Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac, Son of Sam … serial killer nicknames are definitely A Thing. But while names like “the Zodiac” may not inspire fear unless you know their context, there are a huge number of absolutely terrifying monikers that will give you the wiggins whether or not you're familiar with the real-life murderers to whom they belong. I’m actually willing to bet that you may not have heard of a lot of them before; once you learn about them, though, I doubt very much that you’ll ever forget them. It’s hard to scrub a phrase like “The Acid Bath Murderer” from your brain.
As it turns out, there actually is a technical term for serial killer nicknames; it falls under the umbrella of criminal nomenclature — and there’s actually been some research done in it. According to Tom Clark of the University of Sheffield, serial killer nicknames have a couple of common characteristics and serve a few different purposes. First, you’ll notice that the names themselves have a particular structure — they usually feature “the ordinary… juxtaposed with the extraordinary,” as Clark puts it in his paper “Jack’s Back: Toward A Sociological Understanding of Serial Killer Nicknames.” I’d argue that this is part of what makes them so freaky to us; they’re the very definition of the uncanny as laid out by Freud — the familiar made strange.
But if they freak us out, then why do we use them? That’s the other part of what Clark’s paper gets at. They “symbolically serve to sustain and alleviate both order and disorder” — or, as Clark later writes, “Serial killer nicknames represent a reminder of the ongoing threat to the normative ideals of contemporary society, whilst also implying that this threat can be overcome.” They simultaneously send us “DANGER!” signals, while also reassuring us that we’ll be able to neutralize the danger.
Sometimes these nicknames come out of the investigation;sometimes they come out of the media coverage of the crimes; sometimes they’re even dreamed up by the killers themselves. But one thing’s for sure: These serial killer nicknames — and these real-life crimes — will definitely keep you up at night.
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1. The Acid Bath Murderer
British serial killer John George Haigh was convicted in 1949 of murdering six people, although he claimed responsibility for up to nine. He seems mostly to have killed for money; a career criminal, he had trouble holding a job, and routinely took over or sold his victims’ assets once he had dispatched them. His nickname, as you may have guessed, came from his method: After killing his victims — usually by bludgeoning them or shooting them — he dissolved their bodies in vats of sulfuric acid.
Here’s the kicker: Haigh’s reasoning for doing so was a misunderstanding of the term “corpus delicti.” Cornell Law’s Legal Information Institute defines the term as “the idea that the requisite elements of a crime must be proven before an individual can be tried for the crime” — but directly translated from the Latin, it means “body of the crime.” Haigh took it to mean that if there wasn’t a literal body, he couldn’t be tried for murder... so he went ahead and dissolved the bodies.
Haigh was eventually caught thanks to a tip from a friend of his last victim, tried, and found guilty. He was executed by hanging on Aug. 10, 1949.
2. The Cleveland Torso Murderer
The ick factor of the Cleveland Torso Murderer is sheer body horror. During the 1930s, a series of human remains were found in and around Cleveland, Ohio, often in the Kingsbury Run area. The bodies were typically beheaded and/or dismembered, and the torso was sometimes cut in half—hence the nickname “the Cleveland Torso Murderer.” Authorities weren’t always able to identify the victims, either; the heads weren’t always found, and in some cases, death had occurred several months — or even a year — prior to discovery.
Twelve victims were originally attributed to the Cleveland Torso Murderer, although the “Lady of the Lake,” who was found in 1934 before any of the other victims, is thought to be an additional victim; indeed, some theories posit that up the Cleveland Torso Murderer may have been responsible for up to 20 deaths. The murders remain unsolved.
By the way, the Cleveland Torso Murderer had a second nickname that’s just as terrifying as the first: They were also referred to as “The Mad Butcher Of Kingsbury Run.”
3. The Death House Landlady
Dorothea Helen Puente derived her income from two sources in Sacramento, Calif.: She ran a 16-room boarding house for elderly and infirm people located at 1426 F Street, and she rented out an upstairs apartment in downtown Sacramento. But her income didn’t just come from rent; she had a habit of cashing her tenants’ Social Security checks, for one thing. Her tenants, meanwhile, had a habit of… going missing.
Nov. 11, 1988 changed all that, though. That’s the day that homicide detectives visited the boarding house at the behest of a social worker who was concerned about a missing client — the boarding house being said client’s last known address. The house was searched, but the search yielded nothing. The backyard, however? That’s another story. After a tenant reported having seen the backyard full of holes that were later filled in, the detectives did some literal digging… and found human remains.
Puente wasn’t a person of interest yet, so she was able to escape Sacramento and head to Los Angeles — after which police excavating the backyard of the house on F Street found more six bodies in the ground. She was eventually caught in Los Angeles and charged with a total nine counts of murder; in 1993, she was convicted of three killings and given a sentence of life without parole. The newspapers came up with the nickname “The Death House Landlady."
She died in prison on March 27, 2011.
4. The BTK Killer
Admittedly, Dennis Rader’s nickname isn’t at all frightening if you don’t know what it stands for. But, uh, it’s short for “Bind, Torture, Kill,” sooooo… yeah.
If you’re at all interested in serial killers, you almost certainly already know about Rader; he’s one of the most infamous killers in history. Like Ted Bundy, Rader had a carefully constructed image that belied his crimes — he was even able to hide it all from his family, who didn’t discover he was BTK until the FBI told them after they arrested him in 2005. Between 1974 and 1991, Rader killed 10 people in Wichita, Kan., typically by strangling them with any one of a variety of materials: Rope, plastic bags, nylon stockings, his hands, you name it. He named himself; in letters he wrote to the media, he always signed off as BTK, which he at one point had clarified as standing for “Bind, Torture, Kill.”
After killing his last known victim — Dolores E. Davis in 1991 — he actually stopped both killing and writing for over a decade. When he started writing letters and leaving a trail of puzzles for the police and the media in 2004, though, it signaled the beginning of the end: The police tracked him down, and he was arrested at his home on Feb. 25, 2005.
He was charged with 10 counts of first degree murder on Feb. 28, 2005; he pleaded guilty on June 27 and was sentenced on Aug. 18 to 10 consecutive life sentences. He’s currently incarcerated at the El Dorado Corrections Facility in Kansas.
5. Doctor Death
No, not Jack Kevorkian. I’m talking about two different serial killers here: Maxim Petrov, a Russian physician who killed and robbed his patients; and Harold Shipman, who is one of the most prolific serial killers in history. Both of them have been called "Doctor Death."
Petrov began robbing his patients in 1997; he would arrive unannounced at their homes, anesthetize them, and make off with valuable belongings while they were unconscious. In 1999, though, he committed his first murder when the daughter of a patient arrived home while he was in the middle of committing the crime. He killed both of them, completed the robbery, and then changed his MO: Instead of simply anesthetizing his victims, he began lethally injecting them instead. He set fire to their homes afterward to destroy all the evidence.
Eventually the police figured out the pattern and arrested Petrov in January of 2000. He was tried for 17 murders, although it’s suspected that he actually may have committed up to 19; he was found guilty of 12 of them in 2002 and sentenced to life in prison.
Shipman, meanwhile, graduated from the Leeds School of Medicine in 1970; by the time he was arrested in 1998, he may have killed as many as 260 of his patients. He was actually investigated early in 1998 after several colleagues became concerned about the high death rate of Shipman’s patients; however, the police didn’t find sufficient evidence and let the investigation go. After relatives of Kathleen Grundy, who had been found dead on June 24, 1998, became concerned about the authenticity of Grundy’s will, they had Grundy exhumed — and a subsequent examination found traces of diamorphine in her body. Shipman had been the last person to see her alive; he signed her death certificate; and most astonishingly, the will left hundreds of thousands of pounds to him.
He was arrested, and on Sept. 7, 1998, he was charged with 15 counts of murder, plus one count of forgery. On Jan. 31, 2000, he was found guilty of all 15 and sentenced to 15 consecutive life sentences. He died by suicide while incarcerated on Jan. 13, 2004.
6. The Finchley Baby Farmers
I mean, “baby farming” in and of itself is both a terrifying phrase and concept; as you may remember from our discussion of Amelia Dyer a little while ago, “baby farmers” during the Victorian era took in unwanted babies and children for money. Rather a lot of baby farmers also became serial killers (as Dyer did), dispatching their charges so as to make the money they collected for them go further. There’s obviously a lot that’s disturbing about… well, all of this, but to me, the most disturbing thing of all is the fact that we have no real idea of just how many children lost their lives to baby farmers-turned-murderers.
Amelia Sachs and Annie Walters, for example — the duo known as the Finchley Baby Farmers — operated for just a few years at the turn of the century, but killed an unknown number of babies and children; some estimates peg the number at around 20, but honestly, we don’t know and we probably never will. They were caught when Walters’ landlord became suspicious, and after a phenomenally short trial and jury deliberation — the trial took place over two days in January of 1903 and the jury arrived at their verdict within 40 minutes, they were found guilty. They were executed by hanging on Feb. 3, 1903 — the first women ever to be hanged at Holloway prison in London.
7. The Giggling Granny
Nannie Doss earned a lot of nicknames: The Giggling Nanny, the Lonely Hearts Killer, the Jolly Black Widow… but none of them freaks me out in quite the same way “The Giggling Granny” does. I suspect it has something to do with the reasons we often find old people scary in horror movies. (That video is worth watching, as is all of Blue Lavasix’s YouTube channel — long story short, it all goes back to the trope of the “old hag” in folklore.)
In any event, Nancy Hazel was born on Nov. 4, 1905 in Alabama. She was married no fewer than five times and had a whole bunch of children from all those unions — but mysteriously, her husbands and other relatives periodically disappeared or died unexpectedly. She was caught after her fifth husband, Samuel Doss, was admitted to the hospital with something that looked like the flu in the fall of 1953; the hospital diagnosed him with a severe digestive tract infection, treated him, and released him. He died that night — a death which would have enabled Doss to collect on his two life insurance policies. An autopsy revealed a massive amount of arsenic in his system, leading to the arrest of Nannie Doss.
The case against Doss focused only on Samuel; she pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison in 1955. However, it’s suspected that she killed four of her husbands, two of her children, two of her sisters, her mother, one of her grandsons, and one of her mothers-in-law. She died of leukemia while incarcerated in 1965.
8. The Brides In The Bath Murders
OK, so technically, this one is a serial murder nickname, not a serial killer nickname; the case itself is what's referred to as the Brides in the Bath Murders, while the killer is usually just called by his given name, George Joseph Smith. It’s still pretty freaky sounding, though, and to be honest, in my head, I keep calling Smith the Brides in the Bath Murderer, so… let’s roll with it.
Smith just barely meets the FBI's definition of "serial killer"; he married, then murdered three women in the UK between 1912 and 1914. Those weren’t his only wives, although they were the least fortunate of all of them: He married seven women over the course of his life, cleaning out their savings and vanishing each and every time. It was after he killed Margaret Elizabeth Lloyd, however, that everything began to unravel: After Lloyd was found drowned in the bath, a former landlord of Smith’s, Joseph Crossley, wrote to the Metropolitan Police, pointing out how similar the circumstances of her death were to two other cases — those of Bessie Williams and Alice Smith, both of whom had been married to George Joseph Smith. The ensuing investigation was rather successful indeed.
Although Smith was only charged with the murder of Bessie Smith, née Munday, the other two deaths were used in court to establish Smith’s MO — and when the time came for the jury to deliberate, it took them a mere 20 minutes to find him guilty. Smith was executed by hanging on Aug. 13, 1915.
9. The Eyeball Killer
Charles Albright was only convicted of the murder of one person, which means that he’s not officially a serial killer. He was charged with the murders of two additional people, though; if he had been convicted of all three, he would have fit the FBI’s definition. (According to the FBI, a serial murder is “the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.”)
Here are the facts:
On Dec. 13, 1990, Dallas-based sex worker Mary Lou Pratt was found dead. She had been shot in the back of her head, and her eyes were missing.
On Feb. 19, 1991, Susan Peterson, also a sex worker in Dallas, was found dead. She had been shot three times; her eyes, too, were missing.
On March 19, 1991, Shirley Williams — a third sex worker operating in Dallas — was found dead. She had been shot twice; she also had bruises on her face and a broken nose. Her eyes were missing.
You can see where the name “The Eyeball Killer” came from.
Albright was arrested at home on March 22, 1991, charged with all three murders, and tried in December of that year. He was found guilty of the murder of Shirley Williams and sentenced to life in prison. According to “See No Evil,” a long form piece about Albright and the Eyeball Murders published in Texas Monthly in 1993, Albright’s friends and lawyers maintain that the person who should have been arrested for the crimes was Axton Schindler, who was another person of interest in the case — but even so, I feel confident in saying that the name “The Eyeball Killer” wins the award for Most Terrifying Serial Killer Name In History.