Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

What Makes Serial Killers Tick?

Are They Insane?

Ed Gein
Ed Gein

Are serial killers insane? Not by legal standards. "The incidence of psychosis among murderers is no greater than the incidence of psychosis in the total population," said psychiatrist Donald Lunde. The legal definition of insanity is based on the 19th century McNaghten Rules: Does the offender understand the difference between right and wrong? If he flees or makes any attempt to hide the crime, then the offender is not insane, because his actions show that he understood that what he was doing was wrong. Yet what person in their right mind would filet young children and write letters to the parents, rhapsodizing over what a fine meal their child made? In the case of Albert Fish, the jury found him "insane, but he deserved to die anyway." Only a few, including the dimwitted Ed Gein and sadistic Peter Sutcliffe have successfully pleaded insanity.

Always looking to manipulate, serial killers will do just about anything to convince the authorities of their insanity. Being declared "legally insane" means avoiding death row, and if the criminal can convince his keepers that he has fully recovered, there is the hope of actually being released.

"Acid Bath Murderer" John Haigh drank his own urine in front of a jury to convince them of his insanity, but only served to repulse them more. William Hickman was stupid enough to put in writing his intention to convince the jury he is crazy: "I intend to throw a laughing, screaming, diving act before the prosecution finishes their case. ... " (He closes this letter to a fellow inmate with "P.S. You know and I know that I'm not insane however."

Alter Egos

One of the most predictable attempts to shift the blame is by creating an evil dark side, or alter ego. Some of these creations are named as the true culprits of the crimes. While in custody H. H. Holmes invented "Edward Hatch," who he claimed was the shadowy mastermind behind the murder of the young Pietzel children. "Lipstick Killer" William Heirens created George Murman, and actually corresponded with George by letters. John Gacy based his alter ego, "Jack Hanley," on a actual cop by the same name. Gacy's Jack was tough, in control, and loathed homosexuality. When Gacy drank too much, the punishing hand of Jack would take control. One of the most notorious alter egos is "Hillside Strangler" Kenneth Bianchi's "Steve Walker." Steve came out during hypnotic sessions as the aggressive opposite to Ken's gentle guy act. Clever hypnotists were able to snare Steve as a hoax. (It was later revealed that Bianchi had seen the movie "Sybil" two days prior to his psychiatric evaluation.)

Fabricating an alter ego is a convenient way to pin the guilt on another, even if that other is within. It's a psychological variation of "the devil made me do it." But diabolical alter egos are usually clumsy constructions that fall apart under scrutiny. At best, a legitimate split personality could hope for a mental institution instead of death row. But authentic cases are exceptionally rare.


Most schizophrenics will resist the aggressive commands of the auditory hallucinations they hear, according to Dr. Meloy. Santa Cruz in the 1970's had a renaissance of psychopathic killers. Of course, there is Edmund Kemper, the most articulate of them the batch. His schizophrenic colleagues, however, are frightening examples of the truly mentally-ill serial killer.

Herbert Mullin heard his father's voice in his head, commanding, "Why won't you give me anything? Go kill somebody move!" By killing people, Mullin was convinced, he was actually preventing earthquakes and tidal waves. Unlike most serial killers, he was not seeking a certain type of victim. His 13 "sacrificial" victims included a family, a priest, a homeless man and some hapless campers.

Upon his arrest everyone agreed that Mullin was a paranoid schizophrenic, but was found "legally sane." Unlike many serial killers who try to convince the authorities that they are crazy, Mullin tried to prove his sanity, stating that he was the victim of a huge conspiracy. He declared that he "a good American person who was tricked into committing the crimes. I know I deserve my freedom."

On a self-described "divine mission": John Linley Frazier, slaughtered a wealthy Santa Cruz family in 1970 because he believed they had been "polluting and destroying the Earth." Initially he was called an "acid casualty," but later tests revealed Frazier as an acute paranoid schizophrenic. Nonetheless, Frazier was declared legally sane and sentenced to life imprisonment.

David Berkowitz's "Son of Sam" routine was a well-constructed attempt to appear schizophrenic. "There is no doubt in my mind that a demon has been living in me since birth," he raved. "I want my soul back!" he wrote. "I have a right to be human." Later he held a press conference, announcing that his story of demons had been an invention.


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