When Jack the Ripper killed five prostitutes in the East end of London in 1888, he became instantly the world’s most infamous, and also its best known murderer. He was not the most prolific killer, nor the first to mutilate his victims. France’s Gilles de Rais murdered and mutilated more than 50 children. Hungary’s Countess Elizabeth Bathory murdered an unknown number of servant girls-the figure certainly was in two digits. But the enduring fascination of the Ripper was laid in the mystery of his identity, and his obvious desire to shock, to spit into the face of society.
The term ‘serial killer’ was invented in 1978 by FBI agent Robert Ressler to describe obsessive ‘repeat killers’ like Jack the Ripper. Before that they were called ‘mass murderers’.
What drives a man to become a serial killer?
One answer is that their self esteem is often so low that killing is a way of asserting that they exist. In some cases, the killing has no sexual component.
Donald Harvey, an American nursing orderly was sentenced in 1987 for murdering 24 people, mostly elderly patients. It emerged later that Harvey had been sexually abused by two adults since he was a child. Years as a passive object of lust led to the total destruction of his self esteem; killing hospital patients was his way of asserting that he was a ‘doer’, a mover, not a nonentity.
Ted Bundy’s act of calculated revenge turned him from a peeping tom into a sex murderer. It gave him courage and the contempt for women – to turn his fantasies into reality.
The same psychological mechanism explains the rise in crime rates during times of economic recession. It is not simply that people steal for money. It is because the psychological trauma of being without a job leads to the feeling of ‘anger with fate’ and the desire to express by ‘hitting out.’
As Gauguin quoted ‘life being what it is, one dreams of revenge.’
After one of the Moors murders, Ian Brady an atheist – shook his fist at the sky and shouted: ‘take that, you bastard!’
Many serial killers believe that by killing innocent people (usually children) they were gaining a kind of compensatory revenge on people who had made them suffer. Alexandre Dumas portrays this theory very well in his novel ‘the count of Monte Cristo’ in which the protagonist Edmond Dantes takes revenge on all those who made him suffer in the gallows.
Violence has always been a basic element in human nature. Niccolo Machiavelli wrote about human nature in the 15th chapter of his book ‘The Prince (1513)’:
“All men are bad and even ready to display their vicious nature partly because of the fact that human desires are insatiable.”
The most powerful motive Machiavelli saw as the incentive for every human action is self interest.
Shakespeare catches it in Julius Caesar when a man attacked by a mob protests that he is Cinna the poet and not Cinna the conspirator, his attackers shout: ‘tear him for his bad verses’
But until the 19th century it was rare for this kind of resentment to find expression in sex crime. Crime was largely the result of social deprivation, so the criminal was interested in money and property and not in sex.
In pre –Victorian era sex was not a taboo and young boys and girls often slept in the same bed introduced to incest at an early age. Sex was so freely available that there was no point in killing for it or even risking the gallows for rape. Mothers sold their daughters virginity for just five shillings.
The second half of the 19th century was an epoch of taboo a time for forbiddances and a time for the arrival of Jack the Ripper.