16 Famous Serial Killers Who Terrified the World
The true crime genre has never been more popular. Whether you want to read about it, watch it, or listen to it, there is a book, movie, TV series, or podcast for you to indulge in your love of true crime. There are many reasons why it is popular, but as a variety of studies have shown, the main reason is humans have a morbid curiosity about crime and violence. There is something about the dark side of humanity that piques our interest, which is why there are so much true crime-related media. Whether it’s a movie about a murder gone wrong or a podcast about the most famous serial killers, crime is a guaranteed seller.
We have previously looked at some of the deadliest serial killer couples, serial killers that were never caught, the best serial killer movies, and the must-listen-to true crime podcasts, so we thought we’d continue the theme with this look at some of the most famous serial killers of all time.
This list includes the worst of the worst; from Jack the Ripper, who terrorized London in 1988 to the attention-seeking Ted Bundy who is believed to have killed over 30 people and enjoyed rape and necrophilia. If that hasn’t put you off, then keep on reading and discover more about these nasty serial killers.
16 Famous Serial Killers Who Terrified the World
1. Richard Ramirez
Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker, went on a killing spree throughout California in the mid-oos. Suffering from a troubled childhood, Ramirez became interested in satanism and begin committing petty crimes to support his cocaine habit. Across a 14-month period, Ramirez broke into many homes and tortured and murdered the owners, before escaping with whatever valuables he could find.
For some reason, Ramirez occasionally let his victims live, which resulted in his downfall. His fingerprints were left at the scene of one break-in, and as he already had a rap sheet, police soon had a photo of Ramirez that was plastered all over the news.
Somehow Ramirez didn’t realize any of this, and on returning to Los Angeles after visiting his brother, discovered he was on the front of the newspaper. As people began recognizing him, Ramirez tried to flee but was eventually caught, beaten, and left for dead by the local Mexican community. Police found him and he was promptly arrested.
Ramirez was found guilty of thirteen counts of murder, five attempted murders, eleven sexual assaults, and fourteen burglaries in 1989. He was placed on death row and died from complications related to B-cell lymphoma in 2013.
2. Jeffrey Dahmer
Notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer continues to be one of the most talked about murderers in history. There are still movies and books being released about his exploits, which included murder, torture, necrophilia, and cannibalism. Dahmer committed his first murder at the age of 18, killing hitchhiker Steven Mark Hicks in 1978. This kicked off a long and terrifying murder career that lasted until 1991.
Dahmer often lured men and boys back to his apartment where he proceeded to have sex with them and then drug them before killing them. Dahmer’s crimes were horrific, with the chocolate factory worker often dismembering his victims, eating them, and keeping parts of their bodies inside his home.
He was eventually caught in 1991 after a potential victim managed to escape and alert the police. Dahmer confessed to his crimes and pleaded guilty but insane to 15 murders. He was found sane and sentenced to life imprisonment, but only lasted three years behind bars before being beaten to death by a fellow inmate in 1994.
3. The Zodiac Killer
What makes the Zodiac Killer such a danger is the fact that he is still on the loose. He has never been caught and remains free for some 50 years since his first murder. He is known to have murdered five people between December 1968 and October 1969 in the San Francisco area. He taunted police and the public with letters boasting about his crimes and also sent ciphers for them to crack.
He claimed to have killed 37 victims, but only five have officially been linked to him. Strangely, in 1974 he stopped communicating with police, leading many to believe he had died, moved somewhere else, or decided to stop killing. Whatever happened to him, the Zodiac Killer likely remains out in the world to this day, with an open case into his murders still ongoing.
4. Ted Bundy
Over a four-year period between 1974 and 1978, Theodore Robert Bundy, best known as Ted Bundy, murdered anywhere between 26 and 100 people. While most agree he likely murdered around 35 people, there is much speculation that his first murder actually occurred when he was a teenager.
Suffering a troubled childhood, the gifted Bundy first began targeting women around the Washington area. He murdered several college students but was forced to move on after kidnapping first Janice Ott and then Denise Naslund in front of witnesses who tipped off the police. Bundy made his way through Idaho, Utah, and Colorado, continuing his killing spree. Not only did he bludgeon or strangle his victims to death, but Bundy often kept their heads as souvenirs and had sex with their dead corpses multiple times.
He was arrested in 1975 but managed to escape and headed for Florida at the end of 1977. He went almost two years without committing murder but finally gave in to the urge, killing two women and assaulting two more in a college dormitory. His last victim was 12-year-old Kimberly Leach who he kidnapped, raped, and murdered. Bundy was pulled over by police not long after committing the crime who discovered the car he was driving was stolen and promptly arrested him.
Although assigned five lawyers by the court, Bundy insisted on representing himself. The well-publicized trial, the first to be screened live, ended with Bundy being found guilty of the murder of the two college students and sentenced to death. He was later also convicted of the murder of Leach and died by the electric chair in 1989.
Ted Bundy remains one of America’s most infamous serial killers whose charming personality and court antics turned him into somewhat of a celebrity until the dastardly deeds he committed were fully revealed to the public.
5. John Wayne Gacy
Construction worker and children’s clown, John Wayne Gacy raped, tortured, and killed 33 young men inside his home in suburban Chicago. He would often use magic as a way of enticing his victims into his home before carrying out his murders. Before his first killing, Gacy was found guilty of sodomy and served 18 months in prison, but this didn’t deter him from ramping up his crimes once he was free.
It wasn’t until the disappearance of Robert Priest that police became suspicious of Gacy. As the net tightened around him the pressure became too much and he confessed to his lawyer about the murders. Police were alerted and came to Gacy’s house with a search warrant, finding most of his victim’s decomposing bodies in the crawl space of his home.
Gacy was found guilty of 33 murders, along with counts of rape and torture, and sentenced to death. He was killed by lethal injection in 1994.
6. Harold Shipman
Unlike many serial killers whose crimes are bloody, Harold Shipman quietly went about his work by giving lethal injections of diamorphine to his victims. Shipman, a doctor, came under suspicion when a cab driver reported to police how many of the elderly patients he took to see Shipman never returned. A nurse also became suspicious of the high death count of Shipman’s patients, while the daughter of his last victim thought things weren’t right when she found out her mother had changed her will to leave all her money to Shipman.
Police investigated and soon had enough incriminating evidence to convict Shipman of 15 counts of murder, although it is believed he may have murdered over 250 people. He was given 15 life sentences for the murders in 2000 and became the only doctor in the history of British medicine to be found guilty of murdering his patients. Four years later he hung himself in his jail cell.
7. Aileen Wuornos
It’s not just men who are serial killers. Aileen Wuornos killed and robbed seven men over a period of one year. Molested and beaten as a child, Wuornos began trading sex for drugs, cigarettes, and food as a teenager. She soon turned to prostitution to support herself. The horrendous treatment she received from her johns eventually led Wuornos to murder seven of her clients.
When she was eventually caught and her case went to trial, Wuornos claimed the men had either raped her or attempted to rape her. This didn’t sway the court and she was sentenced to death. She received six death sentences (there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute her for one of the victims) and was executed by lethal injection on October 9, 2002.
8. Joseph James DeAngelo
The Golden State Killer went uncaught for 44 years before a book by true crime author Michelle Eileen McNamara entitled, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, helped lead to his arrest. After re-opening the case, DNA evidence proved without a shadow of a doubt that retired policeman Joseph James DeAngelo was the Golden State Killer.
Between 1974 and 1986 he went on three different crime sprees in California, committing 13 murders, 51 rapes, and 120 burglaries. He did all this while married with children and working as a policeman. DeAngelo would taunt his victim’s families and the police with phone calls and letters.
While standing trial DeAngelo claimed that an inner voice called “Jerry” forced him to do the killings before abruptly disappearing from his head in 1986 when the murders stopped. DeAngelo is now serving the remainder of his life in prison, finally being held accountable for the lives he ruined.
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9. Dennis Rader
The famous serial killer known as the BTK Killer murdered ten people between 1974 and 1991. Dennis Rader is another killer who had a traumatic childhood that shaped the man he became. He carried out his murders sporadically over a 17-year period and often took photos of his victims. Rader also sent letters describing his crimes and taunting the police and media until things went quiet in 1991.
Then, in 2004, Rader began sending letters again, leading to his arrest in 2015. He was planning on killing again, but police managed to capture him before he could take another victim. He was sentenced to ten consecutive life sentences and is currently in solitary confinement – for his own protection – where he will most likely remain until his death.
10. Ed Gein
American serial killer Ed Gein was found guilty of killing two women in his hometown of Plainfield, Wisconsin. If that’s not bad enough, Gein also dug up corpses from local graveyards and turned them into furniture, creating such things as a belt made from human nipples, bowls made from human skulls, and bed posts made from human bones. Nasty stuff.
Gein was found to be mentally incompetent in 1968 and sent to Mendota Mental Health Institute where he spent the remainder of his days. He eventually died of lung cancer at the age of 77 in 1984.
11. The Hillside Strangler
California is a mecca for famous serial killers. The Hillside Strangler is another example of this. While at first thought to be just one man, it turned out to be two killers who were working together. Cousins Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono Jr. team up to kill ten people by strangulation. At first targeting sex workers, they soon moved on to other women. But when the murders abruptly stopped, police were left baffled and had no leads.
That all changed when Bianch was arrested for the rape and murder of two young women in Washington. At first, trying to plead insanity, the police saw through his charade, so Bianch agreed to rat on his cousin and discuss their murders for a more lenient sentence. Both ended up receiving life sentences, with Bianch serving his in Washington State Penitentiary. Buono Jr. died of a heart attack while behind bars in California’s Calipatria State Prison.
12. David Berkowitz
Nicknamed the “Summer of Sam,” David Berkowitz terrorized New York during the summer of 1976. His weapon of choice was a .44 Special caliber Bulldog revolver, which he used to kill six people and wound a further nine. A troubled youth, Berkowitz is another serial killer who turned himself into a celebrity by leaving notes on his victims and writing letters to journalists.
Berkowitz was eventually tracked down after a woman reported him acting strangely in her neighborhood. He is famously to have said, “Well, you got me,” after police arrested him.
Berkowitz claimed that he had been ordered to carry out the killings by his neighbor’s dog, Sam, who was in fact a demon. This didn’t fly with prosecutors and he eventually pleaded guilty to the crimes and was sentenced to six consecutive life sentences. He is now an evangelical Christian and a guest of Shawangunk Correctional Facility in New York where he will most likely reside until his death.
13. Gary Ridgway
Famous American serial killer Gary Ridgway earned the nickname the Green River Killer after five of his 49 victims were found near the Green River in King County, Washington. Ridgway was a truck driver who began murdering sex workers and vulnerable women in 1982. Possessed with a high sex drive and a love/hate relationship with sex workers, Ridgway took out his fantasies on these women, killing them by strangulation. He would often return to the site where he dumped the bodies and have sexual intercourse with them.
Although he was arrested on suspicion of the early murders in 1983, Ridgway passed a polygraph test and was released. It was around the time he married Judith Mawson in 1988 that Ridgway’s killings became less frequent. He was finally caught in 2001 through DNA evidence. Ridgway confessed to murdering 71 women, but only 49 counts of murder were proven in court.
Ridgway is currently serving a life sentence at Washington State Penitentiary, the same prison where one of the Hillside Strangler’s is also incarcerated.
14. Albert DeSalvo
There is still much conjecture as to the validity of Albert DeSalvo’s claims of being the Boston Strangler. During the early 60s, 13 women were raped and murdered by an unknown assailant. Police had no leads but believed the killings were the work of more than one person. They caught a break when a man posing as a police detective entered a women’s home, tied her up, raped her, and then left, telling her “I’m sorry.”
Albert DeSalvo, picked up for the rape, wasn’t believed to have anything to do with the Boston Strangler killings until he began confessing to the murders. There were some inconsistencies in his confession and DeSalvo ended up only being charged with the previous rape charge he was initially arrested for. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, lasting six years before he was stabbed and killed in the prison yard.
While doubts still remain about whether DeSalvo was the Boston Strangler, DNA evidence revealed that he was a 99% match for the killing of the Strangler’s final victim.
15. Jack the Ripper
Over the course of a three-month period, one of the world’s most famous serial killers mutilated and murdered five sex workers in Whitechapel, London. The women’s throats were cut and their insides were scattered around the location of their deaths. The crimes shocked the public in 1888, and people, especially women, lived in fear of becoming the Ripper’s next victim.
Several letters were sent to the media said to be from the Ripper, but there was no proof of who wrote them. While there have been many suspects, nobody was ever convicted of the murders and even today, people aren’t sure who the killer was.
16. Ian Brady and Myra Hindley
This deadly duo bonded over their love of Nazi paraphernalia and the disturbed, eventually talking about what it would be like to actually murder someone. It didn’t take long for them to find out, with the two raping and murdering 16-year-old Pauline Reade in July of 1963. They left the body near Saddleworth Moor, earning their killings the nickname of the Moors Murders.
They killed a further four people before they got Brady’s 17-year-old brother-in-law David Smith involved. Helping dispose of a body, Smith couldn’t cope with the guilt and told the police. Brady and Hindley were arrested and found guilty of their crimes and sentenced to life imprisonment. Myra Hindley died in 2002 and Ian Brady died in 2017.
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