Serial Killers, Industrialization, and Urbanization


Recently, I published a post about serial killers having always existed in the course of human history.  I had a reader disagree with me, stating that as far as they could tell, serial killers were the result of the urbanization that happened during the Industrial Revolution.  Here’s my rebuttal and why I think they have always walked among us.

Urbanization was not a result of the Industrial Revolution.  Since civilizations began to form on this planet we have had urbanization.  I did agree with one thing they said “crime is a side effect of urbanization.”  Yes, yes it is.

We look back into history for codified penal codes and the first is always the Code of Hammurabi.  We all know it, a justice system built upon an eye for an eye.  It was written by the king of Babylon Hammurabi and set down on a large chunk of stone as well as smaller scrolls.  The difference is, we’ve found the large stone, but only fragments of the scrolls, which appear to have been delivered to magistrates outside the capitol city Babylonia.

It makes sense.  The stone was carved approximately 3,700 years ago (best guess based on source materials talking about it).  We don’t know if the stone was carved first or the scrolls, but safe money would be on the scrolls.  This means that mesopotamia may have had a crime problem.  A problem with not just crime, but uniform punishments for crimes.  Hence the creation of the code.  In one of my early civilization classes, we were told to look at the punishments listed first on the code, because those are probably the most prevalent (i.e. the biggest problems).  If my memory is correct, the first two deal with theft and murder.

Best estimate for the population of Babylonia in 1700 BCE is 200,000 residents.  That would make Babylonia an urban center…. and if my professor was right, we know they had problems with murder or Hammurabi would not have made it a priority to address it.  And as a human being, I tend to agree with my professor.  I don’t put the least important stuff at the beginning of a letter.  I start with the things that I absolutely require the readers full attention on.

There are over 200 penal codes outlined in the Code of Hammurabi.  Attention spans suck, even back then, because people are fundamentally people.  You don’t start with horse theft if it isn’t a big problem because people are only going to read the first 20 lines or so.  Beyond that and their brains are going to shut off.  It’s the way it works, that’s why no one reads the End User License Agreement when they install software… it’s legal jargon and there are pages upon pages of it.

And we don’t actually know what crimes were a problem because while Hammurabi made a codified penal system for crimes committed in Babylon in the 1700s, no one wrote down Enki Abu Blah (Enki is a god in Babylon, I just couldn’t think of any other names for a Babylonian) was found guilty of murdering his neighbor after he found his neighbor had participated in carnal relations with Enki’s wife; punishment put to death by being pecked to death by crows.

Other early civilizations (Egypt, Greece, Rome, Persia, Carthage) would also codify crime and punishment.  And again, murder appears to have been a problem among these civilizations if the order of the laws as stated on papyrus scrolls is an indicator.  Again, what we lack are the written records of the crimes committed that made it necessary to codify a legal system.

Giza, Egypt around 1000 BCE has been estimated to be nearly 300,000 people including slaves.  Move forward a little and you have Athens in approximately 500 BCE with a population of 250,000 people, but those were citizens… women, slaves, men under 30, men not born in Athens, but not slaves, these people were not slaves.  Most historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists suspect the population of Athens to be more than 500,000 in 500 BCE.

If serial killers exist because urbanization exists, then my original statement was correct, serial killers have existed from the moment we started building cities.  Hell, the capitol of Sumer in 5,000 BCE, the ancient city of Uruk had a population of 200,000 people.  To put that into perspective, you really have to think about it.  6,700 years ago, when the world population numbered in just the millions, Uruk had a population of 200,000 people.

However, urbanization did occur with the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s.  It just didn’t occur as we think.  London in 1500 CE had a population of 80,000 people.  A far cry from the population of London today.  But with the Industrial Revolution London went to having a population of more than one million people in 1800.  It became the largest city in Europe with industrialization.

For some reason though, we are still convinced that our civilization ancestors, lived in towns of 5,000 people or less.  If Sparta had only had a population of 5,000 people, they would have lost a lot of battles.  In reality, the Sparta we learn about in school had a population of more than 50,000 people.  Much, much smaller than it’s sister city of Athens.  Of course, Sparta had population growth under control with their rules to ensure that every man served in the army and they weeded out weaknesses in infants by leaving them to die, so they wouldn’t contaminate the gene pool by breeding.  Those kinds of things make it very hard to grow your population.

I have pondered on part of their argument though, was it perhaps not urbanization that created serial killers, but industrialization?  If that’s the case, then serial killers would be fairly new to the world.  Every time I think about that part of it though, I come to two very odd facts that I have trouble reconciling.

  1. Nearly every child raised before 1960 most likely had sociopathic traits.  Child rearing before modern day leaned far more to the Spartan method than the Dr. Spock method.  Why aren’t serial killers littering the historical records.
  2. There are serial killers in the history record before the 1800s.  Not many, but a few.  Which makes me think the same problem exists for early serial killers as it does for the US v. the rest of the world in the creation of serial killers.  In the 1990s, the FBI put out a terrifying report, the US which holds only 5% of the world population had over 85% of it’s serial killers.  Holy crap, what was the US doing wrong?!  Turns out, nothing and the stat is very skewed.  The reason it looked like serial killers were a US problem was because we had the FBI.  By the mid-1990s the Behavioral Science Unit was up and running.  Understanding serial killers was becoming an art form.  Why so many serial killers in the US compared to the rest of the world then?  Lack of reporting, lack of understanding, lack of putting serial killer cases together.  And lack of publicity surrounding the capture of serial killers.  The US doesn’t have a serial killer problem, it has a reporting problem – they are too good at reporting their successes.  I believe pre-Victorian era serial killers work the same way, if they were caught, there wasn’t any publicity around it.
  3. Finally, there wasn’t a complete definition for a serial killer.  Nor the understanding that we have today.  As of right this second, we know that serial killers can and do just stop killing for a variety of reasons that do not involve death or prison.  We also know that sometimes they change signatures and MOs.  Victimology is the most consistent thing about a serial killer.  And there were serial killers.  Only a handful, but a handful of serial killers before the 1800s is a sign that serial killers did exist.  Elizabeth Bathory, Gilles Garnier, Vlad Tepes (the real person not the creation of Stoker), were all medieval serial killers.

I also believe that serial killing took a hiatus in the 14th and 15th century.  This is where the lack of urbanization myth comes from.  Between the mid-1300s and the late 1400s Europe, all of Europe (as well as the Middle East and North Africa) had a serious problem.  Bubonic Plague became hyper-virulent.  Normally, plague is passed by fleas and even humans had fleas during the Middle Ages, but that doesn’t explain why it swept through Europe with such deadly efficiency and speed.  Plague under normal circumstances spreads very slowly and takes 7-15 days to kill you.  During the Black Death epidemic of the middle ages, it spread rapidly, written accounts make it appear it could be spread from person to person, and death happened in just a few days, not a week or longer.  We have now learned that once in a while, it does indeed spread person to person and become a much stronger reproducer causing quicker deaths.

Millions died.  But the superstitions surrounding the Black Death (which have mostly turned out to be true, just FYI) about it travelling on the air, would have been preventative, keeping the deranged away, in case your household had plague, but wasn’t showing symptoms yet.  In 1200 CE, the population of Paris France was estimated at over 100,000 people.  By 1500 CE, when the Black Death was under control, the population was only 45,000 people.  More than half the city’s population either died or moved, because in urban centers, plague spread even faster than in rural communities.  (The Black Death did have one good side effect, it ended feudalism)

This was not the first time this had happened with plague, but it was the worst.  The Justinian Plague (also an outbreak of bubonic plague) killed more than half the population of Constantinople between 400 CE and 540 CE, estimated death toll was in the hundreds of thousands.  Meaning Constantinople was quite obviously an urban center at the time.

Leading me to continue to believe that serial killers have always existed.  It should be pointed out that I don’t always buy into the modern definition of a serial killer, because there are at least 4 of them and they are all based on the idea of signature, MO, and inability to stop killing.  Since all these things are fluid, more fluid than we thought just 20 years ago, I consider a serial killer anyone who murders more than 3 people for either sexual gratification, their own personal pleasure, or entertainment.  I consider this a fitting definition, since one of these three things must be there for a serial killer to be created.  For example, if I kill author C. Patt (don’t worry, Chris, you’re safe, I hate being in the same room as dead things and frankly killing you makes you a dead thing), I have to enjoy it or I won’t do it again.  That lack of enjoyment automatically stops me from being a serial killer, since one victim doesn’t cut it.  Also, things like cooling off periods are quite variable which is part of another definition of a serial killer.  I usually believe that simpler is better for defining things, because there are too many outliers when definitions get very detailed.

There was also an argument for urbanization creating the anonymous neighbor.  This is true, in towns and cities of several thousand people, you don’t know everyone.  However, I’m not sure that serial killers require anonymous neighbors.  There are scores of serial killers that started with someone they knew, personally, sometimes intimately, before moving on to their anonymous neighbors.  What urbanization does bring to the table for serial killers is an extremely deep well of victims to choose from.  It’s much easier to kill 10 people in a city of 100,000 than in a village of 500.  But massive urban centers dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see.  And I’m not convinced it was the industrialization of Europe that lead to the creation of serial killers, simply because there’s no reason for it to be a huge factor.

2 thoughts on “Serial Killers, Industrialization, and Urbanization

  1. well, how about the social and emotional pressures of urbanization, regardless of timeframe. maybe we should look at rats. when they outgrow the carrying capacity of their environment and are still forced to coexist, they start cannibalizing each other to deal with the stress of too many individuals in too small a place. so then serial killers could simply be the result of population pressure. i’m not saying that serial killers only exist in such environments, but they become noticeable there. there are those serial killers who kill along highway routes and cannot be discovered because jurisdictions don’t often share information and so few detectives will be able to connect the dots. in the past, killers could also have killed in various places they visited and no-one ever put it together either,since information flowed slowly from one place to another. still, people, especially traders and laborers, moved about the landscape.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not opposed to that idea and am familiar with the studies on it. My point was simply that urbanization has always existed, so it seems very likely serial killers have always existed and we just don’t know about them because of under reporting/lack of understanding of a multiple murderer during previous millennia.

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