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 … 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