Are serial killers born or raised? The argument of nature vs nurture is still ongoing and heavily researched even today. If you have a happy childhood, but killer genes, you might just stand a good chance of living a normal, adult life. If a potential killer has the wrong genetics and a terrible childhood, then it's a dangerous time bomb waiting to happen.
In the Anatomy of Violence, criminologist Adrian Raine believes there are both biological and environmental traits that can turn a child into a cold-blooded killer. Some of the potential traits of a killer includes: being male, a low resting heart rate, brain damage, and a mother who smoked and drank throughout pregnancy, children who are separated from parents before the age of three, or if their parents don't engage with them at a young age. FBI Profiler Jim Clemente explained, "Genetics loads the gun, their personality and psychology aim it, and their experiences pull the trigger."
Researching some of the most notorious serial killers ever known, they all show distinct patterns of childhood abuse and early trauma. So were the parents to blame? Here we look at the early years of these serial killers who really had the childhood from hell.
15 Aileen Wuornos
Born on February 29, 1956, in Rochester, Michigan, serial killer Aileen Wuornos had a childhood filled with abuse and emotional neglect. Her mother, Diane Wuornos, was aged just 15-years-old when she gave birth to her and abandoned Aileen when she was just 4-years-old. She never met her real father, Leo Dale Pittman, as he was behind bars for sex crimes; diagnosed with schizophrenia he hanged himself in prison in 1969.
Aileen was raised by her grandparents and by age 11 she had begun engaging in intimate activities with school friends in exchange for cigarettes. Her grandfather regularly assaulted her at home and at 14-years-old she fell pregnant with his child. She was sent to a home for unwed mothers, gave birth to a son and put him up for adoption.
After she ran away from home, she turned to prostitution to support herself financially. During her time as a sex worker, she shot and killed seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990 claiming they had all attempted to assault her. In 2002, she was sentenced to death by lethal injection.
14 Mary Bell
Mary Bell was a British serial killer born in Glasgow, Scotland, where she shared a one-room house with her mother. As a young girl, Mary would witness her mother, who worked as a prostitute that specialized in sadomasochistic acts, engage in acts with her clients often in the same room her daughter slept. Her mother had made attempts to kill Mary at a young age, but instead, she realized there was extra money to be made if she prostituted her daughter.
The horrific abuse she was subjected to at a young age turned Mary Bell into a killer when she was just 11-years-old. She strangled, mutilated and killed two young boys, 4-year-old Martin Brown and 3-year-old Brian Howe, in 1968. Following her conviction, Judge Justice Cusack said she was "very grave risk to other children" and sentenced to juvenile prison. Since her release, she has been granted a new identity and is believed to be living in the North East of England with a family of her own.
13 Edmund Kemper
Serial killer Edmund Kemper hated women - he murdered several members of his own family and six young women in the Santa Cruz, California, in the 1970s. Born in Burbank, California, his parents divorced when he was 9-years-old and his alcoholic mother blamed him for the divorce. She was overly critical of her son and forced him to live in the basement of the house so he couldn't be around his sisters.
From a young age, Edmund fantasized killing his own mother and he also turned to torturing cats to release his frustration. Aged 15-years-old, he was sent to live with his grandparent's on their farm and they confiscated his rifle because he wouldn't stop killing animals. Edmund turned his rage on his grandparents, shooting them to death and later he claimed he wanted to "see what it felt like."
As an adult, standing 6-foot-9-inches tall, weighing over 250 lbs and with an IQ of 145, he overpowered his victims both mentally and physically. He took the lives of ten women and although his defense team tried to seek the 'not-guilty by reason of insanity' he was classified at legally sane. Edmund is now behind bars at the California Medical Facility and aged 68-years-old.
12 Pedro Filho
Brazilian Pedro Filho was one of the most prolific serial killers convicted of murdering at least 71 people and sentenced to 128 years in prison. During his time behind bars, he killed four more victims. Born in 1954 at a farm in Santa Rita do Sapucai, Brazil, he suffered an injured skull from birth due to the beatings his father gave his pregnant mother.
Pedro said his first age to kill was at 13-years-old when he pushed his cousin into a sugar cane press - his cousin survived but the many other victims which followed did not. His mother was butchered with a machete by his own father and to get his revenge Pedro Still in Mogi das Cruzes, he executed his own father at a local prison, after his killed his father, cut out a piece of his heart, and ate it. Behind bars, Pedro claimed he had murdered at least 100 people - although only 71 were proven in court.
11 Donald "Pee Wee" Gaskins
Donald "Pee Wee" Gaskins gained his nickname due to being very small for his age - something which he was bullied for his whole life. His childhood was one of abuse and neglect; aged just 1-years-old he drank a bottle of kerosene which caused his to suffer constant convulsions. His mother would have many boyfriends throughout his childhood and they would subject him to beatings. He also suffered from night terrors and became a bedwetter.
Between 1953 and 1982, he would pick up hitchhikers, both men and women, along the coastal highways of the American South - something he would later refer to as "coastal kills." His victims would be spaced out once every six weeks for his own pleasure later confessing to more than 100 victims - although he was convicted of only nine of the murders.
10 Albert DeSalvo
Albert "The Boston Strangler" DeSalvo murdered 13 women in the Boston area between 1962 to 1964. He was convicted after the discovery of DNA evidence that excluded 99.9% of the remaining population. Born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, his father Frank DeSalvo was a violent alcoholic who once knocked out of Albert's mother's teeth and bent her fingers back until they broke. As a child, he turned to torturing animals as a way to deal with his rage and was known to the police for shoplifting.
Despite his confession and the DNA evidence, many conspiracy theorists DeSalvo was not the Boston Strangler and that the real murderer was still at large. True crime writer Susan Kelly, the author of Strangler Bureau, argued that the murders were the work of several killers, rather than a single individual. In 1973, he was stabbed to death aged 42-years-old by a fellow inmate at Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane.
9 Pedro Lopez
Colombian serial killer Pedro Lopez was sentenced to prison for killing 80 girls, although he claimed that the actual number is more than 300 victims between Peru and Ecuador. He was born in 1948, one of 13 children and when his mother caught him aged just 8-years-old assaulting his sister, he was evicted from the family home. Alone at a young age, he was picked up by a man, take to an abandoned house and repeatedly assaulted. Age 12, he was enrolled into a school for orphans but a male teacher had begun to assault him too.
He began killing as a teenager and claimed that he would kill around three girls a week, he hauntingly revealed, "I like the girls in Ecuador, they are more gentle and trusting, more innocent." In 1998, after 18 years in prison, he was released on the grounds of "good behavior" and his bail was set at just $50.
8 John George Haigh
John George Haigh became known as "The Acid Murderer" after he was convicted of killing nine people. He was well respected, immaculately dressed and middle class, but he hid a secret. In the late 1940s, Haigh would either batter or shoot his victims to death, then melted their bodies using sulphuric acid before forging papers so he could collect money from the insurance payouts. He arrogantly believed if the police could never find a body then he could not be convicted - but they had enough evidence to sentence him to death.
As child growing up in England, Haigh was made to live in confinement within a 10-feet wall, which his religious father put up to keep the outside world out. Throughout his childhood, Haigh spoke of having reoccurring religious nightmares. Despite being kept in solitude, Haigh was a talented pianist and won a school scholarship - however, he was later expelled for stealing from the cash box. Something which was later revealed not to be his worst of crimes.
7 Richard Ramirez
Serial killer Richard "The Night Stalker" Ramirez was a brutal criminal who would break into the homes of his victims at night, attacking them before killing. Born in El Paso, Texas, to Mexcan-American parents, he had a troubled childhood and spent a lot of time with his sadistic older cousin. His cousin would brag about kidding and sexually assaulting women during his time as a soldier in the Vietnam War. His father was also evil, subjecting Ramirez and his six siblings to vicious beatings.
Ramirez later became a devout satanist and during his two-year rampage, which took the lives of 13 victims between 1984 and 1985, he terrorized the streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Following a long trial, which cost $1.8 million making it one of the most expensive of all time, Ramirez was sentenced to death row and he died behind bars aged 53-years-old from B-cell lymphoma.
6 Anthony Sowell
Anthony Sowell, known as the "Cleveland Strangler", was sentenced to death row for the murders of 11 women. He would invite women back to his home, and then when they attempted to leave, would be bound and gagged before he killed them. At his home, investigators discovered four bodies, laid in shallow graves in the basement or in the crawl space.
One psychologist revealed that obsessive-compulsive disorder and a traumatic childhood was what drove Sowell to kill. His mother's sister died, so she took into the family home seven nieces and would punish the children with regular violent beatings. Sowell later revealed to his psychiatrist that he has a vague memory of being abused as a child, although one of his nieces claimed he was in fact the abuser and would often attack her almost daily.
5 Andrei Chikatilo
Soviet serial killer Andrei "The Butcher of Rostiv" Chikatilo was convicted of murdering 53 people, although he claimed the actual victim count was much higher. He would not only brutally assault his victims, but after killing them, he would mutilate the bodies too - earning him the name "The Butcher". In 1994, he was executed by gunshot in Novocherkassk, Russia, aged 57-years-old.
Chikatilo's childhood was one of the worst, he was born during the famine caused by Joseph Stalin in Ukraine. His family and those in the surrounding area went with very little food. He later claimed he had never eaten bread until the age of 12-years-old; his family would eat grass and leaves to survive. Most hauntingly; his older brother was kidnapped at 4-years-old and cannibalized by starving neighbors. Something which Chikatilo would never forget for his entire life.
4 Rose West
Rose West and her husband Fred West were two of the most evil serial killer couples in England. They murdered ten girls, including two members of their own family, for their own gratification. They hid many of the bodies around the home and also dug shallow graves in the garden to cover up their sinister crimes. Rose was sentenced to life imprisonment and Fred took his own life behind bars.
Rose herself had a tough childhood; her mother had electro-convulsive therapy following a struggle with depression, and her father suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, which made him prone to violent attacks. Later, when Rose married Fred, she fell pregnant at a young age and they turned their small home into a torture chamber for their victims. Since their crimes came to light, the house in Gloucester, England, has been demolished as neighbors couldn't stand to live beside a place where the worst crimes thinkable had took place.
3 Henry Lee Lucas & Ottis Toole
Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole were close friends, turned lovers, then serial killers as they drifted around the U.S. together on their crime spree. Exactly how many people they killed between them is unknown, although it's believed to be hundreds. Lucas was convicted of 157 murders, despite his claims that he killed around 3000, and Toole was convicted of only 6 murders - which again, many believe to be far from the real victim count.
The two had similar upbringings filled with both psychological and physical abuse. They were both dressed as young girls during their younger years and beaten regulary - Lucas' brother once attacked him so badly that he lost an eye and Toole was forced by his father to endure abuse at the hands of a family friend when he was just 5-years-old.
2 John Wayne Gacy
John Wayne Gacy, who dressed as clown named "Pogo" for children's parties, turned into a serial killer and claimed the lives of 33 men and teenage boys. He would lure his victims back to his home in Cook County, Illinois, between 1972 and 1978. Investigators later found the 26 of the bodies in the crawlspace of his home and the others were discarded in the Des Plaines River. In 1994, Gacy was executed by lethal injection.
Gacy's father was an alcoholic and physically abusive to all his children. One of Gacy's earliest memories was being beaten so badly with a broom across the head that it knocked him unconscious. During forth grade, Gacy began to experience blackouts and when his father visited him in hospital he would call him a "sissy" and a "Mama's boy." Later, Gacy adopted the alter ego of Pogo the Clown to bring children the happiness he was cheated out of from a young age.
1 Ed Gein
Ed Gein's childhood and relationship with his mother was the influence for Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 movie Psycho. When detectives visited his home following a string of missing women cases, they found one of the most disturbing crime scenes they had ever come across at his home. There were furnishings made from the bodies of his victims including chair covers, belts and bowls of their skulls.
As a young boy, Gein was only allowed to leave the family farm to attend school - fellow pupils claimed that he would sit, laughing alone to himself. Outside of school, his mother would preach to him about the evil world outside, the evil of drinking and the belief that all women were prostitutes and connected to the devil. Gein was punished if he ever tried to make friends.
Following the death of his mother, he was truly alone in the world and began boarding up the windows on all the rooms his mother used. Investigators who searched the house found that whilst the rest of the rooms were in terrible conditions, it was only the rooms that his mother used which were kept in perfection condition.
Sources: biography.com, crimefeed.com