting points out, the inhuman was now seen as "in-human". Darwin's theories on evolution bridged the gap between beasts and man. How far are we from our grunting, rock-throwing apelike ancestors? Not very far at all, according to 19th century criminologists Cesare Lombroso and Max Nordau, who believed that violent men had "primitive" faces with heavy jaws and low foreheads. By measuring the foreheads of Italian criminals, Lombroso believed he could target the violent criminal.

Although Lombroso and his measuring tape have long since been discredited, the concept of a lingering animalistic brutality is still popular today. As we move forward, becoming more technologically advanced, there is something that refuses to budge, some primitive holdout of the darkest recesses or our psyche. Is it the caveman within, as some contemporary paleopsychologists say, the vestigial beast that got us through the "survival of the fittest" when we needed it, but now that we live in a civilized society, it is no longer needed.

Franz Josef Gall promoted "phrenology." By feeling the bumps on a person's head, Gall believed that he could predict their character and level of intelligence. Physiognomy, developed by Johann Kaspar Lavatar, claimed to read a person's character in their facial features.

These theories were all the rage when Herman Mudgett (aka H. H. Holmes) stood trial for running a deadly boarding house that put the Bates Motel to shame. In Depraved, Harold Schechter describes how the public, eager to know why Holmes was such a fiend, flocked to see maps of the killer's head shape, as if a certain pattern in the bumps of his skull would spell out "murderer." Holmes himself described his own evil metamorphosis: "My features are assuming a pronounced Satanical cast. ... My head and face are gradually assuming an elongated shape. I believe fully that I am growing to resemble the devil—that the similitude is almost completed. In fact, so impressed am I with this belief, that I am convinced that I no longer have anything human in me." This' "devil made me do it" routine was a transparent attempt to avoid the hangman's noose. This devil was eventually hanged for his misdeeds.

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