10 Lesser Known Serial Killers You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

10 Lesser Known Serial Killers You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

Larry Holzwarth - September 27, 2017

Although there is some disagreement among experts in the field, the FBI defines a serial killer as an individual who has committed two or more murders, committed separately, usually by acting alone in search of psychological gratification of an abnormal nature. Often a serial killer’s victims are slain in similar fashion with their predecessors, for motives which can include; for the thrill of it, money, anger, attention, sexual conquest and virtually any other reason which can be conjured up within a disturbed mind. Sometimes a serial killer is a murderer for hire such as the hitmen associated with Mafioso activities.

Serial killers are not a recent phenomenon, with incidents of such murderous activities dating back to the Roman Empire in Europe and the Chinese Han Dynasty. Usually identified in the public consciousness as men, many serial killers have been women. Locusta of Gaul, for example, was a maker and user of poisons who worked at the behest of Agrippina the Younger and her son, the Roman Emperor Nero. Nero became so pleased with Locusta’s work killing his enemies that he rewarded her with landed estates and pupils to whom she could teach her craft. Locusta was directly responsible for the killing by poison of up to seven people before Emperor Galba, Nero’s successor, had her executed for her crimes.

Other serial killers of the ancient world claimed their victims in China, India, the Americas, Sri Lanka, and the Horn of Africa, to name a few. The Seminole tribe of Florida recorded a serial killer, as did the Abenaki of New Hampshire and what was then called Upper Canada.

Fame, or infamy, is not a measure of the evil done by any serial killer, most of whom remain relatively unknown to the public.

Here are just ten of them.

10 Lesser Known Serial Killers You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
While being interrogated on a wheel similar to this one, Peter Niers confessed to over 500 murders. The blocks on the left restrained arms and legs while the rotating wheel broke the body. Wikipedia

Peter Niers

Over a period of three days in September 1581, the good people of Neumarkt, a village about 25 miles from Nuremberg, Germany, gradually put to death confessed serial killer Peter Niers. On the first day the executioners sliced flesh from the miscreant’s body and tormented the open wounds with heated oil. The following day Niers was suspended over an open fire, roasting his feet and legs and finally, on the third day, Niers was dismembered alive after first being broken upon the medieval torture device known as the wheel.

Although it was a vicious age, the execution of Peter Niers seems to indicate he practiced a particularly heinous criminal life. He did. Over the course of his career as a bandit and thief, Niers murdered 544 victims – according to his confession – including two dozen unborn children whose fetuses were used for black magick rituals. He also confessed to cannibalism.

Niers was a member and alleged leader of a gang of thieves and killers, who were responsible for thefts and the murder of their victims across wide portions of Europe, including in Alsace, the Netherlands, and within the German principalities. The gang usually operated under disguise as shepherds, justifying their wanderings as necessary to ensure their sheep had sufficient grass to eat and thus avoiding suspicion.

Niers was betrayed by a follower and arrested and tortured in Gersbach, Germany but somehow escaped to resume his career. Niers practiced his career as a thief, murderer, and sometimes cannibal for nearly thirty years before the people of Neumarkt put an end to him – although he lived on in ballads and pamphlets which continued to terrorify the region for centuries.

10 Lesser Known Serial Killers You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
Hanebuth disposed of some victims in a pit behind this home – which still stands – to be devoured by wild dogs and other animals. Wikimedia

Jasper Hanebuth

In some ways, Jasper Hanebuth resembled a modern-day serial killer more than many of his contemporaries. Hanebuth was a veteran of the Thirty Years War, and in conflict learned to kill. Following the war, or at any rate his own part in it Hanebuth became a highwayman operating largely in the Eilenreide – which today still exists as an inner-city park in Hanover, Germany.

Hanebuth didn’t waste time approaching his victims and demanding money or other valuables. He preferred to shoot his victim from a distance, only approaching after the victim was already dead and no witnesses had made an inconvenient appearance.

Often Hanebuth would find that the killing yielded but little treasure, which he didn’t seem to have minded too much. At least 19 were murdered in the forest by the cautious thief. He disposed of the bodies by throwing them down a hole to be fodder for wild animals and pigs.

Hanebuth later expanded his activities to include using Hannover merchants to market his illegally acquired gains, which protected him from the authorities for a short time. His greed got the better of him and one former partner, feeling cheated, turned him in. After the requisite torture to obtain a confession, death upon the wheel became his fate on February 4, 1653.

10 Lesser Known Serial Killers You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
Remains of Edinburgh Castle, home of Lewis Hutchinson and site of his murders. Jamaica Heritage National Trust

Lewis Hutchinson

Hutchinson was a Scotsman who emigrated to Jamaica where he bred cattle on his estate, which he named Edinburgh Castle. Whether or not Hutchinson was a doctor by training is disputed by historians, that he was a cattle thief is not, as he helped himself to his neighbor’s strays with impunity. Soon not only stray cattle but travelers near Hutchinson’s estate, were vanishing.

Hutchinson would open his Castle to travelers, offering hospitality and rest, before killing them with a rifle shot, an act which he later described as a thrill. Since the main road passed directly before his castle there was no shortage of victims, even as rumors grew on the island of his activities and the number of vanished people grew.

When John Callendar, a local British Army officer, offered to bring the doctor into the authorities for questioning over the rumors concerning his activities, Hutchison killed him – an act which was witnessed by several white settlers – and orders were issued for his arrest. He attempted to flee but the Royal Navy prevented him, and in the soon searched castle evidence of his crimes was discovered, including more than 40 watches which identified their now dead owners.

Hutchinson was finally convicted for the murder of Callendar, which was enough to justify hanging him, as was done in Spanish Town, March 16, 1773. He was estimated to have killed 43 victims during his murderous career.

10 Lesser Known Serial Killers You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
Pen and Ink Drawing of Serial Killer William Burke. British Museum

William Burke

During the early 19th century those studying for the medical professions needed cadavers on which to perform dissections. Since Scottish law limited the bodies available for such purposes to those of suicide victims, prisoners, or foundlings there was soon a shortage of available cadavers. The profession of grave robbing soon expanded, and as it did its risks grew correspondingly. The public did not respond kindly to their loved one’s bodies becoming the basis of medical experimentation and education. But the amount of money which physicians were willing to pay for cadavers made the acquisition of newly dead bodies a lucrative enterprise.

Matthew Burke was a wandering agricultural laborer who eventually became a cobbler. When his friend William Hare found a lodger dead in his (Hare’s) house, Hare solicited Burke’s advice regarding disposal of the corpse. When Burke and Hare discovered that the body could be sold for a nice profit they commenced a string of killings to provide cadavers to a doctor without the inconvenience of digging one up.

To avoid suspicion, Burke – a strong, burly man – came up with a way to suffocate victims without leaving strangulation marks around the head and throat. Burke used heavy pressure on the chest to prevent his victims from breathing, a style of suffocation which became known as “burking.”

When the pair were finally caught, because a witness managed to place a recently deceased victim in their company shortly before an inexplicable demise, Hare turned state’s witness to avoid the gallows. Burke was convicted for a total of 16 murders of victims intended for dissection. After Burke was hanged in January 1929, his body was dissected (by court order as part of his sentence) by surgeons from the Edinburgh Medical School, where his mounted skeleton remains preserved. A book bound with his preserved skin is kept in Surgeon’s Hall Museum nearby.

10 Lesser Known Serial Killers You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
Known as the Berrima Axeman John Lynch preferred to kill with a tomahawk blow to the back of the head. Murderpedia

John Lynch

John Lynch was an Irishman who was convicted of the crime of false pretenses (fraud in today’s parlance) and transported to the prison colony of New South Wales, where he was sent to the village of Berrima to work as a cattle handler. Lynch was soon involved with bushrangers – rustlers and scofflaws – who operated along the Australian frontier.

When Lynch and two other men were convicted of killing another man in a dispute the jury did not believe that Lynch struck the fatal blow because of his diminutive size – despite Lynch’s confessing to the crime. Lynch was set free and his comrades hanged.

Not happy handling other people’s cattle led him to steal some of his own, hoping to sell them in the burgeoning town of Sydney. En route Lynch encountered other cattle drivers and expanded his herd by taking the cattle and killing their owners. Lynch was convinced that God approved of his killing, as He had demonstrated by sparing Lynch from conviction and hanging earlier.

Lynch’s preferred method of killing involved a heavy blow to the back of the head with a large ax or tomahawk, after which the bodies would be disposed of by either internment in a shallow grave or burning. Between 1835 and 1841 he would claim at least ten victims in this manner before being caught. At his trial he proclaimed his innocence, again protected (in his mind) by the Lord’s approval of his actions. This time it took less than an hour for a jury to convict him and he was hanged in Berrima in April 1842.

10 Lesser Known Serial Killers You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
Mary Cotton preferred to poison her victims with arsenic, which causes a lingering and painful death, in full view of the authorities. Image Murderpedia

Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann Cotton was an Englishwoman who was convicted for the murder of her stepson. After her hanging, investigators and researchers concluded she murdered up to 21 people, including three of her four husbands, eleven of her thirteen children, two boyfriends, and servants who had become suspicious of their mistress. Mary Ann preferred the use of arsenic poisoning as her murder weapon.

Contrary to what many believe, arsenic does not kill rapidly, but causes long and agonizing gastric pain and distress as it does its work. Medical opinion of the day was insufficient to diagnose its use unless there were reasons to suspect it, and various “fevers” were blamed as the cause of death in such cases. Mary Ann killed for money, in the form of life insurance, or for self-preservation by eliminating the suspicious.

Mary Ann was caught after learning that a former lover had returned to live nearby. Desirous of joining him, she used arsenic to murder Frederick Cotton, her fourth husband and third to die of poisonous ministrations. After his death, she applied the same attention to her late husband’s son, Charles, who died after a short illness. Mary visited an insurance office to file a claim prior to arranging for the boy’s funeral, prompting notice of her numerous visits to the insurance company in the past. Soon the sheer number of people around her who had died from “stomach ailments” convinced the authorities and the general public of her crimes; a post-mortem of the late Charles confirmed arsenic in his hair samples, and Mary Ann was tried for his murder.

Mary Ann was found guilty and sentenced to hang, going to the gallows strongly asserting her innocence, despite the overwhelming nature of the evidence against her.

10 Lesser Known Serial Killers You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
One of the first to be nicknamed the “Angel of Death” by the sensationalist press, Jane Toppan enjoyed being in bed with her victims as they died. Daily Telegraph

Jane Toppan

Jane Toppan – real name Honora Kelley – was abandoned to an orphanage by a father well-known in his Boston neighborhood as being off his rocker (a local rumor had him sewing his own eyelids shut, explaining why he was known as “Kelly the Crack” – short for crackpot). Honora was a difficult child in the orphanage, and later as an indentured servant in the home of Ann Toppan in Lowell, Massachusetts. Honora Kelley became Jane Toppan, although never adopted by Mrs. Toppan, and it was under that name that she entered Cambridge Hospital to study nursing.

As a nurse, Jane became fascinated with drugs such as morphine and atropine, and used her access to them to alter the dosages prescribed by doctors for her patients. As a resident Jane experimented with her usually elderly patients, bringing them to the brink of death before reviving them, only to then dispatch them with another altered dose. During this time of drug-induced mortal peril, she would lie in the bed with the patient, obtaining what she later described as sexual gratification.

Jane next worked at Massachusetts General Hospital, claiming additional victims before dismissal for using dangerous drugs recklessly. It was as a private nurse, her next occupation when her killing began in earnest. Her landlords were her first victims, followed by her sister, then the elderly patient she was hired to care for after his wife died (she had killed the wife earlier). She followed that murder by killing the couple’s two daughters. Jane preferred to use strychnine as her poison of choice, easily available in the rodent-infested Victorian Age, but difficult to trace.

When Jane was caught she confessed to 31 murders, all by drugs or poisons, and stated that had she ever married and had a family she would never have resorted to killing. Found not guilty by reason of insanity, Jane spent the rest of her natural life at the Taunton Hospital for the Insane.

10 Lesser Known Serial Killers You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
In a cryptic poem which may have been a confession written on the back of this drawing, Landru referred to bodies burned in this stove in his kitchen. Murderpedia

Henri Landru

Henri Landru first discovered the joys of crime as a fraud specialist, concentrating on elderly widows as the targets of petty swindles, for which he served time in prison on several occasions. In 1914, while working as a dealer of used furniture, Henri began running advertisements in Paris newspapers, seeking lonely hearts among the growing number of war widows in the French capital.

By the end of the First World War four years later Landru had met, seduced, swindled, and murdered ten victims found through his ads. Landru was careful to use different aliases and background stories with each widow and to frequent different areas of Paris as we wooed each victim.

In 1919 the sister of one of Landru’s victims began pursuing him, eventually gaining the support of the at first doubtful police. Although no bodies were ever found, fragmentary records of Landru’s activities slowly emerged. Eventually, he was charged with the murder of eleven victims, for which he was tried, convicted and guillotined in 1922.

His head is on display at the Museum of Death in Hollywood, in which he is identified as the “Bluebeard of Paris.” In 1947 Landru was the inspiration for the character Monsieur Verdoux in the movie of the same name, portrayed by Charles Chaplin.

10 Lesser Known Serial Killers You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
Bird was originally convicted of murder in Tacoma. Later he revealed a nationwide killing rampage through eleven states. Tacoma News Tribune

Jake Bird

Jake Bird was an itinerant laborer who favored working for the railroads as a section-gang laborer when he wasn’t serving time in prison. By the time he was 45 years old Bird, by his own estimates, had served at least fifteen of those years in prison for petty theft, burglary, assaults, and attempted murders. Working for the railroad kept him on the road, away from the watchful eyes of local police, and allowed him to pursue his penchant for murder.

When Bird burglarized a home in Tacoma, Washington in 1947 he used an ax to kill two women in the home, and then resisted arrest by assaulting a police officer while armed with a knife. Bird was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging. While awaiting execution of sentence in early 1948, Bird started confessing to other murders, in multiple states, which he had committed when he had been in the area for railroad work. Eventually, Bird confessed to 44 murders, hinting that there were more, and waited while the various affected states filed for stays of execution in order to clear homicides on their books by bringing Bird to trial within their jurisdictions.

How many of the 44 murders Bird actually committed is unknown; he had sufficient knowledge of the crimes to allow investigators to close the books on previously unsolved crimes. Eleven of the murder claims were fully substantiated and would have led to charges if the prosecutors had not chosen to defer so as to not delay execution. While working for and traveling on the railroad Bird had claimed victims in eleven states, from Washington to Florida, mostly women.

Bird was hanged on July 15, 1949, for the double murder in Washington, but not before a “curse” he had placed on participants in his trial, in which he told those involved with his prosecution that they would die before he did, gained partial credence. Five members of the court involved in his trial preceded Bird in death, just as he predicted.

10 Lesser Known Serial Killers You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
Unlike his victims, Sean Gillis will be kept alive. He will reside in a cell like this one for the rest of his natural life, with no possibility of parole. Wikipedia

Sean Gillis

Sean Vincent Gillis committed his ritualistic murders after stalking and kidnapping his victims, whom he raped before killing and afterward mutilated their bodies. But he remains almost unknown. Gillis committed his crimes in Baton Rouge during the same time frame another serial killer was active in the area, Derrick Todd Lee. When Lee was arrested the killings in the areas did not stop, leading authorities to realize there was a second serial killer at work. Because Lee was arrested first, Gillis became known as “The Other Baton Rouge Killer.”

Gillis blamed his early murders on “stress” and later described himself as “pure evil.” His first victim, a woman in her eighties, was stabbed more than fifty times. He stalked his second as she jogged for three weeks before running her down with his car, wrapping her in plastic, raping and murdering her, and then disposing of her body in a ditch. A later victim was severely mutilated, including the gouging out of a tattoo which Gillis found offensive, removed while she was still alive. He began to take pictures of his victim’s bodies after mutilating them, and collected body parts to keep as souvenirs. All of Gillis’s known victims were women, ranging in age from 29 to 81, killed over a period of ten years.

Gillis was eventually tracked down using tire and other forensic evidence collected at a crime scene and after DNA evidence tied him to three murders he was convicted and given life in prison. Following this conviction, Gillis confessed to five additional murders and provided evidence which supported his conviction, including photographs.

Gillis has written that he doesn’t know why he committed any of the murders, and claimed to be shocked at the level of violence shown, including the dismemberment of bodies.


Sources For Further Reading:

Discovery Magazine – Female Serial Killers Exist, But Their Motives Are Different

All That is Interesting – The 8 Most Painful Torture Devices of The Middle Ages

Ranker – The Untold Story of Peter Niers, The Cannibal Magician Who Killed 500 People

John Lynch, the Berrima Axe Murderer – HeadStuff

Vegabomb – 10 Women Who Killed for Money, Power, Love and More

Radio Times – Dark Angel: How were Mary Ann Cotton’s Terrible Crimes Uncovered?

The Sun – For 10 Years, ‘Jolly Jane’ Poured Her Poison

Criminal Historian – Jolly Jane: (Mis)Understanding A Female Serial Killer

Irish Central – The deadly Irish American serial killer nurse Jolly Jane

All That Interesting – The Story Of Henri Landru, France’s Charming Bluebeard Serial Killer

South Sound Talk – Jake Bird: The Strange Story of a Tacoma Serial Killer and the Hex that Made Him Famous