Our society tends to be incredibly rigid in its ideas of what people “should” and “shouldn’t” do — which, honestly, might be why I’m so fascinated by people who consciously buck the trends. This group of people, of course, includes a wide variety of psychopaths from history — not because I endorse their actions or behaviors (far from it), but because those actions and behaviors are so far outside the realm of what’s generally considered acceptable that it’s actually really informative to look at how society deals with it.
But when I say “psychopath,” I’m not just talking about the Patrick Batemans of the world; there’s a lot more to it than that. Psychopathy in and of itself is actually quite controversial, although there is a standard way to measure it: The Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R). Developed by Robert Hare, the PCL-R uses a standardized interview to measures people on several different traits associated with psychopath — things like grandiosity, arrogance, guilt, empathy, and impulsive and criminal behaviors.
Indeed, psychopathy is widely misunderstood, and myths about what it is and who might have it have proven to be extraordinarily persistent. For one thing, it doesn’t actually have its own entry in the DSM-5; as a study from 2013 noted, its closest relative is antisocial personality disorder, so sometimes, the terms “psychopathy”and “sociopathy” are used to refer to people with this disorder. Qualities that are characteristic of antisocial personality disorder include charm in spades, which is often used to manipulate people; a lack of empathy for others; an inability to learn from the negative consequences of certain behaviors; and a disregard for right and wrong.
But — and perhaps more importantly — that’s not the only thing we often get wrong about psychopathy; indeed, as a Scientific American piece from 2007 pointed out, many of the common beliefs the public has about psychopaths — that they’re all violent, that they’re all psychotic, and that they’re untreatable — aren’t actually true. Some psychopaths are violent, but they’re not necessarily so; they’re rarely psychotic; and although psychopathic personality traits are hard to change, specific behaviors can be addressed through treatment.
It’s fascinating, is what I’m saying. Or at least, I think it is. Maybe you do, too — in which case, let’s take a look at a couple of history’s psychopaths just because it is so very, very interesting.
First, though, a caveat: There’s a reason I’m calling the folks listed here suspected psychopaths. The first use of the term itself didn’t occur until the end of the 19th century, which means that anyone who may have had psychopathic tendencies before then wouldn’t have been diagnosed as such — and besides, unless a diagnosis has been made by a professional, we can never say for sure whether or not someone has psychopathy. (We don’t diagnose strangers through the internet.)
What we do know about the behaviors of the following people from history indicates that they might have exhibited psychopathic tendencies — even though, since they’re all many years, centuries, or decades dead, obviously it isn’t possible for any modern-day experts to examine or diagnose them first-hand. Still, though: It’s worth thinking about, no?
In The Mask of Sanity, the 1941 book by psychiatrist Hervey M. Cleckley that’s considered to be the seminal work on psychopathy in the 20th century, Cleckley made the argument that ancient Greek politician and general Alcibiades may have been a psychopath. A man of great talent and charm, Alcibiades also “seemed capriciously to court disaster and, perhaps at the behest of some trivial impulse, to go out of his way to bring down defeat upon his own projects,” wrote Cleckley; additionally, a “disregard for accepted rules or commitments and a reckless tendency to seize arbitrarily what may appeal to him at the moment” is documented in much of the writing we have about him from ancient historians and philosophers. Concluded Cleckley:
Psychopaths: Definitely not a recent invention.
Not all psychopaths are serial killers… but some are, and Albert Fish is probably one of them. Convicted and executed for the 1928 kidnap and murder of 10-year-old Grace Budd, Fish actually confessed to three murders and two additional stabbings; at one point, he even claimed he had killed upwards of 100 people, although it’s not known whether he was telling the truth or lying. You might be familiar with the letter he sent Grace Budd’s mother, which described in graphic terms how he killed the little girl and, uh, ate her. (Did I mention Fish was a cannibal, too? Because he was. Just,y’know, FYI.) You can read the letter online, although consider yourselves warned — when I say graphic, I mean graphic. Click through to see it.
A 2014 paper called “The Psychology of Albert Fish” published in the journal Behavioral Health attempted to explain… well, the psychology of Albert Fish. According to the paper, Fish was interviewed prior to his trial by Dr. Frederick Wertham of Belleview Hospital, who concluded that Fish exhibited 18 different paraphilia; however, Fish was deemed “sane” — which, at the time, meant someone who knew right from wrong — and was sentenced to death. He was executed on Jan. 16, 1936.
The whole “knowing the difference between right and wrong” thing is important; knowing it, but simply not caring about it, is characteristic of someone with antisocial personality disorder. What’s more, notes the paper, Fish spent various periods of his life going in and out of mental institutions, with many doctors determining that he had a “psychopathic” personality.
Interestingly, Cleckley noted in The Mask of Sanity that he didn’t consider Elizabeth Bathory to be a psychopath. Listing her in the company of such people as Nero, Gilles de Rais, and the Marquis de Sade, he did acknowledge that “many people whose conduct has been permanently recorded in history are described as extremely abnormal in various ways”; however, of these specific examples, he wrote, “I cannot find in these characters a truly convincing resemblance that identifies them with the picture that emerges from the actual patients I have studied and regarded as true psychopaths.”
Others, however, do consider Bathory to have been a psychopath. And, I mean, considering that she’s thought to have killed literally hundreds of young women in the late 16th and early 17th centuries in Hungary… well, that’s maybe not surprising. (Although for what it’s worth, the rumors that she bathed in the blood of these young women, killing them to preserve her own beauty, probably aren’t true. Sorry, vampire enthusiasts.)
So, what of the psychopathy? As Jennifer Wright observed in 2012 in the wonderful series she wrote for The Gloss at the time, Shelved Dolls, Bathory exhibited a few behaviors as a child that some historians believe might be indicative of psychopathic traits. She was, for example, known for having outbursts of extreme anger — by which I mean not just the occasional tantrum, but true, terrifying rage. Of course, it’s possible that this — along with several other maladies Bathory suffered,including seizures — may have been the result of other health issues, as well; however, the arguments for psychopathy are pretty compelling.
For what it’s worth, I did find a paper that attempted to apply the Hare checklist to six serial killers from history to determine whether they were psychopaths. The paper scored Bathory at a measly 17 — nowhere near the 30 points Hare’s list requires for a diagnosis of psychopathy — although I think the premise of the paper is somewhat flawed; it’s kind of hard to score someone else on a scale that’s meant to be self-reported. What’s more, only one of the killers on the list was scored highly enough to be considered a psychopath, which… I don’t know. Feels unlikely to me. But stay tuned for more on that killer in a bit.
One of the earliest uses of the term “psychopathy” occurred in the 1880s. In 1883, a girl named Sarah Becker (also written as Sarra Bekker) was found murdered in the pawnbroker shop in Russia in which she worked. The owner of the shop, M. Mirronovich, was convicted on circumstantial evidence; however, a woman known only as Mlle. Semenova later came forward to say that she had killed Becker — only to recant later on.
During Semenova’s trial, psychiatrist Ivan M. Balinksy declared that she was “suffering from ‘psychopathy,’ and therefore morally irresponsible,” read a news article published on Feb. 14, 1885. This testimony helped sway the jury into finding Semenova not guilty.
For the curious, Balinsky described psychopathy as follows:
In the early decades of the 20th century, Tom Skeyhill made a name for himself as the “blind soldier-poet.” An Australian war hero during the First World War, he claimed he had been blinded during the battle of Gallipoli after a shell detonated right in front of him; a book of poetry he wrote after the war subsequently shot him to fame. But, as University of Canberra historian Jeff Brownrigg argued in his book Anzac Cove to Hollywood: The Story of Tom Skeyhill, Master of Deception, it’s possible that Skeyhill wasn’t really blind at all. He may instead have faked the injury to get out of the war, then capitalized on it after the fact.
Brownrigg’s book focuses on the possible fraud — but a piece published in The Conversation in 2016 by Emory University psychology professor Scott O. Lilienfeld and Ph.D. candidate Ashley Watts using Anzac Cove to Hollywood as a jumping-off point makes a pretty compelling case for Skeyhill not only having been a fraud, but a psychopath as well. Lilienfeld and Watts believe Skeyhill to have exhibited a number of psychopathic traits, among them charm and self-aggrandization. They do acknowledge that, as far as they know, Skeyhill was never given a formal psychological examination; however, they also write, “We suspect that most contemporary researchers would have little trouble recognizing him as a classic case of psychopathic personality, or psychopathy.”
Jake Bird was arrested in 1947 for the murders of Bertha and Beverly June Klundt in Tacoma, Wash.; he was caught at the scene of the crime, having broken into the Klundts’ home and attacked them both with an ax. Although he was quickly found guilty and sentenced to death, however, he kept the police on the hook for another two years as he revealed details of other crimes he said he had committed. He confessed to 44 murders overall, although only 11 of the cases were solved with the help of his confessions. (Of course, I say only 11, when 11 is… still a pretty hefty number.)
According to Murderpedia, psychiatrists who examined Bird while he was incarcerated determined him to have had a psychopathic personality. He also, uh, attempted to curse the folks who tried his case; in a statement he made before his sentencing, he reportedly said, “I’m putting the Jake Bird hex on all of you who had anything to do with my being punished. Mark my words, you will die before I do.” And, lo and behold, several people connected to the case did apparently die within the year following the sentencing. Bird himself was executed by hanging in 1949.
In his book Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of Psychopaths Among Us, Robert Hare makes a particular note about former publishing giant Robert Maxwell in the chapter “White Collar Psychopaths”: He points to Maxwell as “a good example of how a carefully managed public persona can conceal dark deeds and a black heart,” making him a strong contender as a corporate psychopath.
Born in what was then Czechoslovakia in 1923, Maxwell managed to escape first to France, then to Britain during World War II; he became an officer in the British army and fought at Normandy. After the war, he began buying academic and scientific papers inexpensively and selling them at a profit — and eventually, he built up quite the publishing empire, owning Pergamon Press Ltd., the British Printing Corp., Mirror Group Newspapers, and the New York Daily News. He was also a Member of Parliament for Buckingham from 1964 to 1970.
After his death in 1991, however (a death which is still mysterious — he’s believed to have died by suicide, but a lot of unanswered questions remain about it), it came out that Maxwell had siphoned off hundreds of millions of pounds from the pension funds of his companies. His empire collapsed, and several former directors and two of Maxwell’s sons were tried for conspiracy to defraud in 1995. They were acquitted in 1996.
Here’s what Hare has to say about Maxwell in Without Conscience:
I mean, you knew this one was coming, right? Ted Bundy is often held up as the quintessential example of psychopathy, and with good reason. He ticks pretty much all the boxes: He was charismatic, he was smart, he was manipulative, and he knew right from wrong — he just didn’t think the rules applied to him. He also didn’t display guilt or remorse for his actions.
Those actions, of course, were killing at least 36 people — mostly women — although he’s suspected of being responsible for around 100 murders. He was executed in 1989.
Assessments of Bundy’s personality proved trick. One of the experts that examined him, Dorothy Otnow Lewis, initially diagnosed him with bipolar disorder, but changed her opinion several times; ultimately, she told Polly Nelson — a lawyer who was on Bundy’s defense team who later wrote about the experience in the book Defending the Devil — “I never thought they existed … but I think Ted may have been one, a true psychopath, without any remorse or empathy at all.”
Also, remember that paper I mentioned while we were talking about Elizabeth Bathory? The one that tried to apply Hare’s inventory to six of history’s most famous serial killers? The one serial killer who the researchers scored highly enough to qualify as a psychopath was — you guessed it — Ted Bundy. He netted 33 points — three points higher than the 30-point threshold for psychopathy.
Psychopathy is complicated, to say the least — but then again, most psychology is. Humans are complicated creatures, after all. But, hey, if you're curious about whether you yourself exhibit any traits consistent with psychopathy, here's one way to find out.