We hear about horrible crimes every day lately, that’s a function of our media-frenzy society. And few things are scarier than the seemingly senseless insanity of serial-killers, who don’t kill from war, or crime or sometimes even from normal human passions. They kill out of pure madness.
But serial killers are nothing new. The earliest case most people could probably name is Jack the Ripper, back in 1888. But there have been serial killers for at least as long as there’s been civilization. And while a lot are lost to history, a few were so infamous they are known to us today. Here’s a list of some of the most awful, in chronological order.
The story of Procrustes is so ancient we can’t even be totally sure if he existed. But his tale sounds like it could be inspired on something that actually happened.
Procrustes was apparently a wealthy and powerful man who had a manor on the sacred pilgrimage route between Athens and Eleusis. When pilgrims came by asking for shelter he’d welcome them in, but then tied his guests to the bed. Obsessed with making them ‘fit’ just right, he would cut off the legs of any visitor who was too tall, or brutally stretch out the limbs of anyone who was too short.
According to legend, he was finally stopped by Theseus (the same guy who killed the Minotaur), who overpowered Procrustes and ‘fitted’ him to his own bed.
2. Liu Pengli
Liu Pengli was a minor prince in Han dynasty China, in the 2nd century BC. He was granted a significant territory, and proceeded to recruit a bunch of former criminals. He’d ride out with his gang, and attack isolated farms, murdering entire families just for fun.
He caused such a reign of terror that eventually the word got to his uncle the Emperor. By then, Pengli had murdered over 100 people. The Emperor couldn’t bring himself to try and execute his own nephew, so instead he stripped Liu Pengli of his land and title, making him a commoner and exiling him to a distant province. What happened to him after that is unknown.
Locusta was one of Rome’s most infamous poisoners. She was probably of Gaulish origin, and she may have been a student of another infamous poisoner, Martina, who was in the employ of the Empress Livia (herself said to have been a famous poisoner – Romans really liked their poisons as a method of political change).
Locusta was a poisoning fanatic, and was eventually hired by the Empress Agrippina the Younger to murder her husband the Emperor Claudius (to get her son Nero on the throne). Locusta’s poisoned mushrooms killed Claudius, who was later deified by the Senate, and from then on mushrooms were known as “the food of the gods”.
Locusta was later hired by Nero (who got her off unrelated charges of murder) to poison his rival, Claudius’ son Britannicus. She was rewarded by Nero with vast properties and she even opened up a kind of “poisoning school” (with Nero’s blessing) training others in her art.
Eventually, though, Nero was deposed and committed suicide. His successor, the emperor Galba, despised Locusta and arranged to have her executed by being raped to death by a giraffe. Those Romans were nuts.
4. Zu Shenatir
The Himyarite kingdom was a kingdom in what is today modern-day Yemen. From 380 to 525, it was a Jewish kingdom, And Zu Shenatir was a powerful and rich man there, probably of the merchant class. That’s not him in the picture, that’s just one of the Himyarite kings, for reference.
According to records, Shenatir would invite young boys from poor backgrounds into his house, offering them money and food. Once he had them there, he’d forcibly sodomize these boys, and then kill them by throwing them out of the highest window of his home.
It’s uncertain how many boys he killed, but it was probably quite a few if his name ended up remembered by history. He was only stopped when the boy who was meant to be his latest victim ended up carrying a knife. He stabbed Shenatir and threw him out his own window instead.
5. Gilles de Rais
Gilles de Rais is remembered now as one of history’s worst serial killers. But Gilles de Rais was famous in his own time long before his crimes were uncovered; he was one of France’s greatest knights and war-heroes. He was a commander in the army of Joan of Arc!
It would be hard to understand today just how utterly shocking the discovery of his monstrosities would have been to the people of his time. Imagine if the most famous celebrity you can think of, who was also America’s greatest living war hero, turned out to… well, to have murdered hundreds of young boys.
Gilles de Rais was a hero at a time France desperately needed heroes. They’d been getting their asses kicked by the English in the 100 Years War. He was a hero at the Siege of Orleans, Joan of Arc’s greatest victory. His accomplishments made him a Marshall of France (the highest of military distinctions) by the time he was 24.
10 years later, he was exposed, tried and executed for having killed somewhere between 140-600 children, mostly boys, between the ages of 6 and 18. He would apparently have these boys brought to his castle, where he’d give them fine clothes and incredible meals; then he’d take them to a bedchamber, sexually torture them, decapitate and sometimes dismember them, and engage in sexual activity with their corpses. The bodies were then burned and buried; at least forty of his victims’ corpses were recovered during the investigation into his crimes.
Most historians are convinced that Gilles de Rais was guilty, but the story is so amazing that a number of writers throughout history have doubted it, thinking it was all a setup by the Catholic church (who Gilles didn’t get along with) or other powerful or envious rivals. But as astounding as it seems, the historical evidence that Gilles de Rais really was one of history’s most bloodthirsty psychopaths is pretty solid.
6. Peter Stumpp
Peter Stumpp wasn’t just a killer, he was a werewolf! At least, that’s how his contemporaries understood him, in order to make sense of crimes that made no sense to them. Stumpp was not a rich merchant or powerful lord, he was just a farmer (though probably a relatively prosperous one). He was a simple man, who simply enjoyed hunting and murdering children and pregnant women.
Before he was caught, he would murder 14 children and 2 pregnant women; he would eat his victims, and in the case of the women he’d tear out their fetuses to devour as (in his own words) “tasty morsels”. He claimed that he had the power to turn into a wolf-man and that it was in this time that his hunger for human flesh was insatiable. One of his many victims was his own young son, he devoured the boy’s brain after murdering him.
“Stumpp” may have been a nickname rather than a real surname, as he apparently was missing his left hand, and this was part of how he got identified and caught. When he was captured it was discovered he was also engaged in an incestuous sexual relationship with his own daughter, who may have been complicit in aiding his gruesome crimes. Both Stumpp and his daughter were sentenced to death on the “breaking wheel” which was one of many horrible ways to die in the middle ages.
7. Gilles Garnier
Gilles Garnier was yet another French serial killer named “Gilles”, and yet another ‘werewolf’ like Stumpp. Garnier was an impoverished recluse living in a small shack with his wife, near the French town of Dole, in the 16th century. When a number of children had gone missing, the authorities naturally assumed a werewolf was responsible (partly because witnesses to some of the attacks as well as survivors claimed it was), and started hunting for one. They ended up finding Garnier in the middle of attacking his latest victim.
When Garnier was caught he confessed that an evil spirit had given him the power to become a werewolf, and he had proceeded to hunt and kill several children, at least 4 children between the ages of 9 and 12 were his victims, plus a couple that managed to escape. He would strangle and claw at his victims (both boys and girls) and then strip them and eat the flesh off their thighs and arms. Ever the considerate provider, he’d also hack off parts of his victims to take home to his wife for supper.
Records show he was burned at the stake for Lycanthropy and Witchcraft, which back then were more serious crimes than the offense of Child-Killing and Cannibalism.
8. Elizabeth Bathory
Vlad Tepes (a.k.a. Dracula) gets a lot of bad press as a killer and a vampire. Now it’s true he was pretty sadistic, but he did all his killing for the sake of a bloody guerrilla war he was fighting against Muslim invaders and his other political enemies. And we have no evidence he ever cared much about blood. Impaling, sure, but not blood.
If there’s a famous killer from history that makes a much more interesting candidate for “vampire”, it would be Countess Elizabeth Bathory. She was also a noble-woman from roughly the same region; her uncle and grandpa had both been rulers of Transylvania! And another uncle, Stephen Bathory, was King of the Polish Commonwealth. So you can imagine from all this just how powerful, wealthy and influential she and her family were.
Bathory was married at the age of 15, and was a widow by 44. It was around that time that she started brutally murdering young peasant girls. She would ultimately have hundreds of victims, possibly as many as 650. Her victims were almost all pretty teenage girls, who would come to her castle to work as servants (or in the case of some better families, sent to the castle to act as handmaidens). But in at least a few cases, she just had some girls outright kidnapped. She would proceed to brutally torture the girls: mutilating and burning them, and then biting off their pretty faces. The accounts of Bathory bathing in the blood of these young girls as a way to preserve her own youth may be a later addition, but contemporary accounts say she would cover herself in her victim’s blood.
When her crimes were discovered, the various servants who had helped Bathory were tried and executed. But Bathory herself was from such a noble family that it was decided she could not be executed for her crimes. Instead, she was put under house arrest, locked up in a small room for the rest of her life.
9. La Quintrala
Catalina de los Rios y Lisperguer was more commonly known as “La Quintrala”, a reference to her astoundingly fiery red hair. She was an unquestioned beauty of colonial Chile in the 17th century, and the Lisperguers were an incredibly powerful family. Chile in that era, like most of South America, was socially divided between small numbers incredibly wealthy and powerful landowners who could get away with almost anything, and tenant workers who lived as virtual serfs. Unfortunately, this meant La Quintrala was a psychopathic monster in a position where she had the freedom to live out her urges with little fear of reprisal.
Allegedly, her first victim was her own father, who she killed by poisoning when she was just 18.
Inheriting her father’s lands, she ruled over them like a monstrous tyrant, torturing and murdering servants, slaves, and (so the story goes) lovers who displeased her. Her rule, tortures and killing were so horrible that eventually her peasants ran away en-masse from her land to the hills, and she had to recruit the local forces to round them up and bring them back.
Eventually the outcry over her savagery was so great that an investigation and trial took place. However, her family power and influence was so great that the trial stalled and was eventually dropped. She lived to the age of 65, and it was only several years after her death that the full severity of her crimes came to be public knowledge; La Quintrala was responsible for having tortured and murdered at least 40 people, mostly servants and peasants. In Chile, she continued to be seen as a symbol of Colonial-era brutality and oppression to this very day.
10. Delphine LaLaurie
If you’re a fan of ‘American Horror Story’, you might be familiar with this story, but you may not have realized that the character once played by Kathy Bates was a true and infamous murderess of old New Orleans.
LaLaurie was a three-time widow, independent and enormously wealthy as well as a key figure in the social world of New Orleans in the early 1800s. Her cousin was even the mayor! LaLaurie owned a whole ‘stable’ of slaves; and in public she always took care to appear courteous to any slaves she interacted with. But in private, she put her own slaves through a hellish nightmare of brutal tortures.
The citizens of New Orleans only started to suspect something was awry when a 12-year-old female slave fell to her death from a window of the LaLaurie mansion. She had tried to run while being brutally whipped by LaLaurie after the girl had pulled too hard on LaLaurie’s hair while brushing her.
New Orleans had more strict laws about the treatment of slaves than most other places in the south, and LaLaurie was tried for this death, and had to forfeit nine of her slaves as a punishment (though the slaves were not freed, just sent to be re-sold). Enraged, LaLaurie secretly bought all nine slaves back, through an intermediary, and became even more bloodthirsty in her treatment from that point on. Slaves were frequently kept in chains, and starved (LaLaurie even beat her own daughters when they’d tried to feed the slaves). LaLaurie made a special torture room on the top floor of her mansion, from which it was said no slave brought there returned.
The truth came out only when the 70 year old slave-cook, who was kept chained to the kitchen, set fire to the house as a suicide attempt. When the fire was put out the cook confessed that she’d wanted to die rather than be sent up to the top room. When the authorities got to the room they found seven slaves inside, chained, brutally mutilated, their skin flayed, their limbs broken, all in varying states of near-death. Further investigation found that LaLaurie had apparently killed at least three other slaves through torture.
The citizens of New Orleans were so outraged at this mistreatment that they ransacked the mansion and destroyed everything but the walls. But as for LaLaurie herself, in the chaos of it all, she managed to sneak away, and fled New Orleans for Paris, where she lived out the rest of her days.
11. El Chalequero
Only 8 years before Jack the Ripper rose to fame, a far more prolific serial killer terrorized the streets and alleys of another world capital, butchering its prostitutes. Only in this case, the capital in question was Mexico City, and the murderer was “El Chalequero” (the ‘man in the vest’). While Jack only had 5 victims, El Chalequero would murder 21 women before he was through. One big difference between the two cases was that eventually, El Chalequero would be caught.
His name was Francisco Guerrero Perez, and he was a relatively poor shoemaker, but when he went out killing he made a point of dressing fancy and cut a dashing figure. He would seek out a prostitute, pretend to hire their services, and then would start brutally beating them while he sexually violated them. Then he would slit their throats and leave the corpses on the shore of the Consulado River. On some occasions, rather than killing them immediately he’d imprison and torture them for days first.
Incredibly, it appears that El Chalequero actually bragged about his exploits to several people in his neighborhood, but he was so terrifying none of them dared to report him. He managed to continue his killing spree for 7 years before being caught when someone finally found the balls to report him.
He was tried and initially sentenced to death, but the Mexican President Porfirio Diaz personally interfered to reduce his sentence to 20 years prison, because El Chalequero had become something of a celebrity.
Even more incredibly, he was released after 16 years in prison, and immediately went and murdered another woman. He was apprehended almost immediately after, his hands still blood-stained from the killing. This time he was again sentenced to death, but died in prison before his execution.