Serial Killer Non-Fiction
David Schmid, University at Buffalo
One of the curious things about non-fictional treatments of serial murder is that many of them appear avant la lettre. In other words, before the term “serial murder” was popularized by the F.B.I. in the 1970s and 1980s, many works on the subject were published that used a variety of names to describe what would later become known as serial murder. I will review these alternative names later, but first, if only for ease of comprehension, I want to divide earlier non-fiction works on serial murder into two groups: the sensational and the technical.
Early examples of sensational non-fiction about serial murder consist of breathless analyses of the notorious crimes of the day, analyses that appeared at white-hot speed in order to take advantage of the public’s fear and fascination.
Not surprisingly, a flurry of these publications accompanied the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888, including Samuel Hudson’s “Leather Apron”: or the Horrors of Whitechapel, London, 1888; The Whitechapel Murders, or the Mysteries of the East End, a bizarre combination of fictional detective story and reproduced inquest testimony, and The History of the Whitechapel Murders: A Full And Authentic Narrative Of The Above Murders, With Sketches, by Richard Kyle Fox, editor of the National Police Gazette. L. Perry Curtis has observed of the Victorians that “[h]owever upset they might be by the actual event [of murder], readers seemed to relish both the gruesome details of the crime and ‘the moment of truth’ when the jury returned the verdict of guilty and the judge imposed the familiar sentence of death by hanging” (83). In the Ripper case, the lack of an arrest denied the public the catharsis represented by the trial and sentence and so they had all the more reason to seek that catharsis by other means, and they turned to these non-fictional publications and many other forms of popular culture to do so. Short on analysis and long on fevered speculation, these pamphlets and books devoted themselves to exploiting the public’s fear and paranoia and achieved spectacular sales.
The fact that Hudson and Fox published their treatments of the Whitechapel murders in the United States testifies to the intense American fascination with the Ripper. As one might expect, therefore, when the first high profile American serial killer, H.H. Holmes, was arrested in Chicago in 1894, there was an outpouring of similar publications debating the meaning of this mysterious individual. Quite apart from the extensive newspaper coverage, books such as Robert L. Corbitt’s The Holmes Castle: The Only True Account Of The Greatest Criminal The Police Have Ever Handled, self-published in Chicago in 1895, promised an insider’s perspective on the case, complete with ‘exclusive’ information available nowhere else.
What is also interesting about the Holmes case is that many of its principals published tell-all books due to intense public interest. Frank Geyer, for example, the detective responsible for gathering much of the key information against Holmes, published The Holmes-Pitezel Case: A History of the Greatest Crime of the Century and of the Search for the Missing Pitezel Children in 1896. Even Holmes was able to negotiate a very lucrative contract for himself (as he was awaiting execution!), a contract that resulted in the appearance of Holmes’ Own Story. Holmes provided his readers with a detailed confession of his crimes, together with such outlandish claims as his conviction that he was coming to resemble Satan as the date for his execution approached.
A Successful Formula
When looking at these early examples of serial killer non-fiction, one notices several features that still characterize ‘sensational’ examples of the genre today: the promise of exclusive information about the case; the thin dividing line between fact and fiction; a tendency to (over)dramatize the facts of the case, and a love of illustrations, the gorier the better. These elements established a winning formula, as we can see by the fact that non-fiction books about the Ripper and Holmes cases have continued to appear at regular intervals ever since. The existence of the so-called ‘Ripper industry’ is well known (Patricia Cornwell’s Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closedis the most notorious recent example) but the fact that H.H. Holmes continues to merit attention suggests the enduring appeal of serial killer non-fiction. Although only true crime aficionados knew the Holmes case for most of the twentieth century (with David Franke’s 1975 study, The Torture Doctor, being one of the few books to break the silence), more recently a Holmes revival seems to be under way. This revival was inaugurated by Harold Schechter’s Depraved, published on the centenary of Holmes’s arrest in 1994 and part of an extremely popular series of books written by Schechter about famous American serial killers (including studies of Ed Gein and Jesse Pomeroy).
Since the publication of Depraved, interest in Holmes has taken a variety of forms, including numerous internet retellings of the case and H. H. Holmes: America’s First Serial Killer, a documentary by independent filmmaker John Borowski, for which Schechter serves as the main source of expertise. Most recently, Erik Larson’s best-selling book The Devil in the White City juxtaposes Holmes’ crimes and Daniel Burnham’s preparations for the World’s Fair, implying that their temporal coincidence suggests more profound thematic similarities between these events.
The more recent works on Holmes and Jack the Ripper retrospectively identify them as serial killers in order to reap the benefits of being associated with contemporary American culture’s most iconic deviant. As I mentioned earlier, however, early non-fictional texts on serial murder of necessity cannot use that term, and if we now review briefly the second type of early non-fiction on serial killers, the ‘technical’ works, we will see just what a dizzying array of terms was used.
One of the most enduring myths perpetuated in serial killer non-fiction is that the F.B.I. was responsible for coining the term ‘serial murder.’ Although the work of such former agents as John Douglas and Robert Ressler has certainly been influential (and I will discuss their contributions later), it is important not to neglect the work that preceded F.B.I. involvement. With that said, the evolution of the concept of “serial murder” is difficult to reconstruct with any degree of specificity. It is easier to present some symptomatic examples of the many concepts that were used at one time or another to describe acts that would come to define serial murder, and to show how those concepts were gradually and in a broadly (but not neatly) linear fashion displaced by the growing influence of the term “serial murder.” This process had barely begun at the time of the Whitechapel murders and the execution of H. H. Holmes, partly because of the extreme rarity of such crimes. In the early years of the twentieth century, however, evidence begins to emerge that, in Philip Jenkins’s words, “multiple homicide was first noted, defined, and studied in the U.S.A.” (“United” 378).
According to Philip Jenkins, in his study of serial murder in the United States between 1900 and 1940, the biggest influence on an emerging notion of multiple homicide were the crimes of Jack the Ripper. Although the influence may have taken a few years to become visible Jenkins notes that, “In 1903, theNew York Times reported a mutilation murder in terms suggesting that the word ‘Ripper’ was now being used in a generic sense” (“United” 384). Although the concept of “Ripper murders” occurs with great frequency over the next few decades, it is soon joined by a number of other concepts that all claim to describe the same behaviors, so that the field becomes quite crowded by the time the F.B.I. enters the fray.
In his 1928 study, Masters of Crime, Guy B.H. Logan uses the term “multiple murder” with reference to Jack the Ripper. Writing in 1929, L.C. Douthwaite titles his book on the subject Mass Murder and emphasizes how different the “mass murderer” is from “the average assassin” (v). According to Douthwaite, “There is no type of criminal so utterly impervious to the sufferings of others and so sensitive to his own as the genus mass murderer; it is one of his most marked, as it is one of his least understandable, characteristics” (222). By 1949, the psychiatrist Frederic Wertham is still using the term “mass murderer” to describe the most celebrated example of the type during that period, Albert Fish, who was executed at the age of sixty-six in 1936 for a series of child murders. Although “mass murder” would turn out to be probably the most popular and enduring way to describe such crimes until the advent of the term “serial murder,” it was by no means universally accepted. “Thrill murder” was a concept that had been around at least since the Leopold and Loeb case of 1924, while William F. Kessler and Paul B. Weston offer the terms “pattern murder” and “psycho murder” in their 1953 book, The Detection of Murder.
This terminological profusion starts to become a little clearer with the publication of Murder By Numbersby Grierson Dickson in 1956. Dickson is not only the first writer on the subject to acknowledge terminological difficulties in the field, but also the first to mention the concept of “series murder.” Having acknowledged the multitudinous ways of describing a group of murders, Dickson proposes an alternative form of classification:
“What we need is a simple rule-of-thumb division which must obviously be primarily based on quantity, so as to cover murderers who were successful for at least a time . . . Three quantitative divisions which cover the whole field in self-explanatory terms are single-murder, group-murder and series-murder. The last two are often bracketed together under some such loose term as multiple-murder, or, more popularly, mass-murder. But the divisions which should be bracketed together are clearly not the last two but the first two” (12).
Dickson then goes on to argue that, having described the field as a whole, we should “restrict our researches to series-murderers who, of all types of criminal, constitute the gravest menace to civilized society” (13). Dickson criticizes the tendency to include “series-murder” within the looser and more imprecise terms “multiple murder” or “mass murder” but ironically, given the subsequent influence of the concept of “series-murder,” Dickson finds that term equally inadequate: “We shall find it convenient to drop even our accurate but clumsy name of series-murderer, and to replace it by adding–with all due modesty–a new word to the English language: the word multicide” (13). Unfortunately for Dickson, the term “multicide” did not catch on, but neither did the term “series murder.” In fact, it is not for another eight years that a sustained treatment of series murder (now called by its modern name, serial murder) appears in John Brophy’s The Meaning of Murder.
First published in England in 1966, the American edition of The Meaning of Murder appeared in 1967 and contains a remarkably detailed discussion of serial murder that replicates in many ways what would become the dominant F.B.I. definition of the crime, but does so a full ten years before Bureau involvement began. Brophy begins by rejecting “mass murder” as a satisfactory way of describing a large number of murders committed over an extended period of time. “Serial murder” is a much more persuasive term, Brophy explains, because of what he describes as the “essential character” of the crime: “repetition at intervals of time” (166). Having resolved terminological difficulties to his satisfaction, Brophy goes on to install Jack the Ripper as “the most famous of all serial murderers” (189) and to distinguish serial murder committed for gain from serial murder motivated by psychopathy.
Because we have become so used to the idea that the F.B.I. invented and have practically exclusive ownership of the concept “serial murder,” it is surprising to find such a detailed and carefully articulated discussion of the crime a full decade before the F.B.I. started its work on the subject. Nevertheless, it is impossible to overstate the importance of the non-fiction produced by either current or former F.B.I. agents, and I now want to turn to that work.
The F.B.I. Moves In
The work published by F.B.I. agents demonstrates not only that the division between “sensational” and “technical” applies to late, as well as early, examples of serial killer non-fiction, but also how the two categories can overlap; at different stages of their careers, some F.B.I. agents have published both technical analyses of serial murder and sensational true crime exposés. One of the key figures here is Robert Ressler, who played a critical role in moving the Bureau from having no official interest in serial murder at all to becoming the preeminent source of expertise on the subject.
When Ressler began the Criminal Personality Research Project in 1979, he set in motion the systematic study of serial murder by the F.B.I., a study that culminated in the 1988 publication of Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives, a book Ressler co-authored with Ann Burgess and John Douglas, and which is easily the most influential example of “technical” serial killer non-fiction. Sexual Homicide cemented the Bureau’s reputation as experts on serial murder in political and public policy circles; as such, the book acquired for the F.B.I. significant amounts of funding and news spheres of influence.
When Ressler and his colleague Douglas left the F.B.I., they began new careers as best-selling authors; consequently their serial killer non-fiction takes on a decidedly sensationalist flavor. John Douglas has probably been most successful in establishing an autonomous professional identity for himself.
In a series of best-selling books (Mindhunter (1995); Journey Into Darkness (1997); Obsession (1998);The Anatomy of Motive (1999) The Cases That Haunt Us (2000) and Anyone You Want Me to Be (2004)), Douglas has relentlessly mythologized his F.B.I. career, portraying himself in inflated terms as almost the sole originator and champion of the Bureau’s psychologically-based attempts to fight violent crime in general and serial murder in particular.
Not content with mythologizing his Bureau career, Douglas has also attempted to extend his expertise by providing profiles of cases he was never involved in. Douglas chooses some of the most famous murders of the past to analyze, including not only Jack the Ripper but also Lizzie Borden, and even Othello’s murder of Desdemona! This tendency is most evident in Douglas’ 2000 book, The Cases That Haunt Us, where revisiting other cases and applying the Bureau methodologies Douglas developed is the premise of the entire book.
Robert Ressler’s post-Bureau career, detailed in his books, Whoever Fights Monsters, I Have Lived in the Monster, and Justice Is Served has followed a similar trajectory. Like Douglas, Ressler writes both of his F.B.I. career and about what he has done since leaving the Bureau. In Whoever, Ressler, like Douglas, tends to give himself the lion’s share of the credit for the F.B.I.’s development of psychological profiling (indeed, one of the most entertaining features of Douglas’ and Ressler’s work is their obvious intense dislike for each other), while in I Have Lived, Ressler discusses his post-Bureau career in terms very similar to Douglas, describing the consulting he has done in cases that have taken him all over the world.
The popular image of the magically effective F.B.I. profiler is a standard feature not only of books written by the agents themselves, but also of contemporary serial killer non-fiction in general. Whether it be in books written explicitly to praise the Bureau’s methods, such as H. Paul Jeffers’s Who Killed Precious?: How FBI special agents combine high technology and psychology to identify violent criminals, or in any number of generic true-crime titles, such as Dennis McDougal’s Angel of Darkness: The True Story of Randy Kraft and the Most Heinous Murder Spree of the Century, the vast majority of serial killer non-fiction parrots the F.B.I.’s party line on who commits serial murder, why, how often, and how serious a social problem it is.
It is highly significant, then, that nowhere is this veneration of the Bureau in particular and of law enforcement in general more prominent than in the work of the single most successful purveyor of serial killer non-fiction in the modern United States, herself a former law enforcement officer, Ann Rule.
Despite Rule’s utterly typical veneration of the law enforcement perspective on serial murder, I would be doing her a great disservice if I were to equate her work with the more generic sensationalist serial killer non-fiction with which we are constantly inundated. In fact, no contemporary writer in the genre exemplifies the complex inheritance of earlier forms of true crime better than Ann Rule, as we can see if we consider the way her work has been influenced by Truman Capote’s landmark 1965 book, In Cold Blood. Rule has stated that “I was very impressed by Capote’s In Cold Blood in 1964 [sic] and used to wish that I could someday, somehow, get into a killer’s mind and write about it” (“Letter”). Although Capote did not write about serial murder, In Cold Blood had a huge influence on Rule and many others thanks to his loud and oft-repeated claim that his study of the murder of the Clutter family in their farmhouse in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959 constituted a new genre: the non-fiction novel. This claim provoked heated debate among a wide range of critics and was largely responsible for the book’s huge sales and the enormous amount of publicity that surrounded its publication.
Capote’s claim is so important because it gets to the issue of where exactly serial killer fiction and non-fiction divide. To put it another way, how much fiction is there in the more dramatic and sensational examples of serial killer non-fiction? One way to answer this question is to look at the place of the author in the genre. To go back to Capote for a moment, he was adamant that the non-fiction novel required the author to be absent:
“My feeling is that for the non-fiction novel form to be entirely successful, the author should not appear in the work. Ideally. Once the author does appear, he has to appear throughout, all the way down the line, and the I-I-I intrudes when it really shouldn’t. I think the single most difficult thing in my book, technically, was to write it without ever appearing myself, and yet, at the same time, create total credibility.” (Plimpton 38)
Even though Capote spent nearly six years gathering information on, researching, and living with the case, he appears nowhere in the book and the word ‘I’ is never used. Capote’s ‘invisibility’ turned out to be the most controversial aspect of In Cold Blood and the most influential because such invisibility has now become a standard feature of serial killer non-fiction narratives, allowing writers such as Ann Rule an enormous amount of leeway in how she presents her facts. I am not suggesting that Ann Rule distorts the facts, but she is able to enhance those facts with passages that read like they come from popular fictional genres, such as the romance novel: “As 1981 arrived and the crowd whooped and whistled, Janis Miranda was already half in love. Inwardly she marveled at that; she was the woman who didn’t trust men. She had been bruised in the wars of love too many times. But this man was different. Somehow special. When Randy Roth asked if he might call her, she agreed enthusiastically” (Rose 10). Although Rule cannot possibly know the exact thoughts that went through Miranda’s head at this moment, her reader does not care; the incident and the way it is recounted ring true and that is what matters. These characteristic features of Rule’s style have made her wealthy and wildly successful, but her first book-length example of serial killer non-fiction is still the text that casts the greatest shadow on the genre. The publication of The Stranger Beside Me in 1980 took Rule’s career and the genre of serial killer non-fiction to a new level.
The subject of The Stranger Beside Me was a figure who would become, for many, the personification of serial murder: Ted Bundy. The success of Strangerwas a watershed for serial killer non-fiction in several ways. It established the fact that books about serial killers could be bestsellers. Although the market quickly became flooded by a tidal wave of books about famous and would-be-famous serial killers of the past and present, Rule’s book maintained its place at the head of the pack, having gone through thirty printings by 1994. In the process, Strangerwas instrumental in turning Ted Bundy into the world’s best-known serial killer, ensuring Bundy a definitional status in the pantheon of serial killers only rivaled by Jack the Ripper.
An even more significant consequence of Stranger‘s success is that Rule was able to parlay her reputation as a true crime writer into expert status as an authority on serial murder. Not only does Rule frequently conduct seminars for law enforcement personnel on the psychology of serial killers but she also testified, alongside members of the F.B.I., before a 1983 Senate committee that was instrumental in shaping the federal response to serial murder. No incident better exemplifies the way in which technical and sensational examples of serial killer non-fiction exist in a dialectical, mutually beneficial relationship that shows no signs of ending any time soon.
Copyright © 2005 David Schmid
NOTE: In writing this article, I have drawn from various sections of my book, Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture (Chicago 2005). I am grateful to the University of Chicago Press for their permission to reprint.
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Douglas, John, and Mark Olshaker. The Anatomy of Motive: The FBI’s Legendary Mindhunter Explores they Key to Understanding and Catching Violent Criminals . New York: Scribner, 1999.
—., and —. The Cases That Haunt Us . New York: Scribner, 2000.
—., and —. Journey Into Darkness: The FBI’s Premier Investigator Penetrates the Minds and Motives of the Most Terrifying Serial Killers . New York: Pocket Books,1997.
—., and —. Mindhunter: Inside The FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit . New York: Scribner, 1995.
—., and —. Obsession: The FBI’s Legendary Profiler Probes the Psyches of Killers, Rapists, and Stalkers and their Victims and Tells How To Fight Back . New York: Scribner, 1998.
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Kessler, William F., M.D., and Paul B. Weston. The Detection of Murder . New York: Greenberg Publishers, 1953.
Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America . New York: Crown Publishers, 2003.
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McDougal, Dennis. Angel of Darkness: The True Story of Randy Kraft and the Most Heinous Murder Spree of the Century . New York: Warner, 1991.
Plimpton, George. “The Story Behind a Nonfiction Novel.” New York Times Book Review 16 Jan. 1966: 2+.
Ressler, Robert K., Ann W. Burgess, and John E. Douglas. Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives . Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1988.
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—., and —. Justice Is Served . New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.
—., and —. Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI . New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
Rule, Ann. Letter to the author. 1 October, 1996.
—. A Rose For Her Grave and Other True Cases . New York: Pocket Books, 1993.
—. The Stranger Beside Me . New York: Signet Books, 1980.
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Schmid, David. Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
The Whitechapel Murders, or the Mysteries of the East End . London: G. Purkess, 1888.