The worst serial killers of all time horrify us, capture our imaginations, and show us just how messed up humanity can be. Maybe that’s why we find them so fascinating. Serial killers are people, after all — people who, somewhere along the way, fell onto a dark path.
Today, it’s easy to check the criminal records of people you know. But decades ago, these famous serial killers worked undetected for months — and sometimes years. They were neighbors, churchgoers, parents, spouses, and friends.
And in their spare time? They were murderers.
In movies and books, we usually see serial killers leaving behind a personal stamp. Kevin Spacey’s character in Seven modeled his murders after the seven deadly sins; the serial killer in HBO’s True Detective placed a crown of deer antlers on his victims’ heads.
But not all serial killers are as dramatic with their signatures. In fact, not every killer leaves a signature behind. A signature tells us about the killer’s inner fantasies; they are rituals, patterns, and behaviors that expose what the murderer wants and why they kill.
In the list below, we’ve gathered the most horrific signatures left behind by American history’s most famous serial killers — and what they tell us about the murderers themselves.
Charles Albright, “The Eyeball Killer”
The Signature: Skillful removal of eyeballs.
The Crimes: Between 1990 and 1991, the bodies of three prostitutes were found in Texas with one thing in common: their eyes had been removed with obvious skill. Albright was charged in 1991 after his hair was found at one of the murder scenes.
As a child, Albright was interested in taxidermy and would kill small animals in order to stuff them. This interest is what may have sparked his fixation on eyeballs; according to HBO’s show Autopsy, Albright could be found in his jail cell, drawing pictures of female eyes.
Dennis Rader, “The BTK Killer”
The Signature: Binding, torturing, and killing his victims.
The Crimes: Rader murdered 10 people in Kansas between 1974 and 1991. He was known for strangling most of his victims, and he actually taunted police and media by mailing in the dirty details of his kills. His attention-seeking actions led some to believe that Rader wanted his BTK persona to be famous — more famous than Rader’s seemingly average life allowed.
The most horrifying part of Rader’s story is that he seemed like a totally normal person in his suburb outside of Wichita, Kansas. He was a Cub Scout leader, a husband, and a member of his church council. After his arrest, Rader said there were “a lot of lucky people” in Wichita — meaning that he had been planning additional murders before getting caught.
The Smiley Face Killings
The Signature: Smiley faces left at crime scenes
The Crimes: Retired New York City detectives Kevin Gannon and Anthony Duarte believe they’ve found a terrifying pattern among 45 cases of accidental drownings in the Midwest: frequently, the men were popular, athletic, and walking home after drinking at a party or bar in the winter. And in at least a dozen cases, smiley face graffiti was found near the crime scene.
According to Gannon and Duarte, these men didn’t drown; their bodies had been dropped in the water by either a murderous individual or an organized group of killers. The FBI states that there isn’t enough evidence to link the cases, but if you’re a college-aged male in the Midwest, consider using the buddy system when you’re walking home this winter.
H.H. Holmes “America’s First Serial Killer”
The Signature: Murdering up to 200 victims in his custom-built Murder Castle
The Crimes: During the 1890s in Chicago, Holmes designed a hotel with murder in mind. His Murder Castle contained stairways that led to nowhere, oddly shaped hallways, doors with curious locks, and other forms of construction designed to hide Holmes’ various murder rooms.
Holmes would usually target female employees, lovers, and hotel guests, trapping them in soundproof bedrooms fitted with gas lines, iron rooms lined with blowtorches, and his basement torture chamber. Upon his capture in 1894, Holmes explained his actions by saying that he “was born with the devil” in him. He said, “I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help with the inspiration to sing.” At the end of his rampage, Holmes was only tried for nine deaths, despite leaving an estimated 200 bodies in his wake.
Charles Cullen, the “Angel of Death”
The Signature: Poisoning patients via injection
The Crimes: According to Cullen, he just wanted to save people. However, he ended up killing an estimated 300 patients in and around New Jersey between 1988 and 2003. Cullen would tamper with IV bags to administer fatal overdoses of medications, usually targeting older victims over the age of 60. His unconfirmed death total could make him the most prolific serial killer in American history.
Cullen told authorities that he overdosed patients because he wanted to end their suffering and prevent them from going into cardiac or respiratory arrest. However, not all of Cullen’s victims were terminal. In fact, they could have lived full lives if Cullen had not been at their bedsides.
Richard Rogers, “The Last Call Killer”
The Signature: Dismembering the bodies of gay men
The Crimes: As a man, Rogers was described as dull and average. He had a wife and four children in Staten Island, New York. But in the early 90s, Rogers enjoyed hanging out at Manhattan gay bars, waiting until last call, and then stabbing his targets to death before dismembering them. Two of Rogers’ victims were found in pieces, deposited in green plastic trash bags on the side of roads.
While authorities speculate that Rogers is responsible for at least two similar murders, he was only tried for two deaths that had been traced back to him after a positive fingerprint identification. Rogers maintains his innocence to this day, but the evidence is stacked against him — the only thing that remains elusive is his motive. After his arrest, investigators searched his home and found a date-rape drug, fibers that had been found on one of the bodies, and photographs of unknown men with stab wounds drawn on them.
Michael Ross, “The Roadside Strangler”
The Signature: Strangling women between the ages of 14 – 25
The Crimes: Ross had been described as “bright” in his youth, and he was a graduate of Cornell University. But during his sophomore year of college, he started stalking women. He committed his first rape during his senior year. And then, between 1981 and 1985, Ross strangled eight girls and women in Connecticut and New York. He raped all but one of his victims.
Ross was ultimately convicted for four murders and sentenced to death. After his arrest, he became a devout Catholic, stating that he knew his life would be meaningful. According to Cornell graduate Kathry Yeager, Ross recognized that “he’s had a horrible life, and he’s wanted to do good.” He was executed by lethal injection in 2005.
John Wayne Gacy, “The Killer Clown”
The Signature: Sexually assaulting and murdering teen boys and young men
The Crimes: In the 1970s, Gacy was a model citizen in his home suburb of Chicago. He was a father, a husband, and a charitable man. At fundraising events and children’s parties, he dressed up as “Pogo the Clown,” a character he created himself — which would later give him the “Killer Clown” nickname. Nobody knew he was living a double life.
Between 1972 and 1978, Gacy lured an estimated 33 teen boys and young men to his home, where he strangled and sexually assaulted his victims. In an interview after his arrest, he said that “death was the ultimate thrill.” All of Gacy’s known murders were committed in his home, and many of the bodies were buried in his home’s crawlspace — after being embalmed in his garage, of course.
Rodney Alcala, “The Dating Game Killer”
The Signature: Toying with his victims via strangulation
The Crimes: Rodney Alcala could have been an artist. He graduated from the UCLA School of Fine Arts and studied at NYU under Roman Polanski (admittedly, Polanski was not the best role model). Instead, Alcala started killing in 1968 with the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl; by the time he was caught in 1979, Alcala murdered an estimated 50 women. His true victim count remains unknown.
Alcala was known for toying with his victims by strangling them to the point of unconsciousness, waiting until they revived, and then repeating the process until he finally decided to kill them. In 1978, Alcala’s appearance on “The Dating Game” gave him his nickname. He won a date with Cheryl Bradshaw, who refused to go out with him because she found him creepy. Good read, Bradshaw — by then, Alcala had already killed at least two women.
The Signature: Feigning injury in order to lure his female victims
The Crimes: Bundy wasn’t like normal serial killers on trial. He was genial, handsome, and charismatic — the same traits he used to lure girls and young women to their deaths. Bundy’s earliest murder was in 1974, and by then, he had already mastered the ability to leave very little evidence at the scenes of his crimes. Until he was caught in 1978, Bundy kidnapped, beat, strangled, and sexually assaulted at least 14 victims, although his true victim count may be higher.
Bundy was a master of disguise. During his murder spree, he was said to be able to change his appearance seemingly at will. Judge Stewart Hanson, Jr. said that a slight change in Bundy’s expression “would so change his whole appearance that there were moments that you weren’t even sure you were looking at the same person.” He used this skill to his advantage as he stalked his victims. Upon his arrest, authorities searched his infamous car — a Volkswagen Beetle — and found a lug wrench, crutches, and a meat cleaver, among other tools of Bundy’s nefarious trade.
Randy Kraft, “The Scorecard Killer”
The Signature: A coded list with references to his victims, males aged 13 – 35
The Crimes: Kraft came from a decent family. His mom was on his school’s PTA, and as a child, he was doted on by his sisters and mother. He attended Claremont Men’s College, where he studied Economics, and he joined the U.S. Air Force after his college graduation. But in 1970, Kraft committed his first sexual assault. Between 1972 and 1983, he raped, tortured, mutilated, and murdered at least 16 young men.
Kraft kept a scorecard of his crimes, which he stored in the trunk of his car. The list boasts 61 neatly printed names and phrases, all of which refer to the traits, initials, or locations of his victims. His true victim count is unknown, but estimates put it around 67 victims — some of which remain unrecovered.
(Elise Torres of www.instantcheckmate.com/crimewire for TNT – The Northeast Today)