Serial Killers Aren’t New

For some reason, we think serial killers are a phenomenon of the modern day.  I’m here to tell you that’s wrong.  They have always existed.  The difference is that there understanding crime has changed and we’ve created police forces.

Did you know Scotland Yard, the metropolitan Police Force of London did not exist until 1829?  And the oldest formal police force in the US is the Boston police department which came into being in 1838 and was largely modeled upon Scotland Yard?  The NYPD would follow in 1845.  And Albany, NY, Chicago, and New Orleans would follow in the 1840s and 1850s.  This means the oldest police force in the US is only 179 years old.

Before the establishment of police forces, most towns had a constable, but they weren’t exactly crime fighters.  Crime fighting and criminal investigation was not born of the police forces in the 1800s, that came from private investigation agencies, in the UK the Field agency was the first and in the US it was the Pinkerton Agency.  However, it was a French private investigator that started studying criminology, ballistics, and other forensic investigative techniques, including encouraging crime scene integrity.

Long before Jack the Ripper was killing in White Chapel and HH Holmes had even thought to consult an architect to build his Murder Castle, there were serial killers.  The Bloody Benders, and the famous body snatchers William Burke and William Hare, all count as serial killers that operated long before the Ripper and Holmes.

For some reason, modern culture doesn’t apply the term serial killer before Jack the Ripper and HH Holmes though, so our brains convince us they were the first.  And history is a huge part of the problem on the misconception that serial killers are a modern thing.  For the purpose of this post I’m going to use 1881 as the starting point for modern serial killers.

Now for the part history plays in our misconception about serial killers.  Scrolls of papyrus or linen or velum are not cheap to make.  They take a lot of time and elbow grease.  So writing down history was hard.  Add in the expense and history was reserved for the elite.  But writing down that Caligula was a raving madman who could find an excuse to kill practically anyone, was a good way to make the list.  The records we do have of the bloodshed Caligula produced came from scribes that worked under his successor.  And while some of those were happy to make Caligula as vile and awful as he really was, not all of them were okay with showing a Roman Emperor in such a terrible way.

This meant that Bob the Serial Killer of Antioch was probably not written about, because that was a scroll that wasn’t able to be used for the deeds of a ruler or noble man, and realistically there was a good chance there wasn’t any organization crime oriented force to put together that Bob was a serial killer.  Until the printing press and paper became cheap enough for newspapers, there just wasn’t going to be a record of a serial killer that wasn’t in a position of power.

Even today though, we don’t label even terrible leaders as serial killers, even when they are.  And we seem to give them some leniency due to breeding issues (like inbreeding).  But Caligula really wasn’t all that inbred and developed most of his mental issues after suffering from a serious illness that caused some changes in his personality.

And while we don’t consider Caligula a great ruler, we also don’t consider him a serial killer.  There is one exception, because there is always at least one exception, Vlad Tepes.  Perhaps there is some wiggle room with men like Caligula and the label serial killer, but there certainly isn’t with Tepes.  Bram Stoker was so appalled by the stories of Tepes that he turned him into a soulless, blood sucking monster and the name Dracula became synonymous with killer vampires for the rest of history.

I find it surprising more rulers didn’t grow up to be serial killers.  The childhoods of most rulers were horrible, Tepes and Ivan Grozny (Ivan the Terrible) are great examples, Tepes was taken as a prisoner by the Ottoman Empire and the Sultan repeatedly and often tortured Vlad and his younger brother.  Ivan became the ruling prince at just 3 years old.  And finding a capable regent to rule in his stead until he aged, was difficult to say the least.  Literally no one in the castle cared about Ivan.  And he often had to beg the kitchen staff to get a meal in his own palace.

Tepes and Ivan IV are the two that come to mind imediately, for me, but there were plenty of other rulers raised in similar situations that ended up being serial killing monsters.  Even the famed Cleopatra of Egypt was basically a family annihilator.  Murdering her siblings to secure her place as Pharaoh.  And the murder of her two older sisters, both married to Roman noblemen are why Rome objected so strongly to first Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony shacking up with her.

3 thoughts on “Serial Killers Aren’t New

  1. Dear Hadena:

    My research on the history of crime leads me to a different conclusion than yours. I trace the very beginnings of serial killing in particular, and serious crime in general to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in England in the late 1700’s.

    I agree with your approximate dates of the first organized police departments in Western Civilization, but the scant references that I find on this point always cite the urbanization caused by the Industrial Revolution as the cause of these first organized forces.

    When I was a psychology student many decades ago, I remember reading about an experiment where the same small number of rats were housed together in progressively smaller cages. Where in the largest cage all the rats lived in harmony, as they were successively housed in smaller cages over weeks their behavior became increasingly more aggressive until in the smallest, very cramped cage the rats were literally eating each other alive.

    As with rats, so with people. In my view, it was the ever increasing cramped conditions of early urban living that is the primary cause of modern crime.

    Before the Industrial Revolution, the vast majority of the population lived in small towns and villages. These typically had one dirt road coming into town and one going out. The fastest transportation was by horse. Many families lived for generations in the same locale. Had a stranger entered into such a rural / semi-rural setting, he would have been watched closely. The fact that the residents of such small and intimate settings literally knew everyone else, crime by a resident was highly difficult to accomplish.

    On the other hand, the massive cities of the early Industrial Revolution spawned the Anonymous Society where the trend is more like “nobody knows nobody”. In dense urban environments, a person only actually knows a tiny fraction of all the people with whom he will come in contact on a given day. The rest are literally strangers to him. In turn, people become socially and emotionally isolated from each other, making it easier to treat each other as mere objects rather than as humans. It is much easier to commit a serious crime against an “object” than it is against a “human being”.

    For the longest time, Wikipedia had a “List of Serial Killers” that chronologically listed all known serial killers (identified or not) decade by decade from 1870. There was only one bracket for all the serial killers before 1870 because there were so few. Even a scan of the decades after 1870 revealed that there were many more serial killers recorded each successive decade to the present. Strangely however, this Wikipedia article was recently edited to lump together all the serial killers after 1900 in alphabetical order, thus obscuring the accelerating pace of serial killing throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st Century.

    It is easy to say that earlier occurrences of serial killing were simply not recorded, but that puts you into the unenviable position of proving your point by the lack of evidence rather than by the existence of evidence. As such, this apparent lack of evidence totally undermines your argument.

    Joe Kulik … Vallejo, California USA

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is nearly impossible to prove a negative. However, just as rats don’t do well in progressively smaller cages, there were large urban centers even in the middle ages. However, urban centers are a relative term. We don’t consider 80,000 people all that large or packed (the estimated population of London in 1500), however at a population of that size, it is no longer an “every body knows everybody” town and the anonymous citizens syndrome would have already started to form. Just as you say I have entered the position of trying to prove a negative, so have you. I don’t believe the lack of reports of deaths was an indication they didn’t exist. Look at the Bean family from the 1500s. The entire clan lived in caves, killed, robbed, and cannibalized travelers in Scotland. They made the news even as far south as Newcastle. I would say Sawney Bean was definitely a serial killer. There are easier ways to live than cannibalizing travelers, especially doing it often enough that he managed to feed a family. Then there is Gilles Garnier in France also in the 1500s – dubbed the French Werewolf. I believe most cities that thought they had a witch problem or a werewolf problem in the middle ages was probably a serial killer problem. Are Garnier and Bean really one off aberrations of society? Especially considering the societal conditions of early civilizations and the middle ages were perfect breeding grounds for psychopathology and psychotic behaviors? Understanding psychology as we do now (and all the mysteries of the mind have not been unlocked) why does modern society breed serial killers better than earlier societies, especially when earlier societies were perhaps even less sympathetic than our own? Is it even remotely possible that the child rearing methods of Sparta and the blood lust culture that Spartan adults lived in didn’t produce a few psychotics and psychopaths that killed beyond the battlefield? There were roughly 50,000 people in Sparta at the height of it’s power. So again, we have urbanization even in a BCE culture. During the same time, Athens may have contained nearly 500,000 people. Cairo and Alexandra in Egypt were both said to be very large cities of more than 150,000 people. If urbanization is a leading factor in serial killing, then by the same logic serial killers have been a factor of society for 4,000 years or more. Uruk in Sumer, the oldest known city held a population of more than 150,000 people at its peak. So wouldn’t even Uruk have an urbanization problem and therefore possibly a serial killer problem? We know Uruk had crime, Hammurabi’s Code was meant to codify punishment of criminals in Sumer. With Uruk being the largest city and oldest city and known to have crime without. And while we do not know the exact way in which Sumerians caught criminals, we know they had them and that there was a justice system in place to deal with them. To me your argument doesn’t support the idea that serial killers are new, it supports the fact that since civilization began there have been serial killers, because there have always been urban centers. Sorry, that was a long response.


    2. In my opinion, the “start” of serial killing might depend on how you define serial killing/killers. As pointed out by Hadena, there are several examples in history (e.g., Elizabeth Báthory, to mention a further famous example) that killed (or told a servant to kill) several people. While many of these examples might have had political reasons, some of them definitely enjoyed killing people or had the same reason for killing each person.

      On the other hand, if you apply a definition that requires victims with similar characteristics, same modus operandi, … then it will be much more difficult to prove that serial killers existed before the end of the 17th century, since people living at that time mostly didn’t pay attention to these issues.

      Same years ago, I read an article by a psychologist that linked serial killing with a change in the military structure. Basically, up to the end of the 17th century, nations mostly didn’t have standing armies and just hired mercenaries. So a person with a tendency to serial killing could become a mercenary, travel around in Europe, kill people (including civilians) and be paid for it. At the end of the 17th century, the states turned to standing armies, which reduced the number of possible killings significantly.


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