Iconic Madness: History’s Most Intriguing Serial Killers
The human mind is a fascinating and many splendid thing, capable of great feats of intellect, creativity, and beauty. Upon this same spectrum lies a darker side, the more sinister corners of our psyche that are lesser seen and still lesser understood. For many these dark waters lay undisturbed, while others toe the tides in curiosity or fear. Very few leave the shore and allow these waves to carry them, and these few leave dark stains like ink blots on the pages of our history books. Their deeds are abhorrent and their motives a mystery. They terrify… and they fascinate.
The individuals described below are some of the most peculiar and gruesome historical figures known to mankind.
1) Vlad the Impaler, Original Dracula
In a time when stories of vampires abound, it is interesting to discover the historic origins of this mythical creature. The now countless books, movies, and TV shows all began with the original vampire novel, Dracula, written by Bram Stoker and published in 1897. The character Dracula was based upon a real man, and a true monster.
Vlad the Impaler’s true name was Vlad Dracula, born in Transylvania during the year of 1431. He was the second son of Vlad Dracul, a military governor and knight of The Order of the Dragon, a secret brotherhood sworn to protect Christianity and the Holy Roman Empire. The surname Dracul could be interpreted either as “dragon” or “devil”, an ironic double entendre for the father of such evil.
Young Vlad’s spent much of his childhood in captivity of the Turkish, with whom his father had formed an alliance and offered up his own sons as collateral. Vlad senior was assassinated by a relative in 1447, but it wasn’t until 1456 that Vlad Dracula overthrew the imposters and claimed his rightful throne, enslaving the strong of the defeated family and publicly impaling the weak. Thus began a reign of terror such as one cannot imagine.
Methods of Horror
Though applied postmortem, the name “Vlad the Impaler” was appropriate for obvious reasons, as it was the man’s favorite means of torture and execution. Vlad would have the impaled bodies of his enemies arranged in eerie circular patterns for all to see. The number of victims became so great that there grew a virtual forest of staked decomposing bodies, and any who expressed displeasure at this grotesque display were promptly staked themselves.
Vlad’s cruelty extended beyond impalement - he felt that any crime, dishonesty, or weakness was worthy of punishment, and his methods were imaginative. In one case, he allegedly invited all the poor and handicapped of his land to a feast, after which he locked the men, women and children in the great hall where the banquet was held and set the building on fire. Another story asserts that when foreign visitors refused to remove their hats in his presence as it was against their custom, Vlad had the hats literally nailed to their heads.
The fear tactics were incredibly effective in maintaining order. This point is best illustrated by the golden chalice Vlad placed in a public square in order to prove his control. The treasure was never touched by the townspeople. (vladtheimpaler.com)
2) H. H. Holmes, Doctor
Considered to be America's first serial killer, H. H. Holmes was a unique and prolific menace. An incredibly intelligent man, Holmes successfully achieved his MD at the University of Michigan. His fascination with cadavers and skeletons, however, was more sinister than any of his professors could have realized at the time. After medical school, Holmes moved to Chicago to become involved in pharmaceuticals, where he managed to purchase a drug store through dubious means. He also purchased the lot across the street, upon which he built a three story mansion. But this was no ordinary home … it was a custom-built fortress of death.
House of Hell
Holmes himself was the architect of the building, and he was careful to keep a rapid rate of turnover with his builders so that nobody could ascertain the true nature of the structure. The first floor was commercial and the second floor was relatively normal with bedrooms and offices, but the third floor and the basement were another thing entirely. Bedrooms on the third floor locked from the outside and where insulated to ensure noise-proofing. Of the over 100 rooms total in the house, many were windowless and strangely laid out, a labyrinth of chambers with doors that led to nowhere, secret passages, and an oiled chute that dropped into the basement. The sole purpose of this chute, and indeed of the whole house, was for dumping dead bodies.
Holmes killed mercilessly and often. He killed most of his many wives, his employees, and tenants of his house, most of whom were visiting the city to attend the World’s Fair of 1893. Often he would asphyxiate them in their rooms, which were poorly ventilated and connected to a gas line. He also engaged in torture in his basement, where he would tie victims up to his stretching rack or shove them into his vault to suffocate. Some bodies he disposed if in acid pits, and others in his furnace. Many he would skillfully dissect, cleaning the skeletons and selling them to the local medical school for a healthy sum.
In the End
By the time Holmes was finally caught, he had officially murdered 27 people. Estimates of the true number of victims, however, range upwards of 100 to even 200. He was sentenced to death and hanged in 1896, and plans were made to turn his house into a tourist spot. Somebody obviously thought this macabre idea was a poor one, for the building was burned to the ground. (Borowsk, 2004)
3) Jack the Ripper
Jack the Ripper is the name attributed to the murderer of at least five prostitutes in Victorian London of 1888. Perhaps the most unnerving thing about Jack the Ripper is the fact that he was never found, though over 100 suspects have been named over the years. The murders, which were carried out during a period of four months in the White Chapel area of London, took place in the blackest corners of the city. The neighborhood was replete with dark alleys and narrow passageways, most unlit, and crawling with seedy characters and destitute whores. As the bodies piled up, a media spotlight was fixed upon the increasingly frantic investigation, catapulting the case into international news.
Elizabeth Stride, victim
Though most of the victims were found with their skirts pulled up over their waists, the nature of the killings were not thought to be sexual, as no sign of rape or molestation was ever detected. Most victims were found in pools of blood with their throats callously slit. In the case of Annie Chapman, the killer actually removed the victim’s uterus and left with it. Worse still was the youngest victim, Mary Kelly, who was found mutilated beyond recognition in her bed. The body was partially skinned, and the abdominal cavity had been opened and all organs removed. Mary’s landlord John McCarthy described the scene as he found it:
“The sight that we saw I cannot drive away from my mind. It looked more like the work of a devil than of a man.”
Author and retired lawyer John Morris has suggested a new and surprising spin to this centuries-old mystery. He has published a book entitled "Jack the Ripper: The Hand of a Woman" that cites evidence that Jack the Ripper was actually a woman named Lizzie Williams.
The Illustrated Police News, September 22, 1888
4) Gilles Garnier, the Werewolf of Dole
Gilles Garnier was a reclusive peasant who resided in the rural French village of Dole in the mid-1500s. While accustomed to providing food for himself, Garnier found after marrying and beginning a family that it was much more difficult to feed others. He took to roaming the forest in desperation, scavenging what he could. It was during one of these trips, Garnier later claimed in court, that a “spectral man” appeared to him. The man gifted him the ability to change into a werewolf, so that he might hunt for his family. What took place next is even more bizarre.
A Frightful Meal
Garnier’s first victim was a young girl, who he strangled to death and then proceeded to eat much of the legs and stomach. He even took home some of the meat for his wife. His next victim, also a girl, he injured with his teeth but was interrupted by passersby. The girl died later of the injuries. The third victim was a boy, and Garnier once again enjoyed his limbs and stomach, this time taking home an entire leg for his family. The last two victims were subject to interruptions, allowing Garnier time enough only to kill. It was during the final interruption that the villagers caught a glimpse of the murderer’s face and recognized him.
Trial by Fire
Though Garnier’s claims of the unholy specter and his transformation into werewolf may have been a desperate attempt to excuse his actions, the testimony worked against him. He was found by the court to be guilty of lycanthropy and witchcraft, and sentenced to burn alive at the stake. (Gibson, 2012)
5) John Wayne Gacy, the Killer Clown
John Wayne Gacy was a self-made business owner, a family man, and an affable neighbor in his community. He often entertained at children’s birthday parties, dressed as his alter ego Pogo the Clown. Everybody liked John Wayne Gacy.
Until 1978, that is, when a grisly exhumation of the contents of Gacy’s suburban home crawl space began. In the end, the bodies of 29 teenage boys were found in the home and four more in local rivers, putting the total body count at a massive 33.
The first victim, age 15, was found last, covered in concrete in the crawl space. Gacy later explained that his second wife had begun to complain about a bad smell in the basement, prompting him to cover the body in concrete when she was out of town one weekend. (Locin)
Gacy lured his victims in with false job offers of construction work. He would rape and torture the young men before strangling them to death and hiding their bodies away in his own house. Sometimes he committed the atrocities dressed as Pogo the Clown. Later in court, he claimed that the murders were committed by his alternate personality Jack Hanson. Court psychologists refuted his claim of multiple personalities, and Gacy was given the death sentence by lethal injection. (A&E)
Gibson, Dirk C. Legends, Monsters, or Serial Murderers? California, ABC-CLIO, 2012.
H. H. Holmes, America’s First Serial Killer. John Borowski. 2004. Waterfront Productions, 2005. DVD.
Jack the Ripper 1888. Jones, Richard, 2010. Web. 4 April 2012. www.jack-the-ripper.org/
John Wayne Gacy Biography. A&E Television Networks, 2012. Web. 10 April 2012. biography.com
Locin, Mitchell. "Gacy’s 1st Victim Finally Identified." Chicago Tribune. 10 May, 1986. 10 April, 2012 chicagotribune.com.
Vlad the Impaler. 29 October 2009. Web. 4 April 2012. http://vladtheimpaler.com
© By: Allison A. Green, All Rights Reserved
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