20 of the Most Famous Serial Killers in the World
The United States holds the dubious honor of being the country with the greatest number of serial killers and it’s by a disturbingly wide margin. Over 3,200 serial killers have been identified in American history. For some perspective on a global scale, England has the second highest number of serial killers at 166. South Africa comes in third at 117.
While most of history’s most notorious serial killers are American, there have been many all around the world who have shocked and terrified the rest of us with their crimes. In a sea of so much pain and cruelty, some have stood out as even more dramatic, more terrifying and more disturbing than the rest. Here are 20 of the most infamous.
Jeffrey Dahmer – The Milwaukee Cannibal
Few killers in history have captured the imaginations, or invaded the nightmares, of people quite like Jeffrey Dahmer. Dahmer claimed his first victim when he was just 18 and it would take 13 years for authorities to finally put the pieces of the puzzle together enough to take him into custody.
Dahmer was from Wisconsin, and as with many killers people remembered him as quiet and polite outside of the horrors he was committing behind closed doors. Interest in his crimes has been a part of pop culture since he was first arrested, with a number of films and documentaries covering the scope of what happened, culminating in a controversial Netflix miniseries in 2022 that brought the spotlight back on the 30-year-old case.
The victims Dahmer chose were young men and teens from the gay community, people who were already marginalized and in some cases in bad situations from which they would not be readily missed. Dahmer’s intentions were to create a sort of zombie sex slave, a goal he tried to bring to fruition in the most gruesome of ways.
Dahmer was known to dismember his victims and save parts in his apartment. Cannibalism was on the list of crimes he had committed. Other dismembered body parts he attempted to dispose of by melting them in a vat of acid. But that wasn’t the only use he had for his destructive chemicals. He injected acid directly into the brain of a drugged victim. His intention was to perform some kind of crude lobotomy, rendering his victim alive but entirely submissive to Dahmer’s whims.
It was only when one of Dahmer’s victims escaped his clutches that police, who had near brushes with Dahmer in the past but never connected the dots, were able to arrest him.
Jeffrey Dahmer was convicted on 16 counts of first degree murder although he had 17 victims attributed to him. He received 16 life sentences for a total of 941 years. In November 1994, while doing work detail in prison, Jeffrey Dahmer was beaten to death by other inmates.
John Wayne Gacy – The Killer Clown
The reason that the clown trope continues to instill fear in people to this day is less the number of horror movies like IT and Terrifier which use a demonic clown as a villain and more John Wayne Gacy, the real life serial killer clown who represents the true horror behind the fictional monsters and is therefore far more terrifying.
American serial killer John Wayne Gacy was convicted of the murder and torture of 33 young men and boys, though more are suspected. The fact that he performed as a character named Pogo the Clown, in full clown suit and makeup, only made his story more morbidly fascinating to the world when it all came to light.
Gacy lived in a small suburb near Chicago and conducted all of his murders in his own home, stashing most of the bodies below in a crawl space. Other victims, like Robert Piest, he took to the Des Plaines River. His M.O. involved luring his victims in with an invitation to his home where he would offer to perform a magic trick that involved using handcuffs on them.
Once the victims were restrained, Gacy would rape, torture and ultimately murder them, usually by strangulation or suffocation. Only 28 of Gacy’s victims have even been conclusively identified as many of his victims were runaways and male prostitutes, though clearly not all were despite Gacy’s claims to the contrary.
It was the investigation into the disappearance of one of his victims, 15-year-old Robert Piest, that finally led to Gacy’s downfall. Gacy had met Piest in a pharmacy where, in his capacity as a contractor, he was discussing doing some work to remodel the pharmacy. Piest, a pharmacy employee, overheard that Gacy was willing to hire teen workers for high pay. The pharmacist told all of this to the police.
Gacy was ultimately convicted of 33 murders in March 1980. He was sentenced to death and, though he appealed and managed to extend his stay in prison all the way to 1994, he was executed by lethal injection on May 10, 1994.
Zodiac – The Unknown Serial Killer
The killer known as the Zodiac is potentially the most infamous of all American serial killers if for no other reason than he was never caught and the case remains open. The fact that his crimes date back to 1968 makes this remarkable.
There are five confirmed victims laid at the Zodiac killer’s feet as well as some injuries from victims who survived. That said, there are also potentially well over 20 other victims who may also be Zodiac’s, there’s just no way to know for sure since the killer was never caught.
In the present, the Zodiac case is often considered one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in American history. This is thanks in no small part to how the Zodiac conducted himself and, ultimately, how he was given the nickname Zodiac.
After his crimes, the killer taunted the local police and media and, ultimately, the community at large, with coded messages. He sent them with threats that they had to be published or else even worse things that happened. But the messages he sent sometimes included cryptograms and ciphers, puzzles that needed to be solved before the messages could be understood. He sent four of these and while two were solved fairly quickly, the other two were not. One remained unsolved up until the year 2020 and the final puzzle is still completely unsolved.
The ciphers sent by the killer were not really very illuminating or full of clues. In fact, they just included more taunts. The puzzle solved in 2020 read “I hope you are having lots of fun in trying to catch me. … I am not afraid of the gas chamber because it will send me to paradise all the sooner because I now have enough slaves to work for me.” This was a reference to the killer’s claims that his victims would be slaves to him in the afterlife.
The victims he did claim were all killed in cars. One was a cab driver initially thought to be a robbery victim. A teenage couple were shot in their car and another couple were attacked in a similar way, though the man survived. A third couple were attacked with a knife rather than being shot and the man in that couple survived as well.
The cab driver was the final murder and there were witnesses who described a man of about 30 with a crew cut who was around 5’ 9”. A police officer near the scene even saw the suspect, but the dispatcher had, for unknown reasons, described the suspect as black and not white despite what witnesses said, so the officer paid the man no mind. It would be the Zodiac’s final confirmed kill.
A number of suspects were identified over the years, including some who have died in the 50 years since the crimes occurred, but nothing has been conclusive. As far as anyone knows, the Zodiac killer may still be out there.
Aileen Wuornos – Monster
Made famous by the movie Monster in which she was portrayed by Charlize Theron, Aileen Wuornos is arguably America’s most notorious female serial killer. She was convicted of 6 murders in 1992 and executed in 2002. The movie about her life came out in 2003 and Wuornos had corresponded with director Patty Jenkins during production.
Wuornos committed a series of 7 murders between 1989 and 1990. She had been working as a prostitute at the time and all of her victims were clients that she said had tried to rape or even succeeding in doing so before she killed them in self-defense.
The story of her life that came out after her capture is one of the darkest and most tragic things you’ll ever hear, whether you believe she was a calculated killer or a victim who lashed out in self-defense against abusers. She endured a life of terrible abuse long before she took anyone’s life.
Having lost most of her family through a series of tragedies, she was left to fend for herself as a teen and life certainly didn’t get better. She had many run-ins with the law for a variety of crimes ranging from theft to DUI to assault and more. She also had a long history of self harm and had tried to kill herself multiple times including shooting herself in the stomach.
Wuornos killed her first victim, a truck driver named Richard Mallory, in 1989. She claimed he had assaulted and raped her and she killed him in self defense. Investigators found that Mallory had, in fact, committed a violent sexual assault in the past but this was not presented at trial.
After she was caught, Wuornos claimed that her six final victims had never assaulted her, but that they intended to. She was adamant that her first victim, Richard Mallory, had raped her, and that was why she had killed him. She went on to plead guilty or no contest to the other murders.
Ted Bundy – The Campus Killer
Ted Bundy was known for being charismatic, handsome and persuasive, traits he used to his advantage in his attempts to commit murder. His good looks helped endear him to victims, as did the scenarios in which he presented himself. He would sometimes wear a fake cast to appear injured and sympathetic to lure victims close in an effort to help him carry something. Once they were in range of his vehicle, he would knock them out with a weapon, restrain them, and take them somewhere else to commit murder. This was a partial inspiration for the Buffalo Bill character in the film The Silence of the Lambs.
His veneer was just that, however, a simple front. The real Ted Bundy was often described as sadistic, heartless and evil. Bundy once called himself “the most cold-hearted son of a bitch you’ll ever meet.”
Though Bundy only faced conviction for three murders and one kidnapping, despite the fact he confessed to at least 30 murders, was confirmed to have committed 20, and is suspected of committing many more.
Part of Bundy’s success was because he was operating at a time when law enforcement was just not equipped to handle a killer like him. There was no violent criminal database, there was no DNA science, there was really nothing that could help link crimes like these across state borders. Additionally, many of Bundy’s confessions came after his trial, but with scant evidence to support them, making them not reliable.
Another thing that didn’t help matters was that Bundy had actually been caught once in 1977 and managed to escape from prison in the middle of night before fleeing to Florida where he committed a number of additional attacks.
Bundy was known to be somewhat vain and arrogant. He liked the attention that the crimes provided for him, and he was extremely manipulative such that there was no way anything he said could ever really be trusted. After his arrest he opted to represent himself at trial. At the time, the idea of court TV and true crime was not really a thing, so the spectacle of the trial was very new to people and Bundy relished it. He even bragged about getting fans as a result of his crimes. In one particularly audacious move, he had a witness on the stand, a woman named Carole Anne Boon who had been his longtime girlfriend, and he married her in the middle of the trial, taking advantage of an obscure law that made a marriage legal if it was simply declared in the presence of a judge.
While he was committing his murders in the 1970s, he would often cross state lines. He operated in Utah, Florida, Colorado, Oregon, and elsewhere. The lack of communication between police in different jurisdictions made coordinating a case difficult.
Despite his antics in court and the lack of evidence linking him to a number of the murders he had committed, there was enough to convict him of at least some crimes. Bundy was sentenced to death and died by electrocution in the electric chair in 1989.
Richard Ramirez – The Night Stalker
Also known as the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez who terrorized California for a year between 1984 and 1985. He was convicted on 13 counts of murder plus counts of attempted murder, robbery, and sexual assault. Despite his monstrous history, he managed to acquire a perverse cult of love-struck fans including a woman named Doreen Lioy. Ramirez and Lioy were married while he was in prison in 1996. They would later divorce, allegedly when Lioy was shown DNA evidence that one of Ramirez’s victims had been a 9-year-old girl. The crime had not been one linked to Ramirez for many years until DNA evidence made it possible to place him as the murderer. He eventually got engaged to another woman.
His early life was rife with abuse but he was also heavily influenced by a cousin, a Green Beret, who was also a serial killer and would often tell Ramirez tales of the crimes he had committed during the Vietnam war. Apparently he even brought photos back to America of his Vietnamese victims that he showed to his younger cousin. Later, that same cousin murdered his own wife in front of Ramirez.
Ramirez’s crime spree began as a series of robberies, believed to be in support of his drug habit. However, he soon graduated to including assaults, sexual assaults and murder. He had no particular fondness for a style or method and killed his victims almost haphazardly using whatever he happened to have at the time. He was known to use a gun, a hammer, knives, a machete and even his bare hands and exposed electrical wires.
Curiously, Ramirez did not kill all of his victims, and this was done on purpose. Sometimes he would simply torture them and even degrade or humiliate them at the same time and then simply leave them in their own homes. That said, when he did kill it was often unusually brutal. He once killed two victims on the same day and nearly a third who only survived out of sheer luck.
It was one of Ramirez’s living victims that provided a detailed description of him to police. Along with her testimony and physical evidence from the scene including footprints and a fingerprint from a car he’d abandoned, a warrant was issued.
Amazingly, Ramirez was not in town when his face became headline news. He returned the next day to a city where everyone knew his face. Discovering his own picture on a newspaper, he tried to flee and failed in two carjacking attempts. An entire gang of citizens chased him through the streets before catching and beating him mercilessly, which is how he was found by police.
All told, Ramirez was convicted of 43 different crimes and sentenced to die. However, he never made it to his own execution, dying in prison in 2013 as a result of complications related to blood cancer.
Alexander Pichushkin – The Chessboard Killer
They called Alexander Pichushkin the Chessboard Killer. His goal was to kill one person for every square on a chessboard and he had quite a bit of success towards that goal. The exact number of victims has never been fully established, but it’s believed Pichushkin claimed between 49 and 60. Inside Pichushkin’s home, police found a chessboard with a coin on each of 62 squares, though it was never confirmed he’d killed that many victims. He actually complained in court that, since the police didn’t attribute all the deaths he claimed to him, he didn’t qualify as Russia’s worst killer.
He started killing when he was just 18 and continued for nearly 15 years before he was finally captured. Most of his victims were discovered in a place called Bitsa Park, a nearly 7 square mile park located in Moscow.
While understanding the motives of a serial killer is often incredibly difficult to pull off, there was some insight offered into what happened to make Pichushkin the way he was. Certainly other factors may have been at play but it came to light after his capture that he suffered a freak accident as a child. It’s said he was a sociable and average boy until falling off a swing one day. The swing whipped back and struck him on the hard which led to a noticeable change in his personality after the fact. Doctors speculated the blow was strong enough to damage the frontal cortex of his brain which, in part, regulates impulse control. His mother said that, after the accident, he was more prone to hostility.
After being bullied in school, Pichushkin moved in with his grandparents and learned the game of chess as it was clear to them he was highly intelligent. He would go on to play games in Bitsa Park against the older players who hung out there during the day, which began his fascination with both the game of chess and Bitsa Park itself. Despite the injury to his brain, others described him as being not just highly intelligent, but also very polite and sensitive.
At some point, Pichushkin began stalking and threatening children in the park. This escalated to a one-sided competition he started with another Russian killer, Andrei Chikatilo, who he wanted to beat in terms of kill count. He came up with the idea of killing 64 victims, one for every square on the chessboard. Later he took this back and said he would have killed even more if he could have gotten away with it.
The first victim was a classmate of Pichushkin’s, whom he met in Bitsa Park and killed with a hammer. Pichushkin was actually arrested for the crime since people saw them together, but he simply said the man was alive when they parted ways and, with no further evidence, police let him go. He refrained from killing for four more years but, in 1996, Russia ended its use of the death penalty and he began to kill again.
Pichushkin’s weapon of choice was a hammer. He would attack his victims from behind and beat them with the tool. Many of his victims then suffered the indignity of having a vodka bottle shoved into the wound, a sort of signature to let police know it was the same killer.
His final victim actually left a note that she was going for a walk with him because she was suspicious of him at the time. Despite this, she still went and Pichushkin murdered her. Police were given the note and Pichushkin was arrested.
After being caught, Pichushkin said “I felt like the father of those people. After all, I opened the door to another world for them. I released them into a new life.”
Jack the Ripper
Few killers in all of history have achieved the levels of fame that Jack the Ripper has, in part because the infamous killer was never truly identified. The unknown assailant was also known as the Whitechapel Murderer thanks to the Whitechapel area of London being his preferred hunting grounds.
It was between in the year 1888 that the Ripper was active and his brutal crimes led to countless theories about his true identity.
The victims were all prostitutes and the Ripper’s methods involved slitting their throats and then mutilating the bodies, removing internal organs from three of his five victims. It was this aspect of the crime that caused widespread speculation that someone with a medical background, perhaps even a surgeon, had committed the crimes. In later years, there has also been some speculation that the Ripper was not a surgeon as the nature of the crimes seemed, at least to some, less in line with a skilled surgical hand and more likely performed by someone whose skill was in slaughtering animals. However, this is still all speculation.
While we may never know the true identity of the killer, it is known that there are five canonical killings that police believe were committed by the same assailant. The killings were extremely gruesome and when it’s said that organs were removed; the procedures were by no means the clean and precise things you may have expected from a doctor.
Some victims had organs only partially removed. The killer performed eviscerations, leaving intestines spilling out and, in some cases, arranging them on and around the victims. His final victim had her heart removed.
There are a number of other victims who have been identified as having died in the same area around the same time. In fact, there were as many as 11 victims. However, details of the crimes strayed enough from the Ripper murders in some cases that they are not always considered part of his killings, which is why people refer to the “canonical five” as being the only ones that everyone truly believes were performed by the same murderer.
One of the most notable parts of the crimes was the fact that a letter was sent to the press. This letter, called the Dear Boss letter, was where the name Jack the Ripper came from and the press was all too happy to publish it and sensationalize the murders. However, in later years, many came to believe the letter was a hoax.
That said, another letter, known as the “From Hell” letter, was accompanied by a partial human kidney, believed to have been harvested from one of the Ripper’s victims, making it much more authentic than the Dear Boss letter.
The letter was sent to a man named George Lusk, who was a sort of captain of a neighborhood watch type police force. The letter claimed that the writer had fried and eaten the other half of the kidney and invited Lusk to catch him if he could.
There is no way to know if the From Hell letter was genuine, but it is considered the most likely of all letters, of which there were many, which truly came from the real Ripper.
The investigation went on for years and, in fact, to this day people are still trying to piece together clues. Unfortunately, with the numerous hoax letters, misinformation and total fiction surrounding the Ripper story, few people have all the facts and what remains seems like it will be forever insufficient to determine the true identity of the killer.
Takahiro Shiraishi – The Twitter Killer
Sometimes called the Twitter Killer, Takahiro Shiraishi used social media in 2017 to lure in 9 victims that he had identified as being suicidal based on their posts online. He would message them and invite them to meet him in person for the specific purpose of watching them die.
Most of Shiraishi’s victims were women or teenage girls though he did kill one man as well. His preferred method of killing was to strangle his victims and then dismember them. He kept the bodies, or parts of all of them, in his own home despite the fact that they had begun to decay and neighbors noticed the smell.
His crimes came to light when the brother of one of his victims accessed her Twitter account and found messages between her and Shiraishi. Though he was using a screen name, the brother contacted police, and they were able to trace the account back to Shiraishi and locate him in the city of Zama.
Upon reaching his home, police questioned Shiraishi about the missing girl. He was oddly forthcoming and explained that she was in his freezer. As they investigated his house, they discovered all 9 bodies, cut to pieces, stored not just in the freezer but coolers and tool boxers as well. It’s said that, while he kept all the heads of his victims, and numerous arms and legs, he likely disposed of other parts in the garbage.
Bafflingly, his defense tried to save him from the death penalty at trial by saying that, though he had murdered his victims, he had done so with consent as all of them were suicidal and wished to die. Whether this defense could have worked is debatable, but Shiraishi took issue with it and argued against his own lawyers in court suggesting it wasn’t true. He murdered his victims against their will.
Shiraishi was found guilty of 9 counts of murder. The judge called him cunning and cruel and agreed that none of the 9 victims consented to what happened to them. As a result, he was sentenced to death.
For his part, Shiraishi said he has no intention to appeal his death sentence. In Japan, the condemned are never told when their sentence will be carried out until the day it happens. So, for now, Shiraishi will remain on death row waiting to see what happens next.
The Manson Family murders shocked the world in 1969 when the cult, under the influence of Charles Manson, committed seven murders in the summer of that year which included the murder of actress Sharon Tate who, at the time, was also carrying the child of her husband, director Roman Polanski.
Manson’s inclusion on serial killer lists is a controversial one insofar as there is no evidence he directly, physically murdered anyone. That said, the case against him in the nine murders that were attributed to him and the Manson family makes it clear that he orchestrated and ordered the killings. That means, in much the way a person who hires a hitman is guilty of murder, Manson was guilty of murder as well.
Though Manson himself was not present on the night when Sharon Tate and her party were murdered, he had been present at the killing of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca the next day where he personally tied up the victims and then told the others present to do what they had done the previous day, meaning the Tate killings, but make it less messy.
In addition to the infamous Tate and LaBianca killings, it is sometimes overlooked that there were two other murders that Manson was convicted of. The first was the killing of Gary Hinman, a musician. Manson believed he owed him money for a drug deal and had learned that Hinson had received a sizable amount sometime earlier.
Three members of the Manson family went to see Hinson to shake him down. According to testimony from Bobby Beausoleil, the man ultimately responsible for the killing blow, they threatened him suggesting he better give them the money before Manson arrived. Manson did arrive, however, and used a sword to cut Hinson, severing his ear.
Hinson was held captive and tortured over three days. Beausoleil said that, after three days, Manson ordered him to kill the man, which he did by stabbing him.
The next month, Manson participated in the murder of Donald Shea. It’s believed Manson had heard Shea had snitched to the police about the criminal doings of Manson and his family, which at the time was limited to things like car theft.
Bruce Davis, one of the three men present at the murder, said they took Shea out into a secluded spot and he recalled Charles Manson handing him a machete. Davis said he couldn’t do it and threw the machete but then Manson handed him a bayonet instead which he used to cut Shea on the shoulder before leaving the scene.
The motives for Manson’s murders have been debated for years with some saying he wanted to start a race war and others claiming he was angry about having failed as a musician. In truth, the whole story is a lot more complicated. For one, by many accounts Manson actually was a good musician and a number of popular musicians including the Beach Boys and Neil Young liked his work.
In addition, there has never even been any conclusive evidence that he was mentally ill as has often been claimed, at least not in the way people have suggested when they say he was crazy. Though Manson refused a psych evaluation after his arrest, some doctors have subsequently suggested that he may have even been faking his erratic behavior while others went so far as to say he was perhaps a “psychiatric curiosity” but not insane. It’s also worth noting that, in an interview with Diane Sawyer, Manson claimed to have created something he called the “insane game” when he was a kid being attacked by abusers at school, during which he would defend himself by acting completely out of control so they’d think he was insane.
Whatever the true motivations or state of Manson’s mind, he was convicted on 9 counts of murder. Initially he was sentenced to death but when California dropped the death penalty, the sentence was commuted to life in prison. Charles Manson died in 2017 from complications related to colon cancer.
Albert Fish – The Boogeyman
In the modern era, Albert Fish’s legacy has lived on long after the man himself has since died. He committed his crimes in the 1920s and into the 1930s but they were of such a remarkable, bloodcurdling and disturbing nature that they are hard to forget.
Fish, like many serial killers, has been given nicknames over the years but the fact he has been known as The Boogeyman, the Werewolf of Wisteria and the Brooklyn Vampire give some indication of just how horrendous the man truly was. The best way people could think to describe him was by comparing him to literal monsters.
Fish confessed first to three murders and then two more later however it was only a single murder for which he was charged, convicted and ultimately executed. That said, he once claimed to have had at least 100 victims.
The reason Fish’s infamy has lived on for so long is owing to the stomach turning and grisly nature of his crimes. Fish preyed on children and it was the murder of 10-year-old Grace Budd that he was finally convicted of. After he was arrested, police were able to link Fish to the murder of 9-year-old Francis McDonnell and 4-year-old Billy Gaffney.
After growing up for years in an orphanage, Fish developed a number of disturbing habits which included answering classified ads, particularly those from women searching for husbands, with obscene responses. Numerous members of his family had histories of mental illness and it seems Fish was no different.
By the time he reached adulthood there is evidence he began assaulting children. In 1910, he lured a man with whom he’d had a relationship to a farmhouse. There, he tortured the man for weeks, ultimately mutilating him and then leaving him there. He later said he had no idea if the man lived or not.
Fish was married and had 6 children but his wife ended up leaving him for a handyman. Fish, raising six children, continued his downward spiral. It’s said he actually went to see psychiatrists before he ever committed a murder but they repeatedly told him there was nothing wrong with him, even as he grew more and more obsessed with self-harm and the ideas of both cannibalism and mutilation.
Eventually Fish began to target the mentally handicapped and African Americans, later claiming he felt these would be easy victims because no one would miss them. He claimed he even paid other children to catch victims for him who he would then torture and kill with tools he called his “implements of Hell.”
Fish’s first confirmed victim, Grace Budd, was the sister of a young man who had been looking for work. Fish initially intended on killing the young man after posing as a farmer to hire him but, upon meeting the sister, changed his mind. As a seemingly trustworthy old man, the family was not distrusting of Fish and he invited the little girl to a birthday party for his niece in the city.
Budd was never seen again.. Police initially suspected building superintendent Charles Pope of the crime after a tip from Pope’s ex-wife. He even spent several months in jail for it.
Ultimately, it was the letter Fish sent to Grace Budd’s family that led to his capture – a letter describing the horrible things he did, meant to taunt and torture the family. Though the letter was sent anonymously and the Budd family didn’t know Fish’s real name or real address, the letter he’d sent was in an envelope marked by the New York Private Chauffeur’s Benevolent Association. Police traced that to an employee of the association and ultimately the boarding house where he had been staying and Fish, the tenant who was at that time in the room.
When police arrived, Fish tried to attack them with a knife. They took him into custody and later he admitted to his other crimes, several which he described in explicit and shocking detail. He was convicted of the murder of Grace Budd and died in the electric chair in 1936.
Gary Ridgway – The Green River Killer
Better known as the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway was one of the most prolific killers in American history. He was convicted on 49 counts of murder though it’s suspected his true kill count may be closer to 100.
Working in the early 1980s, Ridgway killed in and around Tacoma and Seattle Washington and managed to get away with the killings for close to 20 years. However, advances in DNA evidence were able to link Ridgway to 4 killings in particular which led to his arrest in 2001.
Ridgway targeted prostitutes in particular and left their bodies along the Green River, which is how he got the nickname. Police would sometimes find multiple victims in the same place along the river and, on occasion, they would even be posed.
Knowing the killer was targeting prostitutes in particular, a task force was formed to track potential suspects and they actually managed to snare Ridgway. Remarkably, after his arrest, he was subjected to a polygraph test and questioned about the murders. He lied and claimed innocence but the polygraph was not able to detect his deception. He passed a second test four years later, as well. Though detectives were still suspicious of Ridgway, he was released for passing the test. They did, however, retain samples of both his hair and saliva. That would be the eventual key to his undoing.
It’s said that Ridgway was badly abused by his mother as a child, as were his siblings and his father. He displayed those classic signs of being a serial killer including being very abusive to animals. He would later claim that he tried to kill a boy when he was 14 but failed and was never caught. He said his first murder when he was still a teen, drowning another boy while they were swimming.
As an adult, Ridgway had a couple of short marriages that ended due to extramarital affairs and was known to frequent prostitutes. His ex-wives confirmed he seemed to have a sexual addiction and would demand it constantly. He was arrested for solicitation from an undercover officer once and for assaulting a prostitute on another occasion.
It seemed that, after his third marriage, Ridgway nearly gave up on his crimes as only three murders can be linked to him after that time. After he was captured when a new task force was able to link him by DNA evidence, he entered into a plea bargain to avoid the death penalty and helped authorities find bodies that still had not been discovered by that time.
Ridgway was ultimately sentenced to 48 consecutive life sentences with no hope of parole. He is still incarcerated to this day at the Washington State Penitentiary.
Andrei Chikatilo – The Rostov Ripper
Considered one of the most notorious serial killers in history, Andrei Chikatilo terrorized parts of Russia for over a decade. He earned the nicknames the Butcher of Rostov and the Rostov Rippers for the crimes he committed in the Rostov area. All told he was convicted for 52 murders though he claimed to have committed even more.
As a child, Chikatilo grew up in the shadow of WWII. His father was captured by the enemy and the family often went hungry. He claimed his mother was highly abusive towards him. Later in life he was never able to sustain a relationship with a woman as he was unable to physically perform, even as a young man. When women he had tried to be in relationships with shared this information, Chikatilo was mocked and shamed. He claimed to have attempted suicide only to be stopped by his mother and sister. Subsequently, he ran away from home, never to return. Instead, he found his way to Rostov.
Chikatilo eventually became a teacher and was accused on multiple occasions of assault and other violations, but was never reported to authorities or even disciplined. Finally, after multiple incidents, he was told to resign or be fired. He found another teaching job and continued to abuse his students.
By 1978 he had given up on teaching and found a job that allowed him to travel frequently to purchase supplies for a company. That was the year he committed his first murder, a 9-year-old girl. There was substantial evidence linking Chikatilo but police had it in for another suspect and, despite having an alibi, arrested him. They threatened the innocent man’s wife if she refused to cooperate and she gave a new statement saying her husband had not been with her on the night of the murder. That man was tried, convicted and executed for the crime.
Emboldened by getting away with murder, Chikatilo went on to commit numerous more crimes. He preyed on children and runaways, dragging them away to forested areas, offering them things like alcohol or candy, where they wouldn’t be seen before killing and mutilating them.
The investigation was able to conclusively link a handful of the murders together but Soviet investigative techniques left something to be desired. As a result, multiple suspects were coerced into confessions and several even committed suicide. But Chikatilo continued to kill, meaning every confession was rendered useless. His habit grew and he would kill multiple people in a month. Once, he even murdered a mother and daughter together. In many of these cases, witnesses saw Chikatilo with the victims before they died and gave descriptions to the police.
In 1984, police caught Chikatilo after observing him talking to numerous women in and around a bus station. They found a knife and rope on him. But in the course of their investigation they determined his blood was type A and the killer’s was AB. They held him for three months on a minor charge of theft related to a previous job then let him go. He went on to commit even more murders.
It wasn’t until 1990 when police, desperate to find the killer, had set up an extensive surveillance operation and an officer had taken notice of Chikatilo one evening at a train station when he appeared to have a blood smear on his face. After a new victim was identified in the area, police went through their files and determined not only had Chikatilo been a suspect in the past, his work placed him at the scene of many of the crimes. They looked into the post and found his history of assaults from being a teacher.
Chikatilo was arrested and eventually confessed, in detail, to the majority of the murders being investigated and to many the police had not linked to him at all. He was found guilty of 52 counts of murder and sentenced to death. In 1994, he was executed by a gunshot to the head.
Robert Pickton – The Pig Farm Killer
Potentially the most prolific serial killer in Canadian history and clearly one of their worst serial killers, Robert Pickton was sometimes known as the Pig Farm Killer and, although he was initially only arrested for 6 murders, that number grew to 26 during the investigation and he confessed to having killed 49.
Pickton inherited a pig farm from his family where he worked for most of his life. He was abused by his father and, as a child, his mother would send him and his brother to school in clothes still covered in pig manure which resulted in their frequent bullying.
Later, as an adult, Pickton and his brother bizarrely registered the farm as a charitable organization and ran parties and raves out of a converted slaughterhouse which were attended by guests like local sex workers and members of the Hells Angels.
In 1997, 5 years before his arrest, Pickton was charged with attempted murder after a woman was handcuffed and stabbed at the farm. She managed to get the upper hand and stab him instead, however the charges were eventually dropped for unknown reasons.
The brothers faced legal troubles for improper zoning thanks to their parties which they largely ignored. However, one of their farm hands started to notice that women who he had seen at the farm would turn up on the news as missing persons. He said that Pickton had bragged to him about how easily he could get rid of a human body. He also had things like purses and ID from women on the farm. The worker contacted law enforcement with his concerns. He told them Pickton’s name, where he lived, and even that he suspected that Pickton had killed a woman named Sarah. At the time, Sara De Vries was one of the missing women being investigated. The farm hand also said he thought it was possible Pickton had killed all the missing women from the area.
It would be nearly 4 years after the original tip before authorities showed up on Pickton’s farm. Even more bizarre, the warrant they were following up on had nothing to do with the murders, it was for illegal firearms. The officer found the guns but, in the course of his search, also found the belongings of many of the missing women, including their IDs.
A new search was conducted and DNA or remains from 33 women was discovered. It’s believed the remains were fed to pigs which made identifying many of the victims difficult. It was also believed that Pickton may have ground up some of his victims along with pork that was then sold to consumers. Pickton was arrested and tried for 6 murders. Despite later evidence that linked him to numerous others, authorities chose not to try him for the additional crimes.
Remarkably, Pickton was found guilty of second-degree murder and not first-degree, meaning jurors believed he committed the crimes but that they were not premeditated. The result was that he was sentenced to 25 years. He’ll be eligible for day parole in 2024 and full parole in 2027.
Ed Gein – The Butcher of Plainsfield
Ed Gein has become an almost historic figure in pop culture and has been at least a partial inspiration for numerous fictional killers including Norman Bates from Psycho, Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and even Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs.
Born in 1906, Gein was raised by an extremely religious mother and an alcoholic father. Gein was a good student in school and generally well-liked in the community, though he spent most of his early years confined to his home because his mother feared outsiders having a bad influence.
Ed’s brother Henry died when Ed was in his mid-30s and at the time it was deemed an accident though later it was suspected Ed had done this himself. His brother was said to dislike their mother and often insulted her in Ed’s presence. Ed, however, was devoted to her and was offended by his brother’s words.
Alone with his mother, this is where the foundation for the book and subsequent movie Psycho was formed, as Gein’s mother was known to be adamantly against the idea of carnal desires or sin and was said to shame her sons frequently. However, she suffered a pair of strokes in short order and died less than two years after Ed’s brother.
For about three years Gein lived along working odd jobs and living on the farm, selling off some of the land to make ends meet. It was in 1957 when a hardware store clerk went missing that police attention turned to Gein. The last receipt at the store had been made out in his name. Police went to his farm where they discovered the woman’s body in a shed, missing her head. The body was field dressed the way a hunter would do so for a deer.
A subsequent search of Gein’s house revealed what is, to this day, one of the most macabre crime scenes ever recorded and which must have haunted every man who walked through that building for the rest of their lives.
Gein had made furniture out of human remains. A chair had been upholstered in human flesh and a lampshade had been formed from a human face. He had made clothing out of human flesh as well, including a belt, a pair of leggings, a corset made from a skinned torso, and several masks that were made from the flesh of other people’s faces that he had removed. These gruesome acts would serve as the inspirations for both Leatherface and Buffalo Bill.
Additionally, authorities found bowls made of skulls, other skulls adorning Gein’s bed posts, and finally just random body parts stashed in boxes and bags.
Gein claimed he had taken the bodies of the recently deceased, women who reminded him of his mother, and performed the acts he committed. His plan was to make a suit out of women’s skin and to literally embody her, to become his mother in a female skin suit.
Despite admitting to an additional murder, Gein was only tried for one. He was suspected of at least 9 more, though it’s clear he also robbed graves. However, Gein was deemed unfit for trial by reason of insanity and sent to a hospital. In 1968 he was found competent and put on trial again, but his sanity was called into question once more and he was sent back to the hospital. He died there in 1984 as a result of complications related to lung cancer.
Harold Shipman – The Doctor of Death
They called Harold Shipman Dr. Death and for good reason. His reign of terror spanned from 1972 until 1998 and the entire time he was exploiting people’s trust in him as a doctor to commit murder after murder. The official count is 218 victims though that could be as high as 250.
The fact that people seem to inherently trust a doctor and the fact that they do deal with death made it easier for Shipman to get away with his crimes for so long. It was only after too many suspicious patterns stuck out to others that he was finally caught.
Shipman was a doctor in the UK and had begun practicing in 1970. In 1975 he was fined after being caught forging Demerol prescriptions for his own use. After that, he seemed to find himself on the straight and narrow and built his own practice, standing out as a pillar of the community.
Because Shipman had literally thousands of patients at his practice, and so many were elderly and in ill-health, his crimes flew under the radar for most people. Shipman’s methods involved giving the patient a lethal dose of diamorphine, or heroin. Because he was the physician, there was no need for someone else to examine the body or attempt to find a cause of death for women who were, presumably, already quite old and in ill-health.
It was decades before Shipman’s behavior drew any serious suspicion. One doctor in particular, a GP who worked alongside Shipman, was integral in Shipman’s capture as she was one of the first to question why the doctor was putting in so many requests for cremations. While it’s not unusual for a doctor to need to do this, there were just too many of them that were elderly women who had apparently died in bed. Also suspicious were some of the details around those deaths, in particular that the time of death was often during the day when most people would be less likely to be in bed.
Despite the many signs that Shipman’s behavior was suspicious, the investigation was mishandled badly, and he was never arrested. However, that would change when he tried to up his game after a murder. It wasn’t enough that he had killed one of his victims, Shipman attempted to forge documents that would have made him the beneficiary of his victim’s will. When the victim’s daughter, a lawyer, caught wind of this, she contacted authorities.
The woman, whose cause of death had been listed by Shipman simply as old age, was reexamined and heroin was found. Shipman tried to shift blame suggesting the woman was an addict, and he showed authorities notes he had made in the woman’s files on his computer to that effect however they were able to determine the notes had been edited after the woman’s death.
As the investigation progressed, police came to realize the extent of Shipman’s behavior. He had routinely killed with a lethal injection, signed the death certificate himself, and then forged records to suggest the victim was already on their deathbed.
Shipman was ultimately convicted of just 15 of the murders he was accused of. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2000 but in 2004 he was found dead in his prison cell having taken his own life.
Pedro Lopez – One of the Most Prolific Serial Killers Ever
They called Pedro Lopez, a murderer from Colombia, the Monster of the Andes. He is one of the most infamous serial killers in the world, a fact made all the more horrifying because no one knows where he is right now.
Lopez’s list of victims is long and impossible to verify. When he was initially imprisoned, it’s said that he had been convicted of the murders of more than 100 women and girls. Most sources suggest, at a bare minimum, he claimed 110 lives. However, based on interviews he gave to a photojournalist while he was incarcerated, that number may actually be well over 350.
Lopez worked throughout Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. According to the first published story about him, he had been caught in the 80s and directed authorities to the graves of 53 victims, all girls under 12. He was found guilty of 110 murders in Ecuador and then confessed to 240 more that took place in the other countries.
He said that he had been killing around three girls per week and the police had even taken him into custody once but let him go. He was arrested again later, in 1980, when his attempt to abduct a new victim failed and civilians captured him. This after four bodies had washed ashore on a nearby river just a short lime earlier, putting everyone on edge for anyone who might be targeting children.
According to Lopez, he had actually once been captured by local tribes people whom he had also been targeting. They had buried him in the sand with only his head exposed and were going to execute him by covering his head in syrup and letting ants consume him. However, an American missionary intervened and said she would take Lopez to authorities. Instead, she simply drove him to the border and released him.
For unclear reasons, Lopez was released from Ecuadorian prison in 1998 but another source suggests it was 1994. Lopez said he was released for good behavior. He was then quickly re-arrested not for murder, but for being an illegal immigrant and sent back to Colombia. In Colombia he was held again but only for a short time. He was declared sane and, in a shocking twist, released as a result.
Interpol released an advisory in 2002 that Lopez be arrested again in connection with a new murder. However, he was never found by authorities again and, since 2002, his whereabouts have been totally unknown. Although Lopez would be in his 70s in the present, he had decades to commit numerous other crimes for which he has clearly not been held accountable.
The mystery of what has happened to Lopez is really only matched by how much of his story is true. There is evidence that he has indeed taken many lives, but he also once called himself the “person of the century” and claimed no one would forget him, so he clearly enjoyed the rush of making people think he was a monster, so he may have fabricated many of the details.
David Berkowitz – The Son of Sam
In 1977, David Berkowitz, the killer known as the Son of Sam, was arrested for six murders and several attempted murders. Berkowitz led police on the largest manhunt in New York’s history and even sent letters mocking them for their inability to catch him.
When he was initially captured, Berkowitz continued to make headlines by claiming that he was acting on orders delivered to him by a demon that had possessed a dog belonging to his neighbor Sam. This story is still closely associated with the Berkowitz crimes despite the fact he later said that the story was just a hoax.
The name “Son of Sam” came from one of the letters Berkowitz wrote. It was riddled with misspellings and nonsense but it captured people’s imaginations and became just one more piece of the grim and fascinating puzzle as it offered very little evidence of who had written it or why he was killing.
For a year, Berkowitz terrorized New Yorkers and, as his victims were often attractive young brunettes, the fear he stirred up led to numerous women cutting and dyeing their hair to avoid attracting his attention.
He attempted to use a knife to kill at first, in 1975, but soon switched to a .44 caliber handgun. His first shooting victim came in the summer of 1976, when he tried to kill two women in a car, succeeding once but only injuring the second. The survivor had never seen the assailant before but gave a description to police.
In his next attempt he failed again to kill his victims, and the next month he tried again, failing once more though he succeeded in paralyzing one victim. By March 1977 he had killed two more victims and police confirmed that the same gun had killed the last two. The next month he murdered two more people and the infamous Son of Sam letter was discovered nearby.
Another letter was sent to the press and suspicions that a serial killer was stalking New York was all but confirmed in everyone’s minds. Berkowitz shot four more victims, killing one almost a full year after his first killing.
A month later, police ticketed Berkowitz’s car, and a woman reported seeing a suspicious man in the area and hearing gunshots. Police wanted to talk to Berkowitz and Yonkers PD, where Berkowitz lived, asking if they could bring him in. The dispatcher on the phone, in an amazing coincidence, was Berkowitz’s neighbor and the literal daughter of Sam, the owner of the dog that Berkowitz would blame for making him kill. The dispatcher pointed out that Berkowitz had shot their dog.
Police staked out Berkowitz’s car and arrested him soon after. They found the gun and even maps to the crime scenes and more letters. They also found detailed journals in his house which described hundreds of fires he’d set across the city as well.
It was during questioning when Berkowitz first decided to blame his neighbor’s dog, though he did admit to the murders at the same time. He pleaded guilty to all the murders and then, at his sentencing, attempted to jump out of the 7th floor window in the courtroom while screaming about how he’d kill them all again. He was sentenced to 6 consecutive life sentences. He was eligible for parole 25 years after he was sentenced but has been denied numerous times. Interestingly, Berkowitz has said he is not interested in being paroled and has skipped several parole hearings.
H.H. Holmes – The Torture Doctor
Herman Webster Mudgett often went by the name Henry Howard Holmes and that is the name that lives on in infamy. He is sometimes referred to as America’s first serial killer, a dubious honor if ever there was one. He was only confirmed to have killed one person, but he’s suspected of at least 9 murders. He claimed to have killed 27 however some of his alleged victims turned out to still be very much alive.
After his capture, the Chicago Chronicle newspaper detailed how Holmes was guilty of “suffocating victims in a vault, boiling a man in oil and poisoning wealthy women in order to seize their fortunes.” Despite the many allegations, it was the murder of Benjamin Pitezel for which he was ultimately convicted and sentenced to hang.
Pitezel had been an associate and an accomplice of Holmes who was also known to be an accomplished conman. It was believed that Holmes also murdered the man’s three children. However, discerning the truth has long been difficult owing to the fact that Holmes was a notorious liar and would frequently change his story while tabloid newspapers at the time would sometimes just make up details of his crimes in an effort to tantalize audiences and sell papers. The result is that, much like Jack the Ripper, his legacy is a mix of both fact and fiction which is almost impossible to understand in the modern age.
One of the notorious tall tales about Holmes was that he constructed a building, sometimes called Holmes Castle or the Murder Castle, that had secret torture chambers, a crematorium and other terrible secrets. None of that was true, but he did construct a hotel and by some accounts he had hidden rooms that he used to hide stolen goods as opposed to dead bodies. His victims were not strangers who were lured to their death but generally people he knew in business or his personal life who had crossed him or posed a risk to his freedom.
Though it’s unclear who Holmes’ first victim was, the first known victim was a woman named Julia Smythe, a married woman with whom Holmes had an affair. He also confessed to killing the woman’s daughter. Two more women, both working for Holmes, disappeared and were believed to have been killed. Many other missing persons have been tentatively linked to Holmes as well.
Later, Holmes would kill Benjamin Pitezel to cover up a scam the two of them had been running on insurance companies. They were going to fake Pitezel’s death to collect insurance money by claiming the man was an inventor who subsequently died in a lab accident. Holmes would procure a body and they would burn it beyond recognition to pull the scam off. For whatever reason, Holmes decided it would be easier to simply murder Pitezel for real. It’s believed he also killed Pitezel’s children to cover up their father’s murder after convincing their mother to let him have custody of them.
Pinkerton detectives eventually tracked Holmes down and initially he was held on a warrant for horse theft while other crimes were investigated. He was tried and convicted and ultimately hanged for the murder of Benjamin Pitezel.
The Murder Castle stories appeared in the press soon after his arrest and it was not uncommon in that time for unscrupulous newspapers to exaggerate facts or make up details to sell papers. Additionally, a paper paid Holmes $7,500 for his confession so much of what he claimed was just made up to appease them. The stories spread around the legend grew from there.
In 2017, after rumors that Holmes had somehow tricked authorities and avoided execution, his body was exhumed and examined. Dental records confirmed the remains to be H. H. Holmes.
Belle Gunness – Lady Bluebeard
Born Brynhild Paulsdatter Størset and also known as Belle Gunness, Lady Bluebeard was one of America’s earliest known female serial killers. Born in Norway, she worked farm jobs to save up the money to come to America in 1881 and live with her sister in Chicago. That was when she opted to change her name to Belle
After getting married, Belle opened a candy shop with her husband that later burned down. The shop was insured and so they collected insurance money. However, shortly thereafter their home burned down and, again, they collected insurance.
Belle and her husband had children. Two of them died of intestinal inflammation and, naturally, both of them had been fully insured so Gunness collected on both life insurance policies.
Her husband died on July 30, 1900. This was a remarkably significant date as Belle had taken out two insurance policies on her husband. One ended on July 30 and the other began on July 30. That meant that on that one day and only on that one day the man was covered by two policies at the same time. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Despite suspicions of her involvement, she was able to collect on both insurance policies which she filed a claim for the day after her husband’s death. The policies amounted to $5,000 which, adjusted for inflation, works out to just over $175,000.
Two years later, Belle married Peter Gunness, a recent widow and father of an infant. Within one week his child, left in Belle’s care, had died. Several months later Peter himself died of a head injury. She’s claimed he dropped a meat grinder on his own head while reaching for something on a high shelf. Murder was suspected but unproved. She collected another $3,000 in insurance money.
Gunness soon moved on to a new plot. She began corresponding with men looking to marry. These men would travel from other states, meet with Gunness and then disappear very soon thereafter. It happened again and again. Often, the men would be last seen with Gunness at the local bank. One man, George Anderson, agreed he would pay her mortgage after they married. That night, he awoke to find Gunness staring at him in his sleep and he fled the house, a move which no doubt saved his life.
After many other men answered Gunness’s ad only to never be seen again, things came to a head in 1908. The house had burned down and the bodies of a woman believed to be Gunness and three children were discovered inside. However, the woman’s head was missing. The body was identified as being Gunness however no explanation was given as to where her head had gone. Worse, the corpse appeared to belong to a woman significantly shorter and at least 50 lbs lighter than Belle Gunness had been.
Later, a man named Asle Helgelien arrived on the farm having found correspondence between his missing brother and Gunness. Upon investigating what looked to be a depression in the soil, Helgelien discovered a burlap sack buried in the ground containing the hands, feet and head of his missing brother. There were numerous such depressions around the property.
Over a dozen dismembered corpses were found on the property. Gunness’ onetime farm hand, a man named Ray Lamphere, confessed to setting the fire with the children inside at Gunness’ direction. He claimed that the dead woman was not Gunness at all but just a murder victim planted to stop people from investigating further.
Later, Lamphere would confess elsewhere that the corpse was, in fact, Gunness. It’s unknown for sure which story is true, though many people believe the death was a fake and Gunness escaped.