The first serial killer in recorded history was Prince Liu Pengli, who lived in Ancient China in the 2nd century BC. A member of the ruling Han Dynasty‘s imperial family, Pengli’s relative, Emperor Jing, appointed him ruler of the city of Jidong and the surrounding district in 144 BC.
That was bad news for the good people of Jidong, whom Pengli governed for the next 23 years. For one thing, he preyed upon his subjects, killing them for the sheer fun of it. 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 one hundred people were murdered by Liu Pengli just for kicks and giggles, and it is likely that the actual number of his victims was significantly 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.
The nightmare finally 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. Because justice was illusory throughout most of history, Pengli got off light: he was not executed, but was simply stripped of his rank and banished.
29. ‘The People Were Afraid to Venture Out of Their Houses at Night’
As Ancient Chinese historian Sima Qian described history’s first serial killer: “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 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“.
German outlaw Peter Niers (died 1581) was a bandit, black arts practitioner, and one of history’s most prolific serial killers. During a fifteen-year stretch, as investigations revealed after his arrest, Niers murdered over 600 people, and cut the fetuses out of the wombs of two dozen pregnant women. The fetuses were used as ingredients in black magic rituals and consumed in cannibalistic acts.
Niers began his criminal career as a highwayman in Alsace, present day France. He eventually headed a gang that numbered about two dozen bandits. He also became a leading figure in a loose network of bandit 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.
Being a medieval bandit was not the kind of career that attracted the squeamish, but Peter Niers set himself apart from other bandits by his extraordinary bloodthirstiness and gratuitous cruelty. He was not content to simply rob or kill his victims, but positively relished torturing and murdering them in a variety of fiendishly inventive ways. He was captured in 1577, and confessed to having murdered 75 people during the previous 11 years. However, he managed to escape before he could be executed.
Upon regaining his freedom, Niers resumed his criminal activities with even greater cruelty and viciousness. Indeed the majority of his murders and depravities occurred in the four years after his escape. In the 11 years before his arrest in 1577, he had murdered 75 people. In the four years after that arrest, from 1577 to 1581, Niers murdered an additional 569 people.
In 1581, Peter Niers was captured for a second time. This time, there was no escape. He was taken to the Bavarian city of Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz for a public execution, in which the authorities went medieval on him, literally and figuratively. Even for an era in which torture and gruesome executions were routine, Niers’ execution, which commenced on September 16th, 1581, stood out.
It was a three-day ordeal, with the first day spent flaying Niers’ skin, then pouring hot oil on his exposed muscles to slough off layers of his flesh. On the second day, his 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, sawing his body into pieces.
Before he was commissioned into the Imperial Japanese Army as a surgeon in 1921, Shiro Ishii (1892 – 1959) had been a brilliant medical student and doctor. He became one of Japan’s greatest bacterial research specialists and invented a revolutionary filtration system that could remove all bacteria from stagnant water. He turned to the dark side in 1933, and shifted his focus from preventing bacterial infections to weaponizing bacteria for use in warfare.
That year, Japan had seized Manchuria from China, so Ishii moved there with a team of researchers, and set up a biological experimentation operation, Unit 731. For guinea pigs, Ishii and his researchers experimented upon live humans, mostly captured Chinese soldiers, plus civilians deemed hostile to the Japanese occupation. They also experimented upon Soviet soldiers captured in border skirmishes, and on Allied POWs after Japan joined WWII.
Shiro Ishii killed thousands of prisoners with a host of deadly pathogens, ranging from the bubonic plague to botulism, to which inmates were exposed in a variety of ways. Prisoners were injected with bacteria, had it added to their food and drink, or smeared on their clothes. To test the effectiveness of aerial dispersal of diseases, bombs full of gangrene or other deadly bacteria were exploded over prisoners.
Ishii and Unit 731 subjected their captives to other atrocities as well, including starving them, exposing them to extremes of temperatures, bombarding them with X-rays, killing them in giant centrifuges, boiling them alive, or even dissecting them while they were still living. Thanks to the thousands of test subjects killed by Unit 731, plus hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians outside who were exposed to the plague, Ishii brought biological warfare to new heights – or depths.
By 1945, Japan was on her last legs, but still had one last horrific card to play: weaponized deadly pathogens. Shiro Ishii and Unit 731 had encased the bubonic plague, botulism, anthrax, smallpox, cholera, and other diseases into bombs that were routinely dropped on Chinese combatants and civilians alike. He proposed to subject American civilians to the same fate. On March 26th, 1945, Ishii finalized plans for Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night, to attack America with biological weapons.
Five I-400 long-range submarines, each carrying three Aichi M6A1 Seiran float planes, were to cross the Pacific Ocean. Upon reaching America’s West Coast, the float plans, loaded with plague-inflected fleas, were to launch and attack San Diego. As one of the pilots put it in 1998: “I was told directly by Shiro Ishii of the kamikaze mission “Cherry Blossoms at Night”, which was named by Ishii himself. I was a leader of a squad of seventeen. I understood that the mission was to spread contaminated fleas in the enemy’s base and contaminate them with plague.”
Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night was scheduled for September 22nd, 1945, but the atomic bombing of Japan in August ended the war. Japan formally surrendered on September 2nd, less than three weeks before the launch date of Shiro Ishii’s plan to infect America with the plague.
After the war, it was estimated that Ishii’s germ warfare and experiments had killed anywhere from tens of thousands to 400,000 Chinese from bubonic plague, anthrax, cholera, and other diseases. According to the most reliable recent estimate, from the 2002 International Symposium on the Crimes of Biological Warfare, victims of the Japanese biological warfare overseen by Ishii numbered as high as 580,000. Yet, the Japanese doctor never faced a war crimes tribunal, nor was he ever held accountable for his horrific deeds.
Just before the Soviet Red Army conquered Manchuria in August of 1945, Shiro Ishii evacuated Unit 731 back to Japan. He destroyed most traces of his camps, and had all remaining prisoners, plus 600 workers, murdered. The Soviets nonetheless captured some documents, which they used in their own biological warfare program. After the war, American microbiologists deemed Ishii’s work “absolutely invaluable … [it] could never have been obtained in the United States because of scruples attached to experiments on humans“.
So he cut a deal to avoid prosecution, in exchange for sharing the results of his experiments with American biological warfare experts. Although Unit 731’s victims included American POWs, General Douglas MacArthur, who ran the occupation of Japan, officially denied the existence of any Japanese experiments upon Americans. Shiro Ishii lived as a free man, until his death in 1959 from throat cancer.
20. There’s Fiendish, and There’s Bathing In Your Victims’ Blood Fiendish
The Guinness Book’s record for most prolific female murderess belongs to Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsend (1560 – 1614). The owner of vast estates in what are now Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania, Bathory tortured and killed hundreds of young women between 1585 and 1609. She was not only prolific, but also probably history’s most vicious female serial killer. Among other things, she bathed in her victims’ blood – not in a figure of speech kind of way, but quite literally.
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 great wealth and privilege, received an excellent education from top-notch tutors, and at age twelve, was betrothed to a prominent Hungarian aristocrat. A year later, however, she got pregnant by a commoner, so her fiancee had her lover castrated, then torn to pieces and fed to the dogs.
After things settled down following the tempest with her fiancée and the castration of the lover who had gotten her pregnant, Elizabeth Bathory gave birth to a daughter, who was quietly hidden. She wed her betrothed in 1575, but kept cuckolding him throughout their married life – a task made easier by his frequent and prolonged absences on military campaigns.
Somewhere along the line, Bathory developed a taste for sadism, and sometime around 1585, she began torturing and killing young girls. She started off with servants at her castle, then began murdering serf girls from surrounding peasant villages. Eventually, even the daughters of local gentry, sent to her castle by their families to receive an aristocratic education and learn courtly manners, were added to her murder menu.
Elizabeth Bathory was a 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, she enjoyed 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.
The exact number of Countess Bathory’s victims is unknown, but some estimates range as high as 650. Rumors of the goings-on at her castle eventually got out, and the Hungarian authorities conducted an investigation. In December of 1610, she and four of her accomplices were arrested. Her accomplices were tried, and three were convicted of murder and sundry crimes and executed.
However, in the 1600s, justice was even more elusive than it is today, and punishment for crimes depended on the culprit’s standing. Elizabeth Bathory was a countess, and her family was one of the most powerful and influential in the realm. Despite overwhelming evidence of her guilt, she never faced trial. Instead, she was quietly sent to a castle in today’s Slovakia, where she was confined to a windowless room until her death, five years later.
Russian revolutionary Rosalia Zemlyachka (1876 – 1947) has often been labeled “history’s deadliest woman”. Surprisingly, relatively little is known about her, because most of her notoriety can be traced to a period of revolutionary upheaval, during which record-keeping was spotty at best. Much of what did exist was destroyed in the turmoil that engulfed the country during her lifetime. Also, being a woman, neither her Bolshevik Party nor English-speaking Soviet scholars and historians, have put that much effort into researching her activities.
Be that as it may, Zemlyachka was one of the key figures in the abortive 1905 Russian Revolution. Twelve years later, during the Russian Civil War, she emerged as one of the main organizers of the Red Terror after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. Particularly in 1920 – 1921, she played a key role in mass killings that claimed the lives of tens of thousands at the low end of estimates, and hundreds of thousands at the high end.
She was born Rosalia Samilovna Zalkind into a Jewish family in 1876, in today’s Belarus. Given the Tsarist government’s antisemitism, it was unsurprising that her parents had radical tendencies. Years later, the future killer recalled that one of her earliest childhood memories was of her parents approving the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by revolutionaries in 1881.
Rosalia was introduced to peasant populism by an older brother and left school in 1891, when she was just fifteen, to dedicate her life to the revolution. She was arrested by the Okhrana, the Tsarist political police, soon thereafter. By 1896, hardened by stints in Tsarist prisons, Rosalia had moved from populism to Marxism. By 1902, she had adopted the revolutionary name Rosalia Zemlyachka, and that year, she joined Lenin’s faction of the Communist Party, the Bolsheviks.
Upon joining the Bolsheviks, Rosalia Zemlyachka proved herself a tireless party organizer. She spent most of her time bouncing between Saint Petersburg, Odessa, and various cities abroad to meet with exiles. She was a prominent radical figure in Moscow during the 1905 Russian Revolution, and played a key role in organizing that city’s barricades.
As a known revolutionary, Zemlyachka came in for a rough time in the subsequent Tsarist crackdown. She was arrested and jailed numerous times in subsequent years, and caught tuberculosis and developed heart disease behind bars. She finally fled Russia in 1909, her health broken, to join Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders in exile. She returned to Moscow in 1914, seemingly a spent force, only to spring back to life during the 1917 Russian Revolution.
As a founding member of the Executive Committee of the Moscow Soviet, Rosalia Zemlyachka was on the ground floor when the Bolsheviks hijacked the 1917 Russian Revolution. Indeed, she ended up playing a key role in securing Moscow for the Bolsheviks during the October Revolution. In the ensuing Russian Civil War, she split her time between Moscow and various Bolshevik field armies, where she bucked up the troops as an electrifying speaker and political agitator.
Lenin made her chief political commissar for the 8th Army in Ukraine, then for that of the 13th Army. Her most famous – or infamous mark – however, was made during the Red Terror – a period of extreme repression and mass killings carried out by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. It began in 1918, after a failed attempt at assassinating Lenin. Zemlyachka was involved in the repression campaign from the start, advocating for the annihilation of class enemies, and taking part in the first batches of executions in Moscow.
Rosalia Zemlyachka’s zeal and methods alarmed even Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the Cheka (forerunner of the NKVD and KGB). Considering that Dzerzhinsky was known as “Iron Felix“, alarming him took some doing. So in 1920, she was bundled out of Moscow and sent to the Crimea – one of the last enclaves of resistance to Bolshevik rule – as Secretary of the Crimean Regional Committee of the Russian Communist Party.
She was determined to stamp out opposition, once and for all, and to economize on mass murder while doing so. At a time when the Bolsheviks were running low on munitions, she decreed that wasting bullets on those marked for execution was unreasonable. One of her cost-cutting measures was to tie rocks to the legs of the condemned, then toss them off barges into the sea. Tens of thousands were killed that way, and when the waters were calm and visibility was good, rows of standing bodies could be seen like a horrific underwater forest, swaying with the currents like kelp on the sea bottom.
Upon her return to Moscow from the Crimea, Rosalia Zemlyachka was awarded the Order of the Red Banner – then the highest Soviet military award. She spent the rest of her life climbing the Communist Party’s rungs, joining the Central Control Commission – the organization that kept a watchful eye on the party. She worked closely with the NKVD during the Great Terror, and so impressed Stalin with her ruthlessness that he made her head of the Control Commission in 1939.
That made Zemlyachka the only woman in the USSR’s highest administrative body, the Council of People’s Commissars. She died of natural causes at age 71 in 1947, and was honored with a burial in the Kremlin. However, deadly as she was, the claims that Zemlyachka was “history’s deadliest woman” are overstated. As seen below, another woman exceeded her death toll, many times over.
Gilles de Rais, real name Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais (1404 – 1440), was a French national hero who turned out to be a first-class fiend. A nobleman from Brittany, de Rais was a respected knight who rose to prominence during the Hundred Years War 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 France’s oldest, most respected, and most distinguished aristocratic families. From an early age, he seemed to live up to the high expectations of a scion of such an illustrious clan. By age fifteen, de Rais 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.
Despite his youth, Gilles de Rais was already one of France’s most celebrated warriors by the time Joan of Arc emerged on the scene in 1429 to challenge the English. He became one of her guards and fought in several battles at her side. He particularly distinguished himself in her greatest victory, the lifting of the Siege of Orleans. De Rais then accompanied her to Reims for the coronation of King Charles VII, and the king made him a Marshall of France – a distinction awarded to generals for exceptional achievements.
De Rais inherited significant landholdings and estates, and married a rich heiress – a match that brought him more vast properties, and made him one of France’s greatest magnates. He retired from the military in 1434, but he was not as good at managing money as he was at managing men in battle. Before long, he had dissipated his fabulous wealth with a lavish lifestyle that rivaled that of the king.
De Rais lost most of his lands within a year of his retirement, and his family secured a royal decree forbidding him from mortgaging what was left. To raise more cash, he turned to alchemy, hoping to figure out a way to turn base metals into gold. De Rais 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, 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.
As investigators discovered, de Rais routinely lured children from peasant or lower-class families to his castle with gifts, such as candies, toys, or clothing. He initially put them at ease by feeding and pampering them, before leading them to a bedroom, where they were seized by de Rais and his accomplices. As he confessed in his subsequent trial, de Rais got a sadistic kick out of watching their fear, when he explained what was to come. And what was to come was nothing good. Suffice it to say that it involved torture and sodomy, and ended with the child’s murder, usually via decapitation.
The victims and their clothing were then 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.
Madagascar’s Queen Ranavalona I (1778 – 1861), who had a tongue twister of a birth name, Rabodoandrianampoinimerina, ruled from 1828 until her death in 1861. Nicknamed “Ranavalona the Cruel”, she was probably a certifiably insane madwoman, and her 33-year reign was a complete and utter disaster for the people of Madagascar.
Between murder, massacre, mass enslavement, repression, and resultant famines, millions of her subjects perished. During the craziest stretches of her reign, it is estimated that half the population of Madagascar died, either directly according to her orders, or as a result of her disastrous policies.
Ranavalona’s rise began when her father informed Madagascar’s king Andrianampoinimerinandriantsimitoviaminandriampanjaka (they had ludicrously long names in Madagascar) of a plot against his life. So the king showed his appreciation by selecting the informant’s daughter to marry his son and heir. The marriage proved loveless and produced no issue.
When Ranavalona’s husband died childless in 1828, she engineered a coup and seized power, inaugurating her reign by massacring all potential rival claimants to the throne. She then proclaimed herself Queen Ranavalona I. It was a bloody start to what would prove a bloody reign, that began with her killing every member of the royal family she could get her hands on. Spilling royal blood was taboo, so she had them strangulated, or locked in a cell and starved to death.
Having secured her throne against domestic challengers, Ranavalona turned her attention to encroachments from European colonial powers, and killed or expelled nearly all foreigners. She nullified all treaties with Britain and France, and also banned Christianity.
In lieu of a legal system, she introduced trial by ordeal: the accused were fed poison and three pieces of chicken skin. If they vomited all three pieces of skin, they were innocent. If they did not, they were not, and were accordingly executed. She also isolated Madagascar from the outside world, and turned it into a hermit kingdom.
Ranavalona turned Madagascar into a nineteenth-century version of North Korea. She introduced widespread forced labor, whereby the poor – the majority of the population – were made to toil in lieu of high taxes they could not afford to pay. These de facto slaves were used to build houses and palaces, clear lands and maintain roads, carry nobles and royal dependents in litters, serve in Ranavalona’s army, and perform any other tasks set them by the queen. They were unpaid, poorly fed, if at all, and they died in droves.
In the meantime, the British and French were unhappy with being shut out of Madagascar, where they had been welcomed by previous rulers. So they mounted joint punitive expeditions, but the attempts ended in failure. When the Europeans retreated, Ranavalona beheaded the corpses of their dead, put the heads on stakes, and lined them up on Madagascar’s beaches, facing the ocean.
Ranavalona sent her army on numerous punitive expeditions into those parts of Madagascar resistant to her rule or expressing anything less than enthusiasm for her overlordship. The queen’s men engaged in scorched earth policies and devastated insufficiently obedient regions. As object lessons, Ranavalona’s soldiers routinely massacred the inhabitants of towns and settlements that were deemed disloyal.
Those spared from the mass executions were enslaved and brought back to the queen’s domain, to toil the rest of their lives away on her projects. Between 1820 to 1853, over a million slaves were seized, and the percentage of slaves rose to one-third of the population of Madagascar’s central highlands, and two-thirds of the population of Antananarivo, Ranavalona’s capital.
Between massacres, mistreatment, forced labor, and widespread famines resulting from Ranavalona’s scorched earth policies and heavy-handed repression, Madagascar’s population crashed. During just a six-year stretch from 1833 to 1839, the island’s population is estimated to have declined from 5 million to 2.5 million inhabitants. In Ranavalona’s own home district, the population took a nose dive from about 750,000 in 1829 to a mere 130,000 by 1842.
Those were genocide-level figures, comparable to the toll inflicted by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge upon the people of Cambodia a century later. Unlike Pol Pot, however, Ranavalona was not chased out of power. After a 33-year reign, she died in her sleep of natural causes, at age 83.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading