Top 10 Infamous Serial Killers from Ancient History
Serial killers are not a new phenomenon. Before Jack the Ripper began his legendary killing spree in London in the 1800s, there is a long list of infamous serial killers active throughout history. Why is it that 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, just take a look at the following list of the worst serial killers of antiquity which make the famous, and yet unidentified, British serial killer look like a novice in comparison!
What is it that 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, the causes of psychopathy remain somewhat of a mystery. Can we learn something from the stories of infamous serial killers from ancient history? Some of the confessions of the worst serial killers were induced under torture, so keep in mind that there could be another side to the historical reports of their abysmal crimes.
Procrustes: Infamous Serial Killer from Greek Mythology
The first ancient serial killer to appear in popular culture can be found in Greek mythology . The infamous serial killer, 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.
Caricature of Procrustes, the infamous serial killer from Greek mythology, and his legendary Procrusean bed. The image comes from a 19th-century German satirical magazine. ( Public domain )
Unknown to his oblivious victims, if they were 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 would cut off their legs to fit. As you can probably understand, in both cases the victim died an unenviable death due to this terrible torture.
- Legends of Spring Heeled Jack, the Uncatchable Demon of Victorian England
- La Quintrala: Flaming Redhead Serial Killer Evaded Capture
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 the infamous serial killer Prokrustes, as depicted on an Attic red-figured kylix from around 440 to 430 BC. (British Museum / CC BY 2.5 )
Liu Pengli: The First Bona Fide Serial Killer in History
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 2nd 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.
During his reign of terror, Liu Pengli 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 the court’s suggestion of death, the emperor spared his kin, only stripping him of his titles and banishing him from the kingdom.
Lui Pengli was an infamous serial killer in China, said to be the first recorded true serial killer in history. ( Public domain )
Queen Anula of Anuradhapura: Misandrist and Sri Lankan Serial Killer
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. Queen Anula of Sri Lanka poisoned her son and four husbands in her quest to become queen regnant, which she did for five years. But, her luck was to run out and end her gruesome reign. She was eventually overthrown and burned alive.
Locusta of Gaul: The First Female Serial Killer in Western History
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.
The infamous serial killer Locusta of Gaul is known as the first female serial killer in Western history. ( Public domain )
Zu Shenatir: Pedophile, Serial Killer, and Himyarite King
Zu Shenatir was one of the wealthiest residents in the Himyarite Kingdom (modern-day Yemen), who lived in Aden during the 5th century AD. Other than his wealth, Zu Shenatir gained notoriety for being a sadist, a pedophile, and a serial killer who lured young boys into his home with the promise of food and money, but instead he stripped them naked and sodomized them. He usually killed his victims by throwing them naked out of an upper story window of his home. Fortunately, he was eventually stopped by a budding victim of his sick intentions, who stabbed him to death.
Alice Kyteler: The First Woman Condemned of Witchcraft in Ireland
It is estimated that more than 300,000 so-called witches were tortured, burnt, or hanged in medieval Europe. It’s also no secret that the vast majority of them were nothing but poor, innocent women (many suffered from mental illness), but that was definitely not the case for Alice Kyteler. A Norman noblewoman, Kyteler was prosecuted in the first modern witch trial in the British Isles back in 1324, for the alleged poisoning of her four husbands, heresy, and witchcraft.
- Alice Kyteler: The Kilkenny ‘Witch’ Who Ran While her Servant Burned
- Elizabeth Brownrigg: Child Abuse and Murder in the 18th Century
It is unknown if the stories are true, or if the accusations were just unfounded rumors. By her good luck, Alice fled to England before being arrested, and her fate remains unknown. Her servant, however, didn’t have the same good luck as her. Since someone had to pay for her crimes, he was arrested, tortured mercilessly, and burned at the stake in her place.
Whether she was an infamous serial killer or not, Alice Kyteler has gone down in history as the first woman condemned of witchcraft in Ireland in 1324. ( Public domain )
Gilles de Rais: The Infamous Child-Killing Serial Killer
Gilles de Rais was a knight and lord from Brittany, Anjou and Poitou, a leader in the French army, and a companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc . So far, so good, most of you are probably thinking. The French nobleman, however, had a very despicable and dark side that makes him one of the very worst serial killers of all time. The infamous serial killer confessed to torturing, raping, and murdering over 140 children from 1432 to 1440. He and several of his accomplices in the murders were hanged on October 26, 1440.
The tribunal of Giles de Rais, a despicable serial killer known for torturing, raping, and murdering over 140 children from 1432 to 1440. ( Public domain )
Peter Stumpp: The Werewolf of Bedburg
Werewolf hysteria kicked off in Europe in the 16th century. However, no case exemplified this phenomenon more than the case of Peter Stumpp, also known as the Werewolf of Bedburg. Stumpp was a wealthy farmer born in the village of Epprath near Cologne, who reportedly murdered and ate 14 children, including his own son (he also devoured his brain), and two pregnant women. He was also accused of having a repulsive sexual relationship with his own daughter.
Proud to confess his crimes, Stumpp claimed that he had been given a magic belt by the Devil which allowed him to transform into “the likeness of a greedy, strong and devouring wolf.” Whilst in this form, he confessed to having gorged on the flesh of goats, lambs, and sheep, as well as men, women, and children. The execution of Stumpp, on October 31, 1589, and of his daughter and mistress, is one of the most brutal in history. As a warning against similar behavior, local authorities erected a pole with the torture wheel and the figure of a wolf on it, and at the very top they placed Peter Stumpp's severed head.
This wood cut shows the breaking wheel which was used during the execution of Peter Stumpp in Cologne in 1589, reportedly an infamous serial killer / werewolf. ( Public domain )
Peter Niers: Serial Killer and Cannibal from Nuremberg
Peter Niers was a German serial killer and cannibal, who was executed on September 16, 1581 in Neumarkt, a few miles outside Nuremberg. It was also believed that he was a powerful black magician, with many supernatural abilities and his fame alone terrorized whole villages. Based on confessions extracted from him and his accomplices under torture, he was convicted of 544 murders, including 24 fetuses cut out of pregnant women—allegedly, the fetal remains were to be used in magic and for acts of cannibalism.
Christman Genipperteinga: Monstrous Serial Killer of Almost 1000 Victims
Widely considered as the deadliest and worst serial killer in recorded history, this hideous monster is by far the sickest bandit of the 16th century. He was so proud of his crimes that he even kept a diary in which he detailed all the murders of not one, not two, but 964 individuals. In addition to this evidence he willingly admitted to the murders with a sense of superiority, adding that if he had reached his goal of a thousand victims, he would have been even happier.
- Germany’s Brutal Werewolf Belt and The Gut-Wrenching Execution of Peter Stumpp
- Elizabeth Bathory – 16th Century Deranged Serial Killer or Victim of Betrayal?
On June 17, 1581, he was condemned to death by the breaking wheel. He endured nine days on the wheel prior to expiring, kept alive on purpose with the aid of strong drinks and other medication of the time, so that his heart would be strengthened and the torture continued. For this ancient serial killer at least, justice was served!
Colored woodcut showing the capture of infamous serial killer Christman Genipperteinga. ( Public domain )
Top image: Locusta, the infamous serial killer, testing poison on a slave in Nero’s presence, as depicted by this painting by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre. Source: Public domain
Updated on February 25, 2021.
Gu, B. 2011. The Book of Han . Yunnan People's Publishing House.
Geiger, W. 2003. “The Mahavamsa: The Great Chronicle of Lanka from 6th Century BC to 4th Century AD” in BuddhaSasana. Available at: https://www.budsas.org/ebud/mahavamsa/chap033.html
Jeffers, J. 2017. “The Untold Story of Peter Niers, The Cannibal Magician Who Killed 500 People” in Ranker. Available at: https://www.ranker.com/list/facts-about-16th-century-serial-killer-peter-niers/jen-jeffers
No name. No date. “Locusta” in Encyclopedia Britannica . Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Locusta-Roman-murderer
No name. No date. “ Procrustes” in Encyclopedia Britannica . Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Procrustes
No name. No date. “ Gilles de Rais” in Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Gilles-de-Rais
Newton, M. 2000. The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers: A Study of the Chilling Criminal Phenomenon from the Angels of Death to the Zodiac Killer. Facts on File.
Williams, B. 1994. “The Sorcery Trial of Alice kyteler by Bernadette Williams” in History Ireland . Available at: http://www.historyireland.com/medieval-history-pre-1500/the-sorcery-trial-of-alice-kyteler-by-bernadette-williams/
Wagner, S. 2017. “The Werewolf of Bedburg” in liveaboutdotcom. Available at: https://www.liveabout.com/the-werewolf-of-bedburg-2597445
Stice, J. 2018. “The 33 Worst Serial Killers Ever to Stalk the Earth” in All That’s Interesting . Available at: https://allthatsinteresting.com/worst-serial-killers
Wittenburg, J. 2012. Crime and Culture in Early Modern Germany . University of Virginia Press.