Knowing that he could be executed for his crimes, notorious serial killer Ted Bundy suggested he be kept alive so his mind could be studied.
In fact, Bundy’s proposition was not a new concept. By the time of his final capture in 1978, scientists had been examining the minds of serial killers for nearly two centuries.
Psychologists and psychiatrists have interviewed the perpetrators of some of history’s cruelest crimes to try and grasp the mental processes that underlie their violent actions.
“A century of privileged access to extreme offenders offers the field of forensic psychology and psychiatry some significant items,” said Katherine Ramsland, author and professor at DeSales University in Pennsylvania.
By listening to serial killers, scientists have gained insights into the behaviors and development of psychopaths, Ramsland said. They have also learned to examine a series of crimes and make educated guesses about who might have committed them.
Ramsland took an auditorium full of listeners on a grisly journey through historic serial killer interviews during a recent American Academy of Forensic Sciences conference in Atlanta. She knows the subject well, having written several books about mass murder. Her talk was derived from The Mind of a Murderer: Privileged Access to the Demons That Drive Extreme Violence, released in February 2011.
Scientists have probed the minds of serial killers since the early 1800s. French physician Philippe Pinel was the first to realize that mentally ill people were not possessed by demons, but instead suffered from illnesses that were probably a combination of genetic and environmental factors. He categorized various types of psychopathic behavior, including those exhibited by murderers. His work sparked curiosity and led other professionals to examine deviant behavior in more detail.
“No one is better positioned to offer intimate details than experienced professionals who know how to examine an abnormal mind,” Ramsland wrote.
French pathologist Andre Lacassagne urged offenders to write their stories in what he called a criminal autobiography. He noted common factors among the offenders, including violent family histories and disease.
More interviews were done in the early 1900s. Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham examined cannibal Albert Fish while serial killer Peter Kürten was interviewed by psychiatrist Karl Berg. Ted Bundy participated in a series of interviews with Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth, who wrote a book called Ted Bundy: Conversations with a Killer.
However, talking with cooperative killers is not always what it seems.
“Among the drawbacks is the fact that psychopaths lie easily,” Ramsland said in an email. “They care about themselves, so they’ll typically use the opportunity to manipulate or find an advantage.”
Mental health professionals may be overconfident that they can spot deception, leading them to believe false information or neglect valuable points, Ramsland continued. In addition, most mental health professionals work within a theoretical frame, so they can inadvertently mold the offender’s experience to fit their pet theory.
“That doesn’t mean these interviews are pointless, but we must understand them in a realistic framework,” she added.
Georgia is home to several unnerving serial rampages. Carlton Gary, known as the Columbus Stocking Strangler, was convicted in 1986 and sentenced to death for raping and strangling three women.
Between 1979 and 1981, 29 African American youths were murdered in a series known as the Atlanta Child Murders. Thought to be responsible is Wayne Williams, who is serving a life sentence today.
Paul John Knowles, the Casanova Killer, has been tied to slayings across the U.S. and is accused of at least 18 killings. In 2011, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation used DNA evidence to link Knowles to the death of 13-year-old Ima Jean. Jean was reported missing from Warner Robins in August 1974.
For centuries, scientists have interviewed mass murderers, collecting intimate details about motives, behavior, fantasies, personalities and the role of mental disorders in lethal and violent crimes.
Conversations with serial killers have helped experts uncover some connections between the brain and violence, and Ramsland believes that such interviews have improved the capacity of professionals to assess who is likely to be dangerous in the future.
The imperfect nature of such predictions, however, is why most killers are seldom released on parole.