From the doctor who built a house of death, to the prince who had 20,000 of his enemies impaled – we look at some of history's grisliest characters...
Dr H.H. Holmes (1861 – 1896)
One of America’s first documented serial killers, Holmes devised an extremely original method for capturing and killing his victims. At Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 Holmes opened a hotel that he had designed himself – a three-storey structure, later dubbed the ‘Murder Castle.’
Changing builders regularly so that only he knew the true design of the building, the ground floor of Holmes’ World’s Fair Hotel housed his drugstore and other shops. But, the upper floors housed his office –along with a maze of more than 100 windowless rooms, doors that opened to brick walls, soundproof bedrooms, disorientating hallways and staircases to nowhere…
His victims, mostly female, were left to suffocate in the soundproof vault, dropped down a chute to the basement where their bodies would be dissected or sold to medical schools. Others he’d gas to death in one of the soundproof bedrooms, or torture on his stretching rack. Bodies could be burned in his furnace or dissolved in acid.
He was hanged in 1896, and took 20 minutes to slowly strangle to death. It is said in his confession, Holmes said ‘I was born with the devil in me’.
The ‘Witch-Finder General’
Matthew Hopkins (1620 – 1647)
Matthew Hopkins had a fearsome reputation for extracting ‘confessions’ from suspected witches during his reign of terror, which lasted from 1644 to 1647.
Hopkins and his ‘witch-picker’ colleague John Sterne were responsible for the torture and execution of 300 ‘witches’ in eastern England. They hung more people for witchcraft in that small window of time than had been killed in the entire preceding century!
He’d often target old, poor women living alone – ‘hags’ that villagers already has suspicions about, perhaps because they used herbal and folk remedies – and suggested they were to blame for poisoning livestock that had died, causing illnesses or blighting crops that had failed.
Once he had the suspect in his custody, Hopkins owes his success to his interrogation techniques, which led many to confess that they’d made a pact with the devil and were therefore heretics – punishable by death.
He tortured his suspects – but this was illegal, so he had to torture them in ways that left no marks… He’d starve and humiliate his victims, sleep deprive them and make them sit immobile in excruciating positions or spend hours walking up and down their cell in agony. Many ended up implicating others as well as themselves – Hopkins would ask leading questions, eliciting nods or mumbles in the affirmative from his weary suspects, and then fill in the blanks himself.
The ‘witches’ would apparently give the names of their familiars – such as Elemanzer, Pyewacket and Grizzel Greedigut – names that Hopkins claimed ‘no mortal could invent.’
He’d use ‘pricking’ with pins and needles to find spots that didn’t bleed – the mark of the devil. One way to ‘find’ this ‘mark’ was to run a blunt knife along the suspect’s skin…
The Incompetent Executioner
Jack Ketch (b. unknown – d. 1686)
English executioner Jack Ketch was infamous for his barbarous, botched executions – so much so that his name became synonymous with other executioners after his death.
In 1685, he took at least five strokes of the axe to behead poor Lord Russell, who suffered a horrendous death. His demise was so excruciating that Ketch felt moved to issue a pamphlet entitled Apologie, in which he claims that Lord Russell had failed to ‘dispose himself as was most suitable’, and that he was therefore distracted while taking aim.
Two years later, in 1685, it was James Scott, Duke of Monmouth’s turn at Ketch’s inept hand. Stood before the crowds on the day of his beheading, Scott addressed Ketch, saying, ‘Here are six guineas for you. Do not hack me as you did my Lord Russell. I have heard that you struck him three or four times. My servant will give you some more gold if you do the work well.’ Ketch failed, miserably. The first blow gave a slight wound, two more and Scott was still alive, writhing in agony. Ketch finally dispatched Scott after five to eight blows – reports differ – using a butcher knife to fully severe the head.
Vlad the Impaler (1431–1477)
Vlad Dracula – posthumously dubbed Vlad the Impaler – was a Romanian medieval prince with a reputation of extreme cruelty and bloodlust that has survived throughout the centuries. Although most accounts of his violent deeds were recorded after his death, some by his enemies, what’s for certain is that his cruelty has been well documented.
As his name suggests, Vlad had passion for impaling his enemies – often with a relatively blunt, oiled stake that was pushed up the victims’ behind, taking hours or days for death to come… Truly a sadistic practice that instilled terror in those who witnessed grisly forests of impaled corpses – in one instance, 20,000 bodies – the entire village of Amlas! If that’s not a deterrent to potential invaders, we don’t know what is. Definitely an early form of psychological warfare.
One German pamphlet from 1521 describes details of Vlad’s torture techniques:
“He roasted children, whom he fed to their mothers. And (he) cut off the breasts of women, and forced their husbands to eat them. After that, he had them all impaled.”
Twisted Serial Killer
Elizabeth Bathory (1560 – 1640)
Potentially the most prolific female serial killer in history, Hungarian countess Elizabeth Bathory tortured, mutilated and killed hundreds of girls – some put the figure at 650. As well as beating, starving and freezing them to death, Elizabeth bit them and stuck pins under their fingernails. Some believe that she even forced one girl to cook and eat her own flesh, while folklore tells that Elizabeth liked to bathe in the blood of virgins to keep her youthful looks.
In 1609, Count Gyorgy Thurzo made an investigative visit to her castle on orders of the king, and caught Elizabeth in the act… Due to her noble birth, she was spared execution, and instead was put under house arrest, spending four years in the same room until her death.
Roman Emperor Nero has a reputation as a brutal and ineffectual emperor, who ‘Fiddled while Rome burned’ in The Great Fire Of Rome in 64AD – which some of his contemporaries believed he started. He carried out numerous executions – including that of his mother and his wife – and was the first Roman emperor to commit suicide.
Whether or not he started the Great Fire (Rome was highly overcrowded and often suffered fires) Nero blamed it on the Christians – at the time a small, underground religious sect. These unfortunate scapegoats were fed to lions and dogs, crucified – and even, ‘Doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as nightly illumination when daylight had expired.’