Jack the Ripper - Not the First

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One long-held misconception is that the murderer popularly known as Jack the Ripper was the first serial killer or the first sex killer. Many theories even go further and claim that serial crimes were unprecedented

and give that as the reason the Ripper remained uncaught. Yet even by Victorian standards, serial murder was not new and Jack cannot claim the title of the first serial killer.


Serial murder has long been a part of society, and although it is uncommon, it was not invented in the later part of the 19th Century. Serial murder, that is a series of murders that have no gainful motive, can find its roots almost nineteen hundred years earlier in Rome with the first known case of multiple homicides by a woman.

Locusta was a poisoner who wreaked havoc around Rome in the first century AD. Under the guidance of Agrippina the Younger and the Emperor Nero, she murdered hundreds of people, including the emperor Claudius. The woman’s talents were used among the wealthy to dispose of unwanted family members, spouses or lovers, yet she also used her poison skills for pure hedonistic enjoyment. Locusta opened an underground school where she taught her art to over a hundred pupils. Locusta’s poisonous spree and royal protection came to an end when Nero took his own life.


As we continue through the passing centuries, many serial killers may have been forgotten, yet a few of the more aggressive and noteworthy are still known to us.


Gilles de Rais was burned at the stake on October 26, 1440, after confessing, after weeks of torture, to the murders of hundreds of children.


After a career as a noted captain in the armies of Joan of Arc, de Rais led a reclusive life away from the public eye. During this time, according to the court reports, he abducted hundreds of small children who were sodomised or raped before being murdered. Over time, the legality of the court proceedings and the truthfulness of confession have both been questioned, though for de Rais it is too late.


One of the most famous literary characters was in fact based on a real serial killer. Bram Stoker’s Dracula was named after the fifteenth century king Vlad Tepes (the Impaler) or Vlad Dracula (son of the Dragon). His enemies called him Kaziglu Bey meaning the “Impaler Prince.”


As the middle son of Vlad II, Vlad III was a great warrior who ascended to the throne of Wallachia. Vlad Tepes was a brutal and sadistic man and his claim to the throne was tenuous as best. His best defense was the sight of thousands of his enemies individually impaled and placed along the entries to his crown lands. Many of the victims were brought before the king, who would abuse and torture them before impaling them himself. A contemporary of Vlad Tepes named


Peter Stumpe was a vicious murderer who killed for pleasure, raping and devouring his victims during a twenty-five year rampage. During the period from 1564 to 1589, Stumpe (sometimes called Stubbe, Stumpf, or Stebb, among other spellings) stalked the villages of Bedburg, near Cologne, Germany. He was executed on March 31, 1590, for the murderous bloodthirsty rampage that left at least thirteen children and two women sexually assaulted and dead. Both women victims were pregnant when they were murdered; their unborn infants torn from their bellies and eaten by the vicious killer.


After the execution of Peter Stumpe, another serial killer was captured in France in 1598. Due to the directed destruction of the court files following the man’s death, little is known of the killer, known as the Demon Tailor.


Through legend and folklore, including stories of lyncanthropy, we know that the Demon Tailor had abducted young men and women and returned with them to his tailor shop. Once there they were murdered and left to rot in large barrels .


Another serial killer from the sixteenth century was a relation of Vlad the Impaler. Countess Erszebet Bathory, legends claim, would bathe in the blood of her young female victims and use the bodies for witch-craft. While there is some doubt among  modern scholars if this was really the case, there is general agreement that her sadistic treatment of her servant girls directly lead to their deaths, regardless of the exact motive. Bathory’s procurers were sent to scour the countryside for female victims for their mistress.


The eleven year killing spree came to an end on December 31, 1610, when the Countess’ cousin Gyorgy Thurzo, Prime Minister of Hungary, broke into Castle Csejthe and found the dying and dead bodies of over 600 victims.


Bathory’s accomplices confessed under torture before being burned at the stake, while the killer countess was bricked into a room in the castle, where she remained until her death on August 21, 1614.


Poisoning continued to be the weapon of choice for many female serial killers throughout history. At the beginning of the 19th Century, Anna Zwanzinger in Bavaria was one who chose poison to dispose of her victims.


Zwanzinger later in life became mentally unstable, and she chose arsenic to win favour and employment. Over the years she was employed as a housekeeper to many prominent judges in Bavaria, often poisoning them with arsenic before nursing them back to health.


By the end of her poisoning career Anna Zwanzinger had killed three people and attempted to murder several others. She was beheaded in 1811 for her crimes.


Andreas Bichel, who mutilated young female victims during 1806-1809, may have been a model for the later crimes attributed to Jack the Ripper. Known as the Bavarian Ripper, Bich enticed young women to his home by promising to tell their fortunes.  The victims were knocked unconscious and stripped. When they awoke they were bound and gagged. Bichel then raped and tortured them before killing them.


Like Jack the Ripper’s victims eighty years later, the girls were cut open from their pubic bone to their sternum. Bichel’s victims, however, were still very much alive when the mutilations began. While attempting to sell the clothes of his victims, Bichel was caught and then executed in 1809.


One of the most sensational series of crimes of nineteenth century Britain was that of body snatchers William Burke and William Hare, which began in 1827. The men enticed people to an inn owned by Hare. Once there, the men and their wives plied their captives with alcohol until they could no longer stand. The victims were then strangled to death and promptly taken to the offices of Dr Knox. The men were paid handsomely and murdered another victim when the money ran out. The murders ended in 1828 with the arrest of both men and their wives. Hare was released after successfully blaming the killings on his partner.


Mary Anne Cotton was one of the most prolific poisoners in British history. She used arsenic to dispense of dozens of family members including her own children. Her murderous career began in 1853. With husband William Mowbray, Cotton gave birth to seven children, but most of them died in infancy. Symptoms of stomach ailments were the most common reason.


Over the next twenty years Cotton killed almost two dozen family members until she was finally arrested. Cotton was found guilty of murder and sentenced to die. She was hanged on March 24, 1873, at Durham Jail.


In the middle of the 19th Century France had a serial killing husband and wife team, Marie and Martin Dumollard. The couple lured young women to their house in Lyon with the promise of work. Once the victims were inside their home they were strangled and their bodies buried around the killers’ cottage. The couple’s murderous campaign came to an end when a victim escaped and went to police. Martin was beheaded and Marie sent to the galleys.


Eusebius Pieydagnelle was another ripper who predated Jack the Ripper. He stabbed six people to death in Vinuville, France for sexual pleasure.


Jesse Pomeroy holds a gruesome place in the annals of serial crime due to his tender age. The killer murdered his first victim in 1874 but had been attacking and savagely mutilating children since 1871. At the time of his first murder he was fifteen. Pomeroy was found guilty in 1874 of the murders of two children, ten-year-old Katie Curran and four-year-old Horace Millen. He was sentenced to death, but the sentence was later commuted to life. The killer spent the next fifty-four years of his life in prison before being released.


Three years before the Jack the Ripper case emerged, another serial killer was murdering servant girls in Austin, Texas. The perpetrator was dubbed the ‘Servant girl annihilator’ and the Austin Axe Murderer. In total the killer murdered seven women and one man in a campaign that lasted from the last day of 1884 to Christmas Eve 1885. The Austin Axe murders remain unsolved, like the Whitechapel murders, but unlike Jack the Ripper, this killer’s crimes have been all but forgotten.


A year before Jack the Ripper began his terror reign, another killer began his own. Johann Hoch was a Bluebeard serial killer. Beginning in 1887, Hoch, born Johann Schmidt, married woman after woman, insuring them for vast amounts of money before poisoning them. One of his brides did not make it past the wedding night. He was executed for his crimes in 1906.


With the long list of prior crimes presented here, which itself only covers the more well known cases, it is surprising that many people still believe Jack the Ripper to be the first serial killer, or even the first sexual killer. Cases of serial murder have been committed for centuries and will undoubtedly continue.



Appleton, Arthur, Mary Ann Cotton, Michael Joseph Ltd, 1973

Bataille, Georges, The Trial Of Gilles de Rais, Amok Books, 1991

Begg, Paul, Fido, Martin, Skinner, Keith, Jack the Ripper A to Z, Headline, 1992

Edwards, Owen Dudley, Burke & Hare, Polygon Books

Evans, Stewart & Gainey, Paul, Jack The Ripper . First American Serial Killer, Arrow Books, 1996

Evans, Stewart P & Skinner, Keith, The Ultimate Jack The Ripper Sourcebook, Constable & Robinson, 2001

Howard, Amanda & Smith, Martin, River of Blood: Serial Killers and Their Victims, Florida, USA: Universal Publishers, 2004

Leon, Vicki, Outrageous Women of Ancient Times, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998.

Wamack, Ann, Locusta of Gaul, Roman Herbalist and Professional Poisoner,

The Austin Chronicle


This site was last updated 03/29/09