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The average person doesn't wake up in the morning and think "hmm, today I'm going to go on an ape-shit killing spree, murdering my family, friends and anyone who looks at me in a weird way". I mean some people probably want to, and joke about it, but very few people actually kill. So what motivates a serial killer to kill? What is the key defining moment or early emotional trauma in a serial killer or mass-murderer's life which either festers away inside their brain and is the over-all impetus (and in their eyes a logical justification) for their heinous crimes, or the final moment of madness which tips them over the edge from being "such a nice boy" to "a complete monster"?
Point of this article is not to justify the murders or to absolve these killers of their heinous acts, but to try and understand where such unnatural violence, hated of others and an inability to empathise with people comes from. What follows is (what is believed to be) the real reason behind many of the world's most prolific serial killers, mass murderers and spree-killers most horrific crimes, as theorised by the police, a psychiatrist, or the killer themselves...although - to be honest - does anyone really know the real reason we do the crazy things we do? Probably not.
Ted Bundy (birth name Theodore Robert Cowell) - Being born out of wedlock was deemed too sordid-a-scandal for Eleanor Cowell (Bundy's deeply religious 22 year old mother), so her pregnancy was kept a secret and he was raised as the adopted son of his grandparents, believing his mother was his sister. Never feeling he fitted in, or was loved, he began an unnatural obsession with knives, theft and voyeurism at the tender age of three. Bundy finally found love whilst studying at the University of Washington, where he met, dated and fell in love with an attractive Californian student with long dark hair, who he saw as the "love of his life".
Frustrated at his lack of ambition and immaturity, she broke up with Bundy, which absolutely devastated him. It is said that many of his later victims resembled this girlfriend, many of whom were severely raped and sadistically beaten to death.
John Wayne Gacy – Along with his siblings, John Wayne Gacy spent the bulk of his early years living in fear from his alcoholic abusive father, who would regularly beat his the Gacy children and his own wife with a razor strap. So frequent were the beatings that young Gacy would often endure the pain and refuse to cry, but this "toughening-up" inflicted by his father, only lead to him becoming sullen and isolated at school, especially as his attraction to men began to blossom - a deep secret of his true sexuality that he hid from his violent father.
John Wayne Gacy raped and murdered 33 young men and boys, often dismembering and hiding their corpses under his home's crawl space, but on the surface he presented as a respected member of the community; a US Army soldier, loyal KFC manager and fun-loving children's entertainer, as well as a heterosexual married man. He lived his real life behind a mask.
Jeffrey Dahmer - Born to a busy but loving father and a tense and uncaring mother, young Jeffrey Dahmer was described by many as happy, smart and energetic with a "charming twinkle in his eye", but at the age of four Dahmer underwent double hernia surgery which left him withdrawn and sullen. This personality shift was only exacerbated further by the family always uprooting to a new town, being unable to settle and combined with the birth of his younger brother (see my blog on "first-born serial killers"), as Dahmer retreated into himself, becoming obsessed with animal corpses and culminating in his parent's divorce aged 14 which - it is claimed - later became the catalyst for his murder and necrophilia. Jeffrey Dahmer raped, murdered and dismembered the corpses of 17 men and boys, some of whom he ate.
John George Haigh "Acid Bath Murderer" - Born in Yorkshire in 1909 to John & Emily Haigh, two devout members of the deeply conservative Protestant sect known as the Plymouth Brethren, young John George Haigh grew up with no friends, as his father (an engineer) had erected a 10 foot wall around their garden to lock out the "disgusting" influences of the outside world. As an only child, Haigh retreated into solitude, a crazing for attention and his own imagination, which in his teens manifested as theft, lies, fantasies and animal cruelty. Having hit upon a plan to extort money from wealthy individuals, Haigh robbed and killed six people, then dissolved their corpses in a vat of sulphuric acid, entirely believing that - based on the law of "habeas corpus", that you can only prove a murder has taken place if there if a body found - and with the body fully dissolved, even if he admitted to the murder (which he did) Haigh believed he couldn't be caught. Sadly, the law's definition of "body" didn't require a "full torso", just proof that a body existed. Haigh was found guilty of murder as his final victim - Olive Durand-Deacon - had three gallstones, that (unlike the rest of her) were so tough, they didn't dissolve.
Michael Lupo "Wolf Man" – The Italian born (but London-based) lothario claimed to have had over 4000 gay lovers in his lifetime, having lived an entirely hedonistic and promiscuous lifestyle, but in March 1986 Lupo was diagnosed with HIV, which back then was deemed a death-sentence. Angered at his life being cut short - and never once pointing the finger at himself or sexual promiscuity - (it is believed that) Lupo embarked on a kill-crazy rampage fuelled by a loathing for his fellow homosexuals and an "urge to kill" as rfevenge for his illness. Lupo was sentenced to four life sentences plus 14 years, but died of an AIDS related illness 8 years later.
Following his arrest, numerous investigations have been launched to uncover other victims in Los Angeles, Berlin and New York, all places there Lupo lived.
Patrick Mackay - As a small boy, MacKay was regularly beaten and abused by his violent alcoholic father. At the tender age of ten, MacKay's life should have improved as his father died of a heart-attack, but MacKay was unable to come to terms with the "tragic" loss of his abuser, he refused to go to the funeral and often denied that his father was actually dead. Through-out his teenage years, he was put into 16 schools and institutions, having developed an obsession with theft, arson and animal cruelty,
MacKay was later diagnosed twice as a "psychopath" (1967 & 1972) but one year after his release from Moss Side Hospital he hacked Father Crean to death with an axe. MacKay was charged with five murders and is currently serving a whole life tariff.
Robert Maudsley "Hannibal The Cannibal" – Born in Toxteth (Liverpool) Maudsley was the youngest of four supportive siblings who lived in fear at the hands of two unrelentingly monstrous parents who were physically, sexually and mentally abusive, as the kids were batted back-and-forth between care-homes and their violent parents. As a teenager, Maudsley ran away from home and descended into a life of suicide attempts and drug-abuse, which he funded by working as a rent-boy. His first victim was a convicted paedophile from Enfield who had shown him photographs of abused children, which stirred up horrific memories for Maudsley of being raped as a child.
Maudlsey was later convicted of killing two fellow prisoners, and is currently serving a whole life sentence incarcerated at Wakefield Prison in a 5.5m by 4.5m glass cell. Robert Maudlsey once said “If I’d killed my parents in 1970, none of these people need have died”.
Donald Neilson "Black Panther" – Born into a seemingly normal family, Donald Neilson was actually born Donald Nappey, an unfortunate name which – from nursery right up to his stint in the British Army – Donald would consistently be bullied for, hence he later changed it to Neilson. His feelings of isolation and inferiority were only compounded further when his mother died of breast cancer when he was just ten years old. Beginning a life of crime in his early teenage years, Neilson sought attention and was always desperate to prove himself to be intellectually superior to others, he even added unnecessary flourishes to his burglaries to baffle the detective, as knowing they often linked crimes through unusual traits, he’d steal a radio from a handful of homes – as if it was a compulsion – and would then stop. In 1976, Neilson was sentenced to a whole life tariff (five life sentences for murder plus an extra 61 years for kidnapping).
Dennis Nilsen – Raised in the remote Aberdeenshire coastal village of Fraserburg to a busy single mother and an alcoholic Norwegian father, Nilsen was bounced between his strict Catholic mother and his grandparents, unable to settle. His only friend and companion was his grandfather, a Norwegian fisherman who he both loved and looked up to as a father-figure, but his world would come crashing down when – aged five – his mother ushered the boy into her bedroom to “see your grandfather” having not prepared the excited boy that the only person he ever loved was dead. Nilsen saw this as the first traumatic moment in his life and spawned his obsession with dead bodies.
The second occurred in 1978, when “Twinkle” his sexually promiscuous boyfriend ended their brief relationship, causing Nilsen to spiral out of control; killing, sodomising and dismembering fifteen young men, many of whom were young, slim, gay and homeless – just like “Twinkle”.
Harold Shipman "Dr Death" – Known by his family and close-friends (no that there were many) as “Freddy”, Shipman was the second of four children born to domineering mother Vera Shipman, and he was her favourite. Instilling in him from a very early age how intelligent he was, he very quickly developed a sense of superiority over others which would isolate him from his contemporaries for the rest of his life. Unfortunately Vera was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer when Shipman was just twelve, and although her pain was greatly relieved by injections of morphine, she died on 21st June 1963.
Later having qualified as a local GP for Hyde and Todmorden, Dr Harold Shipman would later be convicted of the murders of fifteen patients (with an enquiry later concluding that he’d killed as many as 215 people, although it is believed this figure could be as high as 457 over a 25 year period, making him one of the most prolific serial killer in history), many of whom were elderly ladies who he’d attempted to “alleviate the suffering of”… using an injection of morphine.
Peter Sutcliffe "Yorkshire Ripper" – Leading a seemingly normal childhood, with no physical or sexual abuse, no accidents or injuries, no divorce or early childhood trauma, Sutcliffe’s “hatred of whores” is hard to pin down, as although some psychological reports state he’d had a bad experience with a prostitute as a young man, there is no clear evidence to back up these claims. What is known is that in his teens (whilst working as a grave-digger) he developed an unnatural obsession with death, sex and voyeurism, and would wile-away his free-time spying on sex workers and their “johns”. At his trial, Sutcliffe’s defence team claimed a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, which was rejected by the jury.
Rosemary West – The young life of Rosemary West (nee Letts) started badly - as a result of a difficult birth and a prenatal injury to Rose and her mother - and proceeded to get worse. With both parents suffering from a range of mental illnesses such as depression, aggression and paranoia - which were routinely suppressed by bouts of (controversial) electro-convulsive therapy – Rose struggled at school, was withdrawn, depressed and prone to aggression, all of which was exacerbated by systematic sexual abuse and physical violence at the hands of her father, who was a paranoid schizophrenic.
Soon afterwards, Rose descended into prostitution, which was when she met Fred West, her future husband, who together they would rape, torture and murder twelve young women… including Rose's own daughter. Often it is said that later in life, some children of abuse seek out victims to abuse themselves out of revenge as they are unable to attack their own abusers, or – having been abused for so long - are unable to tell the difference between right and wrong.
Graham Young "The Teacup Poisoner" – With his mother dying of tuberculosis just three months after his birth, caused by pleurisy during pregnancy, and later abandoned by his grieving father who blamed his son’s birth for his wife’s death, Young was cared for by his aunt, sister and grandparents. Obsessed in his teens with chemistry, Young was detained at Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital having poisoned three family members using Antimony and diagnosed with a personality disorder and schizophrenia. Just nine years later, Young was declared mentally fit and was released from psychiatric care and began work at Hadland Laboratories (a chemical lab) where he would poison 70 people… using Antimony. Later , a psychiatric report concluded that Young is Autistic.
Robert Black – Born illegitimate (a social stigma in the 1950/60’s), Black’s mother gave him up to foster parents within weeks of his birth. Always feeling abandoned and unloved, Black was an uptight, defensive and aggressive child, who often picked fights, vandalised the school and bullied younger children – having been bullied himself, being nicknamed “Smelly Bobby Tulip” owing to his lack of personal hygiene. Aged five, Black and a schoolgirl showed each other their genitalia, which – according to Black – made him realise he should have been born female, thus began his obsession with children, female genitalia and inserting objects into his own anus. Robert Black raped and murdered four young girls aged 5-11 in the early 1980’s, but has been linked to 13 other child murders in the UK, Ireland and Europe, whilst he worked as a long-distance truck driver.
Fred West – Born into a hard-working rural family, Fred was a "mummy's boy" and the favourite of seven children who could do no wrong in her eyes. Although semi-literate, Fred had a good work ethic, but developed a habit for petty theft, which his over-protective mother neither corrected and his father simply replied "Do what you want... just don't get caught doing it". Fred claimed (although this was later rejected by his brother Doug) that he was "introduced to sex" aged 12 by his mother, committed bestiality (sex with animals) and incest (sex with family) was deemed acceptable as his father had raped his own daughters. Fred West raped, tortured and murdered 12 young women (including his own step-daughter), many with his wife Rosemary West.
John Reginald Christie - Abused by his strict father and grandfather, Christie was the sixth born in a house of seven children. Always quiet, scared and often dubbed "queer" by those who knew him, Christie spoke about the profound effect it had of seeing the dead body of his grandfather - a man who'd terrified him so much, who was now still and silent. Plagued with impotence his whole life and shamed by a series of sexual failures in his teens which caused him to be bullied and nicknamed "Reggie No Dick", Christie was only able become erect with prostitutes. Christie would later go on to rape and murder eight women , subduing them using coal gas (disguised by Friar's Balsam).
Although rarely tied together, Christie was the victim of a WW1 mustard gas attack, which left him physically and mentally traumatised, having witnessed those around him lying motionless and helpless, having been overcome by deadly gas fumes (a scene similar to his victim's deaths).
Other traumatic events and (possible) motivations for serial killers include:
If you "enjoyed" this blog post try; Odds of a US Presidential Assassination, Killer Couples Part 1 & Part 2, Famous British Serial Killers - Where Are They Now? Serial Killers & Murderers Who Were Never Caught, London's Deadliest & Often Forgotten Disasters, Killers Born During a Full Moon, Killer's Star Signs, Serial Killers Who Were On TV, Celebrities Who Have Killed, London's Railway of Death, Serial Killers as Kids and the World's Weirdest Death Rituals
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten quirky & unusual things to do in London” and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster of Murder Mile UK True Crime and creator of true-crime TV series.
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