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Authors: Harold Schechter

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Among the monsters cited by Krafft-Ebing are “a certain Gruyo, aged forty-one,” who strangled six women, then “tore out their intestines and kidneys through the vagina”; a fifty-five-year-old Hungarian named Tirsch, who “waylaid a wretched old woman” in the woods, choked her to death, then “cut off the dead woman’s breasts and genitalia with a knife, cooked them at home, and, in the course of the next few days, ate them”; and a twenty-four-year-old
French vineyard worker named Leger, who—after wandering about the woods for eight days in search of a victim—“caught a girl twelve years old, violated her, mutilated her genitals, tore out her heart and ate of it, drank the blood, and buried the remains.” There is also the case of “Alton, a clerk in England,” who lured a little girl to a thicket, “cut her to pieces,” then calmly returned to his office, were he made the following entry in his notebook: “Killed today a young girl; it was fine and hot.”

These and other instances of hideously sadistic sex-killing are classified by Krafft-Ebing under an old-fashioned but highly expressive label: “lust-murder.” The term nicely captures the particular combination of savage cruelty and frenzied sexual excitement that characterizes the crime and drives its perpetrators to such extremes of unspeakable behavior—to “strangling, cutting of the throat and ripping open of the abdomen, mutilation of the corpse, especially the genitals, [and] gratification of the sexual lust on the corpse” (in Krafft-Ebing’s words).

Even today,
Psychopathia Sexualis
is a highly instructive (as well as morbidly titillating) work, whose enormous catalog of nineteenth-century perversion makes it abundantly clear that psychopathic sex-murder did not begin with Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer. Indeed, it did not even begin with Jack the Ripper, who is often regarded as the prototype of the modern-day psycho-killer. Krafft-Ebing himself makes reference to the infamous fifteenth-century monster Gilles de Rais, “who was executed in 1440, on account of mutilation and murder, which he had practiced for eight years on more than 800 children.” And though their cases are not mentioned in
Psychopathia
Sexualis,
there are other medieval butchers whose atrocities might easily have earned them a place in Krafft-Ebing’s encyclopedia of perversity: Gilles Garnier, for example, a sixteenth-century French maniac who savaged his victims with such bestial ferocity that he was thought to be a werewolf; and his German contemporary, Peter Stubbe, another ostensible lycanthrope who preyed primarily on young children and who was guilty—among other abominations—of cannibalizing his own son.

The history of sadistic mutilation-murder, of course, begins long before medieval times. Gilles de Rais himself claimed that he had derived inspiration from his reading of Suetonius, the Roman historian who chronicled the degenerate doings of Imperial madmen like Nero (who, we are told, enjoyed dressing up in the skins of a wild animal and dismembering young men and women with his bare hands).

Indeed, recent scientific evidence suggests that a taste for such savagery is encoded in our DNA, an evolutionary inheritance from our earliest primate ancestors. In his book
Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence,
Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham demonstrates that chimpanzees (who are “genetically closer to us than they are even to gorillas”) routinely commit acts of torture and mayhem as appalling as anything recorded by KrafftEbing. Not only do they prey upon vulnerable members of their own species, but their assaults “are marked by a gratuitous cruelty—tearing off pieces of skin, for example, twisting limbs until they break, or drinking a victim’s blood—reminiscent of acts that among humans are regarded as unspeakable crimes during peacetime and atrocities during war.”

From African chimps to John Wayne Gacy, however, one fact is clear. As the title of Wrangham’s book indicates, bestial, gratuitously cruel acts of lethal violence—the kind involving torture, rape, mutilation, dismemberment, cannibalism, etc.—are endemic to males. Indeed, there are unmistakable parallels between this kind of violence—phallic-aggressive, penetrative, rapacious, and (insofar as it commonly gratifies itself upon the bodies of strangers) undiscriminating—and the typical pattern of male sexual behavior. For this reason, it is possible to see sadistic mutilation-murder as a grotesque distortion (or “pathological intensification,” in Krafft-Ebing’s words) of normal male sexuality. Lust-murder, in short, is a specifically male phenomenon.

Lust-murder, however, is not synonymous with serial killing. Rather—and this is a point I want to stress—lust-murder is the
quintessential male form
of serial killing. When police discover a corpse with its throat slit, its torso cut open, its viscera removed, and its genitals excised, they are always justified in making one basic assumption: the perpetrator was a man. As culture-critic Camille Paglia puts it: “There is no female Jack the Ripper.”

But if lust-murder is a form of serial killing exclusive to men—a monstrous expression of male sexuality—what, then, is the equivalent
female
form? Clearly, it must reflect female sexuality. Generally speaking, female serial killers differ from their male counterparts in roughly the same way that the sexual responses and behavior of woman typically differ from those of men.

A useful analogy here (and one that seems particularly apt to so lurid a subject) is pornography. It is a
truth universally acknowledged that—while men are aroused by extremely raw depictions of abrupt, anonymous, anatomically explicit sex—women in general prefer their pornography to involve at least a suggestion of emotional intimacy and leisurely romance. Whether these differences in taste are a function of biology or culture is a question I’ll leave to others. The indisputable fact is that the differences are real.

An analogous distinction holds true for serial killers. Female sociopaths are no less depraved than their male counterparts. As a rule, however, brutal penetration is not what turns them on. Their excitement comes not from violating the bodies of strangers with phallic objects, but from a grotesque, sadistic travesty of intimacy and love: from spooning poisoned medicine into the mouth of a trusting patient, for example, or smothering a sleeping child in its bed. In short, from tenderly turning a friend, family member, or dependent into a corpse.

To be sure, there may be other motives mixed up with the sadism—monetary gain, for example. Indeed, certain female serial killers may never admit, even to themselves, the true nature or extent of the gratification they deprive from their crimes. Their actions, however, speak for themselves. Whatever other benefits may accrue from their atrocities—a windfall of insurance money, for example, or a release from the burdens of motherhood—there is, at bottom, only one reason why a woman would, over the span of years, kill off the people closest to her, one by one, in ways that are to guaranteed make them undergo terrible suffering: because she gets pleasure from doing it.

There is no doubt that male serial sex-murder tends to be more lurid—more gruesomely violent—than the
female variety. Whether it is more
evil
is another matter. After all, which is worse: to dismember a street-walker after slitting her throat, or to cuddle in bed with a close friend you’ve just poisoned, and to climax repeatedly as you feel the body beside you subside into death? Ultimately, of course, it’s an impossible question to answer. Still, there have been times when female serial killers have inspired a particular dread.

That was certainly the case in late-nineteenth-century America.

•   •   •

Every era is haunted by its own particular monsters—dark, unsettling figures who reflect the dominant anxieties of the time. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, for example, the mythic gangsters of the movies—the Scarfaces and Public Enemies and Little Caesars—were the brutal incarnations of a social system gone horribly awry: an America where only murderous ambition could propel a man to the top, and the old-fashioned virtues of hard work and honesty led to nowhere but the breadline. Two decades later, the juvenile delinquent—the switchblade-wielding punk with his sideburns and blue jeans and blaring rock ’n’ roll—became a national bogeyman: the leather-jacketed symbol of a postwar teen culture that was shaking up the status quo. And the obsessive anxieties of today—our concerns about societal breakdown and sexual violence and the awful fragility of the flesh—are distilled into our own defining demon, the serial killer.

A hundred years ago, the figure that haunted America was the female serial poisoner. As Ann Jones points out in her seminal study
Women Who Kill
(1980), the feminist movement of the late 1800s—
when women first organized to demand social and political equality—triggered powerful anxieties in American men, who projected their fears into the nightmare-figure of the household murderess, the domestic angel of death. “As agitation for women’s rights increased,” Jones writes, “men shrilled that the traditional marriage relationship, established by God, would be destroyed. Women would no longer respect, serve, and obey their husbands. They might even turn against them. The rights of woman were at issue, but the fear of woman was never far from the surface of any debate. The poisoning wife became the specter of the century—the witch who lurked in woman’s sphere.”

According to Jones, the female murderer became a stock feature of late-nineteenth-century American popular culture, which spawned a whole genre of fictional crime stories devoted to the unspeakable doings of assorted “domestic fiends.” The protagonists of works like
The Life and Confession of Ann Walters, the Female Murderess!
and
Ellen Irving, the Female Victimizer
reveled in depravity, taking “no delight whatever in anything but acts of the most bloodthirsty and inhuman nature”—in the most “cruel, heart-rending, atrocious, and horrible crimes and murders.” The public never seemed to tire of reading about the lethal doings of these and other female “multi-murderers” (as serial killers were sometimes referred to back then).

Far more unnerving, of course, were the real-life cases of women who gleefully wiped out large numbers of their nearest and dearest. Jane Toppan—a matronly New England sociopath whose tally of victims was more than five times higher than Jack the
Ripper’s—was, in the view of her contemporaries, the worst of these creatures. But she was by no means the first. In post–Civil War America, a string of “domestic fiends” cropped up in New England: homicidal maniacs in the garb of housewives, mothers, and loving caregivers—the living incarnations of the culture’s worst fears.

PART ONE

A
MERICAN
B
ORGIA
1

Then my little daughter Ann Eliza took the chills and fever, and was continually sick. This made me downhearted and discouraged again. I had some arsenic in the house which I purchased in Harlem, and I put it in the medicine I bought for her to cure the chills. I gave it to her twice, then she was taken sick as the others were, and died about noon four days afterward. She was the happiest child I ever saw.

—F
ROM THE CONFESSION OF
L
YDIA
S
HERMAN

E
XACTLY WHAT TRANSPIRED ON THAT LONG-AGO DAY
when Edward Struck lost his job in disgrace will never be fully known. Certain facts, however, are beyond dispute.

It happened on a late fall afternoon in 1863, when a knife-wielding drunkard—described in existing accounts as “deranged”—attacked the bartender at Stratton’s Hotel on Bloomingdale Road and 125th Street in Manhattan. Shouts of “Murder!” and frantic cries for help erupted from the barroom. Struck, a member of the Metropolitan Police force working in Manhattanville, appeared a few minutes later. By the time he showed up, however, the assailant was already dead—shot down by a detective who, by happenstance, had been riding past the hotel when he’d heard the commotion.

That much is certain. The great, unresolved question is: Why didn’t Officer Struck get there sooner?

Several hotel employees testified that Struck had, in fact, been right outside the hotel when the fracas broke out, but refused to intervene. The enraged drunk, he believed, was brandishing a pistol, while Struck—like all New York City policemen at the time—was armed with nothing but a billy club. Turning on his heels, he had dashed off in the opposite direction—ostensibly to get help.

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