A palm-reader told Leonarda Cianciulli that her children would all precede her in death – and most of them did. When her eldest son enlisted in Mussolini’s army, Cianciulli panicked. She decided that the only way to protect him was to give the dark gods another’s life. She picked a friend to kill, dismember, and boil into soap. The blood she baked into tea cakes. When this seemed to work, she picked another, and then another, until she was caught.

I was amazed when I saw the murder implements she had used, arranged on exhibit in a crime museum in Rome. But she’s just one of many serial killers who believed that murder would grant them special powers. (The full story of the Cianciulli murders is in Masters of True Crime.)

 Here’s a short list:

* Jeffrey Dahmer thought that building an altar from his victims’ preserved skulls and bones would give him a supernatural edge, socially and financially. He killed 17, but this provided no immunity from conviction or from the fellow inmate who killed him. 

* According to accomplice confessions, Robin Gecht inspired a group of young men in Chicago to murder women, remove their breasts, and use the flesh in an occult ritual.

* In Singapore, self-styled medium Adrian Lim sacrificed the children he had raped to the goddess Kali. 

* “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez left satanic pentagrams on some victims and forced others to swear allegiance to Satan. When arrested, he claimed to be a "minion" of the Dark One. 

* In Oklahoma City, Sean Sellers murdered a convenience store clerk as “practice” before killing his mother and stepfather. His schoolmates had voted him as the person most likely to become a vampire, because he carried the Satanic Bible. “Demons were the beings that would do things I wanted done,” he wrote in his confession. “They were the keys to the power Satanism promised.”

* Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo and Sara Maria Aldrete sacrificed an unknown number of people in Motamoros, Mexico, to magically thwart police investigations during their drug deals. The decapitated and mutilated bodies of 15 men and boys turned up in a mass grave.

* Of course, there are many accounts that identify Jack the Ripper as a man with supernatural connections – especially since he was never caught. During an era of flourishing secret societies, this is no surprise.

For example, I mentioned in an earlier blog that Ivor Edwards’ book, Jack the Ripper’s Black Magic Rituals, claims that “Jack” was Robert D’Onston Stephenson, a magician/surgeon and possible wife-killer with a clear sense of purpose, an understanding of geographical geometry, and the ability to move silently. Edwards claimed that drawing lines from one murder site to the next formed an occult pattern.

Australian Spiro Dimolianis offers a more objective study of this suspect, and of supernatural connections in general, in his Jack the Ripper and Black Magic: Victorian Conspiracy Theories, Secret Societies and the Supernatural Mystique of the Whitechapel Murders.

Aside from being an excellent overview of the work of the earliest Ripperologists, this book goes over many aspects of spiritualism and the occult during the Ripper era. As Dimolianis lays out the general zeitgeist, with plenty of reliance on psychics, mediums, and their ilk, he demonstrates how the Ripper’s spree easily gained the aura of the devil himself walking among them.

With this sense of setting come details about the various people who suspected Stephenson of the crimes – as well as serious questions about their credibility. Dimolianis combs through infamous occultist Aleister Crowley’s autobiography, which shows a dramatic rendering of Stephenson the magician/Ripper.

Supposedly Stephenson believed he could acquire the power of invisibility by sacrificing seven women in a star pattern. However, some of the "facts" of his life have been, well, let's just say created for narrative effect. 

Nevertheless, the idea of the Ripper’s occult connections fits well with killers today who believe that their crimes deserve a sacred status. None suffered from an overt delusional disorder, but each had developed a sense that exercising the ultimate power yielded secret knowledge and made them special. Ted Bundy called his dumping grounds his church.

Throw malignant narcissism into this mix and they become high priests (in their own minds) of a ritual that taps the raw energy available along the boundary between life to death. Some believe that no one stands closer, save the victims, to this liminal experience. Therefore, murder gives them privileged access to a rich quantum field, which bestows on them the aura of dark magic.

Within this highly motivating frame of faith, such killers think that those who were caught just weren't as skilled as those who got away.

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