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11 serial killers who suffered early life head trauma

A stock graphic showing brain scans as part of a crime investigation
Image: Shutterstock.com

One of the biggest and most controversial questions in criminology is ‘why do killers kill?’

At its heart, the query asks us to explore whether evil exists and all the philosophical and theological implications that go along with it. Can some people be born that way or is all behaviour learned? Or, perhaps, is it a combination of both?

It’s an incredibly complex subject that requires knowledge of neuroscience, genetics, childhood development, and psychiatry to explore fully. However, one thing which seems to crop up a lot when discussing serial killers’ younger lives is head trauma.

Often sustained during childhood, a large number of history’s most infamous multiple murderers suffered significant blows to the head - often the prefrontal cortex - as infants. It’s something we’ve explored here before.

Let’s explore a list of serial killers who’ve suffered early-life head trauma.

1. Richard Ramirez

As a young boy Richard Ramirez was not well looked after. Physically abused from a young age, he was often left to his own devices. At just two years old, a dresser fell on top of his head, knocking him unconscious. Three years later, a swing knocked him out in a park and he required more hospital treatment. These head injuries caused him to suffer from epilepsy.

Did the head trauma cause him to become violent and murderous? It’s difficult to say with certainty. Especially since his abuse was also sexual and he witnessed serious violence and murder as a child.

2. Peter Sutcliffe

The Yorkshire Ripper terrorised northern England in the 1970s, violently taking the lives of at least 13 women. Might his inherent killer instinct have been sparked by the brain damage he suffered while on an incubator as a newborn baby?

The lack of oxygen certainly wasn’t the sole cause of his temperament or actions, but scientists have found a link between these kinds of brain injuries and violent crime.

3. Albert Fish

Known by the sinister moniker ‘The Werewolf of Wysteria’, Albert Fish was one of the first serial killers of the modern age. An unrepentant and seriously perverted killer of children, Fish was known to have killed three children, was heavily linked with the deaths of six more, and boasted about raping, killing, and even cannibalising dozens of other infants.

His family had a long history of mental health issues, many of which Albert demonstrated throughout his life. As a teenager, he fell from a tree and sustained a brain injury, the severity of which isn’t known to any specific degree.

4. David Berkowitz

‘Son of Sam’ killer David Berkowitz caused a citywide panic in New York City in 1977 as he stalked couples in their cars, killed six, and wounded seven others.

As a child, he was badly hurt at least three times. He ran into a wall, was hit with a pipe, and was even struck down by a car. After the third of these incidents, Berkowitz became withdrawn and anti-social and started torturing animals.

5. Henry Lee Lucas

A prolific serial killer but an even more prolific liar, Virginia-born Henry Lee Lucas confessed to hundreds and hundreds of murders in his lifetime. Most were lies that the police, unfortunately, believed.

We know he definitely killed at least three people and was almost certainly responsible for many more.

Beaten severely as a child, one attack saw his mother smash a heavy plank of wood over young Henry’s head. Later brain scans revealed a series of small abnormalities in Lucas’ frontal lobes, all the result of various head traumas.

6. Fred West

While already known for his low intellect and thuggish ways before he fractured his skull in a motorcycle accident aged 17, Fred West had never been accused of a major crime. Afterwards, he immediately became prone to fits of rage and began violently accosting women.

Two years after the crash he groped a young woman on a fire escape. She punched him in retaliation, causing him to fall down two flights of stairs. West suffered further trauma to the head and potential brain damage.

7. Dennis Rader

‘The BTK Killer’ Dennis Rader spent 17 years breaking into Wichita homes and killing its inhabitants. Despite his murderous antics being driven by a plethora of sadistic sexual perversions, Rader kept it all very well hidden. His family and community considered him an all-around stand-up guy.

Also kept hidden was Rader’s severe brain damage which he sustained as a toddler when his mother dropped him on his head. The baby lost consciousness and even turned blue before being revived, which suggests that he may have been dead for a short time.

8. Ed Gein

Famously the inspiration for many fictional serial killers, including those found in Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs, Ed Gein also suffered serious head injuries as a young boy.

He was badly beaten for many years and his father often hit him so hard that he suffered constant blackouts. The blows to the head are believed to have caused Gein’s speech impediment and lazy eye. When he grew up, Gein killed and mutilated several women.

9. Glen Edward Rogers

Perhaps the least well-known name on this list, ‘The Cross-Country Killer’ was convicted of killing three strawberry blonde women. Police in several US states were (and remain) certain - but unable to prove - that Rogers killed quite a lot more.

Now sat on Death Row in California, as a baby, Rogers would rock himself violently and uncontrollably, frequently falling off chairs and banging his head against walls and on floors. He was also slapped and punched in the head as a toddler by his red-haired mother which some believe influenced the demographic of his later victims.

10. John Wayne Gacy

Aged just 11, John Wayne Gacy suffered a blood clot in his brain caused by being hit in the head with a swing. The clot would cause the pre-pubescent Gacy to blackout and also led to complications with his heart. All the while, he was often beaten by his overbearing and violent father.

The beatings stopped in Gacy’s adolescence because he ended up spending more time in local hospitals than at home due to the various complications caused by his head trauma.

Gacy killed at least 33 young men and boys in his adult life, burying most of them in the crawl space beneath his Des Plaines home.

11. Alexander Pichushkin

Russia’s ‘Chessboard Killer’ Alexander Pichushkin was also hurt badly by a swing as a child, which damaged his frontal cortex and drastically altered his personality. He was a fun, sociable, and chatty kid up until the incident. Afterwards he became moody and violent.

When Pichushkin grew up he murdered at least 48 people, although it’s believed he was aiming for 64 to equal the number of squares on a chessboard.