There has long been a debate over whether nature or nurture creates the person we become. Is somebody born good or bad, forever destined to carry on the path their genetics has set for them? Or are we molded by the environment in which we are raised and the incidents we experience along the way?
In addition to these questions, there are queries around how much responsibility someone with a severe mental illness or handicap has for their actions. Do we punish somebody with the mental age of a five-year-old in the same way as a five-year-old or as an adult if they happen to be 30?
How do we balance the rights of those who are damaged beyond repair through no fault of their own with the rights of the rest of the world who deserve to live free from fear or violence?
Without condemning or condoning, here are some of the childhood experiences of convicted and confessed serial killers.
15 Aileen Wuornos
Aileen Wuornos was born two months after her 16-year-old mother divorced Aileens incarcerated father, a person with schizophrenia who was found guilty of sex crimes against children and hung himself in prison. Abandoned by their mother Aileen and her brother Keith were adopted by their maternal grandparents when Aileen was four.
Grandmother Britta was an abusive alcoholic, and grandfather Lauri was both physically and sexually abusive to both children. Lauri would force Aileen out of her clothes, beat her and rape her.
By the age of eleven Aileen was attempting to make friends by prostituting herself to local boys who would pay her with cigarettes then ignore her afterwards. When she fell pregnant at 14 it could have been any of these boys, her grandfather, one of his friends or her brother who was the father. Her son was adopted. A year later Aileen was thrown out of the house and lived rough in the local woods turning again to prostitution to survive.
14 Arthur Shawcross
Born two months premature, Arthur Shawcross was taken by his mother to live with her family in New York until his father had completed his military service. Many other Shawcross’s used to live in the same area, but he didn’t mix well with others as his mother repeatedly shamed him about his bedwetting, telling anyone who would listen that he still wet the bed at the age of nine.
It was at around this age that Shawcross’s mother and aunt both began to perform oral sex on him and encouraged him to reciprocate with them and his sister and one female cousin. Also, Shawcross claims his mother would insert foreign objects into his rectum on a regular basis.
13 Dennis Nilsen
Dennis Nilsen was four when his father, an alcoholic, walked out. Nilsen’s religiously devout mother was uninterested in her son and took him to live with her parents. He became extremely attached to his grandfather, Andrew Whyte. Nilsen described being carried home from long walks by his grandfather and feeling safe and secure in his arms.
Three weeks before Nilsen’s six birthday his grandfather, a fisherman, died at sea, but crucially, nobody told his grandson. Death was never explained to Nilsen and he was unprepared when his mother took him to view his grandfather’s dead body and was told “he’s sleeping”. Nilsen has said “As he lay there in his box that day, I was puzzled that he was ignoring me as if he had deserted me. I hoped that he would see me later ‘when he was better’.”
12 Bobby Joe Long
Bobby Joe Long was raised by a poor single mother who constantly moved around Tampa with her son. The lack of roots or consistency was bad enough but because she could not afford to rent more than one room Bobby Joe slept in the same bed as her until he was thirteen although there is no suggestion of inappropriate contact between mother and son. His mother was overprotective and dramatic, although that did not prevent him sustaining three serious head injuries that went untreated.
Long claims his mother would go out to work in the bars, barely dressed, and return with men who would pay for a brief time in their bed. He says she thought nothing of entertaining multiple men in the bed in which she slept with her son while he sat in the corner of the room.
11 Albert Fish
The youngest of his parents four surviving children (two died in infancy) Albert Fish’s father died aged 80 when Albert was only five.Fishes mother felt unable to care for him and left him at the local orphanage where the groundwork for the man he was to become, was laid.
In the orphanage, the boys were repeatedly punished for real and perceived wrongdoing. Not only that but they were stripped naked before the beatings that took place in front of all of the other boys. After receiving repeated punishments for some time, Fish began to gain arousal from these beatings and would get erections which made him even more of a target for the other boys.
When his mother had a job and came back for him, Albert was allowed to spend his free time as he wished. He took to spending his time watching boys at the local bathing house where he met another 12 year old who introduced him to sexual activity involving drinking his own urine and eating feces.
10 Carroll Cole
A target for bullies at school because of his ‘girls’ name Carroll Cole was mercilessly abused at home as well.
While Cole’s father was away fighting in WWII, his mother would take him along while she slept with other men. To insure her son’s silence, she would beat him and threaten him with more violence if he told his father what had happened.
If this were not enough, Cole’s mother would dress him in frilly dresses and petticoats for the amusement of her and her friends. They would sit at a table, and he would be forced to serve them tea, dressed as a girl, with his hair curled while they would laugh and call him names.
9 Rosemary West
The fifth child of a schizophrenic electrician father and a severely depressed mother, Rosemary West was probably already damaged by the time she was born. Daisy, West’s mother, was treated with electroconvulsive therapy while she was pregnant with her daughter and was prescribed a mixture of potent antidepressants and barbiturates.
Called “Dozy Rosie” by her father, West and her siblings were not allowed to play in the garden in case they got dirty. Instead, they would stand or walk around the backyard, stiff armed and unanimated.
West’s father appeared kind on the outside but he was a dictator in their house, making his daughters clean the floors with their toothbrushes then sexually abusing Rosemary. With this inappropriate relationship West became fascinated with her body at puberty and, encouraged by her father, would dance naked in front of her younger brother Graham. West was also then encouraged to climb into bed with Graham and masturbate him while their father watched.
8 John Wayne Gacy
Another damaging alcoholic was the father of John Wayne Gacy. Gacy senior would beat his children with a razor strap for any misdeed, real or just perceived. He also assaulted Gacy’s mother in front of the children, and all of the family members were expected to toughen up and accept the beatings. Gacy’s sister said that her brother would make a point of not crying so his father would get no satisfaction from hitting him.
On top of the violence, Gacy had to endure verbal and emotional abuse. He had a congenital heart defect which meant he couldn’t play sports and his father always berated him for being sickly and effeminate. It did not help that Gacy senior was also virulently homophobic and his son was unable to tell anyone that he himself was gay. Nor was he able to tell anyone when he was sexually assaulted at the age of 12 by a male family friend.
7 Ted Bundy
Louise Cowell was 22 and single when she gave birth to her son Ted, but her ultra religious parents sent her to a home for unmarried mothers for her pregnancy for fear she would bring shame upon their home. Bundy’s mom gave the name of a sailor as his father but no such person was ever in the forces and many family members suspect that Bundy’s dad was actually Louise’s own father, Sam Cowell. Cowell was said to have a volatile temper and a taste for pornography, something the young Bundy was known to look at and which fuelled his murders.
Louise returned home without her son and then went back for him three months later. Bundy’s grandparents adopted him, and he spent much of his childhood not knowing that his sister was, in fact, his mother. Upon discovering this, and because she never told him who his father was, Bundy developed a hatred for women in general and his mother in particular, believing them to be untrustworthy and sexually promiscuous.
6 Ed Gein
Despite her deep rooted and often demonstrated contempt for her husband, Augusta Gein remained married because of her religious views. The mother of the boy who would grow to inspiration for the serial killer in “Silence of the Lambs” purchased a small farm and only let the kids leave to attend school. They were not allowed friends and nobody was allowed to visit.
When not at school Gein and his brother did chores or sat listening to their mother preach about the innate immorality of the world. The boys were told of the evils of drinking and their mother’s belief that all women, except her of course, were prostitutes and instruments of the devil. Every afternoon they sat and listened as she read them graphic old testament verses about murder, death and the divine retribution you would receive in return for your sins.
5 Jeffrey Dahmer
Jeffrey Dahmer’s mother spent much of her pregnancy and his childhood medicated for severe depression, and when she was not distant she was short tempered with him. What we now see as obviously PPD was then unrecognized, and she received little help but tranquilizers.
Just before his fourth birthday, Dahmer was diagnosed with a double hernia. He needed surgery but nobody told him this, nor was he told anything about going to the hospital, what would happen and his recovery.
Dahmer was left feeling scared by what was going on. He was sedated, and strangers took off his clothes and touched his body then he fell asleep, only to wake up still among strangers but now in pain. The young Dahmer never recovered from this experience and became quite, distrustful and withdrawn after the surgery.
On top of this, home had become the location of vicious arguments between his parents and he was sexually molested by a neighbor when he was eight – all of which added to his negative impression of the world.
4 Charles Manson
Being the son of an alcoholic wanderer who brought home casual lovers of both sexes, it was unlikely that Charles Manson was ever going to grow up to be a model citizen. When she was sent to prison for robbery, his mother Kathleen sent her son to live with an aunt who was strictly religious and an uncle who was a sadist. They dressed Manson in girls clothes for his first day at school because they thought he was a sissy who needed to be taught how to act like a man.
Upon her release, Kathleen took back her son but would often leave him with neighbors while she popped out for an hour and returned days or sometimes weeks later.
3 Ottis Toole
Suffering from epilepsy and undiagnosed learning disabilities (including dyslexia and ADHD), the young Ottis Toole was already at a disadvantage without suffering from his family’s abuse.
His mother was a religious zealot who sexually abused him and made him dress in girls’ clothes. Toole’s grandmother was a Satanist who called him “Devil’s child” and introduced him to rituals that included self-mutilation and grave robbing. The five-year-old Toole was raped by friends of his father and passed around both men and women, some of whom were close relatives, such as his sister, and some of whom were not.
While both his mother and grandmother were regularly engaged in and facilitated same sex child abuse, they were both vehemently against homosexuality which further confused an already heavily damaged child who was just discovering he was gay.
2 Henry Lee Lucas
The youngest of nine children, Henry Lee Lucas always felt ignored. His father lost both legs in a railroad accident and began illegal alcohol production in the house which in turn led to Lucas being an alcoholic by the age of ten.
Beaten on a regular basis by both of his parents, his mother, a prostitute, once beat him so badly he was in a coma for three days but was kept at home and received no medical care. Neither did he receive any care when, during a fight with his brother, Lucas was stabbed in the eye. The unattended injury resulted in the eye becoming infected and eventually had to be removed and replaced with a glass eye.
The only attention Lucas did receive from his mother was when she dressed him as a girl and curled his hair, made him watch her have sex with her clients and forcing him to have sex with his half-brother. After this, she allowed his uncle to introduce the young boy to bestiality and torture.
1 Gary Ridgway
Gary Ridgway was another child warped by a sadistic mother, Mary. Ridgway frequently wet the bed and whenever he did his mother would make him strip off the sheets and get into a cold shower. Here his mother would get into the shower with him and spend an extended amount of time washing and rewashing his genital area.
Mary would tell her son about how she measured men for suits at work and made a point of detailing the smell of their crotches and how she would touch them until they were aroused.
Ridgway’s father was not much better. He would tell his son stories of him and his coworkers having sex with the corpses in the morgue where he worked, forever imprinting on him the desire to have sex with corpses because they couldn’t feel it or complain.
Sources: maamodt.asp.radford.edu, murderpedia.org, theconfessionkiller.weebly.com, crimeandinvestigation.co.uk, TheScotsman, ordinaryevil.wordpress.com,
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