Some of the most well known serial killers of all time have a relatively short and definite list of victims. There are some serial killers who have an unknown number of victims. Sometimes this could be because they were so prolific they lost count. Others jealously guard their secrets from investigators or just hope for a lighter sentence. Here is a look at some of the serial killers who have kept people guessing.
Amelia Dyer is thought to have claimed between 300 and 600 victims. If that wasn’t shocking enough, all of the victims were babies.
In Nineteenth Century Victorian England the Poor Laws were reformed in 1834 to remove support for illegitimate children. The intent was to vilify the mothers of such children and discourage other women from having children out of wedlock. The idea was to improve the moral state of Britain’s female population. Illegitimate children were not accepted into most orphanages and so called “Baby Farms” came into existence. These institutions took babies in for a weekly sum or one off fee. Sadly a great number of these businesses only wanted money and the babies were starved to death or killed. Many horrific cases have since come to light but Dyer’s is by far the worst.
Dyer operated for decades and at one point neighbors reported six babies a day arriving at her home. They also saw Dyer carrying brown paper parcels out of her house and returning without them. These were the wrapped bodies of babies which she threw into the Thames.
In March 1896 a brown parcel containing the heavily decomposed body of a baby was fished out of the Thames and an address in the parcel was used to trace Amelia Dyer. She confessed to her crimes and was hanged at Newgate Prison in 1896.
If you want a reason to look over your shoulder or feel a sense of anxiety when you turn the light out at night then look no further than Israel Keyes. Despite the fact that few people have heard of him Keyes was one of the most intelligent and organized serial killers ever caught.
Keyes had such an effective modus operandi that he never would have been caught if he hadn’t strayed from it. Keyes did not target victims, he set traps, sometimes years in advance. He might start by flying somewhere on a holiday and bury a cache of weapons. Months or even years later he would drive through the area and dig the weapons up. He would then commit a crime with them and sometimes then drive for tens of hours to dispose of bodies or rebury the weapons.
Keyes eventually made a mistake when he kidnapped a young woman is his home state of Alaska and tried to extract ransom money after he had already killed her. This crime made a link between Keyes and his victim. Keyes had never made this mistake before and it resulted in his arrest. Estimates for Keyes victim count range from 4 to 40 but since he was active for a span of 11 years the question exists, just how deep did this rabbit hole go. Keyes enjoyed keeping law enforcement guessing. He played a cat and mouse game with the FBI for months. He gave small tantalizing bits of information but clearly wanted to keep some secrets. Keyes cemented his control of the situation by taking his own life. It is now unlikely that the extent of his crimes will ever be known.
H.H.Holmes was one of the grisliest, most depraved serial killers in history. His crimes are essentially a horror movie come to life.
In July of 1894 Dr.Henry Howard Holmes was arrested in connection with an insurance scam. It came to light that Holmes had killed his criminal associate, Benjamin Pitezel, and also three of Pitezel’s five children.
H.H.Holmes had a gruesome fascination with death. As a university student he had used dead bodies from dissection labs to perpetrate insurance scams. After he moved to Chicago he ordered the construction of a large set of what looked from the outside like normal commercial buildings with a hotel across the top. When investigators examined the building they found stairs that led nowhere, rooms with gas pipes running into them and a chute leading to the basement where a bloodstained operating table was discovered.
Holmes had created a building where he could torture, rape, murder and ultimately dispose of his victims. Many of his victims came into the building in order to stay at the hotel. The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was in full swing while Holmes’ hotel was open and running. Many people went missing during this event and the there is a possibility that some of them ended up as unknown victims of H.H.Holmes. Estimates of a body count vary wildly from 9 up into the hundreds. However it is certain that the possibility existed for this number to be extremely high. Evidence of Holmes selling articulated skeletons to medical schools raises the question of where he got the original bodies from. Holmes was hanged for the murder of Pitezel a few days before his 35th birthday.
Harold Shipman is one of the most prolific serial killers in the world. He is also the only doctor in Britain to be convicted of murdering patients.
Harold Shipman’s first brush with the law came in 1976 when he was convicted of forging prescriptions for painkillers in order to fuel his own addiction to them. After a stint in rehab he was back in practice and building up a good reputation even if some thought the high death rate among his elderly patients was unusual.
Although a coroner and local funeral director contacted police over their suspicions an initial investigation found no substance to the rumors. This outcome seemed to give Shipman a sense of invincibility. He took additional risk by forging the will of one of his murdered patients and a new investigation exhumed the woman’s body and found traces of diamorphine. From this point it became clear that Shipman had murdered many elderly patients using this method, some for financial gain some for his own twisted reasons. He was found guilty of 15 murders but The Shipman Inquiry stated that he could be responsible for 250.
In 1983 the Secret Service arrested Debardeleben for counterfeiting. In his car they found a huge collection of women’s underwear a police siren and several police badges. In a storage Locker owned by Debardeleben officers found a large collection of pornographic photography depicting women being sexually tortured. Officers managed to trace one of the women in the photographs. She said that Debardeleben posed as a police officer in order to kidnap and rape her.
Investigators had to assume that any number of the women in the photographs could have been assaulted in the same way. They also believed that Debardeleben had killed some of his victims.
Debardeleben was found guilty of counterfeiting, kidnapping and sexual assault. He died in custody in 2011 without ever offering more information about the women in his grisly photo collection.
Pedro Lopez is suspected of raping and murdering over 350 young girls across his native Colombia and also across Ecuador and Peru. He was caught in 1980 by market traders in Ambato, Ecuador when they noticed his predatory attitude to young girls. Many girls had gone missing over the last decade but police had failed to mount an investigation.
Once in custody Lopez claimed to have raped and strangled over 300 girls. He subsequently led police to over fifty grave sites.
In 1981 Lopez was convicted of 57 murders. Despite this huge number of victims the maximum sentence in Ecuador at the time was just 16 years. Lopez was released two years early for good behavior was deported to Colombia. Colombian authorities arrested him, hoping to charge him under their laws. However Lopez was committed to a prison psychiatric ward where he spent the next three years. He was then declared sane and promptly disappeared upon his release. Police believe he has returned to killing young girls.
Henry Lee Lucas.
Henry Lee Lucas is the central point in one of the most bizarre moments in criminal history.
Lucas had a miserable childhood. His mother was a prostitute who made him watch her have sex with clients and his father was an alcoholic whose legs had been severed in a railway accident. Lucas was in trouble with the law from an early age and eventually served ten years in prison or killing his mother during an argument.
In 1983 he was arrested on suspicion of killing two people. In custody Lucas confessed to multiple crimes. he was transferred to Williamson County, Texas, where he was interviewed by the Texas Rangers and confessed to hundreds of murders. Lucas often retracted claims he made afterwards but the Lucas Task Force used the interviews to clear 213 unsolved murders.
It later turned out that the task force often placed Lucas in two places at once, some crimes could not possibly have been committed by him. It was also revealed that officers had given Lucas preferential treatment presumably in return for confessing. There are claims that Lucas only knew the details of some crimes because he had been given the case file to read.
Lucas had clearly killed a number of people. Due to the way the investigation was carried out however there is no way to know how many of the cases Lucas helped to “solve” are actually the work of other potentially active killers.
Pedro Rodrigues Filho.
Pedro Filho is a Brazilian serial killer who was motivated by revenge and, later, by vigilantism. He claims to have killed over 100 people although he has been convicted of 71.
Filho’s first murder was committed at age 14 when he shot and killed a man who fired his father for stealing. He later shot and killed the man he believed to have been the real thief.
After the murders he his out in Mogi das Cruzes in Sao Paulo where he took up burglary and killed a drug dealer. After his girlfriend, Olympia, was shot by gang members Pedro went on a mission of torture and murder to find the gangsters responsible and kill them. Now a seasoned killer driven by anger and revenge Filho was angry when he found out that his father had killed his mother. Filho visited his father in jail, killed him, cut out a piece of his heart and chewed on it.
In 1973 Pedro was finally arrested. During his incarceration he killed 47 inmates. Filho killed for revenge but he also felt a thrill at the idea of killing other criminals. He was released in 2007 and then rearrested in 2011 to face charges of false imprisonment and riot.
Andrei Chikatilo claimed to have killed 56 people although only 53 were verified. Due to an enormous acceleration in his rate of killing and his mental state the number could be far higher.
A frustrating sexual encounter at 15 left him humiliated and this event fused violence, anger and sex together in his mind. Chikatilo became a teacher and regularly had to move from job to job because of allegations of indecent assault. he was eventually forced out of teaching and chose another job which put him in close proximity to young people.
Chikatilo victims were young women and children of both sexes. He would attack his victims, drag them to a secluded area and then rape and stab them. The crime scenes were gruesome, Chikatilo would remove body parts and eat them, he often removed the eyes of his victims. Psychiatrist Alexandr Bukhanovsky helped build a profile for police and said they were dealing with a “necro-sadist”, someone who got sexual pleasure from inflicting suffering and death onto others.
Chikatilo came to the attention of police more than once but was always ultimately released. As the official body count soared Chikatilo took on more risky behavior and was arrested finally in 1990 when he made a confession and was executed by firing squad.
Gary Ridgway aka The Green River Killer is the most prolific serial killer in American history in terms of confirmed murders.
Ridgway operated in Washington State during the 1980s and 1990s. He chose prostitutes, runaways and other vulnerable females as his victims. Ridgway dumped victims in overgrown areas and frequently returned to the bodies to commit necrophilia.
Ridgway is the confirmed perpetrator of 49 murders however authorities suspect the number to be significantly higher. Ridgway himself told a sheriff that the victim count was at least 71. Court statements revealed that Ridgway said he had lost count of how many people he had killed during what he called his “career”. There is no way of knowing how many missing people he killed whose bodies have yet to even be discovered.
Here ends this overview of some of history’s most prolific killers. If you fancy a more in depth read about some of these killers then check out my eBook, True Crime; Prolific Killers.