Ripper, Butcher, or Killer Clown

What inspires a serial killer's "handle"?

Posted Jun 11, 2012

Recently in Germany, police arrested a man they believed was “The Darkroom Murderer.” He'd allegedly drugged and strangled three men, and is suspected in two other murders. One victim was given ecstasy in a dimly lit sex room, so that’s how this killer got his nickname. It had nothing to do with photography; it was all about his choice of a location that captured the attention of whoever first decided on his moniker. The other victims were killed in less interesting places.

In Russia, “Satan in a Skirt” was convicted of murdering 17 elderly women with a hammer. Reportedly, Irina Gaidamachuk pretended to be helpful while plotting to kill them for money, and she got away with it for seven years.

It’s usually a reporter or a member of the editorial staff at a tabloid who devises a name, mostly to link developing stories and increase readership. Females typically get softer names, such as “Angel of Death,” “Giggling Granny,” “Damsel of Death,” or “Jolly Jane.”

The most recognizable nickname, of course, is “Jack the Ripper,” and some accounts hold that he named himself in letters he sent, but experts believe that a reporter was just trying to drum up business. The name stuck, because the killer of at least five women in 1888 ripped them open with a knife.

Other killers were likewise named for their modus operandi. The “.44 Caliber Killer,” the “Hillside Stranglers,” and the “Acid Bath Murderer” all received names that described their preferred method of killing. The "Doorbell Killer" relied on a different part of the MO – the approach.

Along similar lines, we have names like the “Mad Biter” for a man who left bite marks on his victims, and the “Texas Eyeball Killer,” who skillfully removed his victims’ eyes after killing them. These behaviors were not part of the MO or method, but were rituals for the killers’ gratification. Similarly, the “Vampire of Sacramento” was drinking his victims' blood to, as he put it, prevent his own from turning to powder.

Some killers are named for their victim type, i.e., the “Co-ed Killer,” the “Brides in the Bath Killer,” the “Servant Girl Annihilator,” and the “Gay Slayer.”   

Sometimes the name derives from law enforcement. The FBI settled on “Unabomber” for Theodore Kaczynski, which was shorthand for the fact that he was sending bombs to universities and airlines. By some accounts, investigators called a mutilator of children in Manhattan during the 1970s "Charlie Chop-off." (Other accounts say the media named him and still others trace it to neighborhood children.)

A few killers boldly named themselves. They'd aspired to become serial killers, so they’d thought it out. “Zodiac” suggested his name in a creepy note to newspapers, as did Dennis Rader, who had pondered several possibilities before he settled on B.T.K., for “Bind Them, Torture Them, Kill Them.” David Berkowtiz signed his notes “The Son of Sam,” and when Keith Jesperson signed his enigmatic communications with a smiley face, he was dubbed the “Happy Face Killer.”

Joined with the MO is often a geographical location: The “Tacoma Axe Killer,” the “Beltway Sniper,” the “Sunset Strip Slayer,” and the “Tamiami Strangler” are cases in point. Sometimes the locations alone provide the name: The “Moors Murderers,” the “Long Island Serial Killer,” the “Green River Killer,” and the “I-5 Killer.”

We also find names that indicate motive, such as the “Thrill Killer” or “Lust Killer,” or names that compare a killer to a dangerous animal: “Black Panther,” “Gorilla Murderer,” and “Black Widow.” 

The “Lipstick Killer,” oddly enough, was named because of a note he wrote in lipstick at one murder scene, to the effect that he wanted to be caught before he killed again. He didn’t use lipstick for any part of the crimes, but his note will forever be associated with him. Similarly, the battering “Beer Can Killer” of Mumbai seemed to leave beer cans near his victims, and the “Red Spider” wrote notes to police in red ink that had a spidery appearance.

Rarely do killers get named for a time of day, but Coral Eugene Watts was called the “Sunday Morning Slasher” and Klaus Gosman was the “Midday Murderer.” Also rarely are killers named for odd quirks, but “Singing Strangler” Edward Joseph Leonski was so-named because he killed women to “get to their voices.” Alexander Pichushkin was called the “Chessboard Killer” because he hoped to kill 64 people, one for each square on a chessboard.

After they’re caught, there’s no real purpose in a moniker, but they get them, anyway, usually via the media: John Wayne Gacy, the “Killer Clown,” and “Candy Man” Dean Corll, who did make candy and often used it to lure street boys into his torture parties. Many past killers who received no handles during their lifetimes now have names to set them apart: the "Original Bluebeard" or the "Torture Doctor."

We have butchers, slayers, monsters, terminators, Bluebeards, axe men, and all manner of rippers and beasts. No serial killer, it seems, goes without a distinctive designation, and media outlets often try out names till one clicks. It’s probably inevitable that we’ll see “Name that Serial Killer” contests on some social network, if it’s not already there. There's just something about a suggestive nickname that draws our attention and makes us want to know more. 

More Posts