9 of History's Most Famous Serial Killers
by Joe Turner
January 18, 2020
Many serial killers have come and gone over the years, but some have forged a much deeper legacy than others. Some have been remembered because of their extreme body count, others for their strange perversions, and some just have that indescribable quality that just makes a famous serial killer.
In this list, we’re going to look at the following famous serial killers:
- Ted Bundy
- Jack the Ripper
- Ed Gein
- John Wayne Gacy
- Carl Panzram
- Jeffrey Dahmer
- Aileen Wuornos
- Harold Shipman
- Dennis Rader
Ready? Let’s dive into some of the world’s most horrific history.
We can’t talk make a serial killer list without mentioning Theodore "Ted" Bundy. This charming, handsome young deviant was a real lady killer in more ways than one.
Good looking, ruthless and cunning, Bundy has become the gold standard of evil the world over, as is evident by the sheer amount of books, movies, TV shows and podcasts that have chronicled his story. My favorite book about Bundy has to be The Phantom Prince: My Life With Ted Bundy - written by his girlfriend of 6 years.
Although he spent most of his childhood in Philadelphia, Bundy’s thirst for blood took him across the country throughout the 1970s. Ted Bundy murdered at least 30 people, and took victims in Ohio, Colorado, Idaho, Washington, Utah, Oregon, Florida and possibly California.
Ted had a thing for young, brunette coeds, and would often pretend to be injured in order to lure these unlucky women into his now-infamous VW Beetle. Once inside, Bundy would attack them with a crowbar, rape them, then strangle them to death in the woods. As he progressed, Bundy began to take more risks, even going as far as to invade a sorority house and attack four women within a span of 15 minutes.
Unfortunately, his desires were unquenchable, and like most serial killers, he took too many risks. Bundy was caught in 1975 and sentenced to death. He was executed by electric chair in 1989 and remains (probably) the most famous serial killer of all time.
Jack the Ripper
Stalking the shadows of Victorian London, the legend of Jack the Ripper is the seductive tale of England’s most famous serial killer that still captures the imagination even 130 years on.
There’s a lot of mystery around the Ripper murders, and since he was never caught, nothing has ever been confirmed. But what we do know is that he killed at least five women by gutting, disemboweling and leaving them for dead on the midnight streets of London, England in 1888.
Not content with just spilling the blood of innocent women, the elusive Jack taunted London police with letters and postcards, one of which was sent alongside the extracted kidney of one of his victims.
Although Jack’s first four victims were stabbed and mutilated within a matter of minutes, Jack’s fifth and final victim, Mary Jane Kelly, was a different story. Jack obliterated her to the point that she was unrecognizable, and to this day, the crime scene photos of the aftermath remain a disturbing image.
The Ripper’s legacy remains unmatched in the annals of true crime, with historians and researchers still trying to make sense of the mess he made over a century ago.
No serial killer list is complete without mention of the grave-robbing ghoul whose grim antics spawned one of the best horror characters of all time - Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Ed Gein was the ultimate mommy’s boy. He lived with his mother in their farmhouse in Plainfield, Wisconsin until she died in 1949, at which time Gein was 40 years old. Soon after, Gein began paying visits to local cemeteries, where he would unearth the bodies of recently-deceased women, steal them and fashion them into various household items.
But soon, grave robbing wasn’t enough for old Ed, so he turned his hand to murder. He shot and killed two local women with a rifle, loaded their corpses into his truck and took them home to his decaying house. Gein soon became a suspect in the disappearance of local shop owner Bernice Worden, and when police inspected Gein’s house, they found some of the most hideous creations known to man.
Human bones, bowls made of skulls, mutilated vaginas, a lampshade made from human skin, clothes made from flayed skin – and much more. Gein later confessed that his dream was to create a ‘woman-suit’ so that he could ‘become his mother.’
Gein died in a mental hospital in 1984, but his presence still haunts the backwoods of Plainfield. He’s one of the United States most prolific serial killers for good reason. Read more about Ed in Deviant: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein.
John Wayne Gacy
The Killer Clown of Chicago, John Wayne Gacy was the classic two-faced psychopath. By day, he was a successful businessman, community worker and children’s entertainer. But by night, he was a sadistic, murdering rapist who ran an unlicensed cemetery beneath his house. If we’re talking serial killers with high victim counts, Gacy is definitely near the top of the list.
Gacy’s murder spree began in 1972 when he bought 16-year-old Timothy McCoy back to his home and stabbed him multiple times in the chest. As Gacy murdered the young boy, he claimed to experience an orgasm, and from that point on, chased that same feeling with 32 more victims.
He procured boys by cruising around Chicago at night and picking them up off the streets, or sometimes he’d bring back boys who he’d hired to work for his construction company. Gacy would surprise attack them once they were in his home, then strangle them with either his hands or a makeshift tourniquet he dubbed his “rope trick.” Who says clowns don’t have a sense of humor?
When you think of history’s most infamous serial killers, Carl Panzram might not be the first name that comes to mind, but he’s definitely worthy of a spot on the list.
You see, every other serial killer on this list had a preferred victim type. Bundy liked young women, Gacy liked teen boys, Gein liked dead women. But Panzram was a different type of beast. He didn’t give a shit who you were - Panzram would kill you. In his own words, he was "So full of hate that he had no room for any other emotions."
Born in Minnesota in 1889, Panzram lived a reckless life from day one. He started train-hopping as a young man to get around the country, attacking and burgling random people along the way to sustain himself. After some prison stints where he was raped and tortured by guards, Panzram’s desire for vengeance became unstoppable.
He lured American soldiers away from bars and shot and killed them. He targeted boys as young as 11, whom he’d sodomize then strangle. While only convicted of 3 murders, he actually confessed to killing over twenty people.
Panzram despised humanity and fantasized about killing on a mass scale. Behind bars, he allegedly told a prison guard: “I wish the whole world had one neck and I had my hands around it.”
Between the years of 1978 and 1991, the Milwaukee Cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer raped, killed and violated the remains of 17 young men. Not only is Dahmer included on this serial killer list due to his high body count and his bizarre perversions, but he’s also one of the few killers to cross racial lines with his victims.
Dahmer mostly killed young black men because those were the people he was sexually attracted to. He lured them back to his apartment with promises of sex, booze or drugs, then blitz-attacked them and strangled them to death. After they were dead, he’d have sex with them then mutilate their bodies, keeping several body parts as trophies.
As Dahmer became more confident, he began to drug his victims so he could toy with them while they were still alive. In some cases, he drilled into their heads and injected them with chemicals in a strange attempt to create human zombies. Read more on that in this chilling biography.
Dahmer was caught when one of his victims escaped and told the police of the horrors inside his apartment. Sure enough, police found human body parts, castrated penises in jars and hundreds of Polaroids of decapitated bodies.
Murder isn’t just a man’s game. There are a handful of famous serial killers of the feminine persuasion out there too.
During 1989 and 1990, Florida prostitute Aileen Wuornos went on a brutal killing spree that cemented her status as America’s most heinous female serial killer. Wuornos was an abused child who went on to become a sex worker who suddenly upped her game to serial murder.
All of Wuornos’ victims were men who she shot multiple times, with Wuornos claiming that each murder was committed in self-defense. Allegedly, all of these men had hired her for her sexual services but had become violent, so Wuornos naturally retaliated by executing them.
Much like her victims, Wuornos’ story is full of holes, but whatever you believe, she remains one of the most polarizing figures in criminal history. Her tragic story was adapted into the film Monster in 2003. History’s notorious serial killers are disproportionately men, but Aileen Wuornos manages to hold her own in terms of brutality and remorselessness.
Back over the pond we go to Manchester, England, where the man dubbed Doctor Death killed a record-breaking number of victims over a 28 year reign of terror. In the UK, Shipman is undoubtedly one of the most famous serial killers of modern times.
On the surface, he looks like your average doctor, but Harold Shipman concealed a horrific secret. He was the most prolific serial killer in known history. Shipman would visit his elderly patients in their homes and administer excessive amounts of morphine into their system; an act which mirrored how his own mother died.
Authorities became concerned when they noticed how many patients were dying under Shipman’s care. The final straw came when the daughter of Shipman’s final victim found that her mother had left a large sum of money to Doctor Shipman in her will. It was later found that Shipman had been falsifying the documents of his dead patients to hide his activities.
Above: The Garden of Tranquility - a tribute to Harold Shipman's victims.
In total, it’s believed that Shipman killed at least 215 people, with a possible total of 260+. He denied all allegations, and unfortunately, he committed suicide in his prison cell in 2004, taking all of his secrets to the grave. Read more about Britain's most prolific serial killer here. The list of serial killers that are still alive gets shorter and shorter by the year.
Bind, Torture, Kill – that was how Dennis Rader operated.
This pillar of the Wichita community lived a double life. He was a loving husband, father and company man, but he moonlighted as the elusive BTK killer, killing entire families and taunting police with mutilated Barbie dolls.
He began in 1974, where he invaded a family home and strangled both parents and two kids. Similar murders followed, and Rader began taunting police with confession letters. He targeted older women in their homes because he could easily overpower them.
Unlike other famous serial killers, Rader was able to subdue his BTK alter ego for years at a time. He went from 1977 to 1985 without murdering anyone, and again from 1987 to 1991. By this point, he’d killed 10 people, and he never killed again.
But amazingly, BTK wasn’t caught for another 14 years. His ego forced him to continue his cat-and-mouse games with the police, and it was this that led to his downfall. He most likely would have gotten away with his crimes if he’d have just shut his mouth. More on Dennis Rader in his biography: Confession of a Serial Killer: The Untold Story of Dennis Rader the BTK Killer.
Who are we missing from this list? Comment below and let us know!
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