Locustra testing Poison by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre

10 Ancient Serial Killers That Foreshadowed Jack The Ripper

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What makes someone a serial killer? Even though psychologists and criminologists have been working for decades to accurately define and identify what makes a person commit such cold-blooded murders again and again, we are afraid that the answer to this question could be way more complicated that it appears to be at first glance. The causes of psychopathy remain somewhat of a mystery.

While these questions about the nature of a serial killer remain unanswered, another point of intrigue is this: Why is Jack the Ripper the most famous serial killer in history, when there have been more brutal and monstrous serial killers before him? If you don’t believe us, the extremely repellent serial killers of antiquity that follow, will help you realize that some of them make the famous unidentified British serial killer look like a novice in comparison!

But before we start, a quick side note. Some of the confessions of these so-called serial killers came about under torture. So could there be another side to the historical reports of their abysmal crimes?

Procrustes

In Greek mythology we meet the first serial killer in popular culture. Procrustes, also known as "the stretcher,” is a legendary killer from Attica that kept a house by the side of a busy road where he offered hospitality to passing strangers. He usually invited travelers in for a comforting meal and a night's rest in his very “special” iron bed. If a victim was shorter than the bed, he stretched him by hammering or racking the body to fit. Alternatively, if the victim was longer than the bed, he cut off the legs to make the body fit the bed’s length. As you probably understand, in both cases the victim died.

A modern representation of ‘Procrusean Bed’ Caricature from 19th century German satirical magazine (Public Domain)

A modern representation of ‘Procrusean Bed’ Caricature from 19th century German satirical magazine (Public Domain)

Fortunately, Procrustes was destroyed by his own method by the younger and stronger Theseus, who would later murder the Minotaur of Crete as well. Procrustes is still discussed today thanks to his “Procrustean bed,” which has become proverbial for arbitrarily—and violently—forcing someone or something to fit into an unnatural scheme or pattern.

Theseus fighting Prokrustes. Surround of the tondo of an Attic red-figured kylix, ca. 440-430 BC. Said to be from Vulci.

Theseus fighting Prokrustes. Surround of the tondo of an Attic red-figured kylix, ca. 440-430 BC. Said to be from Vulci. ( CC BY 2.5 )

Liu Pengli

While historians are still debating if Procrustes was a real historical figure or not, Liu Pengli is undoubtedly the first recorded serial killer in history. Also known as the Prince of Jidong, Liu Pengli was a 2 nd Century BC Han prince who thought that he had a license to kill. For more than two decades, the blood-thirsty Pengli would go out on marauding expeditions with tens of slaves or young men who were in hiding from the law. He murdered over a hundred people in total, seizing their possessions for sheer sport, as recorded by Sima Qian in ‘Records of the Great Historian’. One of his victims’ sons would eventually report his bloody hobby to the emperor but instead of obeying to the court’s suggestion of death, the emperor spared his kin, only stripping him of his titles and banishing him from the kingdom.

Sima Qian

Sima Qian ( Public Domain )

Anula of Anuradhapura

Known as one of the biggest misandrists in Asian history, Queen Anula, reigned from 47 to 42 BC and was the first queen in Sri Lankan history to have wielded so much power. Her reign was filled with secret love affairs, a series of murders, plenty of poison, and a very tragic end for the queen herself. Anula poisoned her son and four husbands in her way to the throne as queen regnant for five years. But for her ‘luck’ was to run out and end her gruesome reign. She was eventually overthrown and burned alive.

Locusta of Gaul

Bearing the not so flattering title of the “first female serial killer in Western history,” Locusta lived in Rome more than 1,900 years ago. Inventive, coldblooded, and extremely intelligent, Locusta was a dedicated, masterful botanist who used chemistry in order to give people heart attacks for fun and profit. She reportedly took part in the assassinations of Claudius and Britannicus, while she was one of Emperor Nero’s most favorite people for many years, who used her as a trainer for other ambitious poisoners in his service. Following Nero's death, Locusta was executed by his successor, Galba.

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Myths & Legends

Travis Fimmel as Ragnar Lothbrok in the History Channels Vikings Series.
Ragnar Lothbrok was a fearless hero of Norse lore who became widely known thanks to the History Channel’s hit series ‘Vikings.’ His historicity is subject to debate—as with King Arthur, for example—Ragnar is an amalgamation of a number of historical personages and minor characters of legend. So, the question is: Where does Ragnar the man end and the myth begin?

Ancient Places

A photo of the interior of the Siebenberg House.
The Siebenberg House is a house / museum located in the Old City of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter. The Siebenberg House is best-known for the archaeological finds that have been made beneath the present structure. The excavations under the house have revealed several archaeological layers, and allow one to obtain a glimpse of the city’s history.

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View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
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