It’s true that the term “serial murder” didn’t exist until the 1960s (1961 to be precise, when, according to theOxford English Dictionary, it was coined by German critic Siegfried Kracauer to describe the ineffably creepy child-killer played by Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s movie, M). As for the kinds of criminals we now refer to by that name, the sobering act is that they have always existed. They were just called different things in the old days–“murder demons,” “bloodthirsty fiends,” “devils in human shape.”
From the early years of the Republic, our country has been home to a terrifying array of sex-killers, mass murderers, and homicidal maniacs. Moreover, many of these monsters attracted an enormous amount of public attention, becoming the subjects of frenzied newspaper stories, best-selling true crime pamphlets, and popular ballads. Exactly why these once-notorious figures have faded from collective memory is an interesting and complex issue, one I explore in my new book Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of. Here’s a rogue’s gallery of 10 long forgotten “multi-murderers” (as they were also sometimes called)–the celebrity psychos of their day.’
1) Albert Hicks
On Thursday morning, March 21, 1860, an unmanned ship, the E. A. Johnson, drifted into New York Harbor. Boarding the boat, searchers found pools of gore everywhere and the cabin in a shambles: “shocking signs of carnage” which left no doubt that the crew had fallen victim to a “dreadful and bloody tragedy” (as the penny press reported). Following the leads of several witnesses, police swiftly tracked down and arrested a suspect, Albert Hicks, a hulking brute who prided himself on being “the worst man who ever lived.” Eventually, Hicks confessed that, after shipping out on the vessel–an oyster sloop bound for Virginia with a thousand dollars in cash–he had butchered the other three crew members with an axe, stolen the money, and absconded in a lifeboat. His open-air hanging on Beldoe’s Island (future home of the Statue of Liberty) was a gala event, witnessed by an estimated 10,000 New Yorkers, many of them watching from a small armada of sightseeing vessels rented out for the occasion.
Crowned America’s “Queen Poisoner” by the press, Lydia began her homicidal reign in the mid-1860s when she disposed of her unemployed husband and five dependent children with arsenic. She then married a wealthy, much older farmer who perished one year later after consuming a bowl of his wife’s specially seasoned clam chowder. Left with a considerable inheritance, Lydia could have retired from the poisoning racket if money had been her sole motivation. Like other psychopathic killers, however, she murdered not for profit but for fun. Marrying again, she promptly dispatched her two stepchildren, then polished off her new hubby with a cup of arsenic-spiked hot chocolate. Thanks to Victorian male qualms about executing women, she escaped the gallows following her arrest and conviction in 1871 and was sentenced to life in prison.
3) Anton Probst
Perpetrator of one of the most monstrous mass murders in American history, Anton Probst was an unskilled German laborer perpetually short of money. Hired as a field hand by a kindhearted Philadelphia farmer named Christopher Deering, Probst repaid his employer’s generosity by systemically slaughtering the entire Deering family– father, mother, four children (including an infant in its cradle)–along with two other innocents who happened to be on the scene. His motive? To steal the small sum of cash the farmer kept at home. Following his execution on June 8, 1866–exactly two months after the atrocity–Probst’s right arm was amputated and sold to a Bowery dime museum, where it attracted hordes of morbid curiosity seekers, eager to view the ghoulish relic of the man the New York Timescalled “the greatest criminal of the nineteenth century.”
Anyone who doubts that serial sex-murderers every bit as monstrous as John Wayne Gacy or Ted Bundy existed in the distant past should check out the career of Franklin Evans, aka “The Northwood Monster.” In the summer of 1872, the 64-year-old Evans lured his adolescent grandniece, Georgianna Lovering, into the woods near her home, strangled her to death, then raped and sexually mutilated her corpse. Following his arrest, he confessed to a string of unsolved atrocities, among them the random mutilation-murder of a physically deformed five-year-old girl he snatched from her New Hampshire home, the rape-murder of a 14-year-old schoolgirl in Maine, and the butchering of a 15-year-year-old Massachusetts girl, along with her 12-year-old brother who had witnessed the crime. When he received his inevitable death sentence, the press made no pretense of journalistic objectivity. “For his unnamable and incredible crimes,” one newspaper exulted, “he will be swung like a dog.”
5) Louis Wagner
Until Lizzie Borden’s homicidal rampage, New England’s most notorious axe murder was the “Smutty Nose Horror” of 1873. Situated about 10 miles off the coast of New Hampshire, Smutty Nose–part of a rugged archipelago known as the Isles of Shoals-was home to a six-member family of Norwegian fisherfolk, the Hontvets. On the night of March 5, 1873, while the three men were away on a fishing trip, a family acquaintance named Louis Wagner, intent on robbery, snuck into the cottage and butchered two of the women with an axe. The third woman, 26-year-old Maren Hontvet, escaped by crawling through a window and concealing herself on the rocky shoreline. Wagner, who had fled to Boston, was swiftly tracked down and transported back to Portsmouth, where a lynch-mob of ten thousand people had to be held back at bayonet point by a company of marines. He was legally hanged two years later.
On the morning of October 8, 1876, a 17-year-old girl named Josie Langmaid set out on her daily two-mile walk to school in the town of Pembroke, New Hampshire. She never arrived. That night, searchers discovered her butchered and decapitated corpse in the woods. Her head was found the following morning a quarter-mile away. The culprit turned out to be a serial sex-killer named Joseph LaPage who had fled his native Quebec in 1871 after raping his 13-year-old sister-in-law and, three years later, had escaped punishment for the mutilation-murder of a Vermont schoolteacher. This time he wasn’t as lucky. Quickly identified, tried, and convicted “The French Monster” (as the press dubbed him) was hanged in March, 1878.
7) Andrew Kehoe
Prior to the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City by the anti-government fanatic Timothy McVeigh, the most heinous act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history was the “Bath School Disaster” of 1927. Its perpetrator was a man named Andrew Kehoe, a respected farmer with a background in electrical engineering who had served as treasurer of the school board. Descending into paranoid madness, Kehoe managed over the course of several months to smuggle several hundred pounds of explosives into the basement of the community’s two-story school building. Detonated on the morning of May 18, 1927 by a crude timer, the blast killed two teachers and 36 children. While rescuers were digging through the rubble for survivors, Kehoe, after murdering his wife, drove a Ford pickup loaded with dynamite and shrapnel to the scene and detonated the car bomb, killing himself and eight other people.
On December 15, 1927, Hickman, a sociopathic ex-divinity student, abducted 12-year-old Marian Parker, daughter of a Los Angeles bank officer. Agreeing to the $1500 ransom demand, Marian’s father drove to the designated drop-off spot where he was given a glimpse of his child seated on the front seat of her kidnapper’s car, her cheeks flushed, eyes opened wide, a blanket thrown over her shoulders. As Hickman drove off with the money, he flung open the passenger door and tossed his victim onto the pavement. Parker ran to retrieve his daughter, only to find that she had been reduced to a limbless, disemboweled corpse with rouged cheeks and eyes sewn open with wire thread. After the biggest manhunt in California history, Hickman was captured a week later. He was hanged at San Quentin on October 19, 1928.
9) Harry Powers
Using a fake identity, Powers–a paunchy, middle-aged vacuum cleaner salesman–made contact with a string of widows, divorcees, and spinsters through a midwestern “lonely hearts” club. In the summer of 1931, he lured two of these women, Dorothy Lemke and Asta Eichler–along with Mrs. Eichler’s three young children–to a remote cabin in the rural hamlet of Quiet Dell, Virginia, where he starved, tortured and murdered all five victims before disposing of their bodies in a drainage ditch. Convicted in December of that year, “The Bluebeard of Quiet Dell” (as the tabloids dubbed him) was hanged three months later. The exact tally of his victims is unknown, though Powers ultimately suggested that he had slain as many as 50.
10) Eddie Leonski
Unique among American serial killers, the boyish-looking Leonski perpetrated his murderous spree half a world away. Part of the first wave of G.I.s stationed in Australia at the outbreak of World War II, he prowled the streets of Melbourne during the nightly “brownouts,” when street lights were dimmed and window shades drawn to protect against possible Japanese aerial bombardment. Between May 2 and May 19, 1942, “The Brownout Strangler” (as the newspapers dubbed him) raped and murdered three women and attacked several others, setting off a citywide panic. Drunkenly confessing to a friend, he was hanged on November 9, earning a special distinctions in the annals of infamy as the second American soldier to be executed in World War II.