The Cleveland Torso Murderer
It’s hard to imagine a more miserable place than Cleveland during the Depression, but throw in a serial killer and geez... This murderer killed at least 12 vagrants and drifters between 1935-1938, many of whom lived in shanty towns and whose disappearances weren’t noticed. The victims were nearly all beheaded, dismembered, and in some cases, even castrated. Gruesome as he was, though, the killer was never identified or apprehended, despite the fact that Cleveland’s director of public safety at the time was none other than Eliot Ness.
Nannie Doss (aka the "Giggling Granny”)
Families are hard to deal with, even for most well adjusted of people. Nannie Doss, however, found a simple solution to her familial problems -- she just killed relatives she didn’t like. Of her 11 victims: four husbands, two sisters, a mother-in-law, a grandson, and even, well, HER OWN MOTHER. Typically using rat poison and arsenic, the “Giggling Granny” killed relatives with whom she disagreed; her last victim was husband Samuel Doss, whose life she ended with a poisoned “welcome home” meal after he was released from the hospital. She pled guilty to that crime in 1955, and died in prison of cancer 10 years later.
Randall Woodfield (aka the "I-5 Killer”)
Despite a checkered history of indecent exposure, Randall Woodfield was drafted as a wide receiver out of Portland State by the Green Bay Packers in 1974. He didn't last long in the league and was cut by coach Dan Devine during training camp. With no source of income, Woodfield took to robbing/assaulting women at knifepoint. He was convicted of those crimes in 1975, released on parole in 1979, and immediately began robbing businesses along I-5 in Oregon and Washington.
The "I-5 Bandit” became the "I-5 Killer," however, when he murdered a woman in a Salem office building. Using fake beards to hide his identity, he assaulted and killed what some claim to be 44 people before being apprehended. His life became a popular book by Ann Rule, and he is currently in prison in Salem.
On the scale of seriously screwed-up stuff, this guy might take the title. From November 1986 to January 1987, Heidnik kidnapped, imprisoned, and tortured -- including starvation and electrocution -- five people in the basement of his Philadelphia home. GRUESOME DETAIL ALERT: he actually dismembered one victim and boiled her head, which caused a smell so pungent that neighbors called the police. Who, of course, left the scene after Heidnik convinced them that it was just a bad pot roast. While only two of his victims died, his crimes are still among the most horrific in Pennsylvania history, and he was executed in July 1999.
Craig Price (aka the "Warwick Slasher”)
While many serial killers get their start as kids by killing the neighbor’s cat, Craig Price went straight to murdering people. At age 13, he broke into a house and stabbed the woman who lived there 58 times. Two years later, in a marijuana-and-acid-induced haze, he stabbed another neighbor 57 times while also killing her daughters. Though he confessed, he also bragged that since he was a juvenile when he committed the heinous acts, he’d “make history” upon being released at 21. Rhode Island, however, had the last word -- not only did it change the law but it found other crimes for which to charge Price. He remains in prison serving 10-25 years for criminal contempt and in-prison violence.
Donald Henry Gaskins (aka the "Meanest Man in America”)
“Meanest” might be a slight understatement for this guy, who was not only known as a hitman in South Carolina in the late '60s and early '70s, but also killed for pure enjoyment. Gaskins classified his killings into two categories: "coastal kills" -- mostly hitchhikers he picked up about every six weeks and tortured/cannibalized -- and "serious kills," people who he knew, or who pissed him off, or who he was paid to kill. He was finally caught when a fellow criminal ratted him out; he was sentenced to death in 1976 and was executed via electric chair in 1991.
Some serial killers swear vengeance on the people who put them in prison. It seems Jake Bird actually got it. A transient, Depression-era laborer, Bird moved across the country doing railroad work, and in addition to robbing to support himself, also killed everywhere he went. This included South Dakota -- among 10 other states -- where he murdered an estimated 44 women.
When he was finally convicted after killing a woman during a Tacoma, Washington break-in, he made a statement before sentencing: “I’m putting the Jake Bird hex on all of you who had anything to do with my being punished. Mark my words, you will die before I do." And within a year, six of the people involved in his trial did, in fact, perish, including the judge. Bird himself died at Walla Walla by hanging in 1949.
Micajah and Wiley Harpe
Since forensic science in the 1700s wasn't exactly what it is now, it’s hard to confirm these guys were actually America’s first serial killers -- but folklore gives them that nefarious claim. A pair of brothers who roamed Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois, they killed indiscriminately, often filling the bodies with rocks and dumping them in a river. Micajah, the elder or “Big” Harpe, was allegedly killed and his head was stuck on a post somewhere near Harpe's Head intersection in Webster County, Kentucky (that’s where the names comes from, see) while the younger was apprehended and executed.
The idiom “never take candy from strangers", and the term “molester van" were both probably because of this owner of a Texas candy company who cruised around for victims -- mostly teenagers -- in an Econoline van. His spree ended when one of his accomplices fatally shot him in the chest and provided authorities with the gruesome details of almost 30 murders.