Although we once knew them only as monsters and freaks, serial killers have prowled among us since the beginning of humankind. The term “serial killer” entered into popular usage in 1981 and since, scores of homicidal individuals have become near synonymous with the label: Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy and Edmund Kemper, to name a few.
In his new book American Serial Killers: The Epidemic Years 1950 to 2000, investigative historian Peter Vronsky traces the roots of serial killing and brings into focus an American surge in serial murder—a 50-year “Golden Age” when a generation of serial killers reached “celebrity” status due to the public’s fixation on their gruesome crimes and staggering body counts. “Of 2,604 identified serial killers in the United States during the twentieth century, an astonishing 89.5 percent (2,331) made their appearance between 1950 to 1999, with 88 percent of those appearing in just the three decades from 1970 to 1999—the ‘epidemic’ peak years,” Vronsky notes in his book.
A&E True Crime spoke with Vronsky about what caused the surge in serial killing, how these murderers evolved during the “Golden Age” and why serial murder is now on the decline.
How would you describe history’s first serial killers and who, by loose definition, is considered the first serial murderer?
We’re all nature’s serial killers, certainly in our uncivilized, prehistoric form. In a broad anthropological context, animals kill serially to hunt, and human beings, prior to living in civilized societies, have had to do that as well to survive.
If we want to start moving towards the more traditional conception we have of serial killing as a prohibited behavior in a civilized society, then I think it would certainly be Roman emperors who, in their own time, were considered to be unusually killing [people]. Rome was this kind of society where people were killed for recreation and public forums and so forth. When we look at the crimes of someone like Caligula [Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus], for example, his contemporaries were shocked by what he was doing. There was some kind of pathology already evident in those early historical records.
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By the Renaissance, as I looked at the werewolf trials (where people in Europe were put on trial, and executed, after being accused of being shape-shifting werewolves), we began to move into more traditional definitions of serial killers. Often the earliest serial killer cited is Gilles de Rais, Joan of Arc’s bodyguard, even though he was an aristocrat. He exercised his power to kill for pleasure in the same way that Caligula might have.
If we want to start looking at ordinary Joes as serial killers, the way they are in a modern time, then most people who were accused of being werewolves would probably fit closest to what we perceive today as a serial killer. When I read those trial transcripts, what they were accused of was exactly what serial killers do. Some of the werewolves were described as good neighbors. John Wayne Gacy was described as a good neighbor because he helped shovel snow. But instead of being accused of being mortal serial killers, these werewolves were accused of being supernatural. We couldn’t imagine a human in an ordinary state committing the kinds of acts they had committed, not back then.
Between 1930 and 1945, there was a rise of sexual signature killers. Can you talk about these serial murderers?
Serial killers take their cues from literature, pornography, biblical passages and all sorts of other sources, like movies, in how they begin expressing their compulsions. We begin to see this pattern as early as the 1920s. We already have this true crime, true detective literature emerging with sexual domination of females, the imagery of women bound and abducted merging into these detective magazines and other pulp magazines.
Serial killers will script their fantasies by the kinds of things that trigger their more inner compulsions and fantasies. It’s almost like a constant echo. These things don’t cause or make serial killers, but they do shape their fantasies. They would most likely kill anyway, whether this literature existed or not, but how they do it is affected by these factors.
How did 1950 bring about a new kind of serial killer, as you explore in your book?
One thing was the ubiquity of the automobile by the 1950s. There were theories that the introduction of the interstate highway system added many serial killers into the bloodstream of the nation. There is a counterargument that it actually created more victims because you had all these communities, often poor inner-city communities, that were dispossessed by these highways and expressways that were driven through the center of the cities.
After the Second World War, we also start seeing these extreme men’s adventure magazines where the covers featured paintings of women being tortured in a disheveled state, bound, beaten, raped and eventually murdered and mutilated by either Nazis or Imperial Japanese troops. They were mainstream and sold next to LIFE, TIME, comic books and the true detective magazines. It wasn’t like they were thought of as being pornographic or even erotic. So, in the 1950s, you have someone like Harvey Glatman, “The Glamour Girl Slayer,” who begins hiring freelance models with the ruse that he is shooting for the cover of one of these magazines. He would step into the pose, commit the sexual assault and then murder the woman.
By the late 1970s, early 1980s, the FBI would actually refer to these magazines as pornography for serial killers.
You refer to 1950 to 2000 as the epidemic years, or the ‘Golden Age,’ in American serial killing. What circumstances and events tipped the homicidal scales?
It’s a combination of things and, although it starts in the 1950s, it begins to really ramp up between 1970 and 1999. There is a period of disorder and cultural sexual revolutions, and something like 88 percent of all known 20th-century American serial killers made their appearance in this three-decade era.
We also had a rise in general violence. Homicide rates skyrocketed. Again, there is the literature I described.
Also, serial killers often come from broken homes. As I began looking at the generation of serial killers who would have been children in the late 1940s and early 1950s, I began to see that some were the sons of traumatized Second World War veterans. We had a generation of men coming back from war without the aid of a diagnosis of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Many came home and remained in isolation and disconnected from their families. They were essentially absent for their sons.
I found a number of serial killers, ranging from Edmund Kemper to Dennis Rader (the ‘BTK Killer’), whose fathers had returned from combat not quite the same as they had left. Throughout the Great Depression and Second World War, you essentially had single mothers raising their sons. We often find the mothers of serial killers were very dominant and maybe even overprotective. The child becomes frustrated and, according to one theory, goes into rage towards the female figure, often displacing their rage towards other women. This was the case with Edmund Kemper. He killed a number of women, before realizing he really wanted to kill his mother. The moment he murdered his mother, he called the police and surrendered, ending his entire serial killing spree. It’s almost as if he self-healed in a strange way.
It is believed that serial murder is on the decline. If so, why is this happening?
There is a general decline in murder, period. Beyond that, we are apprehending serial killers earlier in their careers, so the victim numbers are much lower.
The ubiquity of cell phones makes it a lot easier to connect one suspect to multiple victims. Not only do serial killers carry cell phones, but so do victims. You can track movements using cell phone towers.
There’s the ubiquity of video surveillance systems, too. Now, you’re on video before you even think about committing a crime.
Another is DNA techniques. Some serial killers, like the Golden State Killer, were actually serial killers from this early surge period. DNA testing is catching up to them. All this suggests we might be better at catching serial killers. Or, the pessimistic interpretation might be that serial killers have become better at what they do, or we’re just not recognizing murders as serial homicides. Maybe we’re not recognizing how many people go missing, like sex workers and others who go unaccounted for.