Why were serial killers so active in America during the 2nd half of the 20th century?


Edmund Kemper, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, David Berkowitz, Herbert Mullin are some examples.

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7 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

It’s not necessarily that they were more active, but there’s was more awareness and investigations. I am sure they are still out there but being more careful not to get caught and are aware of the current investigative techniques. Human nature doesn’t change.

Anonymous 0 Comments

It was a period of time when it was easy to get around and operate in different areas without people getting suspicious. And you had just enough databases and police cooperation to tie the crimes to each other but not enough to investigate properly. Without the ability to analyze the evidence and look up things in huge country wide databases like we do today the police often just had to wait for the serial killer to get caught in the act.

Anonymous 0 Comments

It was kind of the perfect storm. We had started developing the ability to compare data and track serial killers, but we had yet to develop the skills to identify those killers with any real accuracy. Basically, we could see there _was_ a serial killer, but we couldn’t figure out who all that well.

The prevailing theory is that serial killers are no more rare now than they were 50 years ago, but forensics is so much better now that we catch most of them before they get serious body counts.

Anonymous 0 Comments

It isn’t true, most likely.

Before then they weren’t tracking crimes the same. Criminology was pretty shit. A number may have never had their victims identified as murdered because of the poor understanding of things back then. When bleeding is how you cure a cold, imagine a serial killer doctor in that time. No one is going to be really questioning when some of the sick patients die.

Then we started developing criminology. We started tracking crimes on a local and not so local scale. We better understood the causes of death and could pinpoint a number of things we couldn’t have before.

A secondary factor is the media. As it became cheaper and easier to publish the news for the masses they began to cover things like big news crimes, local events, etc. So we had more third hand, wide spread evidence of these criminals.

Not to mention that tied into this secondary factor is also record keeping and preservation. The nearer in history, the more stuff we have in better condition. A serial killer covered by the papers in the late 20th century would have been gossip and undocumented as ‘Brendan the Fucknut who Murdered Seven’. The best case scenario for most of them would be entering into a kind of boogeyman or mythological status back in the 17th century.

Hansel and Gretel could be a story about a legit serial killer of children turned urban legend turned childrens story warning of disguised danger.

Anonymous 0 Comments

It isn’t necessarily that they were more active, but more that they became much more *visible* and easier to catch around that time for a number of reasons.

(1) The sharing of information/news across geographic areas became easier, and also more common. The radio and television started gaining popularity and becoming accessible in the 1920-1930s. This made it easier for people to *connect* murders that occurred in different areas. Before, people just never really knew much of what was happening outside their own city.

(2) After they found one serial killer, police started to find more because their communication with other jurisdictions drastically improved. Crossing between police jurisdictions used to be a great countermeasure for serial killers, because the separate police departments didn’t share information, and thus rarely connected the murders.

I can’t remember if it was Bundy or another killer, but there’s a documentary where Seattle detectives were talking about how they just didn’t consider the possibility and didn’t make the connections just because they didn’t communicate enough.

This meant the murders were treated as separate crimes, the investigations were done completely separate, and that just made it easier for serial killers to get away with it. Also, solving 3 murders that everybody thinks were done by 3 different people doesn’t get near the same priority as solving 3 murders by 1 guy.

(3) the biggest one, DNA testing became a thing in 1986 for criminal investigations, making it much easier to connect two crimes and discover a serial killer exists

Anonymous 0 Comments

1. The creation of interstate highway system was relatively recent, which made it easier than ever before for serial killers to kill someone they’ve never met and then just leave the area right away. It is a lot harder to successfully get away with many murders over the course of a long period of time if all of the murders have to be nearby where you live.

2. Back then local police departments didn’t really communicate with police departments in different jurisdictions so it was difficult for the police to track the killings back to one individual. This lack of communication is no longer the case.

3. Back then there were no smart phones so it was much easier to get away with it. These days a serial killer knows that anyone they try to kill will have a devise that can record them, livestream their interaction, and track their location so doing the killing requires a much higher level of skill to get away with it.

4. Back then we did not have an understanding of the psychology of serial killers. Today, it is much easier for the police to catch the killer before they are able to rack up a huge number of killings because they can create a profile for who the killer is and then narrow down who they are looking for.

Anonymous 0 Comments

A lot of things came together that provided very ideal conditions for serial killers to be able to kill while evading capture. There are also theories on social conditions which came into play that nurtured more serial killers than usual.

Before the 1940’s, America wasn’t very physically interconnected for the average person. Most people didn’t travel frequently, staying in the same general area for years at a time except for special occasions. And the accessibility to travel wasn’t quite there. You could travel to a few states away, but doing so was usually done with plan, effort, and expense that only really lent itself to necessity.

Beginning in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, however, America made a *huge* investment in automobile infrastructure. Within a few years, you could drive two or three states away in a matter of hours. The average American went from only traveling on special occasions to having huge swathes of the country accessible to them on a whim of they had a car.

Which really brings us to one of the cruxes of the issue. Very rapidly, the suspect pool for a given murder expanded from a small group of people that a local police force likely already knew to a much larger group of people they *don’t know* who could reside *hundreds of miles away*. A serial killer could suddenly travel to do their killing, which greatly negated the ability of police to track them. Local police forces generally didn’t communicate without cause, so there wasn’t necessarily anyone connecting the dots on a group of similar murders spread across several jurisdictions.

Another huge cause was the social conditions. The unfortunate reality of the baby boom is that, following the end of World War II and Korea, a huge number of soldiers were returning from war with severe PTSD – treatment for which was practically non-existent at that time. Without treatment options, those soldiers often ended up creating negative environments for their families. Homes broken by alcoholism, violence, and neglect were quite common. And women often were pulled into that as well. That environment can be extremely damaging to children, and it has certainly been looked at as a potential cause for the number of people who could have even potentially developed into serial killers.

And then you had the other societal issues of the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s. Cold war tensions were sky high, vietnam was vigorously protested, crime was skyrocketing in other areas (the drug trade and violent crime in poverty-stricken areas in particular), civil rights movements came to a head. Police were quite simply spread thin as-is. The resources just weren’t there.

To summarize, it was a perfect storm:

1. Travel was far easier and more accessible, meaning a killer could evade capture simply by spreading attacks across different jurisdictions

2. Police were struggling with resources and the volume of crime overall as is, not including serial killer activity

3. Police in different jurisdictions generally didn’t communicate about cases unless there was cross-jurisdiction involvement on a single case. An officer aware of a peculiar killing in one area would likely not have been made aware of a similar killing four towns down the road

4. The long term effects of the war on families meant a higher than usual number of children being raised in harsh conditions known to foster certain traits common in serial killers. Not necessarily increasing the number of serial killers, but certainly increasing the number of *potential* serial killers

Essentially, a person already predisposed to becoming a serial killer had significant opportunity access and several conditions which helped them evade capture. Conditions we don’t particularly see anymore.

So what changed?

Well, a few things.

For one, technology has improved. CCTV cameras are found in most public places, people carry phones on their person which can enable location tracking, and the technology of forensics has improved significantly. DNA evidence and other high-tech solutions have made it easier to identify killers where traditional would struggle.

Another reason is a change in overall behavior, largely in response to serial killers and other aspects of the high crime zeitgeist of the latter half of the 20th century. People are *far more proactive about their personal safety. Emergency calls on dates, prioritizing visible public areas when engaging in romantic relationships, installing home security systems, etc.

A huge example of that is the decline of hitchhiking. What was once a rather commonplace activity has almost completely died out (both people offering rides and people accepting them) because of serial killers like Ted Bundy.

Serial killers *very frequently* start with lesser crimes first, and tough-on-crime policies mean that a potential serial killer is much more likely to have already been in the system before they start killing. This guarantees access to rapid identification materials – DNA and fingerprints, for instance. It means serial killers can often get captured much more quickly.

Police forces, thanks to modern technology, also have the ability to communicate cross-jurisdiction much more easily now. Which means two potentially related cases can be connected much quicker then previously.

And other changes play a part as well. Mental health services have improved significantly in the past 30 years, meaning potential serial killers are more likely to get the help they need *before* they develop into killers. Child protective services and other policy-movements to help get kids out of dangerous environments have also seen a boon. And an overall increase in police resources have allowed police forces to reduce local crime and increase their capacity to look into cases like those initiated by serial killers.

None of this is to say that serial killers can’t still develop and evade capture. But their ability to do so has been *significantly reduced* in the past few decades.