Authors: Harold Schechter
Praise for Harold Schechter’s true-crime accounts, “well-documented nightmares for anyone who dares to look.”*
The Shocking True Story of America’s Youngest Serial Killer
“A memorably gothic tale. . . . True-crime lovers will not want to miss it.”
“[Schechter] blends his research into a seamless story, fascinating in its horror, as well as its ability to turn the century-old characters into real people. . . . In
Schechter succeeds at reminding us that modern times don’t have a monopoly on juvenile terror.”
The Savage Trail of a True American Monster
“[An] essential addition. . . . Deserves to be read and pored over by the hard crime enthusiast as well as devotees of social history.”
—The Boston Book Review
spare[s] no graphic detail. . . . Reads like fast-paced fiction, complete with action, plot twists, suspense, and eerie foreshadowing. . . . Provides chilling insights into the motivations of a man who killed for killing’s sake.”
“[A] deftly written, unflinching account.”
The Shocking True Story of America’s First Serial Killer
“Meticulously researched, brilliantly detailed, and above all riveting. . . . Schechter has done his usual sterling job in resurrecting this amazing tale.”
—Caleb Carr, bestselling author of
“Must reading for crime buffs. Gruesome, awesome, compelling reporting.”
The Shocking True Story of America’s Most Fiendish Killer
“Reads like fiction but it’s chillingly real. . . .”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein, the Original “Psycho”
“[A] grisly, wonderful book. . . . Scrupulously researched.”
THE A TO Z ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SERIAL KILLERS
By Harold Schechter and David Everitt
“The scholarship is both genuine and fascinating.”
—The Boston Book Review
“A grisly tome. . . . Schechter knows his subject matter.”
—Denver Rocky Mountain News
And praise for Harold Schechter’s historical crime fiction featuring Edgar Allan Poe
THE HUM BUG
A riveting excursion. . . . Poe and his times come across with wonderful credibility and vitality.”
“Evocative. . . .”
“Schechter effectively conveys the climate of New York at a time when people were easily suckered by Barnum’s tricks.”
“In this gripping, suspenseful thriller, Harold Schechter does a splendid job of capturing the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe. I’m sure my late, great cousin would have loved
—Anne Poe Lehr
“Schechter’s entertaining premise is supported by rich period atmospherics. . . . Keeps the finger of suspicion wandering until the very end.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“A literary confection. . . . A first-rate mystery.”
“Authentic. . . . Engaging. . . . Schechter manages at once to be faithful to Poe’s voice, and to poke gentle fun at it—to swing breezily between parody and homage.”
—The Baltimore Sun
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The cursed crimes of the secret poisoner
We must confess are the worst of all,
You bless the hand that smooths your pillow,
But by that hand you surely fall.
You put your trust in those about you,
When you lie sick upon your bed,
While you are blessing they are wishing
The very next moment would find you dead.
—Nineteenth-century broadside ballad
OR A PERIOD OF EXACTLY ONE YEAR, BEGINNING IN
late 1989, a string of male motorists in central Florida ended up dead in the woods after picking up a roadside hooker named Aileen Wuornos. At the time of her arrest, Wuornos—who had led an extraordinarily brutalized life from childhood on—claimed that she had only been acting in self-defense. All seven of the victims, she insisted, had viciously attacked her. For the sake of her own self-preservation, she’d been forced to shoot each of them repeatedly with a .22-caliber semiautomatic, empty their pockets, steal their cars, and dump their corpses in various junkyards, vacant lots, and remote wooded areas.
Needless to say, prosecutors saw things very differently, portraying Wuornos as a cold-blooded predator who murdered partly for money but mostly for the sheer joy of it. The jury agreed, and Wuornos earned immediate infamy, not just as a homicidal maniac, but as something far more monstrous and alarming—the first woman serial killer in our nation’s history.
Besides a death sentence (carried out, after much delay, in October 2002), this dubious distinction brought her the kind of celebrity we bestow on our most notorious criminals. Not long after her conviction,
the first of several made-for-TV movies about her case hit the airwaves, and she has since been the subject of everything from a critically acclaimed documentary (Nick Broomfield’s
Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer
) to assorted Court TV specials. All of these works have treated her as a figure of considerable significance in the annals of crime: “America’s First Female Serial Killer.” There is, however, a serious problem with this label.
It’s completely untrue.
In spite of the popular belief that sociopathic violence is a strictly male phenomenon, the fact is that women have always accounted for a sizable proportion of humanity’s most prolific and reprehensible multiple-murderers. It is only in recent years, however, that serious attention has begun to be paid to the subject of female serial killers, in studies like Patricia Pearson’s
When She was Bad
(1997) and Michael and C. L. Kelleher’s
Murder Most Rare
(1998). The subject of my own book is a woman born in 1854—exactly a century before Aileen Wuornos was conceived—who conforms in every respect to the classic pattern of the psychopathic sex-killer. A true Jekyll-and-Hyde personality, she possessed a professional competence and affable charm that made her a valued companion to a large circle of people, who trusted her with their very lives. Beneath her jovial exterior, however, there lurked a being of genuinely monstrous drives and appetites—an implacable sadist who derived intense, sexual pleasure from watching a succession of innocent victims perish slowly at her hands. Jane Toppan was her name, and though degrees of evil are difficult to gauge, the sheer malignancy she embodied was, at the very least,
equal to that of her better-known male counterparts.
The question, then, inevitably arises: How is it that when people hear the term “serial killer,” they immediately think of men—John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, et al.? And why are they surprised, if not incredulous, to learn that women have been among the most deadly of all serial killers?
As is often the case, the problem is largely one of semantics. The term “serial murder” itself is a relatively recent coinage, dating back only a few decades. Definitions vary, but the most useful comes from the National Institute of Justice, which describes it as a “series of two or more murders, committed as separate events, usually . . . by one offender acting alone. The crimes may occur over a period of time, ranging from hours to years. Quite often, the motive is psychological, and the offender’s behavior and the physical evidence observed at the crime scenes will reflect sadistic, sexual overtones.”
In other words, serial killers are, by and large, sexual psychopaths of a particularly depraved variety—deviants who can only achieve orgasmic release by making other people
. Once their morbid lust is satisfied, they experience an interval of calm—the equivalent of the sated lull that normally follows sex (the FBI calls this the “emotional cooling-off period”). Eventually, they grow ravenous again—horny for death—and go looking for someone new. This behavioral pattern explains the “serial” nature of the phenomenon. Every time one of these monsters is overwhelmed by an exigent sexual need, another person has to die.
Exactly who coined the term “serial killer” is a matter of some dispute (it is most often credited to
former FBI agent Robert Ressler, though some criminologists trace its earliest use to a 1966 book,
The Meaning of Murder,
by the British writer John Brophy). In any case, it did not gain widespread currency until the 1970s—the decade that witnessed the depredations of Bundy, Gacy, Kenneth Bianchi, and Angelo Buono (the infamous “Hillside Strangler”) and other savagely violent sociopaths. Since the term itself was brand-new at the time, it was easy to get the impression that a frighteningly new species of criminal—previously unheard-of in the long history of human iniquity—had suddenly appeared on the scene: the serial killer.
In point of fact, creatures like Gacy and his ilk have existed from time immemorial. Anyone who believes that viciously depraved sex-killers are unique to our age—a symptom of the “societal rot” that political demagogues are always blaming on things like Hollywood shoot-’em-ups, rap music, and the ban on classroom prayer—should take a look at
by Dr. Richard von Krafft-Ebing. Published in 1886, this pioneering work surveys a wide range of aberrant behavior, from foot fetishism to necrophilia, and includes capsule case studies of some of the most appalling sadists imaginable.