We've all heard the gruesome tales of infamous murderers like Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, and Charles Manson. Those stories are as notorious as the people behind them. They're so well-known that, even if we aren't expert biographers, we can all give a brief summary of the horrific crimes they committed.
But those three killers aren't the be all, end all of crime. There are thousands of twisted minds out there, and they don't always lurk in the shadows. Most of the time, these murderers blend in with society, making friends, starting families, and holding steady jobs. It's creepy to think about, but that's the reality.
Crime isn't just a series of gruesome legends. It's real. It happens every day. And just because you haven't heard about it, doesn't mean it wasn't every bit as horrific as the murder sprees of Ted Bundy and the Zodiac Killer. Check out these 15 of the most shocking crimes you've never heard of
15 The cannibalistic murders of Leonarda Cianciulli
Born in Montella, Italy in 1894, Leonarda Cianciulli was a superstitious woman. When she married a man against her family's wishes, they placed a curse on them. As a young woman, she visited a fortune teller, who told her that all of her children would die. A visit with a palm reader predicted even more disturbing news: her right hand foretold prison, while her left hand showed a criminal asylum.
Of her seventeen pregnancies, only four of her children survived, and she was very protective of them. When her eldest son decided to enlist in World War II, she resolved to put a stop to it. And the only way to do that was with human sacrifice.
Leonarda murdered three women by drugging and murdering them. Once dead, she cut their bodies into small pieces, used the fat to make soap, and their blood to make tea cakes to serve to her neighbors.
14 The serial killings of child molester, Westley Allan Dodd
Westley Allan Dodd abused as many as 175 children over a fifteen-year period. During that time he exposed himself to his victims, fondled them, and sexually assaulted them. Over time, he became more sadistic, eventually kidnapping and killing three young boys.
From 1982 to 1987, Dodd had been arrested four times for attempting to prey on young boys. But each time, he managed to get out of jail. On September 4, 1989, he bound, raped, and stabbed two brothers, Cole and William Neer, in a park. In October of the same year, Dodd abducted four-year-old Lee Isley, brought the child to his home, raped him, choked him, and left his lifeless body hanging by a rope from the rod in his closet.
The police caught up with Dodd when he tried to abduct another boy from a movie theater. When police inspected Dodd's house, they discovered sketches of his victims as well as a homemade torture rack designed to restrain the children he abducted. Dodd was hanged in 1993.
13 The disappearance of Dorothy Jane Scott
In 1980, 32-year-old single mom Dorothy Jane Scott began receiving anonymous phone calls at her place of work. She didn't recognize the voice of the caller, but the man on the other end said he had been following her. He gave details about her day-to-day life. For months, Dorothy answered calls from the man, who spoke of his undying love for her, and made ominous threats.
On May 28th, Dorothy drove a coworker to the emergency room to get treatment for a spider bite. She left the lobby of the hospital to pull her car around, but it took her longer than anticipated. Her companions began to wonder where she had gone when they finally saw her vehicle speed out of the parking lot.
Her coworker's thought that perhaps Dorothy had had a family emergency. But later that day, they found her car abandoned in an alley 10-miles away from the hospital. The car was on fire, and there was no trace of Dorothy anywhere.
12 The brutal "hunts" of Robert Hansen
Robert Hansen grew up in Iowa. He was shy, he had acne, he stuttered badly—he was an obvious target for the bullies at his high school. He was also shunned by the girls, which left him bitter and wanting revenge. After serving time for burning down a school bus garage, his wife divorced him, and after a few more jail sentences (for petty theft) he moved to Anchorage, Alaska.
In Anchorage, Hansen owned a bakery in a mini mall, and he was well-liked by his neighbors. He set several local hunting records, married for a second time, and had two kids.
Over the course of twelve years, Hansen abducted women (mostly dancers and prostitutes) and raped them. Some women, he let go. Others, he flew into the Alaskan wilderness, where he hunted them down with his rifle. When police caught up with Hansen, thanks to the help of one of his escaped abductees, he confessed to murdering 17 women and raping 30 others.
11 The infanticide of Amelia Dyer
Amelia Dyer was a "baby farmer." She housed pregnant women, then farmed their babies off to adoptive parents who would be able to give them a better life. At least, that's what she said. In reality, Dyer neglected the babies until they died of malnutrition. Later in life, she strangled the infants using white edging tape.
The police grew suspicious of Dyer when they discovered the body of an infant floating in the River Thames. The baby had been wrapped in paper with Dyer's address printed on it. When the bodies of two more paper-wrapped babies were discovered, police paid Dyer a visit. The smell of death and the multitude of vaccination papers scattered around the house convinced the police they had their culprit.
The police dragged the bottom of the Thames, and uncovered more than 50 bodies. Experts believe that Dyer was responsible for more than 300 infant deaths over a thirty-year period. She was hanged in 1896.
10 The murders of 11-year-old Mary Bell
In 1968, the day before her eleventh birthday, Mary Flora Bell, accompanied by a friend, murdered Martin Brown. The four-year-old boy's lifeless body was discovered in a derelict house, where it was apparent that he had asphyxiated. Two days after the body was discovered, a local nursery was broken into, and four notes mentioning the murder of Martin Brown were found on the scene.
A few weeks after that, another young boy was found dead. Three-year-old Brian Howe had been strangled to death, and his body was covered in small cuts. Police questioned over 1,200 children in an effort to discover what had happened. Both Mary Bell and her friend Norma Bell (no relation) seemed evasive, and changed their stories upon further questioning.
Each girl blamed the other for what happened. Eventually, the two were tried in court. Norma Bell was found not guilty, but Mary Bell was charged with manslaughter. She was released from prison in 1980 under a new identity.
9 The murder of Maddie Clifton
Maddie Clifton was a tomboy who liked to play basketball. So when she went out to do just that one autumn day in 1998, her family didn't think anything of it. But once she shut the door, she never came back home. Maddie's mom called the police to report her daughter missing, and the whole neighborhood embarked on a search for the girl. Seven days after she disappeared, Maddie's parents watched as the police stretched crime tape across the yard of one of their neighbors.
Inside the Phillips' home, Missy Phillips discovered what she thought was water leaking from her son, Joshua's, water bed. Upon closer inspection, she discovered a foot. When the police investigated, they found the body of eight-year-old Maddie concealed in the mattress.
Joshua Phillips was taken in for questioning where he confessed to the crime. He claimed that he accidentally hit Maddie with a baseball, panicked, and ended up killing her. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
8 The insurance fraud of Mary Cotton
In 1852, Mary Anne Cotton married a laborer named William Mowbry, and the two started a family. Out of their five children, four of them died of gastric fever. When the couple relocated, Mary bore three more children, but they all died, too. Not long after, Mary's husband died of a stomach sickness, just like all of his children.
Mary remarried, but her second husband died. Then her mother passed away. Soon after, her last remaining child died, as well as two of her third husband's children. When her third husband kicked her out for forcing her stepchildren to pawn household items for cash, she found a fourth husband. Frederick Cotton died, too, as well as his sister, his son from a previous marriage, and the child he had fathered with Mary.
After twenty years of mysterious deaths, all caused by "gastric fevers," Mary started to look suspicious. Police discovered Mary had been poisoning her victims with arsenic in order to collect insurance money. She was hanged in 1873.
7 The torture and murder of Kelly Ann Bates
James Patterson Smith had a violent history. A resident of Manchester, his wife of ten years divorced him due to his savage nature. From 1980 to 1982, he had an affair with a 20-year-old woman, whom he beat and attempted to drown while she was pregnant with his child. Shortly after their relationship ended, Smith began a statutory rape relationship with a 15-year-old, whom he also tried to drown.
Kelly Anne Bates' mother didn't know any of this when she met James Patterson Smith, her 17-year-old daughter's boyfriend. But she remembered, "As soon as I saw Smith the hairs on the back of my neck went up. I tried everything I could to get Kelly Anne away from him." She was unsuccessful.
Over the period of four weeks, Smith tortured Kelly Anne. He gouged her eyes, scalded her skin, partially scalped her, and mutilated her. The pathologist in charge of the case described Kelly Anne's injuries as the worst he had ever seen. Smith was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1997.
6 Child kidnapper and procuress, Enriqueta Martí
Born in Sant Feliu de Llobregat in Spain, she started off as a nanny and maidservant. But eventually, Enriqueta Martí turned to prostitution, which led to a lifetime of crime.
In 1895, Marti married a painter. The marriage was destined to fail, however, due to Eniqueta's extramarital affairs and her frequent visits to local brothels. After reconciling six times, the couple finally separated for good.
During the day, Marti could be found dressed in rags, begging at convents and parishes in the poor parts of Barcelona. She used poor children to pass off as her own in an effort to appeal to potential donors. When night fell, Marti prostituted the children, or murdered them in order to use their remains for her "potions." See, not only was she a child procuress and murderer, she was also a witch doctor.
Enrequita was arrested in 1912, when a neighbor suspected that she had kidnapped a young girl. She died at the hands of her prison mates in 1913.
5 The murder of "Lobster Boy," Grady Stiles
Grady Stiles Jr., like his father before him, was born with ectrodactyly, a deformity which causes the fingers and/or toes to fuse together, creating a claw-like extremity. Also like his father, Grady Jr. was recruited as a circus performer, and given the title "Lobster Boy." Because he didn't have use of his legs, Grady often used his arms to move around, which allowed him to develop impressive upper body strength.
Stiles was an alcoholic who abused his family. When his eldest daughter told him that she was going to be married, Grady went out the night before her wedding and shot her fiancée. He was tried and confessed to the crime, but because no prison was equipped to care for a person with ectrodactyly, he was sentenced to probation.
After leaving his second wife to return to his first wife (named Teresea), Grady became more abusive than ever. Teresea and her son from another marriage arranged to have Stiles killed, and were both sentenced to prison.
4 The five murders of Faye and Ray Copeland
The neighbors didn't like Ray Copeland. They thought that he beat his wife, Faye, and their children. He was also known to be a petty theft after writing hot checks—but those incidents paled in comparison to his later crimes.
In an effort to avoid flak from the police, Ray Copeland decided to use drifters to commit his crimes for him. The drifters were hired to write hot checks for auctioned cattle. Once the deed had been done, Ray shot them in the back of the head.
While her lawyers tried to claim that she had no idea that her husband was committing the murders, a quilt that Faye had sewn from the clothes of the drifters, as well as a handwritten list of the names of each of the five victims with an "X" by each name, strongly suggested otherwise. At the ages of 76 and 69 respectively, Ray and Faye Copeland were the oldest couple to ever be sentenced to death in the United States.
3 The serial killings of Serhiy Tkach
Throughout the 1980's, women between the ages of eight and eighteen disappeared in Crimea in Eastern Ukraine. The young women were abducted by Soviet Army veteran, Serhiy Tkach, who suffocated them and performed necrophiliac acts on their bodies.
One of the most startling aspects of this case is that Serhiy Tkach was a former forensic expert. His work in law enforcement gave him the ability to consider his crimes from the police's point of view, and to successfully throw them off of his trail. One of the ways he misled the police was by selecting his victims near train tracks that had recently been treated with tar, because the smell would confuse police dogs.
Tkach was eventually caught, and he confessed to killing one hundred people. He is now serving a lifetime sentence. However, before Tkach was apprehended, fifteen men had been arrested and imprisoned for his crimes—one of the accused men even committed suicide.
2 The Villisca axe murders
On June 9, 1912, Josiah and Sarah Moore, their four children, and two sisters who were visiting got home from church after dark. By 7:00 a.m. the next morning, a neighbor of the family started to become concerned. She hadn't seen the Moores come outside to tend to their chores—something they did every day. The neighbor knocked on the door, but there was no answer. She called Josiah Moore's brother, who used his key to get in. When he inspected the house, he found all six of the Moores dead.
When the police investigated, they found two cigarette butts in the attic, suggesting that the killer(s) had waited for the family to fall asleep. The police had many suspects to pick from, including Josiah Moore's brother-in-law and and an Iowa state senator. But no one was ever convicted of the Villisca axe murders, and it remains a mystery to this day.
1 The many atrocities of the Harpe brothers
Micajah "Big" Harpe and Wiley "Little" Harpe were both born in the mid 1700's in North Carolina to Scottish parents. Not much is known about their childhoods, but it's believed that the Harpes joined a Tory rape gang during the American Revolution. The kidnappings, rapes, and murders that they took part in during that time paved the way for their future crimes.
Known as America's original serial killers, the Harpe brothers murdered at least 39 people, although it's likely that it was closer to 50. Their signature was to disembowel their victims and fill the cavity with rocks. The Harpes killed without discrimination. Men, women, and children were all potential targets, and the assassins often struck without provocation. Big Harpe even killed his own infant daughter for crying too much.
The Harpes left a trail of bodies in their wake, which had every traveler in the Cumberland wilderness on edge. A posse eventually shot Big Harpe. Little Harpe escaped, but he was eventually found and executed, too.