Serial Killers Who Suffered From Mental Illness
There is a common misconception that serial killers must all be severely mentally ill, but this is not always the case. Most do exhibit a degree of traits that are considered psychopathic on some level. These are not considered to be mental illnesses according the American Psychiatric Association.
It is unusual for serial killers to be considered insane to the point that they cannot be judged by the criminal justice system. Being legally insane means that an individual would be unable to understand that he is behaving against the law at the point of action – i.e. they are not aware that murder is legally wrong while killing someone. It is very rare for a serial killer to be found legally insane. There are many disturbing psychopathic traits which are quite common in serial killers, and we will analyze these here.
1. Ed Geins
Edward Theodore “Ed” Gein
(Born August 1906 – Died July 1984)
Ed Gein’s crimes were stranger than fiction, and it is no surprise that he inspired some of the most terrifying fictional murderers, including Leatherface of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Buffalo Bill of The Silence of The Lambs and Norman Bates of Psycho.
Crimes: Gein confessed to killing two women, and exhuming recently buried corpses to steal body parts. Police found many artifacts fashioned from human remains in his home, including bowls made from human skulls, a corset made from a female torso, chair seats covered with human skin, a lampshade made with a human face and a belt made from human nipples. It is reported that he was attempting to create a woman suit that he could wear.
In 1957, Gein was found to be mentally incompetent and unfit for trial and was sent to a maximum security facility in Wisconsin, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. In 1968 he was considered sane enough to stand trial, and was found guilty of first degree murder, for one of the women that he admitted to killing. He spent the rest of his life in a mental institution, where he died of lung cancer, aged 77.
2. Jeffrey Dahmer
Jeffrey Lionel Dahmer
(Born May 1960 – Died November 1994)
Dahmer was known to have a substance use disorder, and had a history of substance dependance and abuse from his young teens. He exhibited a number of paraphillic tendencies, including an obsession with the male chest, exhibitionism, hebephila (sexual interest in pubescent individuals), agalmatophilia (sexual attraction to a mannequin/doll) and ultimately erotophonophilia (lust murder). Dahmer committed the rape, murder and dismemberment of 17 men and boys. His first murder was committed when he was just 18 years old. Necrophilia, cannibalism and preservation of skeletal body parts were also a feature of many of his later murders.
He was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, although was considered fit to stand trial. He was sentenced to sixteen terms of life imprisonment. He was placed in solitary confinement for the first year of his sentence due to concerns for his safety. He was actually beaten to death by a fellow inmate aged 34.
3. Richard Chase
Richard Trenton Chase
(Born May 1950 – Died December 1980)
Richard Chase exhibited sociopathic behavior from a young age. By ten years old he had exhibited all 3 traits if the MacDonald triad – enjoyment in being cruel to animals, fire setting and involuntary bedwetting after the age of five. He went on to suffer from substance abuse disorder, abusing alcohol, marijuana and LSD.
He was involuntarily committed to a mental institution in 1975 after injecting rabbit’s blood into his veins, and while there was found to have been drinking the blood of birds and syringing blood from a therapy dog. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but was released into society after it was felt that his condition had been controlled by medication.
He was weaned off of the drugs by his mother, who organized him his own apartment.
Then in 1977 Chase went on a month long rampage in Sacramento, California. Killing six people (including 6 year old and 2 year old boys), drinking their blood and cannibalising their remains. This earned him the nickname “The Vampire of Sacramento”.
He was found guilty of six counts of first degree murder and faced the death penalty. He escaped the gas chamber due to his mental illness, but committed suicide in prison with a fatal overdose of antidepressants which he had been secretly saving.
4. David Berkowitz
Richard David Falco
(Born June 1953)
Berkowitz (also known as the Son of Sam) was convicted of a series of shootings that took place in New York between 1976 and 1977, killing six people and wounding seven more. He victims tended to be females with long wavy brown hair. Following his arrest he claimed to have been instructed to commit crimes by his neighbor (Sam)’s dog, who Berkowitz believed to be a demon. He later claimed that the shootings were ritual killings, ordered by a satanic cult of which he was a member.
He wrote a number of taunting letters to the police during his man hunt, apparently enjoying the attention. This led to a profile that included schizophrenia. He is currently serving his sentence in the Sullivan Correctional Centre in New York and had become a born-again Christian. Berkowitz was last considered for parole in 2014, and was denied.
5. Aileen Wuornos
Aileen Carol Wuornos
(Born February 1956 – Died October 2002)
Wuornos was found guilty of killing seven men in Florida from 1989 to 1990. She claimed that each of her victims had raped, or attempted to rape her, and were therefore committed in self defense. Wuornos, who inspired the 2003 movie ‘Monster’ had been working as a prostitute at the time of the shootings. She was known to have suffered from substance use disorder from a young age and is thought to have been the victim of sexual abuse by her grandfather.
She was assessed using the psychopathy checklist, scoring 32/40. One psychologist diagnosed her with borderline personality disorder, but a panel of three psychiatrists found her to be mentally competent. Wuornos was held in the Florida Department of Corrections BCI death row for women. She was executed by lethal injection after pushing for her appeals to be stopped.
6. Robert Hansen
Robert Christian Hansen
(Born February 1939 – Died August 2014)
Hansen, also known as the “Butcher Baker” terrorized Alaska, where he raped and murdered at least 17 women. Some estimates say that this number should actually be more than 30. His killing spree spanned more than a decade, from 1971 to 1983.
As a boy Hansen was teased due to a severe stammer and acne, which is said to have led to a slow harboring hatred of girls, who shunned and bullied him. After 2 marriages and a series of run-ins with the law for petty crimes he was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1977, although there was no legal order for him to take medication.
Eventually Hansen’s true crimes were discovered as a victim escaped his clutches and bodies began to be uncovered. Many of his victims bodies have never been recovered. He was only ever officially convicted with the murder of four women, as part of a plea bargain, in exchange for details regarding other victims and the whereabouts of their remains.
Hansen was sentenced to 461 years plus a life sentence, with no chance of parole. He died in prison, aged 75, due to undisclosed health conditions.
7. Albert Fish
Hamilton Howard “Albert” Fish
(Born May 1870 – Died January 1936)
Fish came to be known as the Werewolf of Wysteria, and claimed he ‘had children in every state’. His family history brings up a wide array of mental illness, with both of his siblings incarnated in mental institutions.
Fish is thought to have molested and raped children, mainly young boys from the age of 20 and gradually progressed to torturing a male lover, mutilating his genitals. He also practiced self harming, lodging needles into his abdomen and groin. By 1919 Fish began to harm children. He claimed that he was directed by God to torture and murder children using his chosen “instruments of hell.”
He was eventually arrested after a final victim, aged 10, was murdered, and investigations led to evidence of two previous murders and he was convicted of these three. Fish himself claimed that he had raped, killed and cannibalised hundreds of children. He pleaded insanity, and psychiatrists confirmed that he possessed so many sexual abnormalities that he was described as a ‘psychiatric phenomenon’.
It was argued in court that Fish was sane, and that his many perversions were not evidence of psychosis. The jurors apparently felt that Fish was undoubtedly insane, but felt he should be executed anyway, so he was ruled to be sane and guilty. He was executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing.
8. Ted Bundy
Theodore Robert Bundy
(Born November 1946 – Died January 1989)
The final victim count of Ted Bundy remains unknown, although is suspected to be more than 30. He assaulted and killed many young women and girls during the 1970s. Bundy was generally regarded as a handsome charmer and had been well liked. He frequently used his charisma to win the trust of his victims, before kidnapping, raping and murdering them. He was also known to sometimes groom their decomposing corpses, also engaging in necrophilia and occasionally decapitating them to temporarily stash their heads as a keepsake.
Once he had been apprehended and incarcerated for a single count of kidnap and criminal assault, it became clear that Bundy was responsible for a long list of unsolved homicide cases. Following a dramatic chain of events, including two escapes and a further three murders, Bundy was sentenced to three death sentences. He was executed in the electric chair in 1989, despite being diagnosed as a sadistic sociopath. An initial diagnosis claimed that Bundy had a bipolar disorder, but this was changed frequently by further psychiatrists. Narcissistic personality disorder was also suspected, as well as antisocial personality disorder. He scored 39/40 of the psychopathy test, and was described as ‘the very definition of heartless evil’ by a member of his defense team.
9. Rodney Alcala
Rodrigo Jacques Alcala Buquor
(Born August 1943)
Rodney’s actual victim count is unknown, but he is a convicted rapist and serial killer. Estimates range between 50 and 130 victims. It is known that he treated his victims like toys, torturing them until they lost consciousness and then strangling them once they came to. He also photographed his prey in sexually explicit poses. Many pictures that were recovered from Rodney’s home are of women whose bodies have never been recovered.
In the height of his reign of terror, Alcalca appeared on a popular TV show, ‘The Dating Game,’ and has been dubbed ‘The Dating Game Killer’ as a result.
Alcalca’s mental health came under scrutiny while he was a part of the US Army. He was discharged from the force after 4 years on medical grounds, after being diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder. During his murder trials it was suggested that he also suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Borderline Personality Disorder.
10. Velma Barfield
Velma Margie Barfield
(Born October 29, 1932 – Died November 2, 1984)
Velma was the first woman to be executed by lethal injection. Born into an abusive family in California, she was convicted of one murder and eventually confessed to six killings. It is reported that Barfield’s behavior changed after she had a hysterectomy and developed a dependance on pain medication.
She poisoned two husbands and her mother amongst others, and was only found out when an autopsy on her boyfriend discovered traces of arsenic in his body.
Barfield was incarcerated in a prison area designed for mentally ill patients, as there was no designated space to keep female death row inmates. She was considered to be suffering with Borderline Personality Disorder.
It is believed that Barfield’s final meal request was a bag of Cheez Doodles and a bottle of coca-cola.
11. Joseph Taborsky
Joseph “Mad Dog” Taborsky
(Born March 23, 1924 – Died May 17, 1960)
Taborsky is infamous for a string of murders known as the ‘Mad Dog Killings’. The events, which included violent robberies and savage beatings took place in the 1950s.
Taborsky was sent to death row twice, for two different crimes – the only convict in Connecticut ever in that situation. He escaped the first time round because he was considered to be mentally unstable, and was moved to a mental institution. Less than two years later he was again sentenced to die after the Mad Dog Killings. He was executed in Connecticut aged 36 in the electric chair.
12. Nannie Doss
(Born November 4, 1905 – Died June 2, 1965)
Doss was born in Alabama, as one of five children born into an unhappy household. Aged around seven she suffered a severe knock on her head, which caused painful migraines, depression, and she claims, the mental instability which was partly to blame for her actions.
She was married five times, and over the period of 34 years she divorced one and killed 4 of them. She also murdered her mother, her sister, her grandson, and her mother-in-law Lanning. Her favorite weapon was arsenic, and she was finally caught after greedily poisoning her last husband in a rush to cash in life insurance policies.
Doss was only convicted of this final killing and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1955. She died in prison ten years later of leukemia.
13. Robert Lee Yates
(Born May 27, 1952)
This serial killer from Washington murdered at least 13 female prostitutes working on “Skid Row” in Spokane. He was raised in a religious, privileged family and joined the US army in 1977 and was awarded medals for his service, before leaving in 1996.
The killings took place over the course of 2 years from 1996 to 1998. Yates picked up his victims from the same spot, then he would have sex with them before shooting them in the head and dumping their body in a remote area.
His final victim escaped, despite being shot and assaulted. The police were able to gather DNA from her, and managed to capture Yates through a random stop and test, which he initially tried to resist.
Yates was sentenced to 408 years in prison, and an application to send him to death row is pending, awaiting the outcome of a petition which argues that he suffers with a severe paraphilic disorder. This is not classified as a mental health disorder in the DSM, and is unlikely to prevent the death sentence being carried out.
14. Carl Eugene Watts
Carl Eugene Watts
(Born November 7, 1953 – September 21, 2007)
Watts began to display worrying behavior from a young age. By 12 years old he was experiencing fantasies of torturing and killing young girls. A bout of meningitis caused him to fall behind in school and he became a victim of bullying.
His first arrest was in 1969 when he sexually assaulted a 26 year ild woman. He was assessed by a psychiatric unit and found to be slightly ‘mentally retarded’ with delusional thoughts.
Watts was expelled from college for stalking and assaulting girls, before, aged 20 he kidnapped and tortured his first victim. His killing spree lasted 8 years, and he brutally murdered many women across various jurisdictions and states, which slowed down progress on tracking him down. The fact that Watts did not commit sexual acts on his victims meant that DNA profiling was difficult.
He was eventually caught in 1982 after a failed attempt to break into the home of two women. Watts has since suggested that he had somewhere in the region of 80 victims. He was diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder, although that was not enough to spare him from a prison sentence. Watts was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole in September 2007, and he died of prostate cancer 8 days later.