10 Ancient Serial Killers That Foreshadowed Jack The Ripper
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?
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.
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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. ( CC BY 2.5 )
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.
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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.
Zu Shenatir was one of the wealthiest residents in the Himyarite Kingdom (modern-day Yemen), who lived in Aden during the 5 th 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.
It is estimated that more than 300,000 "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. For her good luck, she fled to England before she 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.
The Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse 1886 ( Public Domain )
Gilles de Rais
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. He 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 26 October 1440.
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The tribunal of Giles de Rais (Bibliothèque nationale de France/ Public Domain )
The 16 th Century in Europe was a time of werewolf hysteria. 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 fourteen children, including his own son (he also devoured his brain), and two pregnant women. He was accused as well 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 have 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' as it was used in Germany in the Middle Ages. The exact date is unknown, as is the creator, but it depicts the execution of w:Peter Stumpp in Cologne in 1589 ( Public Domain )
Peter Niers was a German serial killer and cannibal, who was executed on 16 September 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.
More use of the wheel in Germany for the punishment of evil crimes ( Public Domain )
Widely considered as the deadliest 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. On 17 June 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. Justice was served!
Top image: Locustra testing Poison by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre ( Public Domain )
Procrustes. Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Procrustes
The Book of Han. Amazon. Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Book-Han-Chinese-ban-gu/dp/7222078622
Wilhelm Geiger. The Mahavamsa: The Great Chronicle of Lanka from 6th Century BC to 4th Century AD. Available at: https://www.budsas.org/ebud/mahavamsa/chap033.html
Locusta. Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Locusta-Roman-murderer
The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers . Available at: https://books.google.gr/books?id=DwNVbOcTncwC&pg=PA116&lpg=PA116&dq=Zu+Shenatir&source=bl&ots=B3uIzw_rbG&sig=SEovwMEcDL8gq67iEBJD2_FqzsQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiavKGs6afXAhVD2KQKHVPWB8sQ6AEIWDAM#v=onepage&q=Zu%20Shenatir&f=false
The Sorcery Trial of Alice kyteler by Bernadette Williams. History Ireland. Available at: http://www.historyireland.com/medieval-history-pre-1500/the-sorcery-trial-of-alice-kyteler-by-bernadette-williams/
Gilles de Rais. Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Gilles-de-Rais
Stephen Wagner (2017). The Werewolf of Bedburg. ToughtCo. Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/the-werewolf-of-bedburg-2597445
Jen Jeffers (2016). The Untold Story of Peter Niers, The Cannibal Magician Who Killed 500 People. Ranker. Available at: https://www.ranker.com/list/facts-about-16th-century-serial-killer-peter-niers/jen-jeffers
Crime and Culture in Early Modern Germany . Available at: https://books.google.gr/books?id=rWQWuAFoCD0C&pg=PT27&lpg=PT27&dq=Christman+Genipperteinga&source=bl&ots=QUyumOpeqT&sig=B3irKO7S2FohsrNuejbYEIcyD-Y&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwimlZmU66fXAhXS0qQKHT_zAgk4ChDoAQhSMAw#v=onepage&q=Christman%20Genipperteinga&f=false