Special Report

26 of History's Most Notorious Serial Killers

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

All crimes are aspects of antisocial behavior, but no crimes are more shocking or depraved than the acts of serial killers. A serial killer is someone who murders three or more people, usually because of some abnormal psychological gratification. The crimes may take place over a period of time and include a significant lapse between them. (Whether or not serial killers are involved, these are states where the murder rate is soaring.)

The FBI classifies serial killers into three categories: the organized killer, the disorganized killer, and the medical killer. 

The organized killer is the most difficult to identify and capture because he (the overwhelming majority of serial killers are male) is usually highly intelligent and well organized. Every detail of the crime is planned, and the killer takes precautions to ensure that no incriminating evidence is left behind. The disorganized killer doesn’t try to cover up the crime, and usually doesn’t plan it in advance; his victims are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. (These are America’s most infamous murder homes.)

Medical killers – usually healthcare workers – are rare. They are usually highly intelligent and know how to conceal their murders, making it look as if their victims have died a natural death.

Serial killers typically display antisocial behavior patterns as young people, such as habitual lying, aggressiveness, lack of remorse or guilt, and in general failure to conform to societal norms. Among the concerning behaviors of serial killers is a fascination with setting fires. David Berkowitz, who killed six people in 1977, is said to have set 1,500 fires before his killing spree. Another indicator is the torturing and killing of small animals, something done by Jeffrey Dahmer, who killed 17 people. 

To compile a list of 26 of the most depraved serial killers in history, 24/7 Tempo consulted sources including Britannica, Biography, Mysteries Unsolved, Serial Killers, and Capital Punishment in Context, as well as various news sites.  

 

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Bathory
> Number of victims: 600 (alleged)
> Modus operandi: Various methods of torture
> Location: Central Europe
> Time frame: 1600s
> Serial killer’s fate: Died in Castle Čachtice in 1614

Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian noblewoman, may have killed as many as 600 people, making her the most prolific female murderer ever, according to Guinness World Records. Bathory was accused of killing female servants and noblewomen of lesser stature who came to her for education. She was apprehended and forced to live out the rest of her life in her castle, dying there in 1614. Her alleged grisly crimes are said to have been an inspiration for Bram Stoker’s horror story “Dracula.”

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Belle Gunness
> Number of victims: 40 (alleged)
> Modus operandi: Poisoning
> Location: Indiana
> Time frame: 1884-1908
> Serial killer’s fate: Disappeared

Norwegian immigrant Belle Gunness came to the United States looking to strike it rich in her adopted country. Her path to wealth was to marry men and kill them for their insurance money. At least 14 men met their untimely end at her hand, and she may have been involved with as many as 40 murders in all. She may have died violently as well. In 1908, a fire consumed her Indiana farm. Authorities found the remains of some of her suitors, several children, and a woman who was presumed to be Gunness – though some believe she faked her death.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Jack the Ripper
> Number of victims: 5
> Modus operandi: Stabbing
> Location: London
> Time frame: 1888
> Serial killer’s fate: Unknown

Jack the Ripper terrorized London over a two-month period in 1888, butchering five prоstitutes in the city’s Whitechapel section. The assailant taunted police with letters that were printed in the city’s newspapers. The murderer was never caught. Many theories abound as to his real identity, such as the possibility Jack was a member of the royal family or that the killer was a woman.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

H. H. Holmes
> Number of victims: 200 (alleged)
> Modus operandi: Poisoning, asphyxiation, strangulation
> Location: Chicago
> Time frame: 1890s
> Serial killer’s fate: Executed in 1896

Henry Howard Holmes, usually known as H.H., started his bizarre crime spree while he was still in medical school in Michigan. He would steal cadavers, burn and disfigure them, and plant them in what appeared to be accidents and collect insurance money. In 1855, after he passed his medical exams, he moved to Chicago There he bought an empty lot and built a three-story hotel dubbed the “castle.” He paid the premiums on the life-insurance policies of employees and hotel guests if they listed him as a beneficiary. Many of these people disappeared. The hotel was a house of horrors. Some rooms were soundproof and had gas lines so Holmes could asphyxiate his victims. The basement had a lab, a dissecting table, and a crematorium. Eventually, Holmes’ insurance-scam scheme caught up with him and he was arrested. He confessed to 27 murders, but was convicted for only one and was hanged in 1896. Rumor ascribed as many as 200 deaths to him, but this is unsubstantiated.

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Ed Gein
> Number of victims: 2-10
> Modus operandi: Stabbing
> Location: Wisconsin
> Time frame: 1940s-1957
> Serial killer’s fate: Died in mental institution in 1984

Ed Gein was an infamous killer and grave robber. He was caught in 1957 after two local women went missing in his part of Wisconsin. Though he admitted to killing the two, he may have been responsible for as many as eight other murders. Authorities found furniture, clothing, and masks fashioned out of body parts in his house. Gein was institutionalized and died in an asylum in 1984. He was the inspiration for cinematic fiends such as Norman Bates in “Psycho,” Buffalo Bill in “The Silence of the Lambs,” and Leatherface in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

Donald Henry Gaskins
> Number of victims: 10
> Modus operandi: Stabbing, homemade bomb
> Location: Southern states
> Time frame: 1955-1977
> Serial killer’s fate: Executed in 1991

Donald Henry Gaskins, nicknamed Pee Wee because of his diminutive height, started his life of crime as a burglar and spent his youth in and out of jail. Eventually, his crimes escalated to murder, cutting a swath of terror through the coastal areas for the South during the 1960s and 1970s when Gaskins targeted mostly hitchhikers. He was caught in 1976 and subsequently admitted to nine murders, for which he received nine concurrent life sentences. While serving time, he killed a fellow inmate with a homemade bomb, after which he was electrocuted in 1991.

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Pedro Rodrigues Filho
> Number of victims: 71
> Modus operandi: Beating, stabbing, shooting
> Location: Brazil
> Time frame: 1960s-1970s
> Serial killer’s fate: Released from prison in 2011

Pedro Rodrigues Filho was a vengeful serial killer from Brazil. He was born with a damaged skull that was the result of a beating his mother received from his father when she was pregnant. That was in all probability the reason he embarked on his homicidal path, slaying some 24 people, by various means and for various reasons – including an official who had falsely accused his father of stealing food and gang members who killed his girlfriend. – before being arrested and jailed. While he was incarcerated, he continued his killing spree, murdering 47 more people – including his own father. Rodrigues Filho’s behavior boosted his sentence to 400 years, but the maximum jail time in Brazil was 30 years (since extended to 40 years), and he was eventually released.

Ted Bundy
> Number of victims: 30
> Modus operandi: Strangulation, stabbing
> Location: Across the U.S.
> Time frame: 1966-1978
> Serial killer’s fate: Executed in 1989

Ted Bundy was a charismatic and intelligent man who preyed on college-age women during his 12-year killing spree. He killed his first victims in Washington, Utah, and Colorado before he was arrested. Bundy escaped custody twice while awaiting trial in Colorado and went to Florida. He killed several young women at a sorority before he was captured. Bundy’s trial was televised and he acted as his own attorney. He was found guilty and was electrocuted in 1989.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Zodiac
> Number of victims: 37 (alleged)
> Modus operandi: Shooting
> Location: California
> Time frame: Late 1960s and early ’70s
> Serial killer’s fate: Unknown

The Zodiac killer was an unidentified serial killer who instilled fear throughout Northern California in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Zodiac sent letters that taunted the police and the media, claiming to have killed 37 people, five of which murders were confirmed. He was never caught. The Zodiac case inspired books and films, and was the model for the serial killer in the Clint Eastwood movie “Dirty Harry.”

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Source: Vladislav Zolotov / iStock via Getty Images

Harold Shipman
> Number of victims: 218 (estimated)
> Modus operandi: Drug overdoses
> Location: England
> Time frame: 1970s
> Serial killer’s fate: Committed suiсide in prison in 2004

Nicknamed “Dr. Death,” Shipman was an English physician who killed at least 218 patients in the 1970s. In 1999, Kathleen Gundy, the daughter of one of his victims, claimed that he killed her mother and tried to create a bogus will that named him as the beneficiary. Shipman’s previous victims had been cremated, but Gundy’s mother had not. An autopsy showed an unusually high level of diamorphine, which Shipman used to kill his other patients. He was officially charged with the deaths of 15 people, found guilty, and sentenced to life without parole. He committed suiсide in jail in 2004.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Robert Hansen
> Number of victims: 17
> Modus operandi: Stabbing, shooting
> Location: Alaska
> Time frame: 1971-1983
> Serial killer’s fate: Died in 2014 serving a life sentence

Robert Hansen began a life of crime in 1960 when he was found guilty of burning down a school bus garage in Iowa. He was diagnosed as bipolar and was prescribed lithium. After Hansen and his wife and children moved to Alaska, he became a serial rapist, attacking sex workers in small towns. Hansen bought a bush plane, he picked up prоstitutes, raped them, then flew to the wilderness where he would hunt them. At least 17 women were killed in the wild. A profiler helped identify Hansen and in 1984 he was convicted of murder and sentenced to 461 years in prison. Hansen died in 2014.

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

John Wayne Gacy
> Number of victims: 33
> Modus operandi: Strangulation, stabbing
> Location: Chicago area
> Time frame: 1972-1978
> Serial killer’s fate: Executed in 1994

John Wayne Gacy, who dressed as a clown at children’s parties, sexually assaulted and killed 33 teenage boys and young men between 1972 and 1978 in the Chicago area. Gacy was caught after authorities investigated the disappearance of a 15-year-old boy who was hoping to work in Gacy’s construction business. After getting a warrant to search Gacy’s house, they found the remains of 29 people in the crawl space of his home. Gacy’s insanity defense was rejected. He was sentenced to death and spent 14 years on death row before he met his end via lethal injection in 1994.

Source: TraceRouda / iStock via Getty Images

Paul Knowles
> Number of victims: 18-35
> Modus operandi: Stabbing, shooting, strangulation
> Location: East Coast of US
> Time frame: 1974
> Serial killer’s fate: Killed in 1974 trying to escape the FBI

Prior to 1974, Paul Knowles traveled up and down the East Coast for 19 years, committing crimes from petty theft to kidnapping. Then in 1974, the man known as the “Casanova Killer” because of his charm and good looks, went on a killing spree that claimed the lives of as many as 35 people, from senior citizens to young children. There was no pattern to the murders, baffling police on the East Coast. He was eventually apprehended in Florida and was shot to death trying to escape law enforcement.

Source: Bettmann / Contributor / Bettmann via Getty Images

Peter Sutcliffe
> Number of victims: 13
> Modus operandi: Bludgeoning, stabbing
> Location: England
> Time frame: 1975-1980
> Serial killer’s fate: Died in prison in 2020 from coronavirus

Peter Sutcliffe, dubbed the “Yorkshire Ripper” by British media, killed 13 women and injured seven others in northern England over a five-year period. During the time when he was killing women, Sutcliffe had been questioned by police who determined that he did not fit their profile of the killer. During his trial, Sutcliffe said he was sent on a mission from God to kill prоstitutes. Not all of his victims were sex workers. He died in prison in 2020 from the coronavirus.

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Source: Hulton Archive / Stringer / Archive Photos via Getty Images

David Berkowitz
> Number of victims: 6
> Modus operandi: Shooting
> Location: New York City
> Time frame: 1976-1977
> Serial killer’s fate: In jail

The late 1970s were a difficult time for New York City. The city had almost gone bankrupt, and a blackout in July 1977 triggered looting and rioting. And also that summer, David Berkowitz unleashed a reign of terror in New York City. Berkowitz sent letters to New York newspapers during his killing spree, signing them “Son of Sam,” a reference to a demon he believed inhabited a black Labrador retriever. He was caught 11 days after his last murder, when it was discovered that his car had a parking ticket near one of the shootings. Berkowitz confessed and was sentenced in June 1978 to 365 years in prison.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Jeffrey Dahmer
> Number of victims: 17
> Modus operandi: Stabbing
> Location: Milwaukee
> Time frame: 1978-1991
> Serial killer’s fate: Killed in prison

Few stories about serial killers are more lurid than Jeffrey Dahmer’s. A college dropout and aimless drifter, Dahmer seduced young men and boys, drugged them, and killed 17 of them. He performed necrophiliac acts on their bodies, dismembered them, and cooked body parts and ate them. He was caught when one of his intended victims escaped from his apartment and led police to Dahmer’s apartment, where they found photos of Dahmer’s victims. He was sentenced to 957 years in jail in 1992, but was killed in prison two years later.

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

William Bonin
> Number of victims: 21 (estimated)
> Modus operandi: Beating, stabbing
> Location: Southern California
> Time frame: 1979-1980
> Serial killer’s fate: Executed in 1996

William Bonin, known as the “Freeway Killer,” terrorized Southern California in 1979 and ’80. He killed at least 21 young men and left their bodies along the side of variouis freeways. Before he was executed by lethal injection in 1996, he corresponded with victims’ families telling them how their loved ones reacted while he was torturing them.

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Andrei Chikatilo
> Number of victims: 53
> Modus operandi: Stabbing, strangulation
> Location: Soviet Union
> Time frame: 1979-1990
> Serial killer’s fate: Executed in 1994

Andrei Chikatilo had a challenging childhood, growing up in Ukraine after the famine there in the 1930s. He was a teacher but couldn’t hold a job because of claims of assaults on young children. Instead, he became a clerk for a raw-materials factory in Rostov, a job that involved extensive travel and gave him the opportunity to attack young victims. He befriended them at train stations and bus stops, lured them into forests, raped them, and mutliated them with a knife. After he was arrested for suspicious behavior in 1990, he provided details of his crimes to a psychiatrist. He was found guilty of 52 of the 53 murder charges and he was executed by firing squad in 1994.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Richard Ramirez
> Number of victims: 13
> Modus operandi: Stabbing, shooting
> Location: Los Angeles area
> Time frame: 1984-1985
> Serial killer’s fate: Died on death row in 2013

Called the “Night Stalker” by the media, rapist, burglar, and killer Richard Ramirez unleashed his fury on the Los Angeles area in 1984 and ’85, killing 13 people. After he was arrested, the 29-year-old Ramirez was convicted of those murders as well as five attempted murders, 11 sexual assaults, and 14 burglaries. He was sentenced to die in the gas chamber. Ramirez was unfazed by his fate: “Big deal,” he said. “Death always went with the territory. See you in Disneyland.” That didn’t happen. In 2013, while on death row, Ramirez died from cancer.

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Charles Edmund Cullen
> Number of victims: 40
> Modus operandi: Poisoning
> Location: New Jersey
> Time frame: 1984-2003
> Serial killer’s fate: Serving life sentence

Charles Edmund Cullen was a nurse who worked at medical facilities in New Jersey. The so-called “Angel of Death” murdered at least 40 elderly patients – and possibly as many as 400 – over a 16-year period by overdosing them with drugs, according to law-enforcement authorities. Cullen, who tried to commit suiсide twice, was ultimately charged with only one murder and is now serving a life term without possibility of parole at New Jdrsey State Prison in Trenton.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Tommy Lynn Sells
> Number of victims: 70 (alleged)
> Modus operandi: Stabbing, bludgeoning, strangulation, shooting
> Location: Texas
> Time frame: 1985-1999
> Serial killer’s fate: Executed in 2014

Tommy Lynn Sells had a chaotic childhood during which he was molested and abandoned by his family. He claimed to have murdered at least 70 people, though police believe it was more like 22. He was apprehended after he murdered a 13-year-old girl and attempted to kill a 10-year-old girl. Among his more heinous crimes was wiping out a family in Illinois. Sells’ rage was summed up in this quote after he was caught: “I am hatred. When you look at me, you look at hate. I don’t know what love is. Two words I don’t like to use are ‘love’ and ‘sorry,’ because I’m about hate.” He was executed by lethal injection in 2014.

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Source: nala_rinaldo / RooM via Getty Images

Ahmad Suradji
> Number of victims: 42
> Modus operandi: Strangulation
> Location: Indonesia
> Time frame: 1986-1997
> Serial killer’s fate: Executed in 2008

Ahmad Suradji, an Indonesian cattle-breeder, confessed to killing 42 girls and women over an 11-year period. He lured them by claiming he was a mystic who could make them rich. Suradji strangled them with a cable after burying them up to their waists at a sugarcane plantation near his home in North Sumatra as part of a ritual. The heads of his victims faced his house, because he believed that would give him extra power as a sorcerer. He was sentenced to death by firing squad and executed in 2008.

Source: tawatchaiprakobkit / iStock via Getty Images

Tsutomu Miyazaki
> Number of victims: 4
> Modus operandi: Strangulation
> Location: Japan
> Time frame: 1988-1989
> Serial killer’s fate: Executed in 2008

Tsutomu Miyazaki is among the most depraved serial killers on this list. He abducted Japanese children, killed them and performed necrophiliac acts on them. He kept body parts as trophies and sent correspondence to victims’ families describing the murders. He was apprehended trying to molest a girl in a park. Police found body parts in his apartment and other evidence of his crimes. Miyazaki blamed the killings on an alter ego named “rat man” who he said forced him to commit the crimes. His father was so appalled and humiliated by his son’s crime that he committed suiсide. Miyazaki was hanged in 2008.

Source: Florida Department of Corrections, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Aileen Wuornos
> Number of victims: 7
> Modus operandi: Shooting
> Location: Florida
> Time frame: 1989-1990
> Serial killer’s fate: Executed in 1992

Aileen Wuornos never had a chance at a normal life. Her father was a child molester who killed himself after she was born, and her mother abandoned the family shortly afterward. She was left with her mother’s parents who were abusive alcoholics. Wuornos began her life as a sex worker at 11 and had her only child, given up for adoption, at 14. She eventually moved to Florida to ply her sex trade. Wuornos was convicted for killing six of her seven victims – men she picked up while working as a prоstitute along Florida highways – and was executed by lethal injection in 2002. Charlize Theron won a Best Actress Oscar for portraying her in the 2003 Wuornos biopic “Monster.”

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Luis Garavito
> Number of victims: 147 (estimated)
> Modus operandi: Stabbing
> Location: Colombia
> Time frame: 1990s
> Serial killer’s fate: In jail

Luis Garavito is a serial killer from Colombia, serving a life sentence for murdering at least 147 boys and possibly as many 400. Garavito took advantage of a prolonged civil war in Colombia that made children homeless. He preyed on the most vulnerable children, masquerading as a priest, farmer, or street vendor to earn their trust and offer them employment. Then he would attack, torture, and sexually abuse them before killing and in some cases beheading them. In 1997, the discovery of a mass grave containing the bodies of 36 boys triggered a nationwide manhunt. Garavito was caught when authorities found a note near one of the victims that had the address of Garavito’s girlfriend.

Source: HomoCosmicos / iStock via Getty Images

Javed Iqbal
> Number of victims: 100
> Modus operandi: Strangulation
> Location: Pakistan
> Time frame: Late 1990s
> Serial killer’s fate: Died in prison in 2001

Javed Iqbal surrendered to Pakistani authorities in 1999 after confessing to 100 murders. The victims were boys, mostly street children up to age 16. He brought them to his home where he sexually assaulted them, strangled them to death, dismembered their bodies, and disposed of them in a vat of acid. Iqbal meticulously recorded the names, ages, and photographs of his victims. He was sentenced to death in the same manner as his victims had met their fate. However, he and an accomplice died in prison in 2001 by hanging, either murdered or by suiсide.

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