Serial Killers: Then, Now, and Yet to Come
A crime writer interprets the history of serial murder, with a grim prediction.
Posted September 5, 2018
Peter Vronsky’s career in writing and teaching about serial killers began in 1977 when he got a room in the seedy Manhattan Travel Inn Motor Hotel, entered the elevator, and looked a serial killer in the eyes. Richard Cottingham had just murdered and mutilated two women and was on his way out. He carried a bag that Vronsky, 23, believed held the victims’ heads and hands. At the time, Vronsky had little idea of what a serial killer was.
“That encounter,” he says, “would forever shape how I would later write about serial killers.” Forty years later, he has formed an encompassing theory. To him, these offenders are “monstrous, misshapen reflections in a distorted mirror to human civilization.” They’ve always been part of us and they’re not going away.
The author of Times Square Torso Killer and Serial Killers: The Methods and Madness of Monsters, Vronsky now undertakes an ambitious exploration of serial murder in the context of history. In Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the Present , he applies his expertise as an investigative historian toward understanding the fluctuations in this type of violence during various historical periods. Although he’s written much of this in previous works, Sons of Cain shows a matured narrative grounded in years of study and a solid grasp of the subject.
“This book offers a new, updated macro-history of sexual serial killing and its investigation,” Vronsky writes. He believes this is where the most fundamental truth about serial murder lies: during primitive times, it was a survival mechanism and we’ve had to civilize ourselves away from it. There hasn’t been enough time yet to “undo the cerebral wiring of at least two hundred thousand years of dog-eat-dog, Four-Fs serial-killer behavior.” So, we’re primed for more.
It’s almost amusing how complex the concept of “serial killer” has become, and Vronsky lays out the reasons. The FBI has dramatically changed its definition from one that left out many cases to one that’s now too broad. Definitions from criminologists and psychologists also range widely. Vronsky prefers the “classic conception” of the sexual fantasy-driven killers. Uninterested in pirates, cannibal clans or status-seeking poisoners, he believes that the popular conception remains based in sexual fantasy.
Thus, the focus is largely on male offenders with certain proclivities. In that case, the earliest “unambiguous historical account” of the type of killer this book covers is found in a German pamphlet from 1589 that features “werewolf” Peter Stubbe. He was an ordinary citizen residing in the same community from which he chose his victims and he seemed compelled to murder by primal sexual impulses.
Other researchers may disagree. My own history of serial murder includes offenders that Vronsky never mentions, but his stated parameters provide a clear focus. This book is a history of the world meets the encyclopedia of serial killers. It’s an impressive feat with a wide variety of examples. At times, he presents speculative research as fact, such as a proposed perpetrator of the Villisca massacre, but he brings persuasive support to his main hypothesis about our more recent past: “a broken generation of men either raised or abandoned a dysfunctional generation of boys who would emerge as epidemic serial killers–the sons of Cain.”
Vronsky likes statistics, citing them from such sources as the Radford/FGCU Serial Killer Database, but the quality of stats derives from the quality of recording and analysis. Crime reports, ViCAP, and academic research will deliver better data for recent eras than what was acquired (or not) during times and in countries where reporting mechanisms are/were primitive or nonexistent. Pondering what might be left out of the written record, it’s difficult to accept definitive past/present comparisons.
Vronsky does use the data well to show the fraudulence in exaggerated numbers of killers and victims from speculative research, guesswork and fabrication for effect (and funding). He ably demonstrates the absurdity of these mythical claims, which still show up in criminology tests. Criminologists should read this section, at the very least.
Cutting back to the main narrative, we learn about medieval times, with supernatural overtones supplied by the Church, evolving into the age of 19th-century science. Jack the Ripper gets a chapter, without a guess as to this killer’s identity (“beyond the scope of this book”). As Vronsky moves into the 20th century, he describes several surges of serial killer activity, especially in the U.S.. This is where his work shines.
He connects the “golden age”–a significant increase in serial killers ­from 1950-2000–to the socio-cultural impact of soldiers returning from a ghastly world war to a complete lack of psychological support. They were primed for the wave of “true detective” magazines that became readily available during the 1950s in any drugstore. Depicting the brutalization of helpless women, these magazines provided fodder for the violent sexual fantasies of budding serial killers like Ted Bundy and Dennis Rader. “The widespread availability of these magazines," says Vronsky, “was a touchstone to a dark, reptilian fantasy subculture, the foundation to a serial-killing ecology.”
In places, he offers visually rich passages like this:
“As the 1950s dawned, the sick sons of sick fathers, along with some of the men who never went to war but remained home and fantasized about it, began to stir in the chemistry of their puberty. They fingered their knives and knotted ropes as they browsed the semen-sticky pages of their drugstore pulp magazines, with thousands of bound and prostrate women subjected to fantasy rape and torture.” This put them in a state of “mimetic compulsion,” in “harmony with the world of disorder and chaos that began descending on them in the mid-1960s.”
"Crime porn," as the magazines are often called, didn’t cause anyone to become a serial killer, but it certainly provided content for pubescent rehearsal fantasies.
Vronsky worries about what the new generation of warriors might bring home to their sons. “We may easily be facing another viral pandemic of serial killing.” That is, we’re seeing similar conditions that once fed the Golden Age, including a lack of care for soldiers, possibly setting us up for another spike. “We should not anticipate any long-term reduction in serial killing as this current generation of children mature toward that average age of twenty-eight when serial killers first kill.”
Yet within this dire prediction we can find a ray of hope: “We must care for the children today , before they come at us with knives.” This suggests that, with support for traumatized warriors and early intervention for their at-risk sons, we might at least minimize the coming scourge. Some projects today involving violent adolescents confirms this hope.
Vronsky, P. (2018). Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the present. New York, NY: Berkley.