Long Island Killer: How do serial killers get their nicknames?

Murder, theft, and other wickedness.
May 11 2011 6:04 PM

Killer Appellation

How do serial killers get their nicknames?

Divers search for human remains in the waters of Long Island. Click image to expand.
Divers search for human remains in the waters of Long Island

Early in Thomas Harris' book The Silence of the Lambs, investigator Clarice Starling explains to jailed psychopath Hannibal Lecter how the serial killer "Buffalo Bill" got his name: *"It started as a bad joke in Kansas City homicide. … They call him Buffalo Bill because he skins his humps."

If only serial killer nicknames were always that clever. As another body discovered on a Long Island beach was identified this week, Suffolk County police continued their search for the killer or killers. At the same time, another, equally frantic search was under way: the search for a good nickname.

New York tabloids and websites have flirted with nicknames such as the "Long Island Ripper," the "Seashore Serial Killer," and the "Burlap Sacker" (several victims were found in burlap sacks). But none have caught on. "Somebody floated 'Sack the Ripper,' but … the parallels between this person and Jack the Ripper, I mean, they're not there," a writer from the New York Daily News told the Atlantic.

How do serial killers usually get their nicknames? They almost always originate with the tabloid media and are usually a relatively uncreative combination of location and crime. The "Boston Strangler" strangled people in Boston. The "Axeman of New Orleans" killed New Orleanians with an ax. The "Skid Row Slasher" … you get the idea.

Occasionally, nicknames will originate with the police or federal investigators, as in The Silence of the Lambs. The "Unabomber," who sent bombs to university professors and planted one on a plane, got his name after the FBI dubbed the still-unidentified suspect the "University and Airline Bomber," with the FBI code UNABOM. But for the most part, law enforcement leaves the naming up to the tabs.

Sometimes the media get creative. The more supernatural-sounding, the better. The American serial killer Albert Fish was called the "Werewolf of Wysteria" because of rumors that his lust for blood became particularly acute during a full moon. Poland's "Red Spider," who left the mutilated bodies of 11 women in the woods near Warsaw, was named for his "spidery" handwriting. Serial murderer Charles Schmid was known as the "Pied Piper of Tucson" because of his charisma and popularity among local teenagers. A nickname doesn't even have to make sense: Fritz Haarmann, a German man who killed 27 boys and young men between 1918 and 1924, was called the "Vampire of Hanover" mainly because it sounded scary. Headline writers may riff on the nicknames of past killers, resulting in monikers like "Jack the Stripper."

Sometimes it takes a few tries to find a name. Jack the Ripper was at first called the "Whitechapel Murderer," then "Leather Apron" after a local shoemaker became a suspect. When Richard Ramirez started invading homes and killing women around Los Angeles, he was first dubbed the "Valley Intruder" by a police officer, and then the "Midnight Stalker" by local papers, before "Night Stalker" stuck.

The most original—and lasting—nicknames tend to come from killers themselves. "Jack the Ripper" came from a letter sent by someone claiming to be the killer to the Central News Agency of London. (Some consider that letter a hoax.) In his letter to Jimmy Breslin of the New York Daily News, David Berkowitz suggested he killed his victims to please someone named "Sam" and signed his name "Son of Sam." The "Zodiac" killer announced himself as such when he phoned newspapers and signed his letters with a signature crosshairs symbol. Wichita killer Dennis Rader, frustrated that his murders weren't getting national media attention, started writing to news outlets and signing his letters with the words "bind, torture, kill," or "BTK." It worked.

Not all killers get nicknames. It usually depends on whether they're ever "at large," says Harold Schechter, a professor at Queens College of the City University of New York who studies serial murder. If the suspect is already known, there's not much point in giving him a mysterious moniker. The numerous victims of John Wayne Gacy, for example, were only revealed after he was caught—at which point, law enforcement knew his name. (Some papers called him the "killer clown," but he's best known by his real name.) Same with Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, who despite numerous perverse crimes—Dahmer ate his victims, while Bundy engaged in necrophilia—are usually referred to by their given names.

For aspiring serial killers looking for a snappy nickname, the lesson is twofold: If you want a good name, come up with one yourself. And don't get caught.

Correction, May 11, 2011: This article incorrectly stated that Lecter explained the nickname to Starling. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.