In 1974, the phrase serial killer was first used to describe a mass murderer by FBI agent Robert Ressler. By 1981, the term was first used in print in a “New York Times” article describing Wayne Williams, a serial killer who was active in Atlanta from 1979-1981. Despite being a relatively new term, serial killers have been prevalent since the beginning of time and killers were able to get away with a lot prior to the 20th century. During the Victorian Era (1837-1901), some of the most horrific true crime stories in history occurred and back then, the term “serial killer” was a century away from being coined. Take a look at 10 of the most notorious serial killers of the Victorian Era in the gallery below and let us know your favorite true crime story from this list in the comments section on social media.
John “Liver-Eating” Johnson (1824-1900)
John “Liver-Eating” Johnson was born in Little York, New Jersey and served in the Mexican-American War while still underage. After striking an officer, he left the Army and went West to pursue gold digging. At some point, Johnson developed a vendetta against the Crow tribe and during his lifetime scalped and killed 300 people. He got his nickname “Liver-Eating” because he would cut out and eat the liver of every Crow he murdered. In 1972, actor Robert Redford portrayed Johnson in the film “Jeremiah Johnson,” which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival.
Mary Ann Cotton (1832-1873)
Mary Ann Cotton was born in Low Moorsley, England and at the age of 16, she left home to become a nurse. At the age of 20, she married her first husband and they had several children, many of whom died without registration. Her first husband died from an intestinal disorder in 1865 and she collected his life insurance. That same year, she married her second husband and by 1866 he fell ill and died suddenly, to which she collected his life insurance. She met her third husband in 1866 after she became his housekeeper and shortly after, Cotton’s mother, her daughter and two of her third husband’s children soon passed away. She married her third husband in 1867 and they had their first child together, however, that child passed away just one year later. Her third and only surviving husband caught on to his wife’s behavior after learning she had his older children pawning their household items for money, kicking her out of the home. At this point, Cotton was living on the street and was soon introduced to her fourth husband, later marrying him in 1870. In 1871, her fourth husband passed away from gastric fever, with Cotton collecting his and his son’s life insurances. Following the death of her son Charles Edward Cotton, suspicions arose and at this point, Cotton had lost three husbands, her mother, her friend, a lover and eleven children from stomach fevers. After doing some tests on Charles Edward, arsenic was discovered and Cotton was arrested. The trial began after the birth of her 13th children in 1873 and she was later hanged. In 2016, the British two-part television miniseries “Dark Angel” debuted, which was based on Mary Ann Cotton’s life.
Lydia Sherman (1824-1878)
Lydia Sherman was born in Burlington, New Jersey and was orphaned as a child. At 17, she met her first husband and they moved to New York City. Her husband soon lost his job and became depressed, then Sherman poisoned him with arsenic in 1864. A few weeks later, she poisoned three of her children with arsenic and then poisoned two more in 1865. At the time, she worked as a nurse and married her second husband in 1868. She poisoned her second husband that same year with arsenic. In 1870, she married her third husband and poisoned him in 1871. She was caught and convicted in 1872, but in 1877 she escaped and continued her crimes by poisoning two more children. She was brought back to prison, passing away from cancer in 1878.
“Wild” Bill Longley (1851-1878)
“Wild” Bill Longley was born in Austin County, Texas and spent his childhood learning how to shoot. In 1868, Longley committed his first murder, killing a former slave traveling through town. In 1870, he committed to spend five years in the army, however he left in 1872. In 1873 he returned to Texas and was accused of murdering another freedman. By 1875, he shot and murdered his childhood best friend and fled town. He committed another murder in 1876 and that same year became a sharecropper for a preacher, whom he later murdered. He was arrested in 1877 and was executed in 1878. In 1958, actor Steve McQueen portrayed Longley in an episode of “Tales of Wells Fargo.”
The Bloody Benders
The Bender Family lived in Labette County, Kansas and consisted of father John, mother Elvira, their son John Jr. and daughter Kate, who owned and operated an inn. The elder Benders both spoke little English and were feared by members of the community. Whereas their children were both attractive and social, with their daughter earning a reputation in town as a psychic and self-proclaimed healer. In 1872 and 1873, many people in the area started going missing and several bodies were discovered with similar injuries in Drum Creek. Suspicions arose and everything pointed back to the Bender family. When the Bender family fled town, their inn was investigated and a secret room was found covered in blood. Upon further investigation, nine bodies were found on the property and it’s believed that the killings were performed by the entire family. Although John Jr. died during the escape, none of the other Benders were ever found.
Amelia Dyer (1836-1896)
Amelia Dyer was born in Pyle Marsh, England and after getting married, she trained to become a nurse. However, she soon learned that she could have more success through baby farming— a practice of adopted unwanted babies for cash. Dyer began by allowing the babies she farmed to die of malnutrition and neglect, however, she soon resorted to murdering the children. She was first caught in 1869 after a doctor caught on to the suspicious number of infant deaths, but instead of being convicted of murder she was sentenced to six months of hard labor. Upon her release, she returned to baby farming, but instead of visiting a doctor for death certificates, she disposed of the bodies on her own. In 1896, one of the babies was found in the Thames and upon investigating, evidence led police back to Dyer. She was arrested and executed by hanging in 1896. She was estimated to have killed over 400 infants over the course of several decades.
Jane Toppan (1854-1938)
Jane Toppan was born in Boston, Massachusetts and was given up for adoption by her father, an alcoholic, to an orphanage. She was taken in as an indentured servant to a local family and in 1885 she began training to become a nurse. She began abusing her patients early on and after being fired, she became a private nurse. She began poisoning her victims in 1895, killing her landlord, her foster sister, several of her patients and their family members. Toxicology reports were eventually made on some of her victims and when poison was found, Toppan was suspected. She was arrested in 1901 and by 1902, she’d confessed to murdering 32 people. She went to trial, but was found not guilty for reasons of insanity and was committed to life at the Taunton State Hospital.
H.H. Holmes (1861-1896)
H.H. Holmes was born in Gilmanton, New Hampshire and while in college, he became fascinated with human anatomy. He moved to Chicago, Illinois to escape some scams he’d run on the East Coast and began working at a local drug store, which he’d later purchase. In 1887, he began constructing what would become his murder castle, which contained secret passageways, gas chambers and chutes that he’d use for his murders. His first few murders occurred began in 1891 and included many of his mistresses, who’d gone missing in the area. Holmes murdered his victims through various methods of suffocation, most commonly an overexposure to chloroform, overexposure to gas fumes or loss of oxygen from being trapped in an airless vent. Insurance companies began coming after Holmes and in 1894, he fled Chicago. He traveled to Fort Worth, Texas and attempted to rebuild in castle but later relocated to St. Louis, Missouri where he attempted to take out a life insurance policy on himself then fake his own death. Instead, when this didn’t work, he attempted this scam alongside his business partner Ben Pitezel, who he’d instead murder for real. He was able to pull off the scam and even convinced Pitezel’s children to travel with him to Canada. A search ultimately began for Pitezel’s children and the bodies of two of the children were found in his Toronto home. Holmes was eventually tracked down and arrested in Boston in 1895, where he was put on trial for Pitezel’s death and sentenced to death. Following his conviction, Holmes confessed to 27 murders throughout Chicago, Indianapolis, and Toronto and was hanged in 1896.
Jack the Ripper
Jack the Ripper is one of the most famous unidentified serial killers in true crime history. Jack the Ripper was active in the East London neighborhoods of Whitechapel and Spitalfields, primarily targeting sex workers in the area. At the time, the murders of five women from August to November of 1888 were believed to have been connected to Jack the Ripper, although some sources claim he was active until 1891. Each of these victims had their throats slashed and several had their internal organs missing (notably their uteruses), making many believe Jack the Ripper had some anatomical knowledge. The police did a thorough investigation of these murders and while there were some suspects, including a member of the British royal family, Jack the Ripper was never identified.
Belle Gunness (1859-1908)
Belle Gunness was born in Selbu, Norway and she moved to the United States at age 22. Gunness married her first husband in 1884 and they owned a candy store, which later burned down. The couple collected life insurance on their business after the fire. The couple had two young children, both of whom died from inflammation of the large intestine, which can occur from poisoning. Gunness collected insurance checks from both of these deaths. In 1890, Gunness put out a life insurance policy on her first husband and he died that same day, prompting her to move to Indiana and buy a pig farm. In 1892, Gunness married her second husband and a week later, his daughter died in her care. Eight months after their wedding, Gunness’s second husband died from a skull injury and she collected his life insurance. In 1905, Gunness began placing marriage ads in Chicago papers and when they were answered, many of the men went missing. In 1908, Gunness’s farm burned down and upon investigation, 11 bodies were found. Initially one of the bodies was suspected to be Gunness, however, it was considerably shorter and lighter than Gunness. It was never officially determined whether or not Gunness had died in the fire or escaped, but she did claim at least 14 victims on her farm. Most of the bodies found were severely mutilated, with the limbs and heads severed from the torsos.