Taking someone’s life is the single most despicable act that a human being can carry out. Barring manslaughter, euthanasia or - depending on where you are - capital punishment, it’s generally seen as unforgivable.
So it stands to reason that the only thing worse than murder is murder on an industrial scale. The pathological compulsion that serial killers have to repeatedly extinguish life is what sets them apart from other murderers. A serial killer’s blood lust is what drives them to kill again and again and again. Yet, oddly, it’s rarely their victim count which sets the more infamous examples apart.
History’s most infamous multiple murderers are often high profile because of their approach, the story around their crimes, their ‘style’ (for want of a better word). Jack the Ripper, for example, ‘only’ killed five women. The same number as The Zodiac Killer.
Many of the world’s most prolific serial killers are relative unknowns, despite racking up some truly horrifying kill counts. You will have heard of and read about one or two of the ghouls in this list. The majority, however, are unknown to all but the most dedicated true crime researcher…
Let’s lift the lid on the 10 Most Prolific Serial Killers in Modern History:
Dr Harold Shipman
Confirmed number of victims: 218
We start with a name that, unlike the others here, is very well known indeed. Nottingham-born ‘Dr. Death’ killed well over 200 patients in his care between 1975 and 1998, the majority of whom were elderly women. Harold Shipman was only convicted of 15 of the morphine murders and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2000. He hanged himself in his jail cell four years later.
Confirmed number of victims: 138
Colombian Luis Garavito, aka ‘La Bestia’ (‘The Beast’) is currently serving 1,853 years in La Tramacúa prison in the city of Valledupar. While inside he continues to confess to more and more murders of vulnerable runaway boys. The total now is well over 300. Garavito would lure, tie-up, rape, torture, kill and dismember his child victims. Mass graves were uncovered by police in Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela that contained his 138 young victims. All were killed in one devastating seven-year blitzkrieg of death (1992-1999).
Confirmed number of victims: 110
Another Colombian to claim to have killed more than 300 children, Santa Isabel-born Pedro López preyed on young girls from 1969, often crossing borders in neighbouring countries to commit his unspeakable crimes. Initially, police were sceptical of his confessions. Until that is, a flash flood uncovered some of his burial sites. The most disturbing thing about The Monster of the Andes is that he was arrested in 1980 and released in 1998 (he immediately absconded). The current whereabouts of the 72-year-old are unknown...
Confirmed number of victims: 100
This Pakistani serial killer of homeless kids was proven to have slaughtered 100 innocent young people during his horrendous reign of terror on the streets of Lahore in the late 1990s. Iqbal would strangle his young victims, dismember their bodies and dissolve them in vats of hydrochloric acid. It was something his sentencing judge was keen to see happen to the man himself. ‘You will be strangled to death in front of the parents whose children you killed,’ he said. ‘Your body will then be cut into 100 pieces and put in acid, the same way you killed the children.’ Instead, Iqbal died in custody before that fate could befall him.
Confirmed number of victims: 83
Sentenced to life imprisonment in December of 2019, Mikhail ‘The Werewolf’ Popkov is a serial killer and rapist who operated between 1992 and 2010. He was convicted of 78 murders of young women in various Russian cities, confessing to a further five since his incarceration. His MO saw him offering free rides to women (something they were inclined to accept, given he was a serving police officer), who he would then sexually assault and attack with some weapons including knives, baseball bats, axes and screwdrivers.
Daniel Camargo Barbosa
Confirmed number of victims: 72
Some South American criminologists claim that the Colombian serial killer Daniel Camargo Barbosa was responsible for strangling more than 180 girls and young women between 1974 and 1986. He was convicted of having murdered 72. A killer with a fixation on virgins, Barbosa served time in the same Ecuadorian prison as Pedro López and was killed by another inmate in 1994. In an almost cinematic twist, Geovanny Noguera, a nephew of one of his victims, stabbed him to death.
Pedro Rodrigues Filho
Confirmed number of victims: 71
Now here’s a rather different serial killer. Vicious, certainly. But Pedro Rodrigues Filho can, at least, claim some level of justification for his murders. Although, of course, no one has the right to decide who lives and dies, many of the victims of ‘The Brazilian Dexter’ were less than innocent. 47 of the 71 were prison inmates killed inside. He was sentenced to 128 years in jail but, due to Brazilian law limiting jail sentences to just 30 years, he’s currently a free man. Incredibly, the man was released in 2018.
Confirmed number of victims: 70
This Jaipur-born killer took the lives of (possibly more than) 70 people in just a year (1978 - 1979) in his home state of Rajasthan in India. He was just 26 at the time. His final words before being executed were: ‘I have murdered in vain. Nobody should become like me.
Confirmed number of victims: 67
A serial killer and rapist, Yang ‘The Monster Killer’ Xinhai is the most prolific known serial killer that the People's Republic of China has seen since its establishment. Yang summed up his callousness and lack of empathy by saying this about his murder spree: "When I killed people I had a desire. This inspired me to kill more. I don't care whether they deserve to live or not. It is none of my concern...I have no desire to be part of society. Society is not my concern." He was killed by a firing squad on Valentine’s Day 2004.
Confirmed number of victims: 60
American serial murderer Samuel Little is the single most prolific killer in US history. In a country with such a detailed history of serial killers, that’s saying something. ‘The Choke and Stroke Killer’ is thought to have slain women - mostly African-American sex workers - across some 19 states. Little died on December 30th 2020 in a Los Angeles County area hospital, aged 80.