When we hear about the grim lives of serial killers, we often assume that their crimes constituted the entirety of their existences; after all, how could anyone show up to the office or look their coworkers in the eye at happy hour with the knowledge that, after they punch out for the night, they get to work ending lives? But everyone needs to pay the bills — even people who spend their free time committing some of the most vicious and infamous crimes of the past century. And the specific occupations that some of our most famous serial killers chose may lead to a little head-scratching due to their...well, extreme normalcy.
Though we may think of serial killers as people who would seek day jobs that involve power and control — which would echo the common claim that C.E.O is the most common profession among psychopaths — many of the most notorious serial killers of the past century had shockingly regular jobs, from writer to worker in a candy factory. Some had jobs that helped them conduct their crimes — like doctor or security system installer — but others had jobs so incongruous that they helped throw people off their trail.
Am I saying you should be suspicious of the person who installs your security system or manages your favorite restaurant? Of course not — even by the most paranoid statistics, there are only 25 to 50 active serial killers in the U.S. at any given moment. But is this all a reminder than sometimes we can look evil in the face (or snack on some candy that it has produced) and have no idea? Maybe.
1. Jeffrey Dahmer: Chocolate Maker
Infamous Milwaukee murderer and cannibal Dahmer went down multiple career paths in the years before he was apprehended and charged with 15 counts of murder in 1991. Dahmer enlisted in the Army as a young man, but was discharged in 1981 due to a drinking problem. In 1985, Dahmer took a job working the late night shift at the Ambrosia Chocolate Factory; through he was convicted of sexually assaulting a minor in 1989, he kept the job through a work release program. However, shortly after the end of his work release program (and shortly before he was apprehended by police after a man he assaulted escaped and contacted law enforcement), he was fired from the chocolate factory for chronic absenteeism. Dahmer was sentenced to 16 consecutive life sentences in 1992, and killed in prison by another inmate in 1994.
If you'd like to learn more about Dahmer's chocolate factory years and/or become permanently unable to feel sexually attracted to Jeremy Renner, you can accomplish both goals by watching 2002's Dahmer , which stars a young Renner as the titular killer (note: the linked trailer is NSFW and absolutely not for the faint of heart).
2. John Wayne Gacy: Restaurant Manager/ Construction Business Owner
Though Gacy was quite famous for his tendency to dress up as a clown named "Pogo" and entertain children at public functions, that was his (unnerving) hobby, not his job. For work, Gacy held a number of positions that required him to interact with the public extensively and manage a large group of workers — circumstances that he eventually took advantage of for his crimes.
in the 1960s, Gacy managed an Iowa fast food franchise that was owned by his wife's parents, and was active in his local Jaycees group. In 1968, Gacy was indicted by a grand jury for assaulting a minor, and then hiring another teenaged boy to beat and intimidate his victim. Gacy spent two years in prison, and upon his release in 1970, moved to Chicago, pursued restaurant work, remarried, and committed his first documented murder in 1972. In 1974, he went into business as a contractor, opening a business called "Painting, Decorating, and Maintenance (PDM) Contractors, Incorporated," where he hired young men — a number of whom would eventually become his victims.
However, after several of his young employees went mysteriously missing — and a man who has been sexually assaulted by Gacy filed charges with the police department — Gacy's home was searched by police in 1978, and found to contain the remains of victims. Law enforcement ultimately removed the remains of 27 men from Gacy's home, most of them stuffed into a crawlspace. Gacy was convicted of 33 murders in 1980, and died by lethal injection in 1994.
3. Harold Shipman: Doctor
You may have not heard of British serial killer Harold Shipman, because his crimes weren't as gory as some. However, he more than made up for it with his prolificness — Shipman was convicted of 15 murders, but is considered to have been responsible for over 200 deaths during his 28 years as a physician.
Shipman began working as a doctor in 1970 — a career that was almost immediately distinguished by the extraordinary number of elderly patients who seemed to die under Shipman's care, as well as Shipman's addiction to prescription painkillers.
When his addiction was revealed, Shipman resigned and entered rehab. But within a year, he returned to practicing medicine, and according to experts, also returned to killing patients with fatal overdoses of painkillers — investigators who looked over Shipman's records after he was convicted of the 15 initial murders found that Shipman was present with unnerving frequency when his patients died, and that he consistently urged their families to cremate their bodies and refuse any additional medical examinations into the cause of death. By the time he was caught in 1998, some believe that Shipman was averaging a murder each week, usually committed while visiting patients at home.
While local paramedics and undertakers began to voice their suspicion regarding how often patients "died peacefully" after a visit from Dr. Shipman, it was the death of healthy 81-year-old Kathleen Grundy that finally unmasked him. Grundy's daughter, lawyer Angela Woodruff, was shocked to find that her mother had supposedly left a new final will, leaving all of her savings not to her family, but to Dr. Shipman. The will was revealed to be a forgery, opening the door for investigations about Shipman that continued for years after his imprisonment — and death. Shipman was given a life sentence, and died by suicide in prison in 2004 — before a government inquiry, begun in 2002, found that Shipman was responsible for the deaths of at least 215 people, and possibly as many as 260.
4. Ted Bundy: Crisis Hotline Volunteer
Bundy is one of American history's most gruesome serial killers, convicted of 30 brutal murders and thought to potentially be responsible for dozens more. But while the number of crimes he committed and the sheer violence of each of them is certainly the most shocking thing about Bundy, the way he easily blended in as a successful member of society is also profoundly unnerving. Bundy attended law school, and volunteered with a number of political campaigns in Washington state — but perhaps the most startling fact is that he worked as a volunteer at a suicide hotline in 1971, counseling people in crisis over the phone.
Ann Rule's The Stranger Beside Me recounts her time working at the hotline alongside Bundy and befriending the young college student, who seemed to her to be "kind, solicitous, and empathetic....I liked him." By some accounts, this was the time period in which Bundy first began murdering women — a crime spree that would eventually lead him to flee across several states, and to escape from police custody twice. Bundy was finally arrested in 1978, and sentenced to death plus 196 years in 1979. Bundy died by electric chair in 1989.
5. Dennis Rader: Security System Installer
The "BTK Killer" — a self-given nickname that stood for "Bind, Torture, Kill," one which Rader used in his many taunting letters to local media— murdered 10 people in the Wichita, Kansas area from 1974 to 1991. He also held a variety of jobs tied to security, safety, law and order in this period. After working installing security systems in the mid-to-late '70s — often for families who had purchased security systems specifically due to their fear of the BTK Killer — Rader worked as a census field operations supervisor in the late '80s, and a dogcatcher and city ordinance enforcement officer in in the '90s. During his decades of torturing and murdering individuals (and sometimes even entire families), Rader also volunteered as a Cub Scout leader.
Though Rader's last known murder was committed in 1991, he began contacting the media again in 2004 — possibly after reading stories examining the 40th anniversary of the first BTK murder. He sent a number of items to local press, including a computer disc that police were able to track back to Rader, eventually setting the stage for his 2005 arrest. Rader was charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and pleaded guilty on all counts. He is presently serving 10 life sentences.
6. Jack Unterweger: Writer
In 1974, when he was in his early 20s, Unterweger murdered a woman in his native Austria, and was sentenced to life in prison, with the option of parole after 15 years. While he was in jail, Unterweger produced a copious amount of poems, short stories, and even a best-selling memoir that was later adapted into a film. His release became a cause among Austrian intellectuals, who believed Unterweger to be reformed, and agitated for him to be released after his minimum 15 years were served.
Unterweger was released in 1990 — and, according to later police research, immediately began killing women. It was later discovered that he murdered seven women in Austria and the Czech Republic during his first year of freedom. However, though some police officials had suspicions, no one definitively tied Unterweger to these murders at the time — in fact, he went on to become a TV personality upon his release, and in his work as a journalist, actually covered his own crimes, interviewing Vienna's police chief about the murders (without admitting that he had perpetrated them, of course).
In 1991, Unterweger was sent to Los Angeles by an Austrian magazine to report on American law enforcement attitudes towards sex workers. In his time there, Unterweger interviewed cops and went on police ride-alongs — and also murdered sex workers.
In that same year, Austrian law enforcement began to suspect Unterweger of the 1990 Austrian and Czech murders, but it took them a year to apprehend them, as he spent most of 1991 on the run throughout Europe, the U.S. and Canada, all the while contacting the Austrian media to maintain his innocence. He was arrested in 1992, and found guilty of nine murders. In 1994, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole; he died by suicide the night the verdict was handed down.
7. H. H. Holmes: Hotel Operator
There is an argument to be made that H.H. Holmes' career as a hotel operator shouldn't be considered a day job, as he got into the hotel business simply in order to more easily become the person who is commonly considered to be America's first serial killer. But the degree of effort that Holmes put into building and maintaining a hotel (even if it was created solely for murderous purposes) is worth taking notice.
Holmes was a doctor who attended the University of Michigan's medical school (and developed an insurance scam that involved stolen cadavers while he was there). But his infamy truly began when he purchased a Chicago lot in the early 1890s that would serve as the site of the "World's Fair Hotel," a hotel designed to host people traveling to see the 1893 World's Fair in the city. Holmes built the building specifically to aid in his murders — it is known colloquially as the "Murder Castle" — and, according to Mental Floss, the building contained "51 doorways that opened to brick walls, 100 windowless rooms, stairs that led to nowhere, two furnaces, and body-sized chutes to an incinerator" (if you watched American Horror Story: Hotel — yup, Holmes' hotel was one of the inspirations for the Hotel Cortez). Holmes murdered many of the guests who checked into his hotel, later selling their skeletons to medical labs.
Holmes was arrested in 1894 for his participation in another insurance scam (this one involving the murder of his business partner, Benjamin Pitezel), and in 1895, was sentenced to death just for the murder of Pitezel — though at various times he confessed to up to 30 murders, and is believed by some to be responsible for up to 300 murders. He was hung in 1896.
The Murder Castle itself burned down in 1895 under truly suspicious circumstances, but interest in the tale was revived by Erik Larson's 2002 book about Holmes, Devil in the White City — which will soon become a motion picture from Martin Scorsese, with Leonardo DiCaprio playing the infamous murder doctor. Because if there's one thing we can count on even more than serial killers having mundane day jobs, it's that handsome actors will eventually want to portray them on the big screen.
Images: Wikipedia; Giphy