The definition of a serial killer is someone who has killed at least three people over a certain span of time (usually over a month) with some down time between each murder. The motivation for each murder usually satisfies a psychological need for the killer.
Serial killers are disturbing, twisted and make our skin crawl. We wonder what makes them do the horrible things they do and that’s why it’s interesting to read about them.
This is a list of some of the most infamous serial killers in history.
12. Charles Manson
Everyone in America knows the name Charles Manson. The horrible crimes he committed—as well as his insane rants—have unfortunately left their imprint on pop culture. In the 1960s, Manson was responsible for founding a hippie religious cult that became known as “The Family.” Manson was incredibly manipulative and in the summer of 1969, convinced members of his cult to commit multiple murders.
Manson instructed his followers to break into a Los Angeles home and kill the people inside. The house happened to belong to actress Sharon Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski. Polanski was out of the country at the time, but a pregnant Tate and four others were murdered. The following night, Manson ordered the murders of two others.
There is no actual evidence that he performed any of the murders himself, but in court Manson was found guilty of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. He was originally sentenced to death, but was reprieved in 1972 when California outlawed the death penalty. Manson is currently 77 years old and is serving a life sentence in Corcoran State Prison. He reportedly receives more mail than any other prisoner in the U.S.
11. Jack the RipperOne of the OGs of serial killing, Jack the Ripper was responsible for the murders of multiple victims, but the actual number, much like his identity, is not actually known. The 19th-century serial killer primarily targeted female prostitutes in a poor neighborhood in London.Even though his killings took place overseas, there are some theories that point to Jack the Ripper being an American. One theory points to an American "doctor" named Frances Tumblety, who was in custody briefly, but was granted bail, enabling him to flee London shortly after the murders ended.
There is much debate as to whether or not Jack the Ripper was actually only one person. Due to the similarities in the murders (slashed throats, abdominal mutilations, and organ removal), it was considered to be the work of the same person. Investigators at the time believed it to be someone with a background in surgical procedures. The murders were never solved, leading Jack the Ripper to become a legend surrounded by both fact and fiction.
10. John Wayne Gacy
John Wayne Gacy was a serial killer and rapist who became known as the “Killer Clown” due to fact that he used to work as a professional clown at parties and other events. He had a traumatizing childhood that involved both sexual and physical abuse by adults.
In the 1970s, Gacy sexually assaulted and murdered at least 33 young men. In recounting his first murder, he described it as “totally draining, but being the ultimate thrill.” Gacy buried most of the bodies on his property, with the majority going in the crawl space of his home. A few others were disposed of in a river nearby.
At the end of his trial, Gacy was found guilty of 33 charges of murder as well as sexual assault and taking indecent liberties with a child. He was sentenced to death and was executed in 1994 at the age of 52.
9. Ed Gein
Even if you don’t recognize Ed Gein's name, you certainly know of him. He was a serial killer who made headlines due to the fact that he used to steal corpses from local graveyards and turn their bones and skin into keepsakes of sorts. But more importantly, he was the influence for some of Hollywood’s most famous serial killers including Norman Bates from "Psycho," Leatherface from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," and Buffalo Bill from "The Silence of the Lambs."
For more on Gein and how he influenced these characters, check out our feature Ed Gein: A Real Life Psycho.
8. Zodiac KillerTo this day, the identity of the Zodiac Killer—who committed murders in Nortern California in the '60s and '70s—remains unknown. The killer provided the name Zodiac in a series of letters that were made public as a means to taunt the San Francisco Police Department.
In the letters, Zodiac claimed to have murdered 37 people, but over the course of the investigation, only a total of seven victims were confirmed. A few of the letters even included cryptic puzzles, but out of the four Zodiac provided, only one was eventually solved. In many of his letters, the Zodiac Killer would include a symbol to sign his correspondence and also included an official tally displaying how many murders had been committed versus how many the SFPD had actually solved.
Over the years, many have either claimed to be the Zodiac Killer or claimed to know who the killer was. These claims, however, were usually not backed with enough evidence to make them conclusive. The case remains open in a number of counties in northern California.
7. Ted BundyAnother well-known name in the 1970s serial-killer circuit, Ted Bundy was known for using his good looks and charismatic personality to lure his female victims in. It’s not really known when Bundy began murdering, but it was said to have been anytime from 1969 to 1971.Certain evidence pointed to Bundy having murdered as early as 1961, when he was just 14 years old, but he denied that vehemently. Many of Bundy’s victims were said to have had similarities to an ex-girlfriend of his who had once left him distraught.
In 1975, Bundy was pulled over when the police recognized his car. A search of his car reveled a ski mask, handcuffs, and a crowbar. Bundy had considered himself somewhat of an expert in leaving little evidence at the scene of a crime, but after a number of trials, Bundy was sentenced to death by electrocution in 1980. Bundy spent a lot of time appealing the sentence and was able to delay his death for many years. In 1989, however, he was finally executed and it the official number of murders he committed was never revealed.
6. Gary Ridgway
Gary Ridgway was a serial killer in the 1980s and 1990s. He became known as the “Green River Killer” due to his preference for dumping the bodies of his victims in the wooded areas around the Green River in Washington.
According to Ridgway, he had killed around 71 women. His victims tended to be prostitutes or runaways who had been strangled. Ridgway was convicted of only 48 separate murders, even though he confessed to so many more. While he was a suspect during the time of the murders, he was ever tried or convicted. He was eventually arrested in 2001, when a DNA test revealed a match, and eventually sentenced to life in prison. He was able to avoid the death penalty by promising to reveal the whereabouts of certain women who were still considered missing.
5. Belle Sorenson Gunness
The only female on this list of serial killers was committing murders way before most of these dudes were even born. Belle Sorenson Gunness spent much of her 19th-century life killing her suitors, boyfriends, husbands, and children. She reportedly was responsible for anywhere between 24 and 40 murders.
While many serial killers on this list had motives that satisfied them psychologically, Gunness killed mostly in order to benefit financially. She usually killed in order to collect some sort of life insurance or to steal from her victims. She even went so far as to place an ad in the personals section of a Chicago newspaper in order to lure men.
In 1908, authorities dug up the hog pen on Gunness’ farm and began to discover body after body. Gunness spent the next several decades on the run with numerous reports coming in of sightings. She was never actually caught and although a body that was believed to be hers was buried, there was not enough DNA to confirm.