Pre-Victorian Serial Killers?
May 18, 2009 4:03 PM   Subscribe

Are there records of famous serial killers before the 1700s?

We all know about Jack the Ripper and relatively recent characters, but why can't I find a book about serial killers before this time? Does this mean that the "serial killer" is a cultural phenom?

I am looking for good reading about pre-Victorian serial killers.
posted by ilovehistory to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Well, there's Elizabeth Báthory, but who knows how much of her story is fact and how much is fiction?
posted by mr_roboto at 4:09 PM on May 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Gilles de Rais.
posted by dilettante at 4:10 PM on May 18, 2009

Oh, yeah, de Rais. If you're interested in good reading, there's a story about him in by Jim Shepard in McSweeney's #27. It's called "Classical Scenes of Farewell."
posted by mr_roboto at 4:17 PM on May 18, 2009

This Wikipedia list has six (including the aforementioned de Rais and Báthory) before 1700.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:18 PM on May 18, 2009

Sawney Beane, if you believe.
posted by fire&wings at 4:34 PM on May 18, 2009

The infamous & possibly apocryphal Sawney Beane family who may have lived in a Scottish cave where they killed & ate as many as 1000 victims.
posted by scalefree at 4:36 PM on May 18, 2009

The Bloody Countess is a pretty good account of Báthory Erzsébet, although I think it was written in a kind of lofty French and translated into a somewhat lofty English. That fact didn't stop me from enjoying it, but I had trouble with some parts (but I am not a native English speaker, so it may not bother you in the slightest!) Some have complained that it doesn't have enough gore and goes into a lot of tangential Hungarian history and scenes of the non-murderous part of the Báthory's lifestyle . . . but frankly I liked that.

Most of her story is pretty well-documented and true, but her reasons for what she did are really the mystery - there was a rather 'poetic' belief (perpetuated in the book above) that she killed to bathe in the blood of her victims to stay young-looking, but many now believe that she was just kind of sado-masochistic and crazy.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 5:20 PM on May 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Part of the problem is that serial killer, as both a term and a concept, is modern -- so the stories of anonymous killers (i.e., people other than alledgedly bloodthirsty aristocrats like Gilles de Rais and Elizabeth Bathory) may not have been narrativized as serial killers as such, but rather as werewolf or vampire attacks.
posted by scody at 6:00 PM on May 18, 2009

If you're interested in pre-Victorian serial killers, you can include many more than 6 from the previously linked wikipedia list, as the Victorian era began with her coronation in 1837.
posted by QuakerMel at 6:54 PM on May 18, 2009

Check out Harold Schechter's 'The Serial Killer Files...' book.... A lot of it is redundant, but he does talk a bit about the concept of the pre-1800's 'Serial Killer,' and has several decent references listed throughout the book regarding such....
posted by peewinkle at 7:16 PM on May 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Burke and Hare were notorious though not sure if the financial motive fits with the modern notion of serial killer; they get an entry in the Newgate Calender; certain of the other famous cases that records might provide pointers but it was a record of wrong-doing of every kind rather than just murder most foul.
posted by Abiezer at 8:03 PM on May 18, 2009

I read recently that Hercules was responsible for killing the sociopathic offspring of some god or Titan- if you are looking for a starting point they might be interesting (I think I got that from Neal Stephenson's 'Cryptonomicin' where the name of father of the sociopathic human sons is mentioned- a war god I think, maybe a Titan).
posted by Gratishades at 4:32 AM on May 19, 2009

Dracula: Prince of Many Faces is a great biography of Vlad Tepes, including detailed stories from his contemporaries about his "human relations" methods.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:17 PM on May 19, 2009

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