We all know of the Mansons, Dahmers and John Wayne Gacys of the world—the mass killers that are media darlings. But for every nutbar killer who are splashed all over the headlines, there are plenty who never make the limelight. Some are from other parts of the world, some from too long ago to remember. But each of them is interesting and terrifying in their own right.
Eddie Leonski, the "Brownout Strangler"
In WWII, American servicemen were shipped out all over the world in order to fight the Axis menace. One such Private was Eddie Leonski, sent to Melbourne during the war. The war time conditions were such that the city was under Brown Out conditions, lowering the light levels through the darker hours to minimal levels. Leonski used the cover of semi-darkness to assault and murder three women in Melbourne. He was tried at a military tribunal, and sentenced to be hanged; only the second American serviceman to suffer this fate in WWII.
Mohammed Bijeh, the "Desert Vampire"
An Iranian serial killer and rapist, who had 16 young victims over the course of a year. He was eventually caught and pleaded guilty to the crimes he was accused of. He was sentenced to 100 lashes and to be hanged to death. Presented in front of a roaring crowd of 5,000 in 2005, he was chained up and lashed. A relative of one of his victims broke through and stabbed him in the back. After the lashes were completed, the mother of a victim placed a rope around his neck, and he was hoisted up by crane. That's right, he was intentionally strangled to death. In the western world, the goal of hanging is usually to snap the neck, leading to a relatively painless execution. In this case they wanted him to die as slowly as possible.
William Palmer, "Palmer the Poisoner"
Palmer was a doctor and ladies man in 19th century England, who ended up being one of the most notorious murderers of his time. People became naturally suspicious of the good doctor, when over the course of his life, five of his children died as babies, as did his mother-in-law, two people he owed money to, his wife after he took out a large insurance plan in her name, his illegitimate baby, and his brother. You think this would have raised a few eyebrows, but what tipped of the constabulary was when a friend of his who had just won big at the horse races died mysteriously. Turns out Dr. Palmer was a big fan of strychnine. What especially stands out is the death of his first victim: a friend who he poisoned during a drinking competition. C'mon doc, circle of death isn't meant to be taken literally!
Tillie found a schtick, and stuck to it. Namely: murderous insurance fraud. She went through five husbands, three neighborhood children, and just about anyone else she could get her hands on. Not only did she grab insurance money out of the deal, she also gained a reputation as a fortune teller based on predicting the deaths of these people. At one point, she was buying a dress for her husband's funeral, when a stranger asked when he had died. Her response? "Ten days from now." What a charmer!
The Doodler was an un-caught serial killer who was responsible for 14 killings and assaults among the gay population of San Francisco in 1974 and 75. His name came from his habit of sketching his victims before having sex with them, and then stabbing them. Two of his survivors even ID'd the guy in a police line-up, but no charges were ever brought. You know why? Because the victims would have to out themselves as gay to in order to testify. That's right, the homophobia was so rampant that these people were too scared of admitting their sexuality even in order to bring a mass murderer to justice. Harvey Milk said of the whole situation, "I understand their position. I respect the pressure society has put on them."
Miyuki Ishikawa, "Oni-Sanba" (demon-midwife)
Ishikawa was a midwife at a maternity ward in Japan. Faced with a system that didn't allow abortions she dealt with poor parents who had no way of affording to look after their new offspring. So she began neglecting the babies, letting them die of natural causes. Her behavior so disgusted the other midwives, that they all quit in protest. While Ishikawa's motivations were at least vaguely understandable, eventually she began charging the parents to deal with their children, a move which shifts the whole thing into a far more disturbing category. Her husband and a local doctor were both in on the plan, and helped her fake death certificates and deal with the bodies. When she was finally caught, they estimated she had lead deaths of at least 103 newborns. But, because the deaths were from neglect rather than direct action, she was only imprisoned for 8 years. A year later abortion was legalized in Japan.
Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, the "Lonely Heart Killers"
In the 1940s, these two love birds killed as many as 20 women, and robbed even more. Fernandez would wine and dine them, before seducing them, and then the pair would steal all their money. Given that this was the 40s, the ladies were far too embarrassed about hooking up with a stranger to go to the police over the crime. Beck usually posed as Fernandez' sister over this period, and did everything in her power to prevent their victims from having sex with her man. While they're thought to have killed 20 women, they were convicted over three murders, including a small child of one of the women. Both were killed by electric chair at Sing Sing.
Delfina and María de Jesús González, "Las Poquianchis"
Delfina and Maria were two sisters from Guanajuato who ran a brothel called Rancho El Ángel. However, once they were convicted, it became known as the bordello from hell! The sisters would recruit local women for prostitution, and once they were too old, too ill, or had been raped so often that they were no longer able to perform, they were killed. The sisters didn't just kill their employees, but also babies, and any client who came to the ranch with a significant amount of cash on hand. When the police investigated their ranch, they found the corpses of 80 women, 11 men and a number of fetuses. The sisters were sentenced to 40 years in prison each.
Micajah "Big" Harpe and Wiley "Little" Harpe, "America's First Serial Killers"
While the authenticity of being called America's first serial killers is perhaps limited, the Harpe brothers were certainly early starters. They were based in Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois in the late 1700s. It's hard to separate fact from fiction about the pair, but they were known for gutting their victims, filling their corpses with rocks and then throwing them in a river. They were said to kill regardless of sex, age or race. Equal opportunity murderers, it seems. One story claims that Big Harpe smashed his own daughter's head in when he grew tired of her crying, and that this was the only crime he regretted. As with most of their lives, there are multiple accounts of their deaths. The tales suggest Big was killed and decapitated, his head placed on a pole in what became known as Harpshead, Kentucky. Little Harpe was caught by the law, and hanged.
Henry Lee Lucas
Henry Lee Lucas is said to have been the prolific killer in America, who at one point confessed to 600 deaths. The only problem? He might have been entirely innocent. Of his many confessions and then retractions, some 350 were deemed believable by the state. He is known to have killed at least 3 people for certain, but was eventually convicted for 11. The problem was that many of his confessions were given under extreme duress, in horrible conditions were he said he was willing to confess to anything to receive better treatment. The other evidence against him wasn't exactly clear cut, and it seems as though many unsolved murders were attributed to the man. It even got to the point where Amnesty International launched a campaign to help him, saying "the belief of two former state Attorneys General that Lucas was in all likelihood innocent of the crime for which he was sentenced to death." In the end, Lucas' sentence was commuted to life in prison by George W. Bush, the only commutation during his time as Governor of Texas, and the only commutation in Texas since they reinstated the death penalty in 1982. He died in prison of natural causes.
Mary Ann Cotton
Another woman out for insurance money, but Cotton had a surprisingly high kill count. Over the course of her life, she's thought to have murdered 21 people, mostly by arsenic poisoning. Her usual scheme would be to get close to a man, kill his wife and kids, marry him, take out an insurance policy, and then kill him too. She also killed her mother and a number of her own children in the same manner. She killed off four husbands, two lovers, and a great many women and children before being arrested. She was hanged, but died of strangulation rather than snapped neck.
Next on our list of unassuming Victorian ladies who are actually vicious mass murderers: Amelia Dyer! Obviously checkered shawls and hair bows were THE way to dress in 19th century England. Dyer was actually relatively well educated and brought up, not precisely the product of Dickensian poverty and nastiness. She was trained as a nurse, but found a much easier way to make money was as a baby farmer. When unmarried women suddenly found themselves in a delicate condition, they could either keep the baby and spend the rest of their days in shame and infamy, or pay someone like Dyer to take it. For a fee, these people would take in the young mothers, care for them, and then pass the children into foster care—for a substantial fee, for more wealthy clients it got as high as £80, which was a years wage for a laborer. Of course, the profit margins are much, much better if the babies don't eat much, or just happen to pass away. So instead of giving the children food, Dyer just kept them doped up on opium, until they starved. Man, imagine heroin being cheaper than food! What a world! Since the parents would be disgraced if their sins came to light, they kept quiet about the whole thing, and Dyer kept taking the money. Eventually she even got tired of letting the kids starve, and just started murdering them via strangulation with white ribbon. Far more efficient! She was eventually tried for a single death, but is thought to have murdered dozens of children.
Herman Webster Mudgett, aka Dr. Henry Howard Holmes
Holmes was a mass killer based in Chicago, who built himself a hotel for the 1893 World's Fair. While he confessed to 27 murders, only nine of those were confirmed, and it's possible he killed many more. The convenient fact that he owned a hotel gave him a handy area in which to undertake his nefarious deeds. He owned a drugstore beneath the hotel, and intentionally built the structure in an incredibly twisted way. It was a maze of over one hundred windowless rooms with doorways opening to brick walls, oddly angled hallways, stairways to nowhere, doors openable only from the outside, and a host of other strange and labyrinthine constructions. He even changed the instructions to the building crew constantly, so only he knew his way around. He would then select female employees or visiting guests, and torture and killed them. He had rooms fitted with gas pipes to asphyxiate, or threw them in an airtight soundproof vault to suffocate. Bodies were dropped by chute into the basement, where they were dissected, and sold to medical students; dissolved in acid; or cremated. He also performed illegal abortions, which often lead to the mothers' death, but I'm guessing he didn't mind. Holmes wasn't caught till years later, after traveling all over the USA and Canada, and probably killing many others as he went. Estimates of his actual death toll go as high as 230, and he was hanged for his crimes.
Woo Bum-kon was a South Korean cop, who undertook the largest killing spree in modern times. Man, is there any game the Koreans don't have a high score in? By the end of his rampage, he left 57 people dead, 35 wounded and then took his own life. After a drawn out argument with his girlfriend, he went to the police armory of the village he lived in, and proceeded to get absolutely tanked. He then stocked up on weaponry, including a rifle and grenades, and left. First, he went to the local telephone exchange, and shot three operators so no-one could make a phonecall. Then he slowly and methodologically went door to door, gaining entry because people trusted him as a police officer. He shot his victims in most cases, but in one case he took out an entire family with a grenade. This went on for eight hours before he moved on to a neighboring village to continue. This went on until he had made his way through five local villages, at which point he strapped two grenades to his chest, grabbed three hostages, and blew them and himself up. That's a hell of a rampage.