33 Famous Serial Killers Whose Crimes Shocked The World
By All That's Interesting | Edited By John Kuroski
Published October 4, 2021
Updated September 27, 2022
From the unhinged crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer to the sickening murders of Jack the Ripper, read about some of the worst serial killers in human history.
If cop shows and forensic dramas have taught us one thing, it’s that serial killers are a breed apart from other human beings. They’re the monsters that hide in the shadows, the diabolical predators lurking among normal people.
But what exactly are such monsters capable of? Discover the list of the most infamous and prolific serial killers of all time and learn the full stories behind the grisly crimes they committed in the gallery above.
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H. H. Holmes
One of the first recorded serial killers, in 1893, H. H. Holmes opened a hotel of horrors in Chicago which he designed for the sole purpose of carrying out the most heinous of murders. Locals called the place "The Castle" due to its immaculate appearance.
Torture rooms —including one that expelled poisonous gas — filled the Castle to the brim. Holmes would invite people into these rooms and then kill them in a variety of horrific ways.
Holmes eventually left Chicago for Texas, where he planned to open a similar death hotel. These plans quickly fell through, though, and so he wandered across the U.S. and Canada. Police originally arrested him in Missouri on charges of selling mortgaged goods but after some investigation found out the true depth of his crimes.
Police were able to confirm nine murders but believed that Holmes may have killed up to 200 people over the course of his life, a number they based on missing people reports during the time of his criminal activity. U.S. authorities hanged Holmes in 1896 at Moyamensing Prison. Wikimedia Commons
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Between 1926 and 1927, Earle Nelson managed to kill more than 22 people across America. The prolific murderer would often prey on unsuspecting landladies after pretending that he wanted to rent a room in their home.
The cops finally arrested Nelson in June 1927 in Canada, where he had murdered his last two victims. The husband of Emily Patterson, one of his last victims, found his wife's body under their bed. This prompted the investigation that soon led to Nelson's arrest. Canadian authorities quickly sentenced him to death and hanged him the following January. Wikimedia Commons
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With a murder total somewhere between 49 and 60 people, the Chessboard Killer (born Alexander Pichushkin) is one of Russia's most notorious serial killers. He would often use the promise of free vodka to lure people to his home, where he would drink with them before murdering them.
In 2006, Alexander murdered his final victim, Marina Moskalyova. On watching subway footage, police identified Pichushkin as Moskalyova's escort and used this as evidence that would lead to his arrest and final conviction. Pichushkin is now serving life in prison.Wikimedia Commons
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John Wayne Gacy
Known as the Killer Clown, John Wayne Gacy dressed up as Pogo the Clown for community events near his home in Cook County, Illinois. Between the years of 1972 and 1978, Gacy was responsible for the deaths of at least 33 young boys, all of whom he buried in the walls and basement of his home.
It was only when 15-year-old Robert Jerome Piest went missing that the police began to suspect Gacy, as he had seen the boy just before his disappearance. Authorities began interviewing people in connection with Gacy and ultimately searched his home, where they found the remains of his victims. Once the police had arrested him, Gacy reportedly said, “The only thing they can get me for is running a funeral parlor without a license.”
After sitting on death row for 14 years, he was finally executed by lethal injection in 1994. Wikimedia Commons
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John George Haigh
In the early 1940s, John George Haigh rented a small workshop in Sussex, England. In it solely for the money, he lured wealthy people back to the space, where he would subsequently shoot them in the head.
What happened next was a lot more grim: Haigh would dispose of the bodies by soaking them in acid, which disintegrated them.
Haigh's murder of Olive Durand-Deacon would signal the end of the "Acid Killer's" run. Durand-Deacon's friend reported her missing shortly after the murder, and the police began to investigate Haigh. While searching his workshop, they found human gallstones and a small part of some dentures. Authorities arrested Haigh, and soon he went on trial for murder.
In an apparent attempt to avoid the death penalty, Haigh decided to plead insanity, claiming that he also drank the blood of his victims.
The insanity plea didn't work, and the judge sentenced Haigh to death. On August 19, 1949, authorities hanged him at Wandsworth Prison.Wikimedia Commons
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Known simply as the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez haunted the streets of Los Angeles during the 1980s. Over the course of a little more than a year, he broke into several area homes and killed 13 people.
Ramirez's prior criminal record for lesser crimes would ultimately do him in. One witness identified an orange Toyota that Ramirez drove while fleeing a crime scene, and the license plate number led police to his file, which prompted a manhunt. Suddenly, his face appeared on the front page of every newspaper in the area. Ramirez attempted to flee, but a group of locals apprehended him, holding him captive until police arrived.
A judge called his crimes acts of "cruelty, callousness, and viciousness beyond any human understanding" and sentenced Ramirez to 13 death penalties. Ramirez would not see a single one: the serial killer died while waiting on death row in 2013.Wikimedia Commons
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Although the courts convicted him on six or more counts of murder, it's unclear whether Ottis Toole was actually a serial killer. Along with his accomplice and lover, Henry Lee Lucas, Toole claimed responsibility for many deaths throughout the 1970s and 1980s in Jacksonville, Florida.
In the end, however, police definitively attributed just one murder to Toole, that of six-year-old Adam Walsh, whom he admitted to decapitating. In 1996, Toole died in prison of cirrhosis.Wikimedia Commons
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Perhaps one of the most famous serial killers of our time, Ted Bundy committed his crimes throughout the 1970s in various states, including Washington, Idaho, and Utah. An attractive man, Bundy lured women to isolated areas where he would kill them, often by decapitating them. Occasionally, he would return to the bodies and perform sexual acts upon them.
Officers first caught Bundy in 1975 in Florida, but he somehow managed to escape and commit more crimes over the following three years. In 1978, the police captured Bundy for the second time and a court sentenced him to three death penalties. He died in the electric chair in 1989.Wikimedia Commons
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Signs of Gary Ridgway's murderous future appeared early on in life. At age 16, Ridgway committed his first attack when he lured a six-year-old boy into the woods and stabbed him through the ribs. According to the statements he gave in court, Ridgway later killed so many women — many of whom were prostitutes and runaways — that he simply lost count.
Gary Ridgway, known as the Green River killer, carried out the killings in Seattle, and though he has confessed to a great number of them, it's not clear how many he actually killed. Today, he's still alive and serving a life sentence in Florence, Colorado.Wikimedia Commons
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Albert Fish had many nicknames, including the Werewolf of Wysteria and the Moon Maniac, but none of them truly convey the horror of his crimes.
During the 1920s and 1930s, police believed Fish had killed up to nine people in New York, although he only confessed to three. In 1928, Fish slipped up after killing ten-year-old Grace Budd. He'd abducted the girl, telling his parents that he was taking her to a party. He later sent the girl's mother an anonymous letter in which he claimed to have strangled and then eaten the child.
The paper on which Fish wrote the letter led the police to him. In 1935, a judge sentenced him to death by electric chair. Wikimedia Commons
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By some accounts the most prolific female serial killer in history, Elizabeth Bathory was a Hungarian countess with a lust for blood.
Between 1585 and 1609, accounts allege that she enlisted the help of four accomplices to torture and kill young women and children for her pleasure. Rumors of her crimes started to sweep through high society, and it was her guardian György Thurzó who finally arrested Bathory after reportedly finding one dead girl and another dying on the grounds.
Since her family was so very well-to-do, Bathory never had to face a trial, but she was imprisoned in 1609. She died of natural causes five years later. Wikimedia Commons
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Albert DeSalvo, The Boston Strangler, made headlines in the 1960s for a series of rapes and murders that made him one of the most infamous serial killers of the era.
Police caught him in 1964, and DeSalvo confessed to killing 13 women. Shortly after the authorities transferred him to a high-security prison, they found him stabbed to death in 1973. No one was ever convicted of his murder.Wikimedia Commons
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Between 1983 and 1985, Charles Ng (along with his partner in crime, Leonard Lake) tortured and killed up to 25 people at Lake's California cabin, which included a custom-built dungeon where many of the killings took place. The duo's victims included friends, neighbors, family members, and some unfortunate strangers.
"You can cry and stuff, like the rest of them, but it won't do any good. We are pretty -- ha, ha -- cold-hearted, so to speak," says Ng in one of the two videotapes showing the torture and murder of their victims.
However, it wasn't Ng's killings that led police to him, but his shoplifting. In 1985, Ng tried to steal a vice from a San Francisco store. The store owner called the cops after Ng had left, and when Lake returned to supposedly pay off the debt, the police were suspicious of him since he did not match his ID. In fact, the man on the identity card was Robin Stapley, who was missing at the time. This prompted the police to search the cabin, where they found evidence of the murders, including records and tapes.
Ng fled to Canada, where police there arrested him for yet another theft incident. They then sent him back to California, where authorities tried him for murder. The 55 year old is currently awaiting the death penalty.Wikimedia Commons
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Luis Garavito, a Colombian serial killer all too fittingly known as The Beast, confessed to raping, torturing, and murdering 147 impoverished boys throughout the country. When police arrested Garavito in 1999, they charged him with 170 counts of murder, and some suspect that his true tally may reach above 300.
Despite the gravity of his crimes, he received just a 22-year sentence, as Colombian law only allowed up to a 30-year sentence for any crime. Likewise, since Garavito helped the police find some of his victims' bodies, his overall sentence was reduced. Garavito is currently in prison, carrying out that sentence. Wikimedia Commons
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The Butcher of Hanover (AKA Fritz Haarmann) killed at least 24 young boys in Germany between 1918 and 1924.
Two undercover police officers finally apprehended Haarmann when he was arguing at a train station with teenager Karl Fromm, whom Haarmann had previously raped. Soon after, Fromm told the police of this crime, and they began to search Haarmann's home, where they found evidence of his many murders.
Even among other infamous serial killings, these murders were particularly gruesome: Haarmann would often mutilate and dismember his victims, sometimes biting right through their necks. He was beheaded at Hanover prison in 1925.Wikimedia Commons
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The prosecutor at the trial of William Bonin dubbed him the "the most arch-evil person who ever existed." Over the course of just 12 months between 1979 and 1980, Bonin murdered between 21 and 36 people. He often discarded the bodies along the California freeway, earning him the name the Freeway Killer.
The authorities already knew of Bonin because they had previously convicted him of sexual assault and the murder of a young hitchhiker in 1979. While on parole, he went on to molest another young boy, an act which should have landed him back in prison but didn't due to a "clerical error."
Police then began to surveil Bonin in 1980 and soon arrested him. He spent many years on death row and died via lethal injection in 1996. Wikimedia Commons
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The Beast of Ukraine, Anatoly Onoprienko, earned his title by killing 52 people between 1989 and 1996. After launching a massive manhunt, the police finally arrested Onoprienko in 1996. Upon his arrest, he claimed inner voices urged him to commit murder.
At his trial, the killer narrowly escaped the death penalty (because Ukraine had just entered the Council of Europe, which prohibits its members from using the death penalty) and instead got life in prison. Nevertheless, he died of heart failure in 2013. Wikimedia Commons
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Responsible for the Houston Mass Murders, Dean Corll joined two others (David Brooks and Elmer Wayne Henley, Jr.) in the horrific torture and killings of more than 28 people during the 1970s. The media later dubbed him the Candy Man since he owned a candy factory and would give sweets to local children.
Corll attempted to kill both of his accomplices in 1973, but Henley shot Corll dead before he could carry out the act.Wikimedia Commons
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While working as a prostitute in Florida between 1989 and 1990, Aileen Wuornos killed seven men. She later claimed, however, that all of her victims had attempted to rape her and that she carried out the killings in self-defense.
Either way, the cops caught Wuornos in 1991, after witnesses had seen her driving a victim's car and gave an accurate description of her. After a lengthy trial, the judge ordered the death penalty.
In 2001, Wuornos chose to terminate any pending appeals and came clean about her motives, writing: "I killed those men, robbed them as cold as ice. And I'd do it again, too. There's no chance in keeping me alive or anything, because I'd kill again. I have hate crawling through my system...I am so sick of hearing this 'she's crazy' stuff. I've been evaluated so many times. I'm competent, sane, and I'm trying to tell the truth. I'm one who seriously hates human life and would kill again."
On October 9, 2002, she was executed by lethal injection. Wikimedia Commons
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Paul John Knowles
Nicknamed the Casanova Killer due to his good looks, Paul John Knowles claimed to have killed 35 people by means ranging from strangling to shooting between July and November 1974.
A Florida Highway Patrol trooper finally caught Knowles with a stolen car in late 1974. However, Knowles was able to escape and kill the trooper before a civilian with a shotgun happened to find him evading authorities nearby.
A month later, while in a vehicle with Sheriff Earl Lee and Agent Ronnie Angel, Knowles grabbed the sheriff's gun in an attempt to shoot his captors. During the struggle, Angel shot Knowles dead.Wikimedia Commons
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Frustrated by recurring impotence, Soviet killer Andrei Chikatilo found pleasure only through violence. In 1978, he began to kill, strangling, stabbing, and eviscerating women and children he lured from bus stops and train stations.
In 1984, he was taken into custody after being caught trying to lead a young girl away from a bus station. He was released, however, when the results of a blood analysis suggested his blood type didn't match the semen found at the scene of his crimes.
When he was caught several years — and many murders — later emerging from a forest with bloody hands, the police put him under surveillance and later arrested him. A test revealed his blood and semen type were different from each other. He was sentenced to death for each of his 52 murders and executed by gunshot to the head in 1994.Flickr
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Karl Denke was a Prussian serial killer who preyed on travelers and the homeless from 1903 to 1924 — literally. He was a cannibal, and it's believed that he sold his victims' flesh to unsuspecting local butchers.
In 1924, when Denke's attack on a homeless man failed, the police were alerted. They searched Denke's home and found a horrifying collection of bones, including 120 toes, and a ledger recounting at least 30 murders. Denke hanged himself in his cell before the trial.Wikimedia Commons
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Patrick Kearney, known as the "Trash Bag Killer," terrorized California from 1965 to 1977. He picked up young male hitchhikers in the Redondo Beach area and shot them before mutilating their bodies and leaving the dismembered remains in trash bags.
In 1977, Kearney broke his pattern of killing strangers and murdered an acquaintance. When police discovered Kearney had been seen with the dead teen, they tracked him down, and he pled guilty to 35 murders to avoid the death penalty. He is currently serving out a life sentence.Wikimedia Commons
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Larry Eyler, a hot-tempered house painter living in Indiana, was originally arrested and found guilty of the murder of 15-year-old Daniel Bridges, whom he'd offered a ride. When Daniel Bridges's dismembered body was discovered, the police knew where to turn.
What they didn't know was that Eyler was responsible for the deaths of some 17 other young men — something they only found out when his lawyer released a list of his other victims after Eyler's death in prison in 1994. He had compiled the names in a failed attempt at a plea bargain.Wikimedia Commons
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Between 1988 and 1993, Sergei Ryakhovsky was responsible for the deaths of 19 people in Moscow. Elderly women constituted the majority of his victims, and he had already spent time in prison for attempting to rape several older women.
In 1993, police were searching the area of a recent murder when they found an abandoned shack with a noose hanging from the ceiling in preparation for a new murder. A stakeout team caught Ryakhovsky, who confessed to the murders and was sentenced to death by firing squad.
But a 1996 moratorium on executions in Russia meant his sentence was commuted, and he died of tuberculosis while serving a life sentence in a penal colony.Wikimedia Commons
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Randall Woodfield, known as the I-5 Bandit, was only ever convicted of one murder — but DNA and other evidence has linked him to the deaths of 44 people. In 1975, ashamed of having been cut from the Greenbay Packers for a string of indecent exposure charges, he began sexually assaulting and robbing Portland women.
Four years in prison only made things worse. Out again, he started raping and murdering old friends, acquaintances, and eventually strangers along the I-5 corridor. The police knew it was him, but the evidence was circumstantial — until finally a witness named him in a lineup. He was sentenced to life in prison, and the state of Oregon, hurting for cash, decided not to pursue his other crimes — he was already behind bars for life.Wikimedia Commons
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Irina Gaidamachuk more than earned her nickname: Satan in a skirt. In Russia, between 2002 and 2010, she pretended to be a social worker in order to enter the homes of elderly women. She killed them with a hammer or an ax, stole their valuables, and set their homes on fire.
Police knew the crimes were connected, but they weren't looking at Gaidamachuk until one of her elderly victims escaped and told them the killer was a woman — a possibility they hadn't considered. A neighbor had seen Gaidamachuk leaving the battered woman's home, and they arrested her shortly thereafter.
In 2012, she was sentenced to just 20 years in prison for 17 murders. Her victims' families continue to campaign for a longer sentence.Wikimedia Commons
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Randy Kraft, known as the Scorecard Killer for the list of victims found on him at the time of his arrest, is believed to have killed as many as 67 young men, many of them Marines, between 1971 and 1983. He would drug his victims, torture and rape them, and then strangle them.
Though he was a key suspect in the early days of the investigation, the lack of evidence eventually led the police to look elsewhere. They didn't catch him until he was pulled over for drunk driving one night — with a dead man in his passenger seat.
In 1989, Kraft was found guilty of sixteen counts of murder and sentenced to death. He is currently on death row in California.Wikimedia Commons
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Jeffrey Dahmer, the Milwaukee Cannibal, raped, murdered, and dismembered 17 young men between 1978 to 1991. Famous for having eaten and preserved his victims' body parts, Dahmer was finally caught when one of his intended victims, Tracy Edwards, managed to escape.
Edwards fled the house in handcuffs and told police about the assault — and the strange-smelling 57-gallon drum in Dahmer's bedroom. The police found four severed heads in Dahmer's kitchen and arrested him. In 1992, Dahmer pleaded guilty to 16 murders.
He was bludgeoned to death by a fellow inmate in 1994. The inmate said God had told him to do it.Wikimedia Commons
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José Antonio Rodríguez Vega
The presses called José Antonio Rodríguez Vega El Mataviejas, or "the old lady killer," because his 16 victims ranged from 61 to 93 years old. He charmed his way into their houses, then raped and tormented his victims before suffocating them.
He was difficult to catch — the age of his victims meant that several deaths were attributed to natural causes. But when police searched his home, they found momentos from a staggering number of previously unidentified killings.
In 1991, he was sentenced to 440 years in prison, and in 2002, he was stabbed and killed by fellow inmates.Wikimedia Commons
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Robert Hansen hunted his victims down with a gun and a knife in the wilds of Alaska. An expert hunter, he marked the locations of all his victims' bodies on an aviation map.
He had killed more than 17 times before an FBI profiler hit the mark: Special Agent Roy Hazelwood told police to look for an experienced hunter with poor self-esteem, a stutter, and a history of rejection. When police searched Hansen's property, they found jewelry belonging to his victims.
Hansen plead guilty to 17 murders and told investigators about 12 that were unknown to them, though a number of markings on the aviation map remain unexplained. In 2014, Hansen died while serving a life sentence in prison.Wikimedia Commons
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Chester Turner was a strangler who haunted Los Angeles between 1987 and 1998. He had already killed 10 women when police arrested him for an unrelated sexual assault in 2002.
In the course of his conviction, he gave a DNA sample — a DNA sample that matched DNA recovered at the scene of two murders. In the end, they tied him to thirteen murders, for which he was sentenced to death. Turner now waits on death row, and his conviction has freed a man who was wrongfully accused of Turner's crimes.Wikimedia Commons
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Herbert Mullin was odd even among serial killers. He terrorized California in the early 1970s and reportedly believed that his killings — a form of human sacrifice — could prevent earthquakes.
He was finally caught for the murder of his 13th victim, a man who was simply weeding his suburban lawn when Mullin pulled over and shot him in broad daylight. Witnesses gave police Mullin's license plate number, and the authorities caught up to him minutes later.
Mullin confessed to all the murders and said the voices in his head made him do it. He was sentenced to life in prison.Wikimedia Commons
33 Famous Serial Killers Whose Crimes Shocked The World
Taking Down A Serial Killer
And after blood has been shed and lives have been taken, what does it finally take to bring a serial killer down?
Sometimes, it's a hero — a smart detective or an especially clever victim — who saves the day. For instance, it was a victim who brought down Jeffrey Dahmer, one of history's most famous serial killers. After Tracy Edwards was lured back to Dahmer's house and handcuffed, he pretended to befriend the man who was about to eat him — and used Dahmer's false sense of security to flee the house.
In another case, a talented FBI profiler was responsible for the arrest of Robert Hansen, the "Butcher Baker" of Alaska, who hunted his victims through the woods with a knife and a gun. Special Agent Roy Hazelwood told his colleagues to look for an experienced big game hunter with low self-esteem and a stutter — and led them right to Hansen's door.
Other times, no amount of courage or smarts saves the day — it's just sheer dumb luck. That was the case with serial killer Randy Kraft, who had been a suspect but was released for lack of evidence. He was finally caught when he was pulled over for drunk driving — with a dead man in his car.
Then there was Larry Eyler, a hot-tempered house painter who was serving a life sentence for the murder of 15-year-old Daniel Bridges. It was only after he died in prison that his lawyer released a list of 17 other names he'd compiled: his other, unknown victims who had been buried in graves that were never found.
In all, the stories contained in the list of famous serial killers above are truly disturbing.
After looking at this list of infamous serial killers, read about Marcel Pétiot, one of the most despicable serial killers of all time. Then, have a look at some quotes from serial killers that will leave you deeply disturbed.