Serial killing is often positioned as a product of the 20th century (with a few notable exceptions, like H.H. Holmes and Jack the Ripper, aside), and surely the 20th century furnished a huge number of examples of serial killers. Indeed, when people talk about the ‘first’ serial killers, they rarely cast their net further back than 1800, ignoring centuries of human history and the fact that numerous pre-1800 serial killers have been recorded, and undoubtedly many more slipped the net not just judicially speaking but also socially speaking.
I’ve always been intrigued by Jack the Ripper in particular thanks to the mythology built up around him, but also because there’s a deep connection between serial killing and sex crime, as there clearly was in his case. While not all serial killers engage in sex crime or have misogyny as a primary motive (as evidenced by the fact that some have targeted men, or have gone after people indiscriminately), there’s a clear and obvious correlation here. People who get off on killing people over an extended period of time, people who like to play games with their prey, tend to go after women.
And thanks to the way we talk about and collate history, many of these crimes have been lost to time. Which is a stark commentary on how little women in history seem to matter. It’s undoubtedly true that serial killers existed before the 19th century, because some of them have been noted: Elizabeth Bathory, for example, cut a swath through young women and girls in the 1500s, as did Peter Niers. Killers have targeted servants and slaves for centuries, counting on their lower social status to insulate them from the repercussions of their crimes; who would bother to investigate a servant’s death that quickly? Who would punish someone for destroying their own property?
Yet, how many strings of serial killings of women went undiscussed or unrecorded in their societies? The desire to torture, kill, and sexually assault women is not a product of modern society, as evidenced by the fact that it’s been recorded almost throughout human history, albeit often obscurely and in a way that forces us to read between the lines. We know that rape has been used as a tool of colonisation for centuries, for example, and we know that mass killings over extended periods of time were also a colonialist tool used to terrify native populations.
Why, then, do we persist in classifying serial killing as a modern issue? Why isn’t there more widespread research to identify older cases and discuss their origins and who might have been involved? Clearly it’s an uphill battle to find evidence that may be centuries old, but it’s still important, because it’s part of a larger puzzle about women in society, misogyny, and the interacting systems that have historically turned women into objects or playthings to be moved across chess boards and killed at will.
How many serial killers stalked the streets of ancient cities in safety, picking on the women they perceived as the weakest in society? How many targeted servants, slaves, people who followed minority religions, native people, disabled people, and others who were unlikely to be missed, or who were considered acceptable casualties? Systematic elimination and genocide have established roots in human cultures even if the word ‘genocide’ primarily tends to be applied to modern crimes, and serial killing has similar origins; there have always been people who take pleasure from killing, from the challenge of trying not to be caught, from the thrill of moving within a society that speaks of their crimes but doesn’t recognize them.
By treating serial killing as a modern invention rather than an ancient practice, we miss years of history and complex layers of human society and attitudes. We have a tendency to erase our history, to focus only on the present to the exclusion of the past, and to miss the lessons that might be carried in events that happened long ago, and sometimes far away. Yet, just as each modern case of serial killing captivates society and provides insight into the workings of how we interact with each other, who we value, and how we deal with criminal elements in our midst, ancient serial killings also create a fascinating and important opportunity for learning.
Are we, perhaps, afraid to delve too deeply because we are afraid that some of our social icons and idealised societies might have yawning cracks? Should we talk, for example, about Elizabeth I’s persecution of Catholics and her sister Mary’s persecution of Protestants? Should we discuss royalty and high-ranking officials who took advantage of their positions to openly slaughter women and girls, sometimes for years, before finally being brought up on charges? Should we discuss that societies like Ancient Greece and Rome, held up as ideals of Western culture, undoubtedly had misogynistic serial killers and that they were both enabled by society and probable reinforcers of social attitudes about women?
Violent crimes against women are a part of rape culture, they are evidence of misogyny, and they aren’t new or novel things. Serial crimes of the past may not seem as widespread or important as they do now because of the passage of time, but they provide valuable clues to who we were then, to the society we live in now, and to who we will become in the future. Iconography serves no one; we must be frank about where we came from and where we are going.
And about the fact that violence against women has been a part of human society for a very, very long time.