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Early American Serial Killers

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Diabolical and prolific serial killers existed early in America at a time when police were still devising investigative methods to link related murders. Newspapers reported the gory details of their crimes to a terrified, yet fascinated public.

“FULL CONFESSION OF H. H. HOLMES, ” The Journal (New York, NY), April 12, 1896


1794-1799: Harpe Brothers
Micajah “Big” Harpe and Wiley “Little” Harpe terrorize the western frontier for years killing men, women, and children without discretion. Considered to be America’s first recorded serial killers.

“FRANKFORT August 22,” Gazette of the United States, & Philadelphia Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, PA), September 20, 1799

1864-1871: Lydia Sherman, the “Derby Poisoner”
Poisons three husbands and eight children in Derby, Connecticut.

“THE DERBY POISONER,” The Wheeling Daily Register (Wheeling, WV), January 16, 1873

1870-1873: The Bender Family, the “Bloody Benders”
A family of killers prey on travellers who pass through their inn and general store in Labette County, Kansas. Authorities find fifteen bodies with crushed skulls and cut throats buried within miles of the Bender property

“A MONSTER FAMILY,” Las Vegas Gazette (Las Vegas, NM), May 24, 1873

1873-1875: Thomas W. Piper, the “Belfry Butcher”
Parishioners are stunned when Piper, a well-respected sexton at Warren Avenue Baptist Church in Boston, Massachusetts confesses to raping and beating to death four victims after a body of a little girl was found in the belfry of the church

“Thomas W. Piper,” The State Journal (Jefferson City, MO), May 28, 1875

1874: Jesse Pomeroy, the “Boy Fiend”
At age fourteen, Pomeroy viciously stabs two children to death in Boston, Massachusetts. At the time, one of the youngest people in the history of the state to be convicted of murder.


1874-1875: Joseph LaPage
The French-Canadian trapper confesses to rape, murder, and mutilation of school teacher Marietta Ball in St. Albans, Vermont after the discovery of the mutilated body and head of young Josie Langmaid in Pembroke, New Hampshire leads to his arrest. 

“ARREST OF LA PAGE,” The New York Herald, November 4, 1875

1881-1886: Sarah Jane Robinson, the “Boston Borgia” or the “Poison Fiend”
Robinson poisons eleven people to collect insurance money, including her husband, children, and various other friends and family members

“THE BOSTON BORGIA,” The Evening Bulletin (Maysville, KY), November 14, 1888

1881-1891: Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, “The Lambeth Poisoner”
Using strychnine, Dr. Cream poisons two people in Chicago, Illinois and later three women in London, EnglandSome believe him to be Jack the Ripper.

“Cream that Will Hang,” The New Bloomfield (New Bloomfield, PA), October 4, 1881

1884-1908: Belle Gunness
Prolific serial killer believed to have murdered up to forty-two people in Illinois and Indiana. Motivated by collecting insurance money, Gunness kills her husbands, children, and wealthy suitors with whom she entices to her farm through lovelorn newspaper columns.

“MRS. BELLE GUNNESS OF LAPORTE’S MURDER FARM,” Crittenden Record-Press (Marion, KY), May 28, 1908

1885-1900: Minnie Wallace Walkup
Young beauty charms three older men then poisons them with arsenic to collect their money after their deaths

“MRS. MINNIE WALLACE WALKUP KETCHAM,” The Evening World (New York, NY), June 14, 1901, Night Edition

1887: The Kelly Family
Family members William and wife Kate, son Bill, and daughter Kit conspire to kill travellers who stop in at their roadside Kansas ranch. Eleven people fall to their deaths through a secret trapdoor to the Kellys’ basement.

“GHASTLY DISCOVERIES MADE IN THE KELLY RANCH IN NO-MANS-LAND,” Democratic Northwest (Napoleon, OH), January 5, 1888

1888-1894: H. H. Holmes
Holmes, a con artist and bigamist, believed to have killed between 20 to 200 people. Murders many victims in a specially constructed house in Chicago, Illinois dubbed the “Murder Castle.”

“H. H. Holmes, alias Mudgett, the Arch Criminal of Modern History, Who Was Hanged Yesterday,” The San Francisco Call, May 8, 1896

1895: Theo Durrant, “The Demon of the Belfry”
Strangles, murders, and mutilates two young women, Blanche Lamont and Minnie Williams, in San Francisco, California.

“SCENE AT CORONER’S INQUEST,” The San Francisco Call, April 17, 1895

1895-1902: Jane Toppan, “Jolly Jane”
A trained nurse known a “Jolly Jane” for her genial and pleasant personality towards patients, confesses to killing thirty-one people by poison


Discover more:

  • Continue to search Chronicling America to find more historical newspaper coverage!
  • Check out this Topics Page on H. H. Holmes and the Murder Castle.

Comments (4)

  1. This is fantastic!! We know that murderers and serial killers have been around since time began… but when did documenting these actions, especially graphically, become entertainment to the masses? Are there ancient records, hieroglyphs or wall paintings illustrating these actions earlier?

  2. And possably the most notorious of all, Albert Fish. “Hamilton Howard “Albert” Fish was an American serial killer, child rapist and cannibal. He was also known as the Gray Man, the Werewolf of Wysteria, the Brooklyn Vampire, the Moon Maniac, and The Boogey Man.
    19 May 1870 – 16 January 1936.
    Source Wikipedia.

  3. Levi Boone Helm, aka the Kentucky Cannibal was active from 1850-1864 mainly in the northwestern US. There are quite a few newspaper clippings about him.

  4. In a time when technology was primitive, nobody knows the sinister evil lurking in different areas of the United States. From urban slums to rural areas only time and technology can reveal the crimes of unknown actors.

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