THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SERIAL KILLERS
By Michael Newton
THE A-Z ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SERIAL KILLERS
By Harold Schechter and David Everitt
An encyclopedia is a digest of knowledge, not simply information, representing all that is known as well as the best current thinking on a particular topic or range of topics. Which makes it all the more revealing to read these two encyclopedias on serial killers and learn how shallow that pool of understanding is.
The illusion of knowledge is supported by a vast apparatus of authority. Here are collected the fruits of much painstaking research – of police investigations and judicial proceedings, of evidence interpreted by forensic science and experts in behavioral psychology, then crunched into pages of cold hard statistics. Yes, each book has an entry in the “U” section for “Unsolved.” We still can’t even make a good guess who Jack the Ripper was. But look at all those mug shots, each declaring Case Closed in grainy black-and-white. Read the brutal details of these criminal biographies and then ask if anything meaningful has been left out.
But still it is an illusion. Think of all we don’t know. Take all of those statistics, so useful for ranking the worst of the worst by number of victims. But how many people did Harold Shipman, Britain’s most prolific serial killer, really do away with? 200? 400? Albert Fish is routinely cited as one of the most twisted serial killers ever, but his only confirmed victim was Grace Budd, whose murder sent him to the electric chair. Confessions in such cases are always problematic. Green River killer Gary Ridgway “killed so many women he had a hard time keeping them straight” (a quote Newton attributes to police investigators, and Schecter and Everitt to Ridgway himself – just one example of maddening inconsistency in what should be easily verifiable facts). He eventually pled guilty to 48 counts, but later said he killed 65. Then 71. Could Henry Lee Lucas even ballpark his body count? Apparently not. As for Saucy Jack, Ripperologists give him a “canonical” five victims, with any number of others listed as possibilities.
This inexactitude shouldn’t surprise us. Unless the killer in question had a journal, or was working to some kind of numerological plan (like Alexander Pichushkin, Russia’s “chessboard killer,” who made the claim, later recanted, that he wanted to kill 64 people because that is the number of squares on a chessboard), it seems most serial killers don’t have enough interest in their victims to bother keeping score. And judicial expediency militates against pursuing things beyond the point of a death penalty or 900-year sentence. But while unsurprising, the absence of such basic data – and I could provide many other examples – gives some indication of that shallowness I began by mentioning.
And still there’s more (or less). There are the statistics that tell us that “the United States, with 5 percent or less of the world’s total population, has produced 76 percent of all known serial killers in the 20th century (closer to 85 percent since 1980).” Yes, but . . . how can we trust numbers from other countries like the former Soviet Union and China (where, Newton informs us, at least three serial killers since 1995 have been described in official reports as “China’s first”)? And how accurate can the American numbers be in the face of the tens of thousands of missing persons who simply disappear in the U.S. every year? And just what is a “serial killer” anyway? Both Newton and Schechter dislike the official FBI definition (“three or more separate events with an emotional cooling off period between homicides, each murder taking place at a different location”) for being too seeming-precise and thus not strictly applicable to all cases. They prefer the following definition from the National Institute of Justice: “A series of two or more murders, committed as separate events, usually but not always committed by one offender acting alone. The crimes may occur over a period of time ranging form hours to years. Quite often the motive is psychological, and the offender’s behavior and the physical evidence observed at the crime scene will reflect sadistic, sexual overtones.” This has the virtue of offering a lot of wiggle room (usually . . . may . . . quite often), though it does leave the parameters of the phenomenon rather vague. And can a set of two really be said to constitute a “series”? The more popular definitions are perhaps more meaningful, especially when shared by practitioners. After murdering his third victim, serial-killer-in-training Colin Ireland called the police to say that he had studied the FBI manual and knew “how many you have to do.”
The ultimate illusion of authority, however, is embodied in the person of the serial killer “profiler.” Schechter and Everitt are generally supportive of profiling, while admitting that it is a form of educated guesswork. Newton is more critical, and for good reason. It is debatable whether profiling has ever caught a serial killer, while at times it has clearly played a disastrous role in their investigation. Movies and television, not to mention books by the most celebrated “mindhunters” themselves, have built the persona of the profiler into a kind of superhero. Failures receive less attention. Even Canadian crime aficionados are likely unaware of the fact that John Douglas was called in to advise on the Christine Jessup case (which ended with the wrongful conviction of Guy Paul Morin, an innocent man who nonetheless fit the offender profile). In a recent New Yorker article Malcom Gladwell makes the same point with a bit of acid:
if you make a great number of predictions, the ones that were wrong will soon be forgotten, and the ones that turn out to be true will make you famous. The Hedunit is not a triumph of forensic analysis. It’s a party trick.
What undercuts the expertise of the profilers even more is the fact, amply demonstrated (it seems to me) by the case histories in these volumes, that most serial killers aren’t very bright. Contra the FBI’s profiling program, that found the mean IQ for serial killers to be “bright normal,” and Schechter and Everitt’s conclusion that “serial killers tend to be smart,” the best that can be said for the best of them is that they were able to live functional double lives. Smart people don’t think they can get rid of bodies by cutting them up and flushing the pieces down the toilet. And yet this is how both Dennis Nilsen and Joachim Kroll were caught. Again we can blame Hollywood for the entirely fictional figure of the serial killer as cunning genius and criminal mastermind – someone like Hannibal Lecter who can lecture on Dante and play the Goldberg Variations from memory. In the real world some of the most successful serial killers, like the cretin Ottis Toole or the degenerate Wests, were borderline retarded.
That Hollywood has so coloured our perception of serial killers is a point both encyclopedias are forced to address, including, for example, separate entries for serial killers in novels and on film. Serial murder is a pop phenomenon. It has groupies, wanna-bes, copycats, collectibles (“murderabilia”), and comic books. The explanation offered up by Schechter and Everitt is what you would expect:
In late-twentieth-century America, the serial killer has come to embody a host of gnawing anxieties: anxieties about runaway crime and sexual violence and the breakdown of civil conduct. If we are haunted to the point of obsession by the figure of the psychopathic killer, it is not because we revel in the sadistic and the ghastly (though there is some of that, too, built into the archaic depths of the psyche) but rather because, like children who love to hear spooky stories at bedtime, reading or hearing about serial killers is a way of gaining a sense of control over our fears.
Well, maybe. But reveling in the sadistic and the ghastly does seem to be front and center in the A-Z Encyclopedia, which also endorses some of the worst of the commercialization of the field by reproducing morbid serial killer trading cards and comic book artwork to go along with its biographical sketches. Not to mention indulging in the pervasive black humour and heavy breathing that seems to be so much a part of the territory even Newton, a more sober encyclopedist, can’t always avoid it.
There’s no denying Schechter and Everitt provide a book that is a breezier, easier read. It even includes entries on “Plumbing” and “Refrigerators” (“Serial killers have been known to use their household appliances for purposes that the friendly folks at Maytag and KitchenAid have never dreamed of – not even in their worst nightmares”). There are, however, troubling distortions and inaccuracies. Joseph Mumfre is mooted as possibly having been the “Axeman of New Orleans.” Newton, however, who calls this same killer the “Ax Man,” cites the work of William Kingman as offering conclusive proof that Mumfre never existed. In a section on “Doctors” Jack the Ripper suspect Michael Ostrog is referred to as a “homicidal maniac,” a myth the landmark work of Philip Sugden authoritatively rejects. One expects more reliable information, especially from an encyclopedia.
Newton (“a professional writer who has published more than 180 books”) is more obsessed with information, and is a less involving writer. His criminal histories, which seem determined to name every victim, make for awkward reading. He has also made odd decisions about which killers to include in the main text and which to banish to an extensive (nearly 200-page!) appendix. Why no separate entry for Herman Mudgett (H. H. Holmes), “America’s first serial killer” and a truly unique character whose story has received at least two recent full-length treatments (The Devil in the White City and Schechter’s own Depraved)? Why nothing on Hindley and Brady, the Moors Murderers? They even have their own trading cards!
A final question one is left with has to do with the fate of books like these in the age of Wikipedia. They are, of course, not as up-to-date. Newton in particular ends many entries with a line about how his information reflects all that was known “when this book went to press.” For more recent developments I found myself going online, where the entries were often as in-depth (or more) and at least as factually accurate as what I was getting in print. And with its insets and sidebars, the A-Z Encyclopedia is even formatted a bit like a web-page. So what is the future of the print encyclopedia in a digital era?
I think it lies, can only lie, in being less “authoritative.” Solo authors can’t go head-to-head against entire online communities when it comes to collecting and, yes, even editing vast amounts of data. Instead, one comes away from Newton’s work less impressed by his ability to dig through the facts than by personal elements like his sustained critique of the FBI (their crime classification system, the VICAP program, profiling in general). Meanwhile, Schechter and Everitt, with their crude humour, cartoonish illustrations, and idiosyncratic index of entries, both engage with and sometimes seem to embody popular culture’s adoption of serial killers. As reference works, books like these are no doubt an endangered species. But as critical anatomies of their subject they still offer a valuable, individual perspective we can learn something from.
Review first published online August 25, 2008.