The Real Horrors of our History
Murders are nothing new, and yet we remain fascinated. Wanting to know why, how, and to catch a glimpse of the crime scene photos (’cause we’re weird like that). And that is why this page is dedicated to Historical Murders Most Gruesome and the people responsible for catching them.
America and the UK have, over the centuries, shared knowledge, resources, and murderers. But who was the first serial killer, which country got an official police force first, and why did some of these killers go uncaught?
The First Serial Killers
Whilst it is often said H.H. Holmes was America’s first serial killer there were others who came before who would also have fit the terms of the definition. It may be more accurate to say that Holmes was the first to be termed a serial killer. So, what is required to label a murderer a serial killer? Well, whilst it would be nice to be really specific and say ‘this is what it takes to consider a series of murders the work of a serial killer’, it’s not as simple as that. What the police require to label someone a serial killer may be different to what researchers require, and of course it has changed over the years. But general guidelines would be:
- three or more murders
- separate events, usually within a comfort zone or around a central fixed point
- common characteristics
- A cooling off period between murders (of varying lengths)
H.H. Holmes purchased an empty lot in 1887 where he began construction of the building that would become known as the World’s Fair Hotel. He took his first known victim in 1891 and his last in 1895. No one knows exactly how many peoples lives he took but he confessed to 27, and even this seemed dubious.
Mary Ann Cotton is said to be Britain’s first serial killer. Her preferred method was Arsenic; this gave the symptoms of gastroenteritis which would have regularly been responsible for the deaths of the working class. Her first murder could have been as early as 1852 and her last in 1872.
There are many similarities between the US Policing and the UK policing through the ages. And just as many differences. But the UK was the first to put an organised force in place. In 1829 Sir Robert Peel established the first official police force in the greater London are. In America in the 1838 the city of Boston became home to the first American Police Force. Before that both countries had unofficial, albeit organised, methods of dealing with crime it was largely civilians who took the roles of walking the streets to keep an eye out for criminal activity and danger.
Laws existed for the trial and sentencing of those accused of committing murder long before the police force came into effect. But the trial relied on people’s testimonies and what little evidence they could find. Even before forensics and policing, people needed to justify their actions for sentencing someone to death – and in most cases, the accuser wanted someone else to make the decision. The evidence just wasn’t quite as damning.
Techniques for detecting evidence from a crime scene are constantly evolving. The first recorded evidence of science being used to prove something was in 275BC when Archimedes used water displacement to prove that the gold in the Kings crown had been mixed with silver and was lighter than the same amount of gold. And autopsies have been used since 1302 – but back then, the individual conducting the autopsy had very few tools at his disposal to determine cause of death. Smell, observation, and taste. It wasn’t until 1832 that science was able to detect poisoning. Twenty years before Mary Ann Cotton committed her first murder with Arsenic.
Crime scene photography began in 1888 but the equipment was very cumbersome to transport and set up. Despite this the police encouraged it’s use to record crime scenes. And this is how we come to have images of H.H. Holmes and some of the evidence from the scene.
Whilst blood type could be determined in 1901 it wasn’t until 1984 that DNA was discovered. But a sample submitted to the lab could take weeks to get back. It’s only more recently, with the assistance of better computer technology that the results are returned faster. Speeding up the investigatory process – at least where the evidence is concerned.
Why were some serial killers and murderers never caught?
Without evidence there was only hearsay and even though some techniques were available at the times Mary Ann Cotton and H.H. Holmes were active you first needed someone to point the finger. Then you needed those available techniques were you were. Of course, some serial killers and murderers stop killing before they are caught. Either because they have found something else to fill the need or as a result of circumstances they couldn’t control.
And besides, serial killers don’t want to be caught. It’s only when they start feeling like they can’t be caught that they might make a mistake that could lead investigators back to them.
These days the evidence gets bagged and stored securely, where it can be returned to if new evidence was to arise. But in the early days of evidence collection they would not have had as secure or controlled conditions for it’s storage and it would have deteriorated over time.
Here are six modern day serial killers who were never caught – it’s still a difficult task to catch a serial killer, even with all of today’s resources and techniques.
Movies Influenced by Historical Murders Most Gruesome
Many movies and TV shows recount the events of certain murders, there are also some who have created entirely new characters and stories for us to fear based on real people and events from our history.
Read about more Historical Murders Most Gruesome
The horror of real murder and the investigations that took place can be better understood by reading further. Below are a number of books that further delve into our gruesome past and particular murders. And as you read pay attention to the evidence, how was it processed then and what did they learn from it, and how would it be processed now – does that influence your view on the person found guilty?