What makes a serial killer? Introduction Reported incidents of multiple murders committed by an individual, who are now known to us as ‘serial killers’, have increased in notoriety since the 1870s. Although almost unknown at that point in time, they did exist. Mary Ann Cotton was Britain’s first acknowledged serial killer. Mrs Cotton spent roughly eight years killing her victims, most of which were her family members.
However, when the notorious ‘Jack the Ripper’ began his reign of the Whitechapel region of London in the 1880s, the public became aware that such disturbed and sadistic people were living in their midst. (Jones, 2008 p 12. ) However, serial killers are not so unheard of nowadays. The media also play a big part in how society views serial killers. No other story is quite as sensational as those in which serial killers are at large. The ‘Jack the Ripper’ case was the beginning of a media tradition; the case moved faster than any other previous case and was also of interest in America.
No-one knows for sure if the letters received by the police department were written by ‘Jack the Ripper’, (Appendix One) although it is evident that ‘Jack the Ripper’ and his letters were the beginning of a long tradition of extensive media coverage that include news stories, television documentaries, websites, films and books. The term ‘serial killer’ itself is very commonly used worldwide when describing someone who has killed more than three victims. Since the 1800s, there have been thousands of convicted serial killers, excluding those who have yet to be caught, or those who have managed to evade capture (Murray, 2009 p 7).
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People commit multiple murders all over the world, and many of them have very different reasons for doing so. Some professionals blame it on the childhood or early family life of the individual, whereas others believe it to be psychological. Throughout this piece of writing, numerous sources will be used to analyse and establish a brief possible answer regarding the potential reasons behind a serial killer’s actions. In order to complete this research project, the use of several journals, online articles and books, including, ‘Talking with Serial Killers’ by Christopher Berry-Dee, and ‘British Serial Killers’, by Martin Fido.
These two books, combined with others will provide this research project with certain characteristics that the general public assume will run similarly throughout most, if not all, of the world’s serial killers. This research project will aim to investigate the factors in which become acquainted to a serial killer and what people associate with them. It will explore specific characteristics that people tend to associate with serial killers and the reasons for this. As well as studying specific murderers, this project will look into both male and female serial killers and identify in what way they differ.
Chapter one will discuss the factors deemed to be surrounding the cases of most serial killers before continuing to examine what contributes to the making of a killer. This chapter will analyse the stereotypes of this particular category and whether particular facts only count towards particular people. A brief study in to whether or not the past of the serial killer could be the cause of the main issues will be carried out within the chapter itself. After discussing both male and female murderers and the differences between the two, the evidence will be reviewed to conclude the chapter.
Chapter two will research and describe in depth two serial killers. Namely ‘Jack the Ripper’ (1880s) and Dr. Harold Shipman (1990s). The two murderers are of a very different nature and are from completely different time frames. Each murderer will be thoroughly evaluated and their actions will be explained in order to compare and contrast the dissimilarities between the pair. The attitudes of each killer will be looked at and it will be decided whether or not they are alike in any way at all.
Finally, the chapter will be concluded with a brief summary of how the two can still be labelled in the same way. To conclude this project, all evidence will be analysed in order to establish the initial ‘factors’ of being a serial killer. All the chapters will be dissected and examined in order to find an answer to the question of the project. Each individual chapter will be concluded before connecting all three together to answer the question provided in the title. This research project will end with a final result after having reviewed all the work presented.
Background Commentary The United States of America is home to five per cent of the world’s population and has produced more serial killers than any other country. America accounts for seventy-six per cent of the total number of serial killers. Europe produces the second highest amount of serial killers at seventeen per cent, with England holding the majority, closely followed by Germany. A serial killer should not be confused with a mass murderer; a mass murder includes the massacre of a large number of people, either by an individual or a group of people.
A serial killer only tends to murder one person at a time; there have been cases in which a serial killer has killed two victims during the same frenzied attack. A serial killer also has vast differences to that of a spree killer. A spree killer is an individual who embarks upon a homicidal assault on at least two victims within a short period of time and in numerous locations. The Bureau of Justice Statistics based in America, explains that a spree killing is “Killing at two or more locations with almost no time break between” (Shipley, 2007).
The greatest mass murders in history included attempts to kill ethnic groups of people. Adolf Hitler is one of the most infamous mass murderers of all time, due to his leadership in Germany during the Holocaust (Welch, 1992). In recent years mass murder has been blamed on religion and politics. An example of this is the perpetrator of the 2011 attacks in Norway, Anders Breivik. He bombed a government building, before carrying out a mass shooting at a Labour camp; he caused the deaths of seventy-seven people, mostly teenagers, all in the same day (Boyle, 2011).
Over the last few decades, serial killers have been labelled with a list of typical characteristics in which the public associate with serial killers in general. Many serial killers experience difficulty in finding employment and those that do work usually have menial jobs. However serial killers in some cases also appear normal; they often have families and live a relatively ordinary life. Research undertaken by psychiatrists has found that many serial killers were abused, physically, emotionally and in some cases, sexually by family members as children (Brown, 2008 p. 2). As children, many serial killers have been reported to have had a fascination with setting fires and may have been involved in the sadistic torturing of animals. These traits were usually found in children who had not yet reached sexual maturity. More than sixty per cent of known serial killers have been known to have wet their beds well into their teenage years; however, in the Macdonald triad that was first proposed in the journal of Psychiatry in 1963, the significance of this data has been questioned. (Macdonald, 1963 p. 125 – 130).
A serial killer may have been bullied as a child and may also have been involved in petty crime as adolescents. Crimes such as fraud, theft and vandalism are amongst the crimes commonly reported. There are also some serial killers that do not meet the “normal” criteria. Dr Harold Shipman was a well-educated and respected member of the community; he was a successful General Practitioner who worked for the National Health Service. He had won several awards for his work within the Children’s Asthma clinic and had been interviewed several times by the media for his upstanding dedication to the health profession (Wilson, 2011 p. 1). An example of a stereotypical serial killer is Peter Sutcliffe, also known as The Yorkshire Ripper. Peter Sutcliffe was a British born serial killer who was convicted in 1981 of the murder of thirteen women and the attacks on seven others. Peter Sutcliffe was born to a working class family who were also devout Catholics, and he also was reported to have been a loner at school and left without any qualifications at the age of fifteen years old. After leaving school he embarked upon a number of menial jobs, one of which was as a grave digger.
During his early twenties Peter Sutcliffe was known to have paid prostitutes for sex, and during one of his liaisons with a prostitute it is believed that Sutcliffe was cheated out of his money, which added to his volatile dislike of women. Peter Sutcliffe led a relatively normal life, he married in 1974 and his wife became a teacher in 1977. Sutcliffe and his wife Sonia Szurma bought their first home in September 1977 and remained living there until his arrest in 1981 (Dailey, 1999). Chapter One
This chapter will aim to establish the expected characteristics of a serial killer. A serial killer is generally characterised as a person responsible for the death of at least three people over a vast period of time. Between each murder there is usually a quiet period that can last for many years, however a serial killer has the need for sadistic gratification and therefore it is only a matter of time before they kill again. “A serial killer is a person who has killed three or more victims, with an emotional cooling-off period between the crimes.
Whether or not it was for greed; whether or not it was to prevent his identity from being made known to the police; or whether or not it was sexual … they are still classed as a serial killer” (Fido, 2003 p. 53). More than ninety per cent of the worlds’ convicted serial killers are from lower class backgrounds. They are typically male, Caucasian and generally intelligent, although they may have suffered educationally at school due to a lack of concentration. Many had experienced a disturbing childhood of sexual, physical and psychological abuse.
On average many serial killers were raised in unstable and volatile families, often with a history of alcohol and drug abuse. Many children raised in such families often spend a vast amount of time alone, with many indulging in the abuse and cruelty towards animals from a young age (Singer, Hensley, 2004 p. 461 – 476). It is a rare occurrence for a woman to become a serial killer; females are normally close to their victims emotionally and often murder to achieve material possessions.
The victims are not just restricted to men; a study of eighty-six female serial killers living in America discovered that the victims were normally the spouse, a child, or in some cases the elderly. A female serial killer mainly uses unconventional methods in order to kill her victims. Methods such as poisoning are amongst the preferred option for killing, other ways women commit murder include suffocation, used by sixteen per cent of women, stabbing, used by eleven per cent of women, shooting, used by twenty per cent of women and drowning, used by five per cent of women. Women, on the other hand, are less visible and use methods such as poisoning in order to be discrete and keep under the radar. This accounts for eighty present of the methods used to kill their victims. Women can be termed gentle killers;however, their methods are still gruesome, just less graphic in nature. Other methods used by women include: shootings (20%), bludgeoning (16%), suffocation (16%), stabbing (11%), and drowning (5%)”. (Newton, 2000 p 237). As previously stated, many female serial killers commit murder to achieve material or financial gain; however there have been instances where women commit murder for attention.
There have been cases where the female serial killer has been diagnosed with the medical condition ‘Munchausen by proxy Syndrome’. Munchausen by proxy Syndrome is a condition in which the perpetrator fakes or causes symptoms that then cause injury to another person, very often a child. The injury results in the victim needing medical treatment in a hospital setting (Hicks, 2012). Very little research has been done concentrating on the common influences, in particular the expectations and gender roles of women which factors in such women committing numerous murders.
Every individual killer has her own tendencies, needs and triggers, as particular reasons behind each murder can only be acquired from the killer herself. Female serial killers rarely have sexual or sadistic motives behind their murders, however many of these women have a history of childhood abuse along with psychopathic traits. There have also been occasions in which a woman has acted in partnership with a male serial killer. Rose and Fred West were a couple that made headlines in recent years for their spree of murders across Gloucester (Berry – Dee, 2003 p. 221).
The typical sado – serial killer appears extraordinarily normal. However they have a sinister appetite for control, power and dominance, and they kill not for money, not for revenge, but because the act of murder makes them feel good. In America there are up to two-hundred victims of sexual serial killers per year, this number seems relatively large however in reality very few compared with the eighteen-thousand single victim murders that take place in America on a yearly basis. Sixty five per cent of serial homicide victims are women. In the media serial killers are commonly portrayed as being of above average intelligence.
This portrayal is mainly due to the media focusing on serial killers such as Ted Bundy and fictional serial killers such as Hannibal Lecter, from the film The Silence of the Lambs. There have been sociological and biological theories as to why particular people commit multiple murders. A number of theorists think that the reasons people become serial killers are because of biological factors, the suggestion that a serial killer is born with sadistic tendencies and that their volatile behaviour is due to abnormal activity within the brain. Social Process Theory” has also been used in several cases as an explanation for multiple murders. The social process theory declares that the murderer uses crime to turn the pressure they are under from family and friends. The behaviour of criminals is a practice of collaboration with social institutions, where every person has the potential to display criminalised behaviour. An absence of a family structure could also be a contributing factor that leads to serial killer traits. A child that has been used as a scapegoat may have been denied of the capability that they need in order to feel guilt.
Transferred anger could have a consequence of animal torture as recognised in the Macdonald triad, and an added absence of basic identity (Berry – Dee, 2003 p. 281). There are many traits that are distinguished in a serial killers psyche; however as child it is difficult to make judgments on how a child is going to grow up. It would not be appropriate to make assumptions on whom or what a child will become. Chapter Two This chapter will aim to provide information on two serial killers, who acted in different ways completely.
This research project will then examine both serial killers and discuss how both earned the gruesome title. The first serial killer to be explored by this chapter will be, ‘Jack the Ripper’. This murderer delved in to a killing spree in the late 1800s and managed to keep his identity unknown. Between 1888 and 1891, fourteen were found dead, having been brutally murdered. It is believed that at least five of the murders were committed by the same person, ‘Jack the Ripper’. (Sugden, 2002 p 15). The murders took place; in Whitechapel, London, and it remain one of the biggest murder mysteries of all time.
Due to the poor living conditions in the area during that period, many women were forced in to prostitution. Attacks that have been blamed on the Ripper all involved females, believed to be prostitutes, most of which had their throats slit. It is believed that whoever the ‘Ripper’ was may have had surgical experience or worked in health. This was due to the fact that at least three of the victims had some of their internal organs removed from their bodies (Sugden, 2002 p 284). Although there were additional butchered bodies found in the same period, they were not proved to have been killed by ‘Jack the Ripper’.
It is not known when exactly, or even why ‘Jack the Ripper’ stopped his killing spree, but there were no additional bodies found after 1891 (Appendix Two). The fact that the identity of the murderer has remained a mystery has sparked interest from the media, criminologists and the public alike. There have been at least six feature length films adapted from the story of ‘Jack the Ripper’, and all have gained a lot of interest and money internationally. One example is a film called From Hell, released in 2001. The film earned $74,558,115 in the box office. www. imdb. com). Additional to this, hundreds of books have been written about the story of ‘Jack the Ripper’. “Every year, it seems there is another theory and an entire industry has grown up around him, with more books having been written about him than have been written about all of the United States presidents put together” (Kerr. 2009 p 22). In more recent years, knowledge of a serial killer named Dr. Harold Shipman widened. In 1977, Harold Shipman joined a GP practice in Hyde, Greater Manchester called Donnybrook House.
After working there for nearly twenty years, a colleague of his, named Dr. Linda Reynolds, noticed that he had been present at three times the number of patient deaths than expected statistically. Although she passed her concerns on to the coroner immediately, her report was not followed up. The following year, an elderly patient of Shipman’s, Kathleen Grundy, suddenly died, leaving a will claiming that her ? 300,000 fortune was to be left to her doctor, Harold Shipman. This led to the doctor coming under official scrutiny.
The two people who witnessed the will came forward soon after, claiming to have witnessed the signing as a favour to Harold Shipman, and said that he had folded the paper so that they could not see what they were in fact signing (Appendix Three). In September that year, Harold Shipman was arrested for the murder of Kathleen Grundy, after a post mortem revealed that she had died from an overdose of injected morphine. Mrs Grundy was not Harold Shipman’s only victim. It is thought he may have killed more than two-hundred victims. The truth was discovered when an officer noticed that Dr.
Shipman had made changes to patient records just minutes after their deaths. Dr. Shipman was unaware that the computer recorded the date and time of edited records. He denied ever carrying morphine with him, but this allegation was proved to be a lie. “He claimed that he had never carried morphine, but this was proved to be a lie when a woman came forward to say that she had been given a morphine injection by him during a house visit” (Kerr, 2009 p 116). In contrast to most other serial killers, there does not seem to have been any sadistic or sexual element to Dr. Shipman’s murders.
Most of his victims were killed in their own homes, and although elderly, few of them were seriously ill or particularly uncomfortable. It has been claimed that the doctor simply became addicted to having the power of ‘handing out death’. (Wilson, 2011p 31). These particular two serial killers, ‘Jack the Ripper’ and Dr. Harold Shipman, have few things in common. One of them brutally murdered their victims and left their bodies lying in the street to be found in the broad daylight by anyone. There was no attempt to cover up or hide any of the murders. Whereas the latter caused eath by injection, resulting in what would have seemed like a more relaxed death. Rather than attempt to hide or dispose of the bodies, Harold Shipman attempted to make it look like all of his victims died of severe illness or natural causes. There are hundreds of different and unique ways in which certain serial killers attack their victims. It is very rare to read or hear of different serial killers who have killed their prey in exactly the same way, unless of course, they are copycat killers. These are just two examples of serial killers who have differed completely in what they did.
With all this information present, it is still the case that people stereotype serial killers with certain characteristics. Some attackers go from extreme to extreme in the ways in which they kill, whereas others attack as discreetly as possible in hope to avoid being caught by the local police department. With so many of the killers, for example, aforementioned, being so very different, how is it that the public can assume the certain stereotype they have always known? How can people think all serial killers attack in a certain way or come from a certain background or family life when each and every one of them is so unlike the others?
Conclusion No two serial killers are exactly the same, other than copycat killers who intend to recreate another’s actions. However, no matter how one murderer extremely differs from the next, they are all labelled with the same list of stereotypical characteristics. Some serial killers, Peter Sutcliffe, for example butchered their victims and sometimes even left their bodies dismembered. They were gruesome killings that eventually caused huge media frenzy throughout the nation home to the victims. These are the killings that predominantly remain in people’s minds when they are thinking of serial killers.
This is purely because of how inhumane and violent these cases are. This could be the reason for the assumption that every serial killer comes from a very troubled background. In contrast to this, other murderers, such as Mary Ann Cotton, used calmer methods. Mary killed her victims with doses of poison. This is a case that is rarely remembered by people. This is probably due to the fact that it was not gruesome or ferocious; therefore is not remembered as easily as the others. Although these are at either ends of the scale when you compare the two, they will still both be labelled with he same stereotype, as all serial killers tend to be. All serial killers have expected typical characteristics considered to them. Generally, they are thought to be rather intelligent. Most serial killers either contain a similar intelligence level to an average person, or sometimes even higher. A lot of the murderers tend to be very bright, and this aids them when it comes to initially escaping from the police. There are two contradicting factors that tend to be associated with a serial killer. Firstly, many serial killers are thought to come from unstable family backgrounds or broken homes.
Some may have even been victims of abuse themselves in previous years; emotionally, physically or even sexually, at the hands of a family member or family friend. Basically, it is suggested that most multiple murderers come from troubled backgrounds. In contrast to this, most serial killers are considered to be part of a normal family life now. This could mean that they are either married, or have children, and blend in to society like a normal civilian living their normal, regular day to day lives among different cultures. Additional factors that can be seen in many killings worldwide are paraphilia’s.
This is a term used to describe sexual arousal to objects, or individuals that are not part of the norm, and may cause problems or distress. Examples of this are necrophilia and fetishism (Murray, 2009 p 10). Many serial killers are thought to have been bullied from a young age. This along with the idea that they had an unpleasant upbringing would explain the escalation in unruly, and, eventually, fatal behaviour. Some serial killers, such as Ed Gein, were known to have been involved in petty crimes prior to their spell of killings. These crimes included cases such as vandalism, fraud, and in Gein’s case, theft (Murray, 2009 p 31).
These factors, and others mentioned throughout this research project are automatically credited to anyone given the title of ‘serial killer’. Some of the murderers did not fit in the description of hardly any of the characteristics. An example of one of these exceptions is Harold Shipman. Harold Shipman was a General Practitioner, who was very much part of his community. In 1970, he graduated from Leeds School of Medicine, before beginning working as a GP in Manchester. Harold Shipman had witnessed the death of his mother at home via injection of morphine. She was terminally ill and he was very close to her.
It appears as though he killed all of his victims in the way in which he saw his own mother die when he was seventeen years old. It is thought he was recreating his mother’s death among his patients, sometimes for financial gain. However, Dr. Shipman does not fit the list of features that tend to be attributed to a serial killer. When serial killers are mentioned, most people automatically assume that the person in question is of the male gender. This is just another example of the stereotypes surrounding a serial killer. Several women have committed the crime that is normally acquainted to males.
Females such as Aileen Wuornoss and Rose West have murdered on more than one occasion in ways which are as brutal as some of the most infamous male serial killers. Yet still, when serial killers are mentioned, these are not the names that spring to mind, purely because they do not fit the ‘criteria’ of being a serial killer. To conclude, although everyone has their views on what a serial killer is, all are different. In order to answer the question ‘What makes a Serial Killer? ’ a list of factors should be able to be provided in order to describe what kind of person commits multiple murders.
However, as the research above has shown, not one list of traits could possibly be used to describe serial killers as a whole. Anyone can be a murderer. Something could happen in somebody’s life that can cause them to go crazy and lash out. Peter Sutcliffe, for example, claims he began his string of multiple murders after God told him to (Bilton, 2006 p 427). Specific personalities and features cannot possibly be linked to serial killers in general. For example, if there is a serial killer in question, people tend to think of a male, with a troubled background, who may have been bullied and has a criminal history.
Wrong! A serial killer can be of any gender, any general appearance, come from any background and so on. Normal people never stop and think before making the judgement call. After reviewing all evidence present, this research project concludes with the knowledge that a particular group of characteristics could not possibly explain what makes a serial killer. A person may turn to committing multiple murders after something terrible has happened in their lives, they may be acting out in anger for a particular something or seeking revenge on the world in general, or they are and always have been psychologically damaged.
There is no end to the list of reasons that somebody turns to a life of crime on this scale, but one description is not enough to warn the world of the signs of a serial killer. Appendix One A copy of one of the many letters received by the police department, claiming to be from ‘Jack the Ripper’. The letter is dated 25th September 1888. Appendix Two A copy of a newspaper article, giving the scene descriptions and clues to who ‘Jack the Ripper’ could potentially be. Dated Wednesday, September 11th, 1889. Appendix Three The death certificate of Kathleen Grundy, signed by Dr. Harold Shipman.
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