Serial killings are defined as “having three or more victims in as many locations and as different events with the killer having a ‘cool off’ between each attack” (Fox & Levin, 2005, p. 17). Serial killings also happen over a period of months or years with the killer leading a normal life in between. Psychology is the scientific study of behavior and mental process. “There are grounds for the point of view that serial killers act from a conscious perspective but are influenced by a variety of unconscious drives” (Holmes & Burger, 1988, p. 98). There are different views of what makes a serial killer, ranging from mental instability or defect to problematic and abusive childhoods. Looking at the murders, methods, victims, and motivations of three different serial killers received from coroner reports, witness accounts, and their own point of view provides an opportunity to see any similarities behind what drove them to kill.
Psychology of a Serial Killer
Jack the Ripper
Considered one of the most infamous of the world’s serial killers, Jack the Ripper’s murder spree lasted from 1888 to 1892 in the East End of London. Also known as the Whitechapel Murderer, he attacked prostitutes during late night and early morning hours, mutilating his victims’ bodies with the skill of someone who knows basic anatomy. Jack the Ripper’s first known victim was Mary Nichols, a prostitute, who was found early in the morning in a gateway in Bucks Row, Whitechapel on 31 August 1888. “She was lying on her back with her legs straight out, skirts raised almost to her waist and throat slashed almost to the point of beheading” (Jones, 2010). His second victim was Annie Chapman, another prostitute, found 8 September 1888 in the backyard of 29 Hanbury Street at 6am. The official coroner report stated: The left arm was placed across the left breast. The legs were drawn up, the feet resting on the ground, and the knees turned outwards. The face was swollen and turned on the right side. The tongue protruded between the front teeth, but not beyond the lips. The tongue was evidently much swollen.
The front teeth were perfect as far as the first molar, top and bottom and very fine teeth they were. The body was terribly mutilated…the stiffness of the limbs was not marked, but was evidently commencing. He noticed that the throat was dissevered deeply; that the incisions through the skin were jagged and reached right round the neck. On the wooden paling between the yard in question and the next, smears of blood, corresponding to where the head of the deceased lay, were to be seen. These were about 14 inches from the ground and immediately above the part where the blood from the neck was pooled. (Jones, 2010) Later, after the body was moved to the morgue, the autopsy conducted revealed Annie Chapman was missing her womb. The third victim was Elizabeth Stride on 30 September 1888. She was found at one in the morning in Dutfield Yard. Her throat was cut but, “she was lying on the ground as though quietly placed there” (Jones, 2010), obviously, one of Jack the Ripper’s less horrific murders.
Roughly forty-five minutes after finding Stride, the body of Catherine Eddowes was found in Mitre Square laying on her back, clothes thrown above her waist and her throat slit as well. Jack the Ripper’s fifth and supposedly final victim was Mary Kelly on 9 November 1888. She was found that morning at 10:45 in the morning in her room at Millers Court. The coroner report stated: The body was lying naked in the middle of the bed, the shoulders flat, but the axis of the body inclined to the left side of the bed. The head was turned on the left cheek. The left arm was close to the body with the forearm flexed at a right angle & lying across the abdomen. The right arm was slightly abducted from the body & rested on the mattress, the elbow bent & the forearm supine with the fingers clenched.
The legs were wide apart, the left thigh at right angles to the trunk & the right forming an obtuse angle with the pubes. The whole of the surface of the abdomen & thighs was removed & the abdominal Cavity emptied of its viscera. The breasts were cut off, the arms mutilated by several jagged wounds & the face hacked beyond recognition of the features. The tissues of the neck were severed all round down to the bone. The viscera were found in various parts viz: the uterus & Kidneys with one breast under the head, the other breast by the Rt foot, the Liver between the feet, the intestines by the right side & the spleen by the left side of the body. The flaps removed from the abdomen and thighs were on a table. The bed clothing at the right corner was saturated with blood, & on the floor beneath was a pool of blood covering about 2 feet square…
The face was gashed in all directions the nose cheeks, eyebrows and ears being partly removed. The lips were blanched & cut by several incisions running obliquely down to the chin. There were also numerous cuts extending irregularly across all the features. (Jones, 2010) Police later found that at four in the morning, neighbors had heard muffled calls of murder but had ignored them believing them to be from a case of domestic violence. Little else is known of Jack the Ripper as he was never caught. Speculations about his identity range from the severely impoverished to the very wealthy, and suspects are being added to the list to this day.
A respectable, well dressed, middle-class man of the 1940’s, John Haigh was a depraved killer who frequently blamed his strict religious upbringing for his actions. He was raised in a purist and anti-clerical household where he was cut off from normal society and his only source of entertainment came from the Bible. According to Haigh’s father, the world was evil and a person who sinned became marked and evil. The fear of gaining such a mark caused Haigh to be terrified of doing anything wrong. “It is said that a turning point in the boy’s developing psyche came when Haigh realized that no such blemish would appear, despite having lied or committed some other questionable behavior. He then started to believe that he was invincible and could get away with anything” (UK, 2005-2011) thus causing Haigh to become a manipulating and compulsive liar. After leaving his parents’ home, Haigh became a salesman and took to illegal activities such as fraud that usually landed him in prison serving short sentences.
Haigh’s first victim was from the McSwan Family, a family he had come to know well; he lived with them and worked for them before marrying the daughter later. September 1944, Haigh took Donald McSwan to his residence where he then killed him; “the murder was carefully planned – having bludgeoned his victim with a club (or a similar weapon); Haigh then destroyed the body in a vat of acid. When bone and flesh had been reduced to a sludge-like mess, he poured the gooey residue onto the dirt surface of an open yard behind the building” (John Haigh-Acid Bath Killer, n.d.) When Donald’s parents began asking Haigh about their son’s disappearance, he concocted a lie then lured them to his residence and disposed of them in the same fashion. He forged all their assets into his name and then promptly lost it gambling and began looking towards murder again.
Haigh’s next victims were old retiree’s, Rosalie and Archibald Henderson that he met by acting as though he was going to buy a house from them. February 1948, he drove Dr. Henderson to his workshop where he shot him in the head and disposed of the body by dumping it into a vat of sulphuric acid. He then returned to Mrs. Henderson and told her that her husband had taken sick and needed her. She accompanied Haigh to his workshop where she met the same lethal fate as her husband. In both the McSwan and Henderson murders, Haigh emulated his victims’ handwriting and sent notes to their servants, relatives and friends; he explained that they had moved to Australia or some other distant place, mentioning that ‘Mr. Haigh’ would settle their affairs. (John Haigh-Acid Bath Killer, n.d.)
Haigh gained a substantial amount of money from the Henderson’s which he again lost to gambling. Haigh found and killed his next victim on 18 February 1949. Mrs. Durand-Deacon accompanied him to the Gloucester Road address. As soon as she entered the basement premises, Haigh shot her in the back of the head, killing her instantly. He stripped her and dumped her body into a 40-gallon vat of sulphuric acid. Haigh drained the receptacle through a basement sewer; afterwards, he scraped the sludge from the vat and dumped this onto the dirt of the back yard. This was hard work and Haigh, according to his later statements, paused to go to the nearby Ye Olde Ancient Prior’s Restaurant where he ate an egg on toast. He then returned to his workshop to “tidy up”. (John Haigh-Acid Bath Killer, n.d.)
This would be the murder that got him caught. Haigh decided to play the concerned citizen since his latest victim was so close to home so he approached her closet friend, Mrs. Lane, and asked about Mrs. Durand -Deacon. After replying that the friend had thought Mrs. Durand-Deacon had left with him, Haigh quickly denied the accusation. The following day, he asked the same question to Mrs. Lane who decided to report the disappearance to the police. Haigh accompanied her to the police station to navigate suspicion away from himself, but one police officer preformed a background investigation on Haigh and because of what he saw became suspicious. Haigh was arrested and sentenced to death regardless of his claims and demonstrations of insanity.
Jesse H. Pomeroy
“The Boy Fiend, Jesse Pomeroy, is the youngest convicted serial killer in history” (Wilhiem, 2010). Starting with a troubled childhood due to a birth defect, Pomeroy was the subject of ridicule among his peers and his father couldn’t stand the sight of him and would viciously beat him when angry before his mother chased him off. It was stated that; Jesse was an intelligent boy, if somewhat anti-social. He would not join the other boys in baseball games or other athletic pursuits, but he was fond of playing ‘scouts and Indians’ where he would invariably be an Indian and devise elaborate imaginary tortures for captive scouts (Wilhiem, 2010). Pomeroy’s mother was the first to notice something was wrong with her son after finding the heads twisted off her parakeets’ heads.
The start of Pomeroy’s decent into murder began in Boston with Billy Paine who was found beaten in an outhouse. Soon after the police found Tracy Hayden in the same outhouse where “He was tied, stripped naked, and whipped across the back. The boy hit him in the face with a board, breaking his nose and knocking out two teeth. Then he threatened to cut off Tracy’s penis” (Wilhiem, 2010). Pomeroy’s third victim was Robert Maier who withstood the same brutal treatment. Chelsea police interviewed hundreds of boys but received no leads. Rumors began to circulate about the description of the killer and the picture people portrayed were that of the devil. Pomeroy was named “The Boy Torturer” after stripping and beating Johnny Balch. Pomeroy’s mother, suspected her son, and moved to South Boston with her family where the assaults continued only more often and more inhumane. “On August 17, seven-year-old George Pratt was abducted and was not just flogged.
This time the abductor stuck a needle in his arm and his groin, and bit chunks of flesh from his face and buttocks” (Wilhiem, 2010). Pomeroy began using a knife to stab his victims repeatedly before attempting to cut off their genitalia. Robert Gould was the eighth victim and able to give police a useful description of his assailant. The parents of Gould refused to allow him to be escorted around to identify his attacker, and police were forced to ask Pomeroy’s seventh victim, Joseph Kennedy, who was then shown around the local schools and even came face to face with Pomeroy and was unable to identify him as the killer. That day, after school, for reasons Jesse was never able to explain, he went to the police station. Seeing Joseph Kennedy there, he quickly turned and left the station, but a policeman followed him out and brought him back. Now, looking closer, young Joseph saw the white eye and identified Jesse as his torturer.
Jesse was held in a cell overnight and was persuaded to confess. The next day all of the victims identified him as their attacker. Jesse, then 12 years old, was sentenced to the reformatory, ‘for the term of his minority’ – a period of six years. (Wilhiem, 2010) Pomeroy acted as though he was better within the reformatory and seventeen months after his arrest, Pomeroy was placed on probation and set free. “March 18, 1874, 10-year-old Katie Curran left her home to buy a notebook for school and never returned. She was last seen entering Mrs. Pomeroy’s store. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Jesse’s history and the Corrans feared the worst.” (Wilhiem, 2010) At the police station Captain Dyer assured Mrs. Curran that Jesse could not be involved—he had been completely rehabilitated; besides he was only known to attack little boys. “Katie’s father was a Catholic and reflecting the attitudes of the time; local rumors said he sent her to a convent” (Wilhiem, 2010).
Thirty-six days later a little boy, Horace Millen, was seen walking toward the wharf. Later that day Millen’s body was found half naked on the beach; he was stabbed multiple times in the chest, almost beheaded and half castrated. Pomeroy was the first person to come to the police chief’s mind upon hearing about the murders, but he quickly dismissed it on the assumption that Pomeroy was still in the reformatory, his men quickly corrected the assumption and were ordered to arrest Pomeroy. Pomeroy denied all charges, even when confronted with forensic evidence, until he was taken to see the dead body of Millen where “He admitted he killed Horace, something made him do it. He was sorry and wanted to leave. He told the policemen: ‘Put me somewhere, so I can’t do such things’” (Wilhiem, 2010).
Pomeroy’s mother’s business suffered due to the recent events with her son, and she was forced to sell to a grocery chain. During renovations the decomposing body of Katie Curran was found under a heap of ashes and was only identifiable from her clothing. Pomeroy’s mother and brother were arrested for murder but were cleared by Pomeroy confessing to Curran’s murder after interrogation. Later, Pomeroy claimed to have only admitted guilt to save his mother. Pomeroy’s lawyers fought for the insanity plea but were denied because prosecution proved he knew right from wrong, Pomeroy was proven guilty for first degree murder at the age of 16 and sentenced to life in prison.
Looking at all three killers penchant for mutilating their victims’ bodies, the almost randomness in choosing of their victims, and the childhoods of at least two of the killers, mental trauma sustained during adolescence played a large part in the decline into becoming killers where they took the atrocities they viewed or had been done to them and focused them on their victims as a form of control and improper coping. Unfortunately, in the case of Jack the Ripper, we cannot look into his childhood and compare it to that of Pomeroy or Haigh, but we can deduce that with his choosing of female prostitutes and his horrific mutilation of them, he was traumatized as a child by his mother whether it was because she herself was a prostitute and he often saw her in-coitus with her customers or his mother was extremely controlling like that of the mother of Ed Gein, and after her death, possibly caused by him, he started reaching out and punishing her over and over again using local prostitutes as the subjects of his disdain.
Pomeroy’s abuse and actions against his victims were a reflection of his father’s actions upon him that, as a way of control, he chose victims younger and smaller than himself to take control of the situation that he couldn’t at home; in essence, he was abusing himself for not being able to do anything against his own father. Haigh, though having an abusive and extremely volatile childhood, did not kill or choose his victims out of anything other than financial gain. Looking at his case files, we see the pattern that after he gambled away the profits of his previous killings he would then find new ‘prey’ to lure into his killing trap.
His attempts at pleading insanity fell through because of his pattern of choosing only wealthy or profitable victims that benefitted him in the end and elevated his status. Applying criminological theory to these serial killers is possible, but narrowing their actions to just one is impossible. Some would say that Pomeroy was showing differential association and he had learned his behavior from his father or that strain could apply to both him and Haigh, though Haigh’s was from a financial stand point rather than from an inability to cope with his father beating him. Jack the Ripper is the only killer who would be difficult to apply any theory to with as little as we know of him or his childhood.
David Lester, P. (1995). Serial Killers: The Insatiable Passion. Philadelphia: Charles Press Publishers, Inc. Fox, J. A., & Levin, J. (2005). Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi: Sage Publications, Inc. Holmes, R. M., & Burger, J. D. (1988). Serial Murder. London: Sage Publications, Inc. John Haigh-Acid Bath Killer. (n.d.). Retrieved from horrorfind.com: http://usersites.horrorfind.com/home/horror/bedlambound/library/haigh.html Jones, R. (2010). Jack The Ripper: History, Victims, Letters, Suspects. Retrieved from Jack The Ripper History: http://www.jack-the-ripper.org/ Pomeroy, J. (2002). Autobiography of Jesse H. Pomeroy. Retrieved from http://kobek.com: http://kobek.com/autobiography.pdf UK, A. (2005-2011). Bibliography- John Haigh: The Acid bath Murderer on Crime and Investigation Network. Retrieved from CRIME FILE – Famous criminal: John Haigh: The Acid Bath Murderer : http://www.crimeandinvestigation.co.uk/crime-files/john-haigh-the-acid-bath-murderer/biography.html Wilhiem, R. (2010, August 7). Jesse Pomeroy: “Boy Fiend”. Retrieved from Murder By Gaslight: http://murderbygasslight.blogspot.com/2010/08/jesse-pomeroy-boston-boy-fiend.html
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