Serial killers strike a nightmare nerve.

It is a sad commentary on our society that there are so many murders (21,570 in the United States alone in 2020) that they need to be classified. That being said, different murders happen for different reasons — something that police, lawyers, and the courts very much take into account. How are serial killers whittled out of the crowd?

Psychology Today defines a serial killer as "an individual who murders a series of victims over a period of time, typically with gaps between each killing," going on to say that for the "serial" term to be applied, the kill count has to be three victims or above. Going on FBI statistics for the American population, a 2014 Scientific American article notes only 25 to 50 serial killers were operating in a then-population of over 318 million, and that of the 15,000 murders tallied, just 150 were serial. Not only does that make serial killers extremely rare, it "disqualifies" some infamous murderers like Ed Gein, who, despite being the basis for Norman Bates, killed just two people.

But there are plenty of others to fill the gap who are just as infamous, or more so. Serial killers themselves come in types, from "black widows" killing their husbands to "Angels of Mercy" playing with life and death; they are a grizzly, but fascinating, aspect of humanity.

Erzsébet Bathory

A contemporary portrait of Erzsébet Bathory.

Beautiful, rich, and noble-born (via Britannica), Erzsébet Bathory was found guilty of killing up to 650 girls (via Biographics) from about 1590 to 1610. How she got away with it is a case study of the times.

Born into a powerful family in 1560 in the Kingdom of Hungary, Bathory was already beating servants by the time she married, with husband and wife bonding over the shared hobby of occasionally killing young peasant girls. Rumors circulated, but the two were shielded by aristocratic rank. When her husband died, Bathory found herself with all the power and none of the patriarchy. The spree commenced.

Contrary to legend, Bathory never bathed in the blood of virgins, but she was a sadistic killer with a penchant for misogyny. According to Biography, Bathory drove needles into girls’ fingers, sewed their mouths shut, burned their genitals, froze them, and cut off their noses. She would bite flesh from their shoulders and breasts. Then she killed them, with some girls as young as 10. Because poor people were disposable, it was only when Bathory targeted noblewomen that she was caught. Even then, her privilege saved her; Biography states Bathory’s sentence was house arrest. "The Blood Countess" was imprisoned in a room of her castle, dying four years later in 1614.

Jeffrey Dahmer

The mug shot of Jeffrey Dahmer

The crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer — 17 murders (via Biography)— are made worse because it took a serial killer to blow open the racial, homophobic, and victim-shaming views of the time. Dahmer was a handsome, white, gay man with a job; his victims were hustlers and down-on-their-luck men of color. As CrimeReads explains, guess who got lionized?

As Crimetraveller notes, the "Milwaukee Monster" was triggered by sex partners leaving him, saying "as his guest made to leave, he would kill them, wanting to keep them with him." That is, he ate them … after the necrophilia.

This bad romance stretched from 1978 to 1991, and it’s not like Dahmer went wholly unnoticed. Biography lists a ghastly timeline of missed opportunities: arrests in 1982 and 1988, a jail sentence in 1989. In 1991, Dahmer escaped capture by convincing police that his next victim, a drugged 14-year-old boy, was a "friend." As a modus operandi, Dahmer drilled holes into the cranium of victims, applied acid, and attempted to create what "RedHanded" called a "sex zombie." At Dahmer’s final arrest, police found preserved sex organs, a total of 12 heads and skulls, two skeletons, and three torsos submerged in acid, with another in the refrigerator. Biography ends thusly: "Sentenced to 16 consecutive life terms, Dahmer was killed by fellow prison inmate Christopher Scarver in 1994."

Enriqueta Martí

A photo of Enriqueta Marti, early 1900s.

For Enriqueta Martí, murder was a business. She killed children, rendered them, and turned them into high-end creams. That’s not a joke.

This infamous Spanish case faded with time, but an El Pais retrospective gives a background: Martí was a Barcelonan sex worker who, in 1909, became a high-end madam catering to illegal vices — she abducted little girls to peddle in her brothel. Even then, she was already siding as a witch doctor, first claiming the blood of toddlers cured tuberculosis before outright killing children, as BarcelonaLowDown recounts, for spell components. As STSTWorld reports, Martí slaughtered her victims, then used the fat, bones, and hair to manufacture expensive ointments to treat disease. When her lair was discovered, officers found "jars with strange remains, blood, bones, and hair."

It is unclear how many victims Martí killed during her 20-year campaign. PsychologyToday confirms 10, IBTimes estimates 12 (noting officials suspected far more deaths), but Vice opines the final number is a mystery. And as she was murdered in prison in 1913 without ever confessing, the death toll of "The Vampire of Barcelona" will never be known.

Jack the Ripper

A confabulated image of Jack the Ripper.

No list of serial killers is complete without the infamous, and anonymous, Jack the Ripper (via BBC). Preying amid the slums of East End London in 1888, he is heralded by Texas State University as the "first modern serial killer." Despite being 134 years gone, the case still fascinates.

History records five murders as definitively by the Ripper. Texas State University adds detail, noting he attacked low-end sex workers, and it described how the killer slit the throat and abdomen of the first victim, disemboweled the second, nearly decapitated the third, gutted the fourth (and mailed half a kidney to police), and, in a frenzy of gore, defleshed and hollowed out the torso of the fifth. All the while, cat-and-mouse notes were sent to officials, in which one, the famous "From Hell" letter, finds the killer bragging about eating the other half of the kidney.

Jack the Ripper was never caught, leading to scores of theories, movies, and even tours. But was the case solved? Rolling Stone highlighted a 2019 study that used DNA evidence to identify Aaron Kosminski, a 23-year-old barber, as the most likely suspect. A "Kosminski" is indeed mentioned in 1888 transcripts; while he was not pursued as a suspect, records show he was in and out of asylums and had a particular hatred for sex workers.

Aileen Wuornos

The mug shot of Aileen Wuornos.

When bodies of men, shot and robbed, began appearing in central Florida between 1989 and 1990 (via Britannica), law enforcement suspected they had a serial killer. What they didn’t suspect was a woman.

When Aileen Wuornos, a known sex worker with a record (via Biography), was arrested in 1991 for seven murders (along with her girlfriend, Tyria Moore), the press went gaga over a lesbian prostitute black widow-type serial killer that killed men for their money (although, in actuality, Wuornos doesn’t actually quite fit that profile). Her gender also generated headlines; per the U.S. Department of Justice, the vast majority of serial killers are men. Discover Magazine notes female serial killers account for approximately 11% of cases in the last century.

The 2002 execution of Wuornos was the final stop in a long downward spiral. According to Biography, she was abused by men from childhood to her teens. She was abandoned by her mother at 4; committed incest with her brother; was raped at 13, made pregnant, and forced to give the child up for adoption. As The Guardian reports, she was homeless soon after and turned to sex work to survive. Psychologically scarred, per CNN, Wuornos admitted she would kill again if able. Sleaziest of all, the Wuornos case turned into a profit scramble. "Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer" is a 1993 documentary about people around Wuornos using her infamy as get-rich-quick schemes.

Javed Iqbal

A cemetery in Lahore.

Javed Iqbal was absolutely unrepentant for killing 100 boys. As far as he was concerned, it was payback. According to the BBC, Iqbal was charged (but not convicted) with sodomy in the 1990s. This made the Pakistani man swear murderous revenge on random boys he blamed, vowing 100 kills. And he did just that; the BBC reports Iqbal raped and strangled his way through the street children of Lahore, murdering boys from ages 6 to 16.

Making the case worse was the astonishing fact that Lahore police did not even notice 100 children had gone missing until after Iqbal mailed in an anonymous confession (via CrimeLibrary). Even more damning, officers could not catch Iqbal; rather, as the BBC reports, he turned himself in once he reached 100 deaths. Archives at CrimeLibrary describe that when they finally raided his house, officers found butchery: decomposing bodies, the chain Iqbal used to kill, and vats of acid for dissolving the remains.

Iqbal himself was dismissive of law enforcement; as the BBC relates, he felt they would kill him before trial and so surrendered to staff at a newspaper. Britannica continues by saying he committed suicide in 2001 before his sentence could be carried out: to be chopped into 100 pieces for each of his victims (via BBC).

Belle Gunness

A rare photo of killer Belle Gunness.

Before apps and even personal ads, there were Lonely Hearts Clubs, organizations set up to help the single mingle. Then, as now, people took advantage of them, some to murderous ends.

Per Biography, born in 1859, Belle Gunness was a grifter who found murder more profitable than her previous careers as a fraudster and arsonist. She first killed her husband and two children for the insurance money, and from there it was off to the races: "Hell’s Belle" (via Legends Of America) killed her second husband, their daughter, her stepdaughter, and then a string of lonely men looking for love via Lonely Hearts Clubs, plus any included children. Over 40 people met their end at the hands of Gunness, but the exact number isn’t known. In today’s money, Gunness murdered her way to a fortune of $6.7 million.

Also unknown is her fate. The brother of one of her victims tracked Gunness down. Sensing the jig was up, Gunness set fire to her farm, supposedly going up with the property. HistoricMysteries tells that, along with the remains of suitors and their children, a headless corpse was found. Officials assumed, but did not confirm, it was Gunness; Legends Of America notes sightings of the serial killer continued until 1931, going on to say all of Gunness’ accounts had been emptied just before the fire.

Harold Shipman

The almost Santa Claus-like face of Harold Shipman.

Serial killers have motivations. Some are driven by sexual desires, others money, and still others for the thrill. The "Angel of Mercy" is much more sinister; hiding behind the benign face of a health practitioner, they play god.

Profiled on Biography, British doctor Harold Shipman killed a staggering 215 people. Preying on the elderly, Shipman overdosed his patients and hid behind his profession to cover up the deaths. RadioTimes constructed a timeline: Shipman began medicine in 1970, then his own practice in 1993. Just five years later, an undertaker noticed Shipman’s patients died not only in high numbers but in a similar, sitting-up pose. Around the same time, a victim’s daughter, a lawyer, alerted authorities when her deceased mother curiously left her entire estate to the doctor. The police were called, Shipman was arrested, and the insularity of the British medical field found itself in the crosshairs.

While Shipman was charged with only 15 deaths at the trial, many more red flags were uncovered, including his addiction to prescription drugs and the fact he pressured families to cremate the deceased. As Biography states, Shipman was found guilty of all counts in 1999 and sentenced to life; a later audit found he was responsible for 236 other deaths over a 24-year period. Shipman committed suicide in his cell in 2004.

Jummai Hassan

Cultic scenes can chill to the bone.

If there is the idea that serial killers are white, male, and between 25 to 34 years old, Jummai Hassan blows it all out of the water: She is female, she is Black, and she was, at the time of her arrest, 13.

The murders gripped Hassan’s native Nigeria. As reported by The Guardian and the BBC in 2001, it’s hard to know where to start. Is it that Hassan is a child? Or is it that is she a child that killed 48 people? Or is it that she is a child who killed 48 people as part of a cult? Or is it that she is a child who killed 48 people as part of a cult and sold the pieces of her victims as talismans?

While reports skip the gory details, The Guardian says that Hassan’s spree occurred over the seven years prior to her arrest and imprisonment, so the murderess began her kills at age 6. The BBC argues she was a victim of religion, but The Guardian counters that cultic killers are in fact common in Nigeria, and that Hassan is simply a young extreme. The sheer number of Hassan’s killings — toddlers and her own father among them — begs the question of how much of a victim Hassan really was.

Amardeep Sada

doll with black eyes

He was 8. Amardeep Sada killed three people and he was 8. It’s one thing to come across a damaged child; it’s another to come across one broken.

The case did not make it far outside of Sada’s native India, and what information did make the press is limited due to the perpetrator’s age, but the details that are known are no less chilling. The Sun reports that, beginning in 2006, Sada killed targets less able to defend themselves than even himself, starting with his 6-year-old cousin, then his 8-month-old sister, and then a 6-month-old baby girl. Making matters worse, GulfInside relates Sada’s parents knew of the murders and tried to cover up the evidence, but the boy himself admitted to his crimes and led people to the shallow grave of his final victim. The motives are a mystery; The Times of India cites psychiatric officials who say only that Sada did not know right from wrong and qualifies as a sadist.

Sada was found responsible for his crimes and sent to a juvenile facility, but under Indian law, underage offenders are released upon age 18. GulfInside calculates this would have been in 2016, and nothing has been heard of the killer since.

Albert Fish

Albert Fish looking deceptively normal.

When authorities arrested Albert Fish for the murder of Gracie Budd in 1934, they had no idea how far and wide the case was going to blow open. According to archives at the TruTV crime library, this unassuming, elderly man had, for 30 years, committed murder, kidnapping, pedophilia, sadism, masochism, coprophagy, urolagnia, child abuse, rape, dismemberment of a corpse, cannibalism — and that is just what experts could identify. By Fish’s own accounts quoted in several later profiles, he "had a child in every state" (via ATI), a victim count in the hundreds, and it all started at age 5.

TruTV records that mental illness was already in the family when Fish was born, a predisposition not helped when he was regularly and severely beaten while in an orphanage; Fish, who liked it, would say it was then that he "got started wrong." By 20, he was a sex worker raping young boys. He preyed on Black boys in particular because, in a sign of the times, he felt the authorities would not care if they went missing.

Records are limited given the period and passage of time, but Radford University officially attributes just seven deaths to Fish. However, it adds that he is suspected of many more, plus attempted murders. By his execution, Fish struck such a nightmare nerve that ever after, his moniker was "The Boogey Man."