Many people consider the United States of America as the home of the modern serial killer. Several of the most well-known repeat murderers were born and operated in the US.
Yet, while the country sees some 15,000 murders every year, only around 1% of those homicides are attributed to serial killers. That’s still 150 murders a year and many, many thousand in the past century or so.
A killer is designated ‘serial’ status when they kill three or more people in different attacks. Yet many psychopathic murderers go on to acquire a taste for murder and claim many more than just three lives.
These are America’s ten most prolific serial killers…
10. Larry Eyler – 19 proven victims
Despite the popular assumption, very few American serial killers cross state lines to commit their crimes. Most stay local and operate within tight geographical bounds. Indiana-born Larry Eyler is one of the few exceptions to this rule.
Known as ‘The Interstate Killer’ and ‘The Highway Killer’, Eyler killed a minimum of 19 young men and teenage boys in Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Illinois. He was eventually captured, convicted, and sentenced to death in Illinois. He died of an AIDS-related illness while on Death Row in 1994.
9. William Bonin – 21 proven victims
Known during his reign of terror as ‘The Freeway Killer’ due to his body dumping locations, William Bonin was convicted of raping, torturing, and murdering 21 young men and boys between May 1979 and June 1980. However, police in Southern California suspect him of killing many more and he also had an extensive history of serious sexual assault.
After his capture, Bonin spent 14 years on Death Row before he was eventually killed by lethal injection at the infamous San Quentin Prison. At his sentencing, the presiding judge referred to Bonin as ‘the most evil man who ever existed’.
8. Patrick Kearney – 21 proven victims
While many serial killers will keep their victims alive to torture, rape and mutilate before murdering them, Patrick Kearney would not. He instead lured his victims - often hitchhikers or men from gay bars - to his car and shot them dead with his .22 Derringer pistol. Afterwards, however, he would commit truly vile acts on their bodies.
‘The Trash Bag Killer’ was proven to have killed 21 men between 1962 and 1977, but most law enforcement who worked the case are convinced he was responsible for taking twice as many lives.
During sentencing, Judge Paul Breckenridge Jr. called Kearney 'an insult to humanity'.
7. Earle Nelson – 22 proven victims
The earliest serial killer on the list, Earle ‘The Gorilla Killer’ Nelson was one of the first serial sex murderers of the 20th century. Nelson was a rapist, murderer and necrophile who took the lives of at least 22 women on the west coast of the US between February 1926 and June 1927.
Most of Earle Nelson’s victims were middle-aged landladies, although some were significantly younger. All were strangled and many were raped post-mortem.
Due to his prolificacy, Nelson and his misdeeds became something of an early media sensation. He would go on to inspire the story of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 thriller Shadow of a Doubt.
6. Ronald Dominique – 23 proven victims
On 1st December 2006, Ronald Dominique was arrested in Louisiana. He soon confessed to the murders of 23 young men. Following years of kidnap, torture, and murder, you’d imagine the capture of ‘The Bayou Strangler’ might have made quite the media splash. However, Dominique’s capture was in the wake of the incredible devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. As such, the killer’s arrest and trial made little impact.
Following his conviction, the FBI declared that Dominique's case was the biggest serial homicide case in the country from the previous two decades. In terms of both death toll and duration.
5. Ted Bundy – 30 proven victims
Probably the most well-known and reviled serial killer in American history, Ted Bundy was a killer who took joy from muddling the truth and never showing his hand. As such, it’s extremely unlikely that we will ever really know how many young women and girls he killed.
Bundy confessed to 30 murders - committed in seven states between 1974 and 1978 - after more than a decade of denials. Bundy's real victim count is unknown, although it is likely far higher than 30. Perhaps even into triple figures.
4. John Wayne Gacy – 33 proven victims
John Wayne Gacy is a serial killer that epitomises the notion of infamy. ‘The Killer Clown’ is one of the most recognisable faces in American true crime. A contractor by trade and local precinct captain for the Democrats, Gacy was a well-liked man in his community. Until the truth came out about his heinous crimes.
Gacy abducted, beat, raped, tortured, and killed at least 33 young men and boys in his home in suburban Chicago between 1972 and 1978. Most he buried in or under the crawlspace of his sprawling ranch-style house. At least another dozen murders have been attributed to Gacy by police but were never proven.
3. Donald Harvey – 37 proven victims
Hospital orderly, Donald Harvey was convicted of killing some 37 patients in his care in the 1970s and ‘80s. Although he later confessed that his true victim count was much higher. It’s estimated that the true number could be closer to 50. Harvey himself has put the figure at 87.
Part of the reason Harvey went undetected for so long was the fact that he never settled on a single MO. He would change his method of killing regularly. However, his preferred method was the administering of a poison such as arsenic or cyanide.
Harvey was given 28 life sentences and died when he was attacked by a fellow inmate back in 2017.
2. Gary Ridgway – 49 proven victims
Operating out of the state of Washington between 1982 and 1998, Gary Ridgway killed a minimum of 49 women. That’s what was proven in court and what he was sentenced for. The disturbing reality is that the real figure is almost certainly north of that number. And by some way.
1. Samuel Little – 60 proven victims
The United States’ most prolific ever serial killer is, by some margin, Samuel Little. A man whose name isn’t quite as well-known as perhaps it should be. Although, of course, many true crime fans will be aware of his murders.
Between 1970 and 2005, it’s believed Little killed at least 93 women. It may be tempting to ascribe the twisted killer a high level of intelligence or wiliness, given he went three and a half decades escaping capture or even identification. This would be a mistake. The real lesson to be learned from Little’s despicable ‘career’ is how US law enforcement often treats the disappearance and murders of sex workers. Especially African American sex workers in poverty-stricken areas.