Special Report

25 of the Most Brutal Criminals Who Ever Lived

Keystone / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

The F.B.I. estimates that there are anywhere between 25 and 50 serial killers operating in the US at any given time. Because of high profile cases like those of Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, serial killers are often thought to be a particularly modern American phenomenon. History, however, shows that they have been around for centuries and have existed in many other parts of the world. (Unfortunately, homicidal psychopaths sometimes wind up in positions of power. These are the most ruthless rulers in history.)

24/7 Tempo compiled a list of the most brutal criminals in history – the vast majority of them serial killers – by consulting sources including Britannica, Biography, Crime Museum, Mysteries Unsolved, Serial Killers, and Capital Punishment in Context. Our list is based on the frequency and depravity of the murders committed by these criminals and the impact their crimes had on their community and their country.

From Indonesia to Denmark, Russia to Colombia, the most brutal criminals in history have lived in all corners of the world. The majority of those on our list, however, hail from the U.S. The press nicknamed many of these infamous murderers with monikers like the Killer Clown, the Night Stalker, and the Casanova Killer. While some preyed on young children, others targeted women, gay men, or the elderly. 

Click here to learn more about history’s most brutal criminals

Some of the most criminals on the list from earlier times were European or American aristocratic women who tortured their serfs or slaves and got away with it largely due to their social status. Other historic killers – also women – made money by pretending to serve as adoption agents for the children of unwed mothers, only to kill the children and keep the adoption fee. These women were some of the most brutal female criminals in history.

Source: AnonymousUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Countess Elizabeth Báthory (1560 – 1614)
> Country: Hungary
> Crime: Murder/torture

With the help of her servants, this Hungarian noblewoman is alleged to have tortured and murdered over 600 girls, believing that bathing in virgin blood would keep her young. Although an investigation and trial led to the executions of three of her servants, the Countess was merely confined to her home until her death.

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Darya Saltykova (1730 – 1801)
> Country: Russia
> Crime: Murder

A serial killer from Moscow, this aristocrat, better known as Saltychikha, is said to have murdered 139 of the serfs that worked her land and manor. Her victims consisted mostly of young women and girls. She was finally tried and convicted, beaten for an hour in a public square, and chained up in a monastery basement until her death.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Delphine LaLaurie (1787 – 1849)
> Country: U.S.
> Crime: Murder/torture

Born in Ireland, this wealthy New Orleans socialite was a sadist who routinely chained and tortured her enslaved workers in a torture chamber in her attic. She also killed a young enslaved girl by whipping her until she fell off the roof of her mansion. As word of her cruelty spread, Madame LaLaurie’s neighbors grew fed up and chased her out of town.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Amelia Dyer (1837 – 1896)
> Country: England
> Crime: Murder

Preying on destitute single mothers who would pay to have someone take their newborns and adopt them into better families, this nurse and midwife became a “baby farmer” who starved or murdered the children soon after receiving money for them. She is thought to have killed 200 to 400 babies, but was finally convicted of a single murder and hanged.

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

H. H. Holmes (1861 – 1896)
> Country: U.S.
> Crime: Murder

Born Herman Mudgett, this medical school graduate built an elaborate 100-room “murder castle” hotel in Chicago. There, he would lure travelers, workers, and potential wives, then place insurance policies on them before killing them. Eventually hanged for murder, he is remembered as one of the first serial killers in America.

Dagmar Overbye (1887 – 1929)
> Country: Denmark
> Crime: Murder

Originally a child caretaker, Dagmar Overbye began serving as a go-between who would accept money from the mothers of unwanted babies, promising to place them in good homes. Instead of arranging for the adoption of the children, she murdered at least 25 of them by drowning or strangulation and burned their bodies in her wood stove.

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Miyuki Ishikawa (1897 – 1987)
> Country: Japan
> Crime: Murder

Remembered as the most prolific serial killer in Japanese history, this midwife in a resource-scarce post-WWII Japan ran a maternity ward where many impoverished women abandoned their babies. Ishikawa’s solution was to let the newborns starve to death. Over 100 babies died in her ward, and she even turned to extorting the parents to pay for the coverup and disposal of the bodies.

Source: Keystone / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

Irma Grese (1923 – 1945)
> Country: Germany
> Crime: Murder

A concentration camp guard who worked at multiple death camps, Irma Grese became a senior S.S. supervisor at Auschwitz and used her authority to relentlessly beat and torture inmates, and was also known to rape prisoners. She was one of only three women guards sentenced to death at the Belsen Trials after the war, and was hanged at age 22.

Henry Gaskins Jr. (1933 – 1991)
> Country: U.S.
> Crime: Murder by stabbing, strangulation

Donald Henry “Pee Wee” Gaskins, Jr. lived a life of petty crime and was in and out of detention facilities from a young age. In the 1970s, he began picking up young hitchhikers and raping, torturing, murdering, and cannibalizing them. He also killed a handful of friends and acquaintances as well as fellow inmates before he was finally executed in 1991.

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Andrei Chikatilo (1936 – 1994)
> Country: Soviet Union
> Crime: Murder and mutilation

A schoolteacher who moved frequently when allegations that he sexually abused his students came to light, Andrei Chikatilo eventually began targeting young runaways. After luring them into the woods, he would rape and mutilate them, sometimes cutting out their eyes and eating their body parts. He evaded capture during a years-long manhunt and was finally arrested in 1990, eventually confessing to 56 murders.

Source: Alaska Department of Corrections

Robert Hansen (1939 – 2014)
> Country: U.S.
> Crime: Murder/torture/rape

For a decade beginning in the mid ’70s, this avid hunter would abduct sex workers and exotic dancers in Alaska and take them to the remote wilderness in his bush plane, where he would rape and torture them. He returned around 30 women home after assaulting them, but some he would release into the woods to hunt with a rifle. He killed at least 17 victims in this manner.

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

John Wayne Gacy (1942 – 1994)
> Country: U.S.
> Crime: Murder

Also known as the Killer Clown, this well-liked Chicago suburbanite lured teenage boys and young men to his home with promises of construction work, then raped and sometimes killed them. He murdered at least 33 victims, often by strangulation, then hid the bodies under his house or dumped them in a nearby river. Gacy was convicted of murder and died by lethal injection.

Ted Bundy (1946 – 1989)
> Country: U.S.
> Crime: Murder/torture

Targeting mostly college students and young women, this infamous serial killer murdered at least 30 people. He was known to lure women to his car by asking them for help or by posing as a police officer before abducting and raping them, then strangling or bludgeoning them to death. He decapitated some victims and kept their heads as trophies, and escaped from police custody twice before he was finally captured and convicted.

Source: Leila Grossman / Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

Paul Knowles (1946 – 1974)
> Country: U.S.
> Crime: Murder

Nicknamed the Casanova Killer, Paul Knowles engaged in a four-month cross-country crime and murder spree, during which he killed victims of various ages and genders, sometimes stealing their vehicles and money. He recorded confessions to each crime on a tape recorder and claimed to have killed 35 people, although he is officially tied to the deaths of only 18 victims.

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Source: Bettmann / Contributor / Bettmann via Getty Images

Peter Sutcliffe (1946 – 2020)
> Country: England
> Crime: Murder

Dubbed the Yorkshire Ripper by the press, Peter Sutcliffe served a life sentence for murdering 13 women and attempting to murder seven others between 1975 and 1980. He routinely targeted sex workers in red light districts, claiming that God had chosen him to kill them. It wasn’t until he murdered his first non-sex-worker victim that the killings began receiving national press attention.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

William Bonin (1947 – 1996)
> Country: U.S.
> Crime: Murder/torture/rape

Over the course of a year, William Bonin and two accomplices abducted, sodomized, beat, and strangled at least 14 teenage boys – and likely more – in Southern California. Bonin lured the victims into a van as they walked, biked, or hitchhiked, and their bodies were subsequently dumped along freeways, earning Bonin the moniker the Freeway Killer.

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Ahmad Suradji (1949 – 2008)
> Country: Indonesia
> Crime: Murder by strangulation

Selling himself as a shaman, this Indonesian serial killer murdered 42 girls and women who came to him for help. With the assistance of his three wives, he would bury the victims from the waist down, claiming it was part of a ritual, then strangle them while they were immobilized. Suradji believed that their deaths would make him a more powerful magician.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Pedro Rodrigues Filho (1954 -)
> Country: Brazil
> Crime: Murder

Brazil’s most prolific serial killer, Pedro Filho targeted other criminals and those who wronged him, including his own father and a gang that killed his pregnant girlfriend. He has been convicted of 71 murders – including 47 of his fellow inmates (primarily rapists) – but has admitted to killing over 100 people. Filho was released from prison in 2018.

Jabed Iqbal (1956 – 2001)
> Country: Pakistan
> Crime: Murder

Turning himself in by sending a confession letter to police in 1999, he admitted to abducting and raping around 100 boys aged 6 to 16 – mostly beggars and street children – before strangling them and disposing of their bodies in a tub of acid. Iqbal, who kept meticulous records of the victims, including their names and photographs, was sentenced to death.

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Source: 161690867@N06 / Flickr

Juana Barraza (1957 -)
> Country: Mexico
> Crime: Murder

Dubbed Mataviejitas (Killer of Old Ladies) by the press, this former masked wrestler began her career of crime by robbing elderly people in their homes while dressed as a nurse, before moving to strangling the victims during the robberies. Mexican police believed the killer to be a man, which left Barraza free to continue killing for years before she was finally caught in 2006.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Luis Garavito (1957 -)
> Country: Colombia
> Crime: Murder/necrophilia

From 1992 to 1999, Luis Garavito murdered anywhere from 100 to 400 boys aged 6 to 16, many of them homeless or orphaned. Dressed as a laborer looking for extra help, Garavito would lure the children into an isolated area then torture, rape, and dismember them. It wasn’t until a mass grave was discovered in 1997 that his crimes came to light.

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Jeffrey Dahmer (1960 – 1994)
> Country: U.S.
> Crime: Murder/cannibalism

Active primarily in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Jeffrey Dahmer killed 17 men, mostly African-Americans, after luring them with promises of sex or money. Dahmer sometimes used his victims as sex slaves before killing them, and engaged in acts of necrophilia and cannibalism with their corpses. When he was finally caught, police found seven skulls in his apartment and a heart in his freezer.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Richard Ramirez (1960 – 2013)
> Country: U.S.
> Crime: Murder/sex offenses

Dubbed the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez terrorized the Los Angeles area in 1985, robbing and killing at least 14 people and raping and torturing over 20 more, many of them couples, in their own homes. His modus operandi often involved leaving Satanic symbols at crime scenes.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Tommy Lynn Sells (1964 – 2014)
> Country: U.S.
> Crime: Murder

Although convicted of only a single murder, Tommy Lynn Sells was a vagrant who claimed to have murdered 70 people and is believed by authorities to have killed at least 22 people across the country over the course of 20 years. Sells murdered some victims during home invasions, while others he killed after abducting and raping them.

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Klara Mauerova (1975 -)
> Country: Czechia
> Crime: Cannibalism

A member of a cannibal cult, mother of two Klara Mauerova tortured her two sons, ages 8 and 10, by burning, beating, and sexually assaulting them, while keeping them locked in cages or in the cellar. Mauerova admitted to partially skinning and consuming the younger son’s flesh, and sharing it with accomplices, who claimed they were following orders from a cult leader who communicated with them by text.

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