Arthur Shawcross was born on 6 June 1945 and died on 10 November 2008 while serving his life sentence for the murder of 11 women. From his birthplace in Kittery, Maine, his family moved to Watertown, a small town near Lake Ontario in New York State, when he was still a child.
His home life remains a source of speculation. In his defence at his trial, Shawcross claimed that it was turbulent and that he endured a difficult relationship with both parents, particularly his domineering mother, exhibiting early behavioural problems such as bed-wetting. He also made extreme claims about precocious sexuality; that he was sexually molested by an aunt when he was nine-years-old, had sexual relations with his younger sister whilst they were still living at home and his first homosexual encounter aged 11, which was followed by experimentation with bestiality.
In contrast to these claims, however, his parents and siblings maintain that he had a normal childhood, and that the events were largely the product of his imagination. There is no way of knowing whose version represents the reality of his upbringing, but what became clear later on, as he was interviewed by various professionals in the course of their investigations, was that Shawcross would change his stories at will.
From school records, it can be independently verified that he was an inveterate truant, with a particularly low IQ, a tendency towards bullying and violence, and that he came under suspicion for a series of juvenile arson attacks, as well as burglaries. He dropped out of school having failed to pass the ninth grade, and the next few years were punctuated with violence and probationary jail sentences. He received his first probationary sentence in December 1963, for smashing a shop window, and married his first wife, Sarah, in September 1964. The couple had a son in October 1965.
Another probationary charge, for unlawful entry, in November 1965, proved the last straw for his marriage, and he was divorced soon after. His second marriage, following drafting into the Army in April 1967, was also tainted by violence and was equally short-lived. He served a tour of duty in the Vietnam War in October 1967 and later claimed that, while there, he had murdered and cannibalised two young Vietnamese girls, as well as murdering children, although again there is no corroborating evidence to support this. He claimed a 'combat kill' total of 39 which, when investigated later, was also discounted as fabrication. Authorities claim that he killed no one on his tour of duty.
On his return from military duty in 1968, he was soon in trouble again. An arson attack in 1969 saw him serve two years of a five-year jail term. He was released in October 1971 and returned to Watertown again, where he met his third wife, Penny Sherbino, who was pregnant with his child when he married her on 22 April 1972.