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Anytime an infamous serial killer's childhood is mentioned, there are always four topics of conversation which are mentioned as "possible" clues to their terrifying future as a murderer - bed-wetting, animal abuse, arson and - of course - sustaining a serious head injury at an early age. Obviously, these aren't the only factors which create a serial killer, the most important one being abuse by a parent (whether physical, sexual, emotional, or often all three), but in this blog we'll just focus on serial killers who sustained a serious head injury whether by accident or by beatings from an abusive parents during their formative years, and whether their head injury caused a change in their personality, an isolation, or a lack of empathy with other people. That said, I'm not trying to justify their killings by suggesting it was entirely the fault of any brain injury.
As always, this is not a comprehensive and complete list, there I will be updating it as and when information comes to light, but if you feel there are any cases that need to be added, please feel free to comment below, or tweet me @mmiletours. Enjoy reading. Mx
Glen Edward Rogers "The Cross Country Killer" – As a toddler, aged 1-2 years old, Rogers would sit and rock back and forth, continually banging his forehead against hard surfaces (such as walls, doors, floors) and yet never once cried, as it he had no emotions or feeling.
Richard Ramirez "The Night Stalker" – Aged two, Ramirez sustained a significant injury to his head when a dresser fell on top of him, causing a laceration which required 30 stitches, and aged five years old, he was knocked out by a swing in the park, this head injury caused him to suffer from epileptic seizures which remained until he was a teenager.
John Wayne Gacy "The Killer Clown" - Aged six, Gacy as beaten unconscious by his father wielding a broomstick, and aged eleven, he was struck in the head with a swing, which (although not diagnosed until he was sixteen) it resulted in his suffering from black-outs, which were exacerbated by his congenital heart arrhythmia. Read more.
Fred West "The Gloucester Road Murders" - Aged 17, West suffered a fractured skull in a motorbike accident, which left him unconscious for seven days. Two years later, aged 19, West groped a girl on a fire escape outside the Ledbury Youth Club, she punched him and he fell two floors. Both injuries caused him to blackout and frequently suffer from violent rages.
David Berkowitz "Son of Sam" - In 1960, six year old David Berkowitz ran into the road outside his childhood home, was struck by a car and suffered unspecified head injuries, although it is not known if this had any lasting affects. A few months later, he ran into a wall and again suffered from head injuries. And aged 8, he was hit on the head with pipe and received a four inch gash.
Albert Fish "The Werewolf of Wysteria" - At the age of seven years old, Fish fell from a cherry tree, which caused severe head trauma (exact injuries unspecified) which caused him to suffer from dizzy spells and severe headaches for the rest of his life.
Ed Gein "The Plainfield Butcher" - Gein came from an abusive family and would later claim that his violent alcoholic father would beat him about the head “so hard my ears would ring”. Read more about Ed Gein
Carlton Gary, aged eight years old, Gary (who suffered from ill-health owing to malnutrition) was knocked unconscious in a playground accident, although the exact details are unspecific.
Ian Brady "The Moors Murderer" - At the age of ten, Brady was playing with a balloon in the kitchen when he slipped on spilled water (as his adoptive mother was peeling potatoes) and broke his leg. Although there is no reference to a head injury, his leg healed and wouldn’t cause him any pain/injury, it is uncertain whether his affected his personality. Read more about Ian Brady
Gary Heidnek - aged six years old, Heidnek fell out of a tree whilst playing, and although his injuries are unspecified, the fall resulted in his skull being "oddly shaped", for which he was mercilessly teased by the other children.
Charles Whitman "The Texas Tower Sniper" - Although not injured in an accident, Whitman (who murdered 17 people and injured 31 in a shooting spree), during his autopsy he was found to have a "pecan-sized" tumour inside his brain.
Alexander Pichushkin "The Chessboard Killer" - Although initially he was a sociable child, Pichushkin's personality changed when he fell backwards off of a swing, which struck him in the forehead as it swung back, damaging his frontal cortex which can produce poor impulse regulation and aggression.
Robert Joe Long "The Classified Ad Rapist" - Suffered serious head injuries in his early years; aged five he was knocked unconscious when he fell from a swing. Aged six, he lost several teeth and suffered concussion when he crashed his bicycle headfirst into a parked car. Aged seven, he fell off a pony, concussed his head and suffered from dizzy fells and nausea for weeks.
Peter Sutcliffe "The Yorkshire Ripper" - Sutcliffe was born five days premature and was starved of oxygen at birth, which resulted in him being incubated for the first ten days, fighting for his life.
Arthur Shawcross "The Genesee River Killer" - Shawcross suffered two relatively serious head injuries during his early years; aged 16 years old he was hit in the head with a sports discus and aged 20 when he fell off a ladder, hitting his head and concussing himself.
Henry Lee Lucas "The Highway Stalker" - Lucas claims to have received numerous head injuries between the ages of five and ten, the most significant was when aged seven, his mother hit him across the back of his head using a two-by-four block of wood. This injury resulted in a three day coma and caused significant damage to the pre-frontal lobe of his brain.
Dennis Rader "The BTK Killer" - In his recently released biography Confession of a Serial Killer, he stated that as an infant, his mother had accidentally dropped him on his head, he had stopped breathing and had turned blue, but she did not taken him to a hospital.
Interestingly, after Ted Bundy's execution, his brain was removed during the autopsy and was x-rayed, but showed no evidence of injury or abnormality. It's worth noting, there was a fascinating piece in the Washington Post which claimed that serial killers and more likely to have suffered from a head trauma as a child, or even autism. Read the article here. Criminologist Dr Adrian Raine scanned the brains of 40+ convicted killers and compared them to "ordinary people" and he found that serial killers have lower activity in the pre-frontal area of the brain. “This is the area that controls aggression, concentration and regulates impulse control. Psychopaths also have shrunken amygdala – the seat of the brain that controls emotion, which explains their lack of empathy, remorse or guilt when they hurt others”
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster 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 curious, quirky, unusual and different things to do in London” and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totaling 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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