The Most Notorious Serial Killers in History

Although the term “serial killer” has only been around since the early 1970s, there have been serial killers documented back for hundreds of years. A serial homicide occurs in a number of separate events, which makes it different, both legally and psychologically, from mass murder.

According to Psychology Today:

“Serial killing involves multiple incidents of homicide—committed in separate events and crime scenes—where the perpetrator experiences an emotional cooling off period between murders. During the emotional cooling off period (which can last weeks, months, or even years) the killer returns to his/her seemingly normal life.”

Let’s look at some of the most notorious serial killers throughout the centuries­–keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive list, because there’s just no way to document every single case of serial murder throughout history.

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Elizabeth Bathory

Erszébet Báthory, Bloody Lady of Čachtice

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Born in 1560 in Hungary, Countess Elizabeth Bathory has been called “the most prolific female murderer” in history by the Guinness Book of World Records. It’s said that she murdered as many as 600 young servant girls, to bathe in their blood to keep her skin looking fresh and youthful. Scholars have debated this number, and there is no verifiable count of her victims.

Bathory was well educated, wealthy, and socially mobile. After her husband’s death in 1604, rumors of Elizabeth’s crimes against serving girls began to surface, and the Hungarian king sent György Thurzó in to investigate. From 1601-1611, Thurzó and his team of investigators collected testimony from nearly 300 witnesses. Bathory was accused of luring young peasant girls, most of whom were between ten and fourteen years old, to Čachtice Castle, near the Carpathian Mountains, under the pretense of employing them as servants. 

Instead, they were beaten, burned, tortured, and murdered. Several witnesses claimed that Bathory drained her victims of their blood so she could bathe in it, believing it would help keep her skin soft and supple, and a few hinted that she had engaged in cannibalism.

Thurzó went to Čachtice Castle and found a dead victim on the premises, as well as others, imprisoned and dying. He arrested Bathory, but because of her social standing, a trial would have caused a major scandal. Her family convinced Thurzó to let her live under house arrest in her castle, and she was walled into her rooms alone. She remained there in solitary confinement until her death four years later, in 1614. When she was buried in the local churchyard, the local villagers raised such a protest that her body was moved to the Bathory family estate where she was born. 

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Kenneth Bianchi

Hillside Strangler Kenneth Bianchi

Bettmann Archive / Getty Images 

Along with his cousin Antonio Buono, Kenneth Bianchi was one of the criminals known as The Hillside Strangler. In 1977, ten girls and women were raped and strangled to death in the hills overlooking Los Angeles, California. In the mid-seventies, Buono and Bianchi worked as pimps in L.A., and after a conflict with another pimp and prostitute, the two men kidnapped Yolanda Washington in October 1977. She is believed to have been their first victim. In subsequent months, they preyed upon nine more victims, ranging in age from twelve to nearly thirty years old. All were raped and tortured before being murdered.

Newspapers quickly latched onto the nickname “The Hillside Strangler,” implying that a single killer was at work. Law enforcement officials, however, believed from the start that there was more than one person involved.

In 1978, Bianchi moved to Washington State. Once there, he raped and murdered two women; police quickly linked him to the crimes. During questioning, they discovered similarities between these murders and those of the so-called Hillside Strangler. After police pressed Bianchi, he agreed to give full details of his activities with Buono, in exchange for a life sentence instead of the death penalty. Bianchi testified against his cousin, who was tried and convicted of nine murders. 

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Ted Bundy

Close up Portrait of Ted Bundy Waving

Bettmann Archive / Getty Images 

One of America’s most prolific serial killers, Ted Bundy confessed to the murder of thirty women, but the actual count of his victims is still unknown. In 1974, several young women vanished without a trace from areas around Washington and Oregon, while Bundy lived in Washington. Later that year, Bundy moved to Salt Lake City, and later that year, two Utah women disappeared. In January 1975, a Colorado woman was reported missing.

By this time, law enforcement authorities began to suspect they were dealing with one man committing crimes in multiple locations. Several women reported that they had been approached by a handsome man calling himself “Ted,” who often appeared to have a broken arm or leg, and asked for help with his old Volkswagen. Soon, a composite sketch began making the rounds in police departments throughout the west.

In 1975, Bundy was stopped for a traffic violation and the officer who pulled him over discovered handcuffs and other questionable items in his car. He was arrested on suspicion of burglary, and a woman who had escaped him the previous year identified him in a lineup as the man who tried to abduct her.

Bundy managed to escape from law enforcement twice; once while awaiting a pre-trial hearing in early 1977, and once in December of that same year. After his second escape, he made his way to Tallahassee and rented an apartment near the FSU campus under an assumed name. Just two weeks after his arrival in Florida, Bundy broke into a sorority house, murdering two women and severely beating two others. A month later, Bundy kidnapped and murdered a twelve-year-old girl. Just a few days later, he was arrested for driving a stolen car, and police were soon able to piece together the puzzle; the man in their custody was escaped murder suspect Ted Bundy.

With physical evidence tying him to the murder of the women in the sorority house, including a mold of bite marks left on one of the victims, Bundy was sent to trial. He was convicted of the sorority house murders, as well as the killing of the twelve-year-old girl, and given three death sentences. He was executed in January 1989.

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Andrei Chikatilo

Serial Killer Andrei Chikatilo

Sygma / Getty Images

Nicknamed the “Butcher of Rostov,” Andrei Chikatilo sexually assaulted, mutilated, and murdered at least fifty women and children in the former Soviet Union from 1978 to 1990. The majority of his crimes were committed in the Rostov Oblast, part of the Southern Federal District.

Chikatilo was born in 1936 in Ukraine, to impoverished parents who worked as farm laborers. The family rarely had enough to eat, and his father was conscripted into the Red Army when Russia joined World War II. By his teens, Chikatilo was an avid reader and a member of the Communist party. He was drafted into the Soviet Army in 1957 and served his mandatory two years of duty. 

According to reports, Chikatilo suffered from impotence beginning in puberty and was generally shy around women. However, he committed his known first sexual assault in 1973, while working as a teacher, when he approached a teenage student, fondled her breasts, and then ejaculating on her. In 1978, Chikatilo progressed to murder, when he kidnapped and attempted to rape a nine-year-old girl. Unable to maintain an erection, he strangled her and threw her body in a nearby river. Later, Chikatilo claimed that after this first killing, he was only able to achieve an orgasm by slashing and killing women and children.

Over the next several years, dozens of women and children­–of both sexes–were found sexually assaulted, mutilated, and murdered around the former Soviet Union and Ukraine. In 1990, Andrei Chikatilo was arrested after being questioned by a police officer that had a railway station under surveillance; the station was where several victims had been last seen alive. During questioning, Chikatilo was introduced to psychiatrist Alexandr Bukhanovsky, who had written a lengthy psychological profile of the then-unknown killer in 1985. After hearing extracts from Bukhanovsky’s profile, Chikatilo confessed. At his trial, he was sentenced to death, and in February 1994, was executed.

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Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann Cotton

the ledgeand / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Born Mary Ann Robson in 1832 in England, Mary Ann Cotton was convicted of murdering her stepson by poisoning him with arsenic and was suspected of killing three of her four husbands to collect their life insurance. It’s also possible that she killed eleven of her children.

Her first husband died of an “intestinal disorder,” while her second suffered from paralysis and intestinal problems before his death. Husband number three threw her out when he discovered she’d racked up a lot of bills that she couldn’t pay, but Cotton’s fourth husband died of a mysterious gastric malady.

During her four marriages, eleven of the thirteen children she bore died, as did her mother, all suffering from strange stomach pains before passing away. Her stepson by her last husband died as well, and a parish official became suspicious. The boy’s body was exhumed for examination, and Cotton was sent to jail, where she delivered her thirteenth child in January 1873. Two months later, her trial began, and the jury deliberated for just over an hour before returning a guilty verdict. Cotton was sentenced to execution by hanging, but there was a problem with the rope being too short, and she strangled to death instead.

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Luísa de Jesus

In eighteenth-century Portugal, Luísa de Jesus worked as a “baby farmer” taking in abandoned infants, or those of indigent mothers. De Jesus collected a fee, ostensibly to clothe and feed the children, but instead murdered them and pocketed the money. At age twenty-two, she was convicted of the deaths of 28 infants in her care and was executed in 1722. She was the last woman in Portugal to be put to death.

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Gilles de Rais

Illustration of Gilles De Rais Disposing of the Corpse of a Woman

Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images 

Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Lord of Rais, was accused of being a serial child killer in fifteenth-century France. Born in 1404, and a decorated soldier, de Rais fought beside Jeanne d’Arc during the Hundred Years’ War, but in 1432, he returned to his family estate. Heavily in debt by 1435, he left Orléans and went to Brittany; later he relocated to Machecoul.

There were increasing rumors that de Rais dabbled in the occult; in particular, he was suspected of experimenting with alchemy and trying to summon demons. Allegedly, when the demon didn’t show up, de Rais sacrificed a child around 1438, but in his later confession, he admitted that his first child killing took place around 1432.

Between 1432 and 1440, dozens of children went missing, and the remains of forty were found in Machecoul in 1437. Three years later, de Rais kidnapped a bishop during a dispute, and the subsequent investigation revealed that he, with the assistance of two men-servants, had been sexually abusing and murdering children for years. De Rais was sentenced to death and hanged in October 1440, and his body burned afterward. 

His exact number of victims is unclear, but estimates place it anywhere between 80 and 100. Some scholars believe that de Rais was not guilty of these crimes, but instead the victim of an ecclesiastical plot to seize his land. 

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Martin Dumollard

Martin Dumollard and Wife

By Pauquet, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Between 1855 and 1861, Martin Dumollard and his wife Marie lured at least six young women to their home in France, where they strangled them and buried their bodies in the yard. The two were arrested when a kidnapping victim escaped and took police to the Dumollard home. Martin was executed at the guillotine, and Marie was hanged. Although six of their victims were confirmed, there has been speculation that the number may have been much higher. There is also a theory that the Dumollards were engaging in vampirism and cannibalism, but these allegations are unsubstantiated by evidence.

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Luis Garavito

Luis Garavito

NaTaLiia0497 via Wikimedia Commons

Colombian serial killer Luis Garavito, La Bestia, or “The Beast,” was convicted of raping and murdering over a hundred boys during the 1990s. The oldest of seven children, Garavito’s childhood was a traumatic one, and he later told investigators his father and multiple neighbors had abused him.

Around 1992, young boys began vanishing in Colombia. Many were poor or orphaned, following years of civil war in the country, and often their disappearances went unreported. In 1997, a mass grave containing several dozen corpses was discovered, and police began investigating. Evidence found near two bodies in Genova led police to Garavito’s former girlfriend, who gave them a bag containing some of his belongings, including photos of young boys, and a journal detailing multiple murders.

Garavito was arrested shortly afterward during an abduction attempt and confessed to the murder of 140 children. He was sentenced to life in prison and could be released as early as 2021. His exact location is unknown to the public, and Garavito is kept isolated from other inmates because of fears that he will be killed if he is released into the general population. 

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Gesche Gottfried

Gesche Gottfried

Rudolf Friedrich Suhrlandt / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Born Gesche Margarethe Timm in 1785, Gesche Gottfried is believed to have suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, as a result of a childhood that was devoid of parental attention and left her starved for affection. Like many other female serial killers, poison was Gottfried’s preferred method of killing her victims, which included both of her parents, two husbands, and her children. She was such a dedicated nurse while they were ailing that neighbors referred to her as the “Angel of Bremen,” until the truth came out. Between 1813 and 1827, Gottfried killed fifteen men, women, and children with arsenic; all of her victims were friends or family members. She was arrested after a potential victim became suspicious about odd white flakes in the meal she had prepared for him. Gottfried was sentenced to death by beheading, and was executed in March 1828; hers was the last public execution in Bremen. 

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Francisco Guerrero

Francisco Guerrero

José Guadalupe Posada / Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Born in 1840, Francisco Guerrero Pérez was the first serial killer to be arrested in Mexico. He raped and killed at least twenty women, nearly all of them prostitutes, during an eight-year murder spree that paralleled that of Jack the Ripper in London. Born to a large and impoverished family, Guerrero moved to Mexico City as a young man. Although he was married, he often hired prostitutes and made no secret of it. He bragged about his killings, but neighbors lived in fear of him and never reported the crimes. He was arrested in 1908 and sentenced to death, but while awaiting execution, he died of a brain hemorrhage in Lecumberri prison.

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H.H. Holmes

H.H. Holmes
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Born in 1861 as Herman Webster Mudgett, H.H. Holmes was one of America’s first serial killers. Nicknamed the “Beast of Chicago,” Holmes lured his victims into his specially constructed home, which had secret rooms, trapdoors, and a kiln to burn bodies.

During the 1893 World’s Fair, Holmes opened up his three-story home like a hotel and was able to convince some young women to stay there by offering them employment. Although the exact count of Holmes’ victims is unclear, after his arrest in 1894, he confessed to the murder of 27 people. He was hanged in 1896 for the murder of a former business associate with whom he had concocted an insurance fraud scheme.

Holmes’ great-great-grandson, Jeff Mudgett, has appeared on the History Channel to explore the theory that Holmes was also operating in London as Jack the Ripper. 

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Lewis Hutchinson

The first known serial killer in Jamaica, Lewis Hutchinson was born in Scotland in 1733. When he immigrated to Jamaica to manage a large estate in the 1760s, it wasn’t long before travelers passing by started to vanish. Rumors spread that he lured people to his isolated castle in the hills, murdered them, and drank their blood. Enslaved people told tales of horrific mistreatment, but he wasn’t arrested until he shot a British soldier who was trying to apprehend him. He was found guilty and hanged in 1773, and although the exact number of victims isn’t known, it is estimated he killed at least forty.

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Jack the Ripper

A Street in Whitechapel: The Last Crime of Jack the Ripper
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

One of the most legendary serial killers of all time was Jack the Ripper, active in London’s Whitechapel neighborhood in 1888. His true identity remains a mystery, although theories have speculated on over a hundred potential suspects, ranging from a British painter to a member of the royal family. Although there are five slayings attributed to Jack the Ripper, there were six later victims that bore similarities in the method. However, there were inconsistencies in these killings that indicate they may have instead been the work of a copycat.

Although the Ripper was undoubtedly not the first serial killer, he was the first whose murders were covered by the media around the world. Because the victims were all prostitutes from the slums of London’s East End, the story drew attention to the horrific living conditions for immigrants, as well as the dangerous experience of impoverished women.

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Hélène Jégado

Helene Jegado

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

A French cook and housemaid, like many other female serial killers, Hélène Jégado used arsenic to poison her many victims. In 1833, seven members of the household in which she worked died, and because of the transient nature of nineteenth-century servitude, she moved around to other homes, where she found other victims. It is estimated Jégado was responsible for the deaths of three dozen people, including children. She was arrested in 1851, but because the statute of limitations had expired on most of her crimes, was only tried for three deaths. She was found guilty and executed at the guillotine in 1852.

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Edmund Kemper

Police Officers Escorting Edmund Kemper Into Court
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

American serial killer Edmund Kemper got an early start in his criminal career when he murdered his grandparents in 1962; he was fifteen years old at the time. Released from prison at 21, he kidnapped and murdered some young female hitchhikers before dismembering their bodies. It wasn’t until he murdered his mother and one of her friends that he turned himself into the police. Kemper is serving several consecutive life sentences in prison in California.

Edmund Kemper is one of five serial killers who served as the inspiration for the character of Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. In the 1970s, he participated in some interviews with the FBI, to help investigators better understand the pathology of the serial killer. He is portrayed with chilling accuracy in the Netflix series Mindhunter.

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Peter Niers

The German bandit and serial killer Peter Niers was part of an informal network of highwaymen who preyed upon travelers in the late 1500s. Although most of his compatriots stuck to robbery, Niers branched out into murder. Alleged to be a powerful sorcerer in league with the Devil, Niers was finally arrested after fifteen years of mayhem. When tortured, he confessed to the murder of over 500 victims. He was executed in 1581, being tortured throughout three days, and finally drawn and quartered.

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Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova

Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova

P.Kurdyumov, Ivan Sytin (the Great Reform) / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Like Elizabeth Bathory, Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova was a noblewoman who preyed upon servants. Powerfully connected to the Russian aristocracy, Saltykova’s crimes went largely ignored for years. She tortured and beat to death at least 100 serfs, the majority of whom were poor young women. After years of this, families of victims sent a petition to Empress Catherine, who launched an investigation. In 1762, Saltykova was arrested and held in prison for six years while authorities examined the records of her estate. They found numerous suspicious deaths, and she was eventually found guilty of 38 murders. Because Russia did not have the death penalty, she was sentenced to life imprisonment in the cellar of a convent. She died in 1801.

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Moses Sithole

South African serial killer Moses Sithole grew up in an orphanage and was first charged with rape as a teenager. He claimed that the seven years he spent in prison were what turned him into a murderer; Sithole said his thirty victims reminded him of the woman who had accused him of rape.

Because he moved around to different cities, Sithole was hard to catch. He was managing a shell charity, allegedly working towards fighting child abuse, and lured victims in with the offer of a job interview. Instead, he beat, raped, and murdered women before dumping their bodies in remote locations. In 1995, a witness placed him in the company of one of the victims, and investigators closed in. He was sentenced, in 1997, to fifty years for each of the 38 murders he committed, and remains incarcerated in Bloemfontein, South Africa.

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Jane Toppan

Portrait of Jane Toppan
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Born Honora Kelley, Jane Toppan was the daughter of Irish immigrants. After her mother’s death, her alcoholic and abusive father took his children to a Boston orphanage. One of Toppan’s sisters was admitted to an asylum, and another became a prostitute at a young age. At age ten, Toppan­–still known as Honora at the time–left the orphanage to go into indentured servitude for several years.

As an adult, Toppan trained to be a nurse at Cambridge Hospital. She experimented on her elderly patients with a variety of drug combinations, altering dosages to see what the results would be. Later in her career, she moved on to poisoning her victims. It is estimated that Toppan was responsible for more than thirty murders. In 1902, she was found by a court to be insane and was committed to a mental asylum.

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Robert Lee Yates

Active in Spokane, Washington, in the late 1990s, Robert Lee Yates targeted prostitutes as his victims. A decorated military veteran and former corrections officer, Yates solicited his victims for sex, and then shot and killed them. Police questioned Yates after a car matching the description of his Corvette was linked to one of the murdered women; he was arrested in April 2000 after a DNA match confirmed her blood was present in the vehicle. Yates has been convicted of seventeen counts of first-degree murder and is on death row in Washington, where he regularly files appeals.

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Wigington, Patti. "The Most Notorious Serial Killers in History." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Wigington, Patti. (2021, December 6). The Most Notorious Serial Killers in History. Retrieved from Wigington, Patti. "The Most Notorious Serial Killers in History." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).