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.