Dennis Lynn Rader (born March 9, 1945) is an American serial killer known as BTK (an abbreviation he gave himself, for 'bind, torture, kill') or the BTK Strangler.Between 1974 and 1991, Rader killed ten people in Wichita and Park City, Kansas, and sent taunting letters to police and newspapers describing the details of his crimes. After a decade-long hiatus, Rader resumed sending letters in.
There's no doubt about it: We have a grotesque fascination with anything macabre. That's why serial killers are considered both horrendous and deeply fascinating. We can't help but want to learn more about these disturbed individuals — or at the very least, once they've caught our attention, we can't look away. But there are a crop of serial killers who stand out above the rest, thanks to the heinous and prolific nature of their crimes. They were so brutal and twisted that they will go down as the most terrifying serial killers in history. (I know that you want to know more.)
A 'serial killer' is officially defined as someone who kills three or more people, but spread out over time. So claiming three victims all in one go does not earn you the title of a serial killer — that just makes you a spree slayer. (Look, please don't do any of this.) Serial killers are also often characterized by their seemingly normal facades which suggests them to be regular, law-abiding citizens — which contrasts sharply with the ghastly nature of their murders, adding fodder for our sick minds.
- In the 1940s, 'The Lonely Hearts Killers' Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck would place adverts in the local newspaper and lure their victims with lonely-hearts letters. They loved each other unconditionally but their sinister side took the lives of more than 20 victims - although the actual victim count is unknown.
- By this time, investigators became concerned that they had a serial killer on their hands. The promptly identified the predator as the 'Alphabet Killer' and the murders as the 'Alphabet Murders'. Things remained quiet for a while, and then on the 26th day of November in the year of 1973, another child who was also ten years old was reported.
The behavior exhibited by serial killers range from the atrocious (sexually assaulting victims before killing them) to the nightmarish (cannibalizing victims' bodies) to the absolutely unimaginable (doing all of that in a clown suit). Prepare to feel tingles in your spine, but don't even bother trying to look away. Here are 13 of the most terrifying serial killers in history.
John Wayne Gacy
I know you haven't forgotten that clown image, and you likely never will. The man behind that story is John Wayne Gacy, who was known as 'The Killer Clown.' A husband and father, Gacy was first arrested after being caught sexually assaulting two teenage boys in 1968, and was sentenced to 10 years in jail. But because he behaved behind bars, he was released after only 18 months, proving that the U.S. legal and criminal system was severely lacking at the time.
After he was released, Gacy became a popular member of his community as Pogo the Clown, and regularly visited children's parties and events. Had he reformed? Not a chance. Over the next six years, he would kidnap, rape, torture, and brutally murder 33 boys. He received the death penalty for his crimes in 1994, but he probably should have never left jail the first time.
Jeffrey Dahmer's name is pretty much synonymous with cannibalism. The killer is notorious for dismembering and eating his victims after killing them. Oh, and he was also reportedly a necrophiliac. As if hearing about Dahmer's activities wasn't scary enough, they had to go and make a movie about him starring a creepy and convincing Jeremy Renner. The film even depicted how Dahmer would drill a hole in his victims' heads to try and create zombie-like sex slaves out of them — something that can't be unseen.
Jack The Ripper
In the late 19th century, an unidentified serial killer stalked London, gruesomely killing female prostitutes by slitting their throats and abdomens — often taking their internal organs. Someone trying to claim credit for the murders called himself 'Jack the Ripper' in a letter, and the name has stuck ever since. I mean, it is pretty fitting.
Ted Bundy perfectly fits the profile of the normal (even good-looking) guy who moonlights as a sadist. Between 1974 and 1978, Bundy kidnapped and murdered at least 30 women (those were just the ones he confessed to, or who police found). The clever and cruel Bundy would pretend to be disabled or an authority figure to lure unsuspecting victims into his trap. He would then rape, torture, kill, and dismember them. Just because you're evil and murderous doesn't mean you can't be sentimental — Bundy kept the severed heads of his victims as keepsakes.
Arguably the most well-known female serial killer of all time, Wuornos killed at least seven men when she was working as a prostitute between 1989 and 1990. Wuornos gained even more infamy when Charlize Theron completely transformed herself to portray her in the 2003 film Monster — a role that won her the Best Actress Oscar. The film came out one year after Wuornos was executed via lethal injection.
Henry Lee Lucas
Another product of a flawed criminal justice system, Henry Lee Lucas was released from prison after killing his own mother due to overcrowding. He would then go on to kill at least 350 people over 20 years, though he claims to have been involved in roughly 600 murders.
Though Ed Gein's victim count is pretty low compared to some of the other people on this list — he was only found guilty of two murders — the absolutely sick nature of his crimes make him one of the most notorious serial killers in history. After his mother died, Gein began digging up women who resembled her from the cemetery and fashioning together a suit out of their skins. Later on, police discovered a veritable museum of body parts in his home, featuring furniture upholstered with human flesh, skull bowls, and even a belt made of human nipples.
Gein is said to have inspired three very notorious fictional characters: Norman Bates of Psycho, Buffalo Bill of The Silence of the Lambs, and Leatherface of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Andrei Chikatilo was born in Ukraine, but would become known as the 'Butcher of Rostov' after being found guilty of killing at least 52 women and children between 1978 and 1990. He later revealed in an interview that he could only experience sexual satisfaction when stabbing a woman or child, which he discovered with his first documented victim — a nine-year-old girl.
Known as the 'Green River Killer,' Gary Ridgway was convicted of 49 murders, making him the most prolific American serial killer (based on confirmed killings). In the 1980s and 1990s, Ridgway would lure women and girls close by showing them a picture of his son, and then strangle them, before throwing their bodies into the Green River in Washington state.
Colombian-born Pedro Lopez was accused of raping and killing more than 300 girls throughout South America (in Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador), which earned him the nickname 'Monster of the Andes.' In 1980, Lopez led police to the grave of 59 of his victims, who were all girls between the ages of nine and 12. Yet somehow, he was released from a psychiatric hospital in 1998 on good behavior, and he remains at large to this day. Terrific.
Better known as the 'Son of Sam,' Berkowitz terrorized New York City from the summer of 1976 to the summer of 1977, killing six people and wounding seven others with a .44 caliber revolver. After his shootings, he would send letters to the police, taunting them and promising more victims. When he was finally caught and indicted on eight shootings, Berkowitz claimed that he was obeying orders from his neighbor Sam's dog, Harvey, which he said was a demon.
Another fan of sending mocking notes to law enforcement was Dennis Rader, who killed at least 10 people between 1974 and 1991 in and around Wichita, Kansas. Known as the 'BTK (Bind, Torture, and Kill) Killer,' Rader led police to his own capture by sending them a floppy disk that contained crucial evidence. Unfortunately, Rader's campaign for notoriety worked, since we're still talking about him to this day.
Richard Trenton Chase
If your stomach hasn't turned yet, then it will now with Richard Trenton Chase's story. Known as the 'Vampire of Sacramento,' Chase began by drinking the blood of small animals, like rabbits and birds — sometimes blending their organs with Coca-Cola to make a totally disgusting concoction.
After being released from a mental institution, Chase moved on to human targets. He engaged in both necrophilia and cannibalism with his victims, often dismembering them and drinking their blood. Over the course of one month in 1977, Chase killed six people in California, and was caught when he murdered an entire family in 1979. Later that year, Chase was sentenced to death, but beat the system by committing suicide in his cell a year later.
Images: Wikipedia Commons (11), pdr/YouTube
Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac, Son of Sam … serial killer nicknames are definitely A Thing. But while names like “the Zodiac” may not inspire fear unless you know their context, there are a huge number of absolutely terrifying monikers that will give you the wiggins whether or not you're familiar with the real-life murderers to whom they belong. I’m actually willing to bet that you may not have heard of a lot of them before; once you learn about them, though, I doubt very much that you’ll ever forget them. It’s hard to scrub a phrase like “The Acid Bath Murderer” from your brain.
As it turns out, there actually is a technical term for serial killer nicknames; it falls under the umbrella of criminal nomenclature — and there’s actually been some research done in it. According to Tom Clark of the University of Sheffield, serial killer nicknames have a couple of common characteristics and serve a few different purposes. First, you’ll notice that the names themselves have a particular structure — they usually feature “the ordinary… juxtaposed with the extraordinary,” as Clark puts it in his paper “Jack’s Back: Toward A Sociological Understanding of Serial Killer Nicknames.” I’d argue that this is part of what makes them so freaky to us; they’re the very definition of the uncanny as laid out by Freud — the familiar made strange.
But if they freak us out, then why do we use them? That’s the other part of what Clark’s paper gets at. They “symbolically serve to sustain and alleviate both order and disorder” — or, as Clark later writes, “Serial killer nicknames represent a reminder of the ongoing threat to the normative ideals of contemporary society, whilst also implying that this threat can be overcome.” They simultaneously send us “DANGER!” signals, while also reassuring us that we’ll be able to neutralize the danger.
Sometimes these nicknames come out of the investigation;sometimes they come out of the media coverage of the crimes; sometimes they’re even dreamed up by the killers themselves. But one thing’s for sure: These serial killer nicknames — and these real-life crimes — will definitely keep you up at night.
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British serial killer John George Haigh was convicted in 1949 of murdering six people, although he claimed responsibility for up to nine. He seems mostly to have killed for money; a career criminal, he had trouble holding a job, and routinely took over or sold his victims’ assets once he had dispatched them. His nickname, as you may have guessed, came from his method: After killing his victims — usually by bludgeoning them or shooting them — he dissolved their bodies in vats of sulfuric acid.
Here’s the kicker: Haigh’s reasoning for doing so was a misunderstanding of the term “corpus delicti.” Cornell Law’s Legal Information Institute defines the term as “the idea that the requisite elements of a crime must be proven before an individual can be tried for the crime” — but directly translated from the Latin, it means “body of the crime.” Haigh took it to mean that if there wasn’t a literal body, he couldn’t be tried for murder... so he went ahead and dissolved the bodies.
Haigh was eventually caught thanks to a tip from a friend of his last victim, tried, and found guilty. He was executed by hanging on Aug. 10, 1949.
The ick factor of the Cleveland Torso Murderer is sheer body horror. During the 1930s, a series of human remains were found in and around Cleveland, Ohio, often in the Kingsbury Run area. The bodies were typically beheaded and/or dismembered, and the torso was sometimes cut in half—hence the nickname “the Cleveland Torso Murderer.” Authorities weren’t always able to identify the victims, either; the heads weren’t always found, and in some cases, death had occurred several months — or even a year — prior to discovery.
Twelve victims were originally attributed to the Cleveland Torso Murderer, although the “Lady of the Lake,” who was found in 1934 before any of the other victims, is thought to be an additional victim; indeed, some theories posit that up the Cleveland Torso Murderer may have been responsible for up to 20 deaths. The murders remain unsolved.
By the way, the Cleveland Torso Murderer had a second nickname that’s just as terrifying as the first: They were also referred to as “The Mad Butcher Of Kingsbury Run.”
Dorothea Helen Puente derived her income from two sources in Sacramento, Calif.: She ran a 16-room boarding house for elderly and infirm people located at 1426 F Street, and she rented out an upstairs apartment in downtown Sacramento. But her income didn’t just come from rent; she had a habit of cashing her tenants’ Social Security checks, for one thing. Her tenants, meanwhile, had a habit of… going missing.
Nov. 11, 1988 changed all that, though. That’s the day that homicide detectives visited the boarding house at the behest of a social worker who was concerned about a missing client — the boarding house being said client’s last known address. The house was searched, but the search yielded nothing. The backyard, however? That’s another story. After a tenant reported having seen the backyard full of holes that were later filled in, the detectives did some literal digging… and found human remains.
Puente wasn’t a person of interest yet, so she was able to escape Sacramento and head to Los Angeles — after which police excavating the backyard of the house on F Street found more six bodies in the ground. She was eventually caught in Los Angeles and charged with a total nine counts of murder; in 1993, she was convicted of three killings and given a sentence of life without parole. The newspapers came up with the nickname “The Death House Landlady.'
She died in prison on March 27, 2011.
Admittedly, Dennis Rader’s nickname isn’t at all frightening if you don’t know what it stands for. But, uh, it’s short for “Bind, Torture, Kill,” sooooo… yeah.
If you’re at all interested in serial killers, you almost certainly already know about Rader; he’s one of the most infamous killers in history. Like Ted Bundy, Rader had a carefully constructed image that belied his crimes — he was even able to hide it all from his family, who didn’t discover he was BTK until the FBI told them after they arrested him in 2005. Between 1974 and 1991, Rader killed 10 people in Wichita, Kan., typically by strangling them with any one of a variety of materials: Rope, plastic bags, nylon stockings, his hands, you name it. He named himself; in letters he wrote to the media, he always signed off as BTK, which he at one point had clarified as standing for “Bind, Torture, Kill.”
After killing his last known victim — Dolores E. Davis in 1991 — he actually stopped both killing and writing for over a decade. When he started writing letters and leaving a trail of puzzles for the police and the media in 2004, though, it signaled the beginning of the end: The police tracked him down, and he was arrested at his home on Feb. 25, 2005.
He was charged with 10 counts of first degree murder on Feb. 28, 2005; he pleaded guilty on June 27 and was sentenced on Aug. 18 to 10 consecutive life sentences. He’s currently incarcerated at the El Dorado Corrections Facility in Kansas.
No, not Jack Kevorkian. I’m talking about two different serial killers here: Maxim Petrov, a Russian physician who killed and robbed his patients; and Harold Shipman, who is one of the most prolific serial killers in history. Both of them have been called 'Doctor Death.'
Petrov began robbing his patients in 1997; he would arrive unannounced at their homes, anesthetize them, and make off with valuable belongings while they were unconscious. In 1999, though, he committed his first murder when the daughter of a patient arrived home while he was in the middle of committing the crime. He killed both of them, completed the robbery, and then changed his MO: Instead of simply anesthetizing his victims, he began lethally injecting them instead. He set fire to their homes afterward to destroy all the evidence.
Eventually the police figured out the pattern and arrested Petrov in January of 2000. He was tried for 17 murders, although it’s suspected that he actually may have committed up to 19; he was found guilty of 12 of them in 2002 and sentenced to life in prison.
Shipman, meanwhile, graduated from the Leeds School of Medicine in 1970; by the time he was arrested in 1998, he may have killed as many as 260 of his patients. He was actually investigated early in 1998 after several colleagues became concerned about the high death rate of Shipman’s patients; however, the police didn’t find sufficient evidence and let the investigation go. After relatives of Kathleen Grundy, who had been found dead on June 24, 1998, became concerned about the authenticity of Grundy’s will, they had Grundy exhumed — and a subsequent examination found traces of diamorphine in her body. Shipman had been the last person to see her alive; he signed her death certificate; and most astonishingly, the will left hundreds of thousands of pounds to him.
He was arrested, and on Sept. 7, 1998, he was charged with 15 counts of murder, plus one count of forgery. On Jan. 31, 2000, he was found guilty of all 15 and sentenced to 15 consecutive life sentences. He died by suicide while incarcerated on Jan. 13, 2004.
I mean, “baby farming” in and of itself is both a terrifying phrase and concept; as you may remember from our discussion of Amelia Dyer a little while ago, “baby farmers” during the Victorian era took in unwanted babies and children for money. Rather a lot of baby farmers also became serial killers (as Dyer did), dispatching their charges so as to make the money they collected for them go further. There’s obviously a lot that’s disturbing about… well, all of this, but to me, the most disturbing thing of all is the fact that we have no real idea of just how many children lost their lives to baby farmers-turned-murderers.
Amelia Sachs and Annie Walters, for example — the duo known as the Finchley Baby Farmers — operated for just a few years at the turn of the century, but killed an unknown number of babies and children; some estimates peg the number at around 20, but honestly, we don’t know and we probably never will. They were caught when Walters’ landlord became suspicious, and after a phenomenally short trial and jury deliberation — the trial took place over two days in January of 1903 and the jury arrived at their verdict within 40 minutes, they were found guilty. They were executed by hanging on Feb. 3, 1903 — the first women ever to be hanged at Holloway prison in London.
Nannie Doss earned a lot of nicknames: The Giggling Nanny, the Lonely Hearts Killer, the Jolly Black Widow… but none of them freaks me out in quite the same way “The Giggling Granny” does. I suspect it has something to do with the reasons we often find old people scary in horror movies. (That video is worth watching, as is all of Blue Lavasix’s YouTube channel — long story short, it all goes back to the trope of the “old hag” in folklore.)
In any event, Nancy Hazel was born on Nov. 4, 1905 in Alabama. She was married no fewer than five times and had a whole bunch of children from all those unions — but mysteriously, her husbands and other relatives periodically disappeared or died unexpectedly. She was caught after her fifth husband, Samuel Doss, was admitted to the hospital with something that looked like the flu in the fall of 1953; the hospital diagnosed him with a severe digestive tract infection, treated him, and released him. He died that night — a death which would have enabled Doss to collect on his two life insurance policies. An autopsy revealed a massive amount of arsenic in his system, leading to the arrest of Nannie Doss.
Serial Killers With 13 Letters In Their Names
The case against Doss focused only on Samuel; she pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison in 1955. However, it’s suspected that she killed four of her husbands, two of her children, two of her sisters, her mother, one of her grandsons, and one of her mothers-in-law. She died of leukemia while incarcerated in 1965.
OK, so technically, this one is a serial murder nickname, not a serial killer nickname; the case itself is what's referred to as the Brides in the Bath Murders, while the killer is usually just called by his given name, George Joseph Smith. It’s still pretty freaky sounding, though, and to be honest, in my head, I keep calling Smith the Brides in the Bath Murderer, so… let’s roll with it.
Smith just barely meets the FBI's definition of 'serial killer'; he married, then murdered three women in the UK between 1912 and 1914. Those weren’t his only wives, although they were the least fortunate of all of them: He married seven women over the course of his life, cleaning out their savings and vanishing each and every time. It was after he killed Margaret Elizabeth Lloyd, however, that everything began to unravel: After Lloyd was found drowned in the bath, a former landlord of Smith’s, Joseph Crossley, wrote to the Metropolitan Police, pointing out how similar the circumstances of her death were to two other cases — those of Bessie Williams and Alice Smith, both of whom had been married to George Joseph Smith. The ensuing investigation was rather successful indeed.
Although Smith was only charged with the murder of Bessie Smith, née Munday, the other two deaths were used in court to establish Smith’s MO — and when the time came for the jury to deliberate, it took them a mere 20 minutes to find him guilty. Smith was executed by hanging on Aug. 13, 1915.
Charles Albright was only convicted of the murder of one person, which means that he’s not officially a serial killer. He was charged with the murders of two additional people, though; if he had been convicted of all three, he would have fit the FBI’s definition. (According to the FBI, a serial murder is “the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.”)
Serial Killers With 13 Letters In Their Names And Meanings
Here are the facts:
On Dec. 13, 1990, Dallas-based sex worker Mary Lou Pratt was found dead. She had been shot in the back of her head, and her eyes were missing.
On Feb. 19, 1991, Susan Peterson, also a sex worker in Dallas, was found dead. She had been shot three times; her eyes, too, were missing.
On March 19, 1991, Shirley Williams — a third sex worker operating in Dallas — was found dead. She had been shot twice; she also had bruises on her face and a broken nose. Her eyes were missing.
You can see where the name “The Eyeball Killer” came from.
Albright was arrested at home on March 22, 1991, charged with all three murders, and tried in December of that year. He was found guilty of the murder of Shirley Williams and sentenced to life in prison. According to “See No Evil,” a long form piece about Albright and the Eyeball Murders published in Texas Monthly in 1993, Albright’s friends and lawyers maintain that the person who should have been arrested for the crimes was Axton Schindler, who was another person of interest in the case — but even so, I feel confident in saying that the name “The Eyeball Killer” wins the award for Most Terrifying Serial Killer Name In History.