Murderers are generally scary, but scariest among them is a subcategory that sends extra shivers down the spine: a serial killer. Something about psychos who go about gratuitously piling up victims, one after another, has long horrified and titillated people in equal measure. From the Outback ax murderer to the jilted Russian noblewoman who vented her murderous rage on hundreds of serfs, following are forty fascinating things about some of history’s worst serial killers.
40. The Sadistic Russian Noblewoman
Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova (1730 – 1801) was born into a Russian noble family, well-connected to prominent aristocratic clans such as the Tolstoys, the Pushkins, and the Davidovs. Other than a penchant for gloominess, there was nothing sinister about her growing up, nor during her early married life. She was known for her piousness, and for her generous donations to monasteries and other religious establishments. Behind that pious faÃ§ade lurked a monster.
Saltykova became the epitome of boyar abuse of serfs, and went down in the annals of infamy as a sadist who tortured and murdered hundreds, most of them female. Widowed young, she inherited from her deceased husband a vast estate with over 600 serfs. That was bad news for the serfs: their drab and downtrodden lives were about to get spiced up with a generous dollop of the horrific.
Some years into her wealthy widowhood, Darya Saltykova met and was swept off her feet by a handsome, younger, and poorer man, Nikolay Tyutchev. She carried on a torrid affair with him, which raised her usually gloomy spirits. Unfortunately, Saltykova discovered that her lover was cheating on his Sugar Momma with a younger woman. Worse, Tyutchev had gone and secretly married the other woman.
Something inside Saltykova snapped. Infuriated by her boy toy’s betrayal, she nearly killed her unfaithful lover. Tyutchev and his wife fled to his relatives’ estate near Moscow, and soon left the region to escape the widow’s wrath. Deprived of the opportunity to violently vent her frustrations on her betrayer, Saltykova turned around and vented her rage on her hapless serfs.
Darya Saltykova never got over the humiliation and hurt of her lover choosing a younger woman over her. Unable to punish him, she took out her anger on her serfs, and punished them instead. Over a period of years, Saltykova’s serfs were forced to live through a horrific nightmare of torture and murder.
The widow’s fits of fury were inexplicable and unpredictable, and at any moment, she could fly into a murderous rage for no apparent reason. At first, she threw sticks, and then logs, at serving girls when she disapproved of their work. The violence escalated, and before long, she was beating them. Then torturing them. And finally, torturing them to death.
37. You Did Not Want to be One of Saltykova’s Serfs – Especially Not One of Her Female Serfs
The murderous widow’s wrath was directed mainly at females. Of her hundreds of murder victims, only three were male, and they were killed by accident. Her vengeance upon men took the form of forcing them to watch her torture and murder their female kin. One of her male serfs, for example, lost three wives, one after the other, to Saltykova’s depravities.
Her viciousness towards her female serfs knew no bounds. She tortured and murdered them throughout the entire age spectrum, from babies to aging crones. Her wrath fell heaviest, however, on younger female serfs. Especially those who were both young and pretty.
Darya Saltykova was merciless. She tortured the young, the old, and even pregnant women, in a variety of fiendish ways. Some were flogged with the knout – a heavy Russian whip that tapered towards the end. Lashes delivered by the knout’s thin tip could slice the subject’s flesh open like a sharp knife, while a strong blow with the thicker part could snap a serf’s spine.
She had others thrown outdoors naked in the dead of Russia’s terrible winter to freeze to death. Sometimes she went to the opposite extreme, and poured boiling water on their bodies. A sadist through and through, Saltykova thoroughly enjoyed inflicting pain upon her serfs, whose screams were music to her ears.
35. The Difficulty of Holding the Connected Accountable
The depraved ongoings at Darya Saltkova’s estate were an open secret for years, but nothing was done. She was a noblewoman, her victims were serfs, and Saltykova and her family were well-connected to Russia’s imperial court. Complaints from the victims’ relatives were routinely ignored, and many complainants were punished for complaining. Finally, the victims’ relatives victims managed to bring a petition directly before Empress Catherine the Great, who ordered Saltykova arrested.
She was imprisoned while the authorities conducted a six year investigation. In 1768, Saltykova was found guilty of murdering 38 serfs. It was a severe undercount, as scholars estimate that she had killed at least a hundred more, and the actual number of victims might have been significantly higher. Catherine the Great was unsure how to punish Saltykova. The death penalty had recently been abolished, and the empress needed the Russian nobility’s support. Eventually, Saltykova was chained in public for an hour with a sign describing her crimes, while onlookers hurled abuse at her. Then she was sent to a convent, in whose cellar she was imprisoned until her death in 1801.
34. The Land Down Under’s Most Notorious Serial Killer
John Lynch (1813 – 1842) was trouble from early on. Born in Cavan, Ireland, he was convicted at age fifteen of obtaining property by false pretenses. Two years later, in 1830, he was sentenced to penal transportation to Australia. In 1832, Lynch’s ship reached Australia, and he was sent to the village of Berrima in New South Wales, about 75 miles from Sydney.
Assigned to toil as a convict laborer on farms, Lynch soon tired of that. So he fled and joined a gang of bushrangers – Australian bandits who hid from authorities in the bush and the Outback. In 1835, Lynch and two others were tried for murdering a man who had given evidence against their gang. Although Lynch had confessed to the murder, the jury inexplicably acquitted him, while convicting and sentencing his comrades to hang. That was unfortunate: Lynch went on to become Australia’s most notorious serial killer.
John Lynch was unusual among serial killers, in that his preferred murder weapon was an ax. His killing spree began soon after his acquittal in 1835, when he stole eight cattle from a farm and set out to sell them in Sydney. En route, he encountered a man with an Aboriginal boy driving a bigger herd of cattle, loaded with wheat. So Lynch gained their trust, camped with them, then murdered both with a tomahawk, and continued on to Sydney with their goods.
On the way back from Sydney, he encountered a father and son driving another herd. He murdered both with his ax, and took their herd. Next, Lynch decided to settle accounts with the Mulligans, a family that owed him Â£30 for stolen goods he had sold them. He visited their farm, chopped them up with his ax, and burned their bodies. He then coolly made himself at home on his victims’ farm. Assuming the name John Dunleavy, John Lynch informed the Mulligans’ neighbors that he had bought it from the family, who had left town in a hurry without telling anybody.
John Lynch, styling himself John Dunleavy, got away with literal murder for years. Then in 1841, a cattle herder came upon the bludgeoned corpse of a local last seen a few days earlier having dinner with a farmer named John Dunleavy. A police investigation was launched, and Dunleavy’s story about having “purchased” his farm from the Mulligans in 1835 began to crack.
Finally, a barmaid came forward and identified John Dunleavy and John Lynch as being the same person. Lynch was charged with murder, and at the end of his trial, it took the jury less than an hour to find him guilty. He was sentenced to death, and hanged in 1842.
Not that many people have ever been as obsessed with prostitutes as was Gary Ridgway (1949 – ). Sadly for the prostitutes, he came in contact with, his obsession was of the worst possible kind: that of a prolific serial killer with his target population. Ridgway, also known as “The Green River Killer”, was convicted of killing 48 women, and pled guilty to killing another one. Most of them were prostitutes. He eventually confessed to having killed 71 women in total.
Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, Ridgway grew up in a poor neighborhood, raised by parents who often argued violently. He wet his bed until he was thirteen, and whenever he did so, Ridgway’s mother would wash his genitals. He informed psychologists that in his teens, he had been attracted to his mother, while simultaneously fantasizing about killing her.
Gary Ridgway’s father often complained about the proliferation of prostitutes in and around the neighborhood. Between that, the humiliation of his bed wetting into his teens, his mother’s habit of washing his genitals, and other dysfunctions in his upbringing, something went wrong with Ridgway. It did not help that he was dyslexic, with an IQ in the 80s.
Ridgway’s violent criminality began in the 1960s. At age sixteen, he led a six-year-old boy into the woods, and stabbed him in the liver. The child survived, and described Ridgway walking away laughing. After high school, Ridgway joined the Navy and was sent to Vietnam. Upon his discharge, he got a job painting trucks, and spent 30 years doing that. Ridgway was a family man, but one who had trouble keeping a marriage going: he was married three times. He was also a regular churchgoer, and many who knew him described him as a religious fanatic.
Gary Ridgway was seriously into hookers. Long before he became a killer, he was a frequent customer of prostitutes. His career as a serial killer began in the early 1980s. Ridgway would pick up prostitutes, runaway teenagers, or other vulnerable women, along Route 99 in King County, Washington. He took them to his home, where he usually choked them to death with his bare hands. For variety, he sometimes garroted them with a cord or wire.
Ridgway dumped the bodies in remote forested areas in King County, and often returned to the corpses to defile them. The first hint authorities had that a serial killer was on the loose was when prostitutes and teenage runaways started disappearing along Route 99. After the first five bodies surfaced in the Green River, the press dubbed the unknown culprit “The Green River Killer”.
Gary Ridgway attracted law enforcement’s attention in 1987, when many prostitutes working Washington State Route 99 – which he drove to and from work – described a suspect who resembled him. When investigators scrutinized his work record, they discovered that many victims’ disappearances coincided with Ridgway’s days off. Police took him into custody, but he passed a polygraph test, and allowed investigators to take hair and saliva samples. Released for lack of evidence, Ridgway was soon back on the prowl.
Finally, in 2001, a new generation of detectives, who had been children when Ridgway took to serial killing, began making effective use of computers in investigating the Green River Killer. They also had access to modern DNA techniques that had not existed in the 1980s. When Ridgway’s hair and saliva samples, carefully preserved since 1987, were sent for DNA analysis, they returned a match tying him to four victims. He was arrested, and entered a plea deal in which he disclosed the locations of dozens of still-missing women. In exchange, Ridgway was spared the death penalty, and was sentenced instead to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Charles Sobhraj (1944 – ), who became infamous as “The Hippie Trail Killer”, was a Frenchman of Vietnamese and Indian origins. He spent much of his childhood moving back and forth between France and Indochina. At an early age, he became a delinquent and took to petty crimes. Sobhraj did his first prison stint at age eighteen, for burglary. A manipulative psychopath, he met and endeared himself to a rich prison volunteer, who introduced him to high society after his release.
Sobhraj used that access to the rich to enrich himself in turn. When not scamming his new upper-class friends and acquaintances, he scouted their homes to burglarize them. Legal troubles eventually forced Sobhraj to flee France with his girlfriend in 1970 to avoid arrest. The couple traveled through Eastern Europe with fake documents, robbing tourists along the way, and eventually ended up in India.
In India, Charles Sobhraj ran a car theft and smuggling ring until 1973, when he was arrested for an attempted robbery of a jewelry store. He managed to escape, however, and fled to Afghanistan. There, Sobhraj and his girlfriend began preying on tourists along the “Hippie Trail” – an overland route between Europe and South Asia, popular with Hippies and Beatniks between the 1950s and 1970s.
Sobhraj’s girlfriend eventually left him and returned to France. He carried on with a variety of criminal schemes, including one with his brother that backfired, and left his sibling serving an eighteen-year sentence in a Turkish prison. From then on, Sobhraj’s crimes grew steadily darker, and he began piling up the bodies of murder victims all along the Hippie Trail. It is believed that he murdered at least 20 Western tourists, but the actual body count is thought by many to be significantly higher.
In 1976, Charles Sobhraj was finally undone when he tried to drug a group of French tourists in India, but miscalculated the dosage. His victims became violently ill, but were still conscious enough to realize what Sobhraj had tried to do. They managed to overpower and seize him, until police arrived. Thai authorities sought his extradition for a murder committed there – which likely would have earned him a death sentence. However, Indian authorities decided to try him for lesser crimes committed on Indian soil, first. Found guilty of a variety of offenses, Sobhraj was imprisoned, but he escaped in 1986 after drugging the guards.
He was easily recaptured a month later, leading many to speculate that it was a deliberate attempt to get extra jail time for escape tacked on to his sentence. With the extra jail time, Sobhraj remained in an Indian prison until 1997, after the 20 years statute of limitations for his crimes in Thailand had passed. Thus, he could no longer be extradited to face a potential death penalty in Thailand.
While behind bars, the killer, Charles Sobhraj managed to keep himself in the public eye and maintain his celebrity status. While imprisoned in India, he charged a bundle for interviews with journalists, and an even bigger bundle for selling his Indian movie rights. India had no “Son of Sam” laws, preventing criminals from profiting from the celebrity arising from their crimes, so Sobhraj presumably managed to keep those earnings.
After his release from prison in 1997, Sobhraj returned to Paris. There, he enjoyed a celebrity lifestyle, and reportedly sold his international movie rights for U$ 15 million. His freedom did not last long, however: he unwisely traveled to Nepal in 2003. When the authorities learned of his presence on their soil, they arrested him for a 1975 double murder committed in Nepal. He was convicted the following year, and was handed a life sentence. As of mid-2020, an aging Charles Sobhraj is still locked up in a Nepalese prison.
Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsend (1560 – 1614), also known as “The Blood Countess”, owned vast estates in what are now Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania. She also owns the Guinness Book of World Records’ record for most prolific female murderess, having tortured and killed hundreds of young women between 1585 and 1609. She was probably history’s most vicious female serial killer.
She was born into the Bathory family, a distinguished aristocratic lineage that ruled Transylvania as a de facto independent principality within the Kingdom of Hungary. The future countess was raised amidst wealth and privilege, and received an excellent education from top-notch tutors. At age twelve, she was betrothed to a prominent Hungarian aristocrat. Things began going off-kilter soon thereafter.
A year after her betrothal, Elizabeth Bathory got pregnant by a commoner. Her aristocratic fiance had her lover castrated, then torn to pieces and fed to the dogs. Elizabeth gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, who was quietly hidden. She wed her betrothed in 1575, but kept cuckolding him throughout their married life. It was a task made easier by her husband’s frequent and prolonged absences on military campaigns.
Elizabeth developed a taste for sadism, and sometime around 1585, began torturing and killing young girls. She started off with servants at her castle, then serf girls from surrounding peasant villages. Eventually, her victims included the daughters of local gentry, sent to her castle by their families to receive an aristocratic education and learn courtly manners.
Elizabeth Bathory was an absolutely horrific and vicious piece of work. Witnesses reported seeing her stabbing her victims; piercing their lips with needles; burning them with red hot irons; biting their breasts and faces; and cutting them with scissors. Some of her victims were beaten to death, while others were starved.
In winter, Countess Bathory got a kick out of sending serving girls out in the snow, where she had water poured over them and watched them getting turned into human icicles. In summer, she would often coat her victims in honey, and watch them get tormented by ants, bees, and other insects. She drank her victims’ blood in the belief that it would preserve her youth, and bathed in their blood for the same reason.
Scholars do not know the exact number of people killed by Countess Bathory, but some estimates go as high as 650 victims. Rumors of the goings-on at her castle eventually got out, and the Hungarian authorities conducted an investigation. In December, 1610, the sadistic Countess and four of her accomplices were arrested.
Bathory’s accomplices were tried, and three of them were convicted of murder and sundry crimes, and executed. Elizabeth was connected, however, so she got off light. The authorities reasoned that trying and executing a member of a prominent family like hers would cause too much of a public scandal and bring the aristocracy into disrepute. So she was quietly imprisoned in Cachtice Castle, Slovakia, until her death of natural causes in 1614.
Medieval German outlaw Peter Niers (died 1581) was a highwayman, black arts practitioner, and one of history’s most prolific serial killers. Over a fifteen-year period, as he confessed after his arrest, Niers murdered 544 people, and cut the fetuses out of the wombs of 24 pregnant women. The fetuses were used as ingredients in black magic rituals, then consumed in cannibalistic acts.
Niers began his criminal career as a highwayman in Alsace, present day France. He eventually headed a gang of bandits that numbered about 24 cutthroats. He also became a leading figure in a loose network of outlaws and highwayman gangs, that joined forces on occasion to conduct major operations requiring large numbers of men. Niers’ criminal activities spanned a large territory that included western France, the Rhineland, and Bavaria in southern Germany.
Peter Niers set himself apart from other bandits with his extreme bloodthirstiness and gratuitous cruelty. He was not content to simply rob his victims, or even simply kill them. Instead, Niers enjoyed torturing those who fell into his hands, and got a kick out of murdering them in a variety of fiendishly inventive ways. He was captured in 1577, and under torture, confessed to 75 murders during the previous eleven years. However, before he managed to escape before his scheduled execution.
Niers returned to his criminal activities, and resumed them with even greater cruelty and bloodthirstiness. Indeed the majority of his murders and depravities occurred in the four years following his escape. In the eleven years before his arrest, Niers had murdered 75 people. Authorities estimated that he murdered an additional 569 people in the four years from 1577 to 1581, when he was arrested for a second, and final time.
After his second arrest in 1581, Peter Niers was taken to the Bavarian city of Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz for a public execution. The authorities went Medieval on him, literally and figuratively. Even for an era in which torture and gruesome executions were routine, Peter Niers’ execution, which commenced on September 16th, 1581, stood out.
Niers underwent a three-day ordeal. On the first day, torturers flayed his skin, then poured hot oil on his exposed muscles to slough off layers of flesh. On the second day, Niers’ feet were coated in grease, and his lower body was slowly grilled over a low fire. On the third day, his body was broken on the wheel, with dozens of blows that smashed his major bones to pieces. Finally, the executioners quartered him while still alive, by sawing his body into pieces. That was the end of this killer.
Unlike the other monsters on this list, Stella Kubler-Isaacksohn (1922 – 1994) did not personally kill her victims. Instead, she hunted them down, and delivered them to the Nazis, who killed them. Born Stella Goldschlag, she was raised as the only child of an assimilated middle-class Jewish family in Berlin, and was treated like a princess by overprotective parents.
Stella grew up financially comfortable, but not as rich as her schoolmates in a Jewish school. That gnawed at her, and left her harboring resentments against her richer schoolmates. During WWII, Stella became infamous for collaborating with the Gestapo to track down and denounce other Jews hiding from the Nazis. Many of those denounced by her were her former schoolmates and their families, whom she repaid in spades for their crime of being richer than Stella’s family.
During WWII, Stella Kubler secured false identity papers that listed her as a German Aryan. She was blond and blue-eyed, so it worked for a while. However, Stella and her boyfriend were eventually denounced to the Gestapo by a “Jew Catcher” – a Jew working for the Gestapo to find other Jews in hiding. To save their necks, her boyfriend – and future husband – offered the Nazis their services.
The Gestapo put the couple to work as Catchers, paying them 300 Reichsmarks for every Jew they turned in, and promising to spare Stella’s parents so long as she kept producing. The duo had good instincts for hiding places, having lived in hiding themselves. Stella was particularly effective, because she knew many of Berlin’s Jews from her years in a segregated Jewish school.
Stella Kubler had not chosen to become a Jew Catcher of her own free will. However, how she exercised what freedom of choice she had while working as a Catcher was entirely within her control. She exercised that freedom of choice by pursuing hidden Jews with remarkable zeal. Even after the Jews she turned in were arrested, and her task was over, Stella enthusiastically took part in beating, torturing, and humiliating the arrestees.
Notwithstanding her zeal, the Nazis reneged on their promises to Stella, and deported her parents to their death in an extermination camp. Her husband and his family were sent to Auschwitz in 1943. Despite that, Stella’s enthusiasm for seeking out hidden Jews and denouncing them to the Gestapo did not wane. Betting on a German victory, she secured a promise from a high-ranking Gestapo official in 1944, that she would be declared an Aryan after the war.
By the time WWII ended, Stella Kubler had been responsible for the arrest, deportation, and subsequent murder of hundreds of Jews. She was a cold-blooded killer. Estimates of the total number of her victims ranged from a low of 600, to possibly as high as 3000. Their numbers included many of her personal friends, former schoolmates and their families, and even some of her own relatives.
Nonetheless, Stella got off light. Captured by the Soviets, she was tried and got a ten-year sentence. After her release, she moved to West Berlin, where she was tried by the West German authorities, and sentenced to ten years. However, she did not serve any time of that sentence. She then converted to Christianity, and became a lifelong anti-Semite. In 1994, Stella Kubler committed suicide by jumping out the window of her Berlin apartment.
Korea’s Crown Prince Sado (1735 – 1762) was the son of King Yeongjo, and heir to the throne. He never got to inherit, and is best remembered today as a monstrous serial killer. Sado was the king’s second son, but the first one had died in 1728. For years, the king’s wives and concubines had given him only daughters, and he despaired of ever getting another male heir. When Sado was born in 1735, his arrival was met with widespread rejoicing.
The infant was set up in his own palace with an army of maids, governesses, and servants. However, his father took little part in raising or supervising his upbringing. So Sado was spoiled rotten, and grew up doing whatever he liked. On the few occasions when the king visited, he was highly irritable, and grew angry at even trivial missteps by his son. Sado grew up oscillating between a great fear of his father, and a desperate need to please him.
Crown Prince Sado found it difficult to please his father. The king was not into displays of affection, and whenever the two met, Sado’s father was more critical than affectionate. As a result, Sado grew up feeling unloved and resentful (later turning him into a killer). Between those daddy issues, perceived lack of affection, lack of fatherly supervision, indulgence and flattery by courtiers, and other deep-seated neuroses, something broke inside Sado, and he grew up to become a monster.
He was a troubled young man, given to extremely violent and erratic mood swings. One day, he would behave with such decorum, dignity, and probity, so as to be all that his father had ever wanted in a son and heir. The next, he would undergo a transformation, and give free rein to violate outbursts during which he would turn rapist and murderer. Historians are unsure what exactly ailed him, but he was clearly mentally unstable, and many today think that he was schizophrenic.
Alcohol was forbidden at court, but Prince Sado was nonetheless given to downing heroic amounts of wine and spirits. He became a raging alcoholic. When a depressive mood fell upon him, murdering servants brought Sado relief. On many a day, several dead bodies were carried out of the palace. He also enjoyed raping court ladies, and after murdering his concubine, he started harassing his own sister. As a result, he became widely feared throughout the kingdom as a serial rapist, serial killer, and all around dangerous psychopath.
Eventually, Sado’s father had enough, and determined that he could not, in good conscience, inflict his criminally insane son upon the Korean people as their next king. On July 4th, 1762, Sado was summoned by his father, who ceremonially struck the floor with a sword and declared the crown prince deposed. Taboos prohibited the outright execution of the prince, so the king had Sado placed inside a heavy wooden chest used for storing rice, and locked him inside. There, the deposed prince was left to starve to death, and he perished eight days later.
9. You Did Not Want to Accept a Dinner Invitation From This Man
Karl Denke was born in 1860 into a wealthy farming family near Munsterberg, Silesia, Kingdom of Prussia – today’s Ziebice, Poland. Little is known of his early life, other than that he ran away from home at age twelve, and apprenticed himself to a gardener. As he grew up, he pursued a variety of professions, including farming after his father’s death, when he used his share of the inheritance to buy a plot of land.
Denke was not a good farmer, however, and it did not take long before working the fields reminded him why had why he had run away from home as a child. So he sold his land, and bounced around a variety of occupations for a few years. He eventually bought a small house in Munsterberg, and became an organ player in his local church. Few would have predicted he would go down in history as one of Germany’s scariest serial killers and cannibals.
Karl Denke developed a reputation as a devout Evangelical, and became a well-liked and respected member of his community. A friendly avuncular figure, always kind and helpful to people, he was nicknamed “Vatter Denke“, German for “Papa Denke“, by his admiring neighbors. His standing took a turn for the worse in 1924, when people discovered just who the real Papa Denke was.
On December 21st, 1924, a passerby heard cries for help coming from Denke’s house. Rushing in, he encountered a young man staggering in a corridor, and bleeding copiously from a head wound. Before collapsing on the floor, the victim blurted out that “Papa Denke” had attacked him with an ax. Police were called, and Denke was arrested. A search of his house turned up identification papers for a dozen men, plus various items of male clothing whose size precluded them from belonging to Denke.
What most shocked police about Karl Denke’s house was the kitchen. There, they found two large tubs, containing meat pickling in brine. The meat was attached to human bones, and by tallying the various bits, investigators estimated the Papa Denke had been in the process of pickling up to thirty victims. Police also found a notebook, in which Denke had listed the names of many more victims, with the dates of their murders going back to 1921, plus the weight of their pickled bodies.
Investigators did not get the opportunity to grill Denke about his motives: during his first night in prison, he used a handkerchief to hang himself in his cell. However, evidence gathered revealed that he ate his victims. He also disposed of their meat by feeding it to guests, jarring it and selling it as pickled pork, or giving jars of the “pickled pork” to his neighbors as gifts.
The inspiration behind Bluebeard, Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais, better known to history as Gilles de Rais (1404 – 1440), was an aristocrat from Brittany. De Rais was a respected knight, and a national hero who rose to prominence as Joan of Arc‘s chief captain and right-hand man. Then his true nature was revealed, and his celebrated career was cut short, along with his head, when it was discovered that, away from the limelight, he was an outright monster.
De Rais’ family, the House of Montmorency, was one of the oldest, most respected, and most distinguished aristocratic families in France. From an early age, de Rais seemed to live up to the high expectations of a scion of such an illustrious clan. By age fifteen, he had distinguished himself militarily during a series of wars of succession that wracked the Duchy of Brittany. He distinguished himself even more in Anjou, fighting for its duchess against the English in 1427.
When Joan of Arc emerged in 1429 to challenge the English, Gilles de Rais was one of France’s most celebrated military men, despite his youth. He was assigned to guard The Maid of Orleans, and fought in several battles at her side. De Rais particularly distinguished himself in her greatest victory, the lifting of the English siege of Orleans. He then accompanied her to Reims for the coronation of King Charles VII, who made Gilles de Rais Marshall of France – a distinction awarded to generals for exceptional achievements.
De Rais inherited significant estates from both his father and maternal grandfather. He married a rich heiress, which match brought him even more extensive holdings, and made him one of France’s greatest magnates. He retired from the military in 1434, but it soon emerged that he was not as good at managing money as he was at managing men in battle. It did not take de Rais long to dissipate his fabulous wealth with a lavish lifestyle that rivaled that of the king.
Within a year of de Rais’ retirement, he lost most of his lands, and his family secured from the king a decree forbidding him from mortgaging what was left. To raise more cash, de Rais turned to alchemy, hoping to figure out a way to turn base metals into gold. He also turned to Satanism, hoping to gain knowledge, power, and riches, by summoning the devil.
Another thing he turned to was the serial rape, torture, and murder of children. In 1440, an increasingly erratic de Rais got into a dispute with local church figures, and things escalated until he ended up kidnapping a priest. That triggered an ecclesiastical investigation of Gilles, which unearthed some horrific stuff. It turned out that the once-celebrated national hero had been murdering children – mostly boys, but also the occasional girl – by the hundreds.
The killer, Gilles de Rais’ modus operandi was to lure children from peasant or lower class families to his castle with gifts, such as candy, toys, or clothing. He would initially put them at their ease, feed and pamper them, before leading them to a bedroom. There, de Rais and his accomplices would seize their victims. As he confessed in his subsequent trial, de Rais got a sadistic kick out of watching the children’s fear, when he explained what was in store for them.
What was in store was not good. Suffice it to say that it that it involved torture and sodomy, and ended with the child’s murder, usually via decapitation. The victims and their clothing would then be burned in the fireplace, and their ashes dumped in a moat. After de Rais confessed to his crimes, he and he and his accomplices were condemned to death. He was executed on October 26th, 1440, by burning and hanging, simultaneously. His infamy inspired the fairy tale of Bluebeard, about a wealthy serial wife killer.
Ancient China’s Prince Liu Pengli was a member of the ruling Han Dynasty. He was also the first serial killer in recorded history. In 144 BC, Emperor Jing, Liu Pengli’s cousin, appointed him king of the city of Jidong and the surrounding district. That was bad news for the good people of Jidong, who would be ruled by Pengli for the next 23 years.
The killer, Pengli preyed upon his subjects, killing them for kicks and giggles. He probably would have liked the Ramsey Bolton character from Game of Thrones, because, like that fictitious character, Pengli enjoyed hunting human beings for sport. At least 100 people were murdered by Pengli for his amusement, and the true number of his victims was probably higher. His reign of psychotic terror lasted for over two decades, during which his subjects were too scared to come out of their homes at night. It only came to an end after one of Pengli’s victims finally screwed up the courage to travel to the imperial capital, where he complained to the emperor.
Throughout most of history, justice has often been illusory, and usually unequal. Which explains why Prince Penglii got off light: he was not executed, but was simply stripped of his rank and banished. As described by Han historian Sima Qian:
“Liu Pengli was arrogant and cruel, and paid no attention to the etiquette demanded between ruler and subject. In the evenings he used to go out on marauding expeditions with twenty or thirty slaves or young men who were in hiding from the law, murdering people and seizing their belongings for sheer sport. When the affair came to light â¦ it was found he had murdered at least 100 or more persons. Everyone in the kingdom knew about his ways, so that the people were afraid to venture out of their houses at night. The son of one of his victims finally sent a report to the [Han Emperor], and the Han officials requested that he be executed. The emperor could not bear to carry out their recommendation, but made him a commoner and banished him to Shangyong“.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading