Serial killers Essay

Theodore Robert Cowell ‘Ted Bundy’ was a notorious and high profile American serial killer in the mid 1970s who was responsible for the murders of dozens of victims. He presented himself in a very charming and approachable manner to his victims usually priming or enticing them before he would commit his murders. After the murder was committed he would typically practice necrophilia or mutilation of the corpses, usually keeping the head or body parts as mementos of his slayings; his motive was often unclear or ambiguous. While Mary Ann Cotton ‘The Black Widow’ was an English woman who murdered nearly all of her husbands, an intimate partner, and the majority of her children (11 out of 13). Her method of murdering them was far more indirect or at least less physical than Ted Bundy's, which was through the use of arsenic to poison them. Her motive being to collect money from the insurance policies. Both of these serial killers could be considered primary psychopaths with very stark differences between their kills possibly attributed to their gender and individual experiences.

Ted Bundy

Childhood History

According to Wikipedia, briefly summarizing his childhood he was born to a single mother and neither of them were certain of his father's identity. He was raised by his grandparents who fabricated their true roles; he was told his mother was his sister and his grandparents were his parents. Once he had learned of the truth he harbored a lot of what can be described as hatred for his mother for her lack of honest and open communication about his true origins. While he had nothing but praise for his grandfather, there were different accounts of his grandfather's behaviors which included animal abuse, irritable temperament, would take part in child and domestic abuse and was described as racist and irate. His aunt (his mother's younger sister) recalled an incident where she had woken up to knives surrounding her and to a toddler Theodore smiling at her. He was apparently very concerned about his true father and refused to form a connection with his adoptive father who he did not seem to have a positive view of despite the efforts made to forge a bond through family activities. Bundy himself admitted to having a strong interest in crime novels particularly ones with hypersexual themes alongside images of corpses and blatant sexual trauma. He also admitted his heavy use of alcohol and habits of canvassing his neighborhood in the hopes of secretly observing undressed women. It seems as though he was subject to low parental supervision which could have been a risk factor for him in addition to his preferred state of social isolation which would support the social control theory perspective. According to Nasi et al., (2016) in a study focusing on hate crimes of perpetrators they explain their findings; “with regard to social control theory, the findings suggested that low parental supervision is a risk factor for hate crime” (p.189). Which suggests that criminal behavior may be partially attributed to lack of parental concern for their child's whereabouts and lack of knowledge for his alcohol consumption early on.

Post-Adolescent Life

Referring to the Wikipedia page on Bundy’s adult life, he did finish high school and go on to college interestingly enough primarily studying Chinese while maintaining a relationship but, ended up dropping out. He then proceeded to pursue multiple low paying jobs before taking an interest in several political campaigns while volunteering for them. Amidst his political interest, his college partner had terminated their relationship, reportedly this was intensely upsetting to him. A few years later Bundy went back to college and majored in psychology which he excelled in and was highly recognized by his professors for his outstanding performance as a student and was even an honor student. It seems as though Bundy became a bit more social and adjusted well in his later years he was even a suicide hotline worker and was perceived as completely normal by those around him. So much so that they wrote stellar recommendation letters for him which was the main reason for his admission to law school; his test scores were apparently not that great. He eventually reunited with his college partner who was impressed with his growth while simultaneously dating another woman without the two knowing of each other. He seemed very serious about his college partner to the point of making it very clear he intended to marry her except he ended up what we would modernly describe as “ghosted” her. Bundy had in fact concocted this revenge scheme as a form of “payback” for their initial breakup 6 years prior. Shortly after he had ceased his attendance at law school and began working for the Seattle Crime Prevention Advisory Commision. In terms of his marital status he did not marry until he was indicted for a murder of a little girl where he also found a loophole in order to marry Carole Ann-Boone, and she conceived and birthed his daughter who was then named Rose while he was on death row and they later divorced after he admitted he was responsible for the murders as stated by Rajani (2019).

Mental History

According to Pruitt (2019), “while on death row Bundy was diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder by Dr. Lewis” but he could have possibly been feeding her false answers and manipulating the situation in his favor for her to come about that diagnosis. The study of his brain showed no physical altercations to it and so the psychology community has been split on what his diagnosis may have been and even on if he should be considered a sociopath or psychopath. Bundy did specify that his preoccupation with pornography was a significant factor in fostering his violent atrocities. In the same article written by Pruitt (2019) Dr. Tanay was quoted for his rebuttal of Bundy’s statement and to those who agree with it by stating “I consider that to be one last-ditch manipulation by Mr. Bundy, who is the great manipulator...I think pornography did not give us Ted Bundy.” Wikipedia however, states that he was subject to various psychiatric tests but his diagnoses could be considered inconclusive due to the multiple conclusions of diagnosis by different psychologists. One interesting account of Bundy as a child is from his great-aunt who described bundy at one instance as an entirely different person, someone who she would never associate with Bundy. Another similar account was from a prison guard who described an instance of immediate change in Bundy accompanied by body and facial changes and associated him with a strange smell coming from him during this change. While no conclusive diagnosis was concrete enough to officially be assigned to him it has been suggested that his behavior was akin to antisocial personality disorder.

Criminal Record

According to murderpedia, Blanco says that Bundy reportedly murdered as many as 30 women and young girls and possibly even more spanning from the west to east coast of the U.S. He specifically murdered them in the states of Washington, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, and Florida over the course of 5 years from 1973 to 1978. His weapon of choice was a metal bar or he would strangle his victims to death. Wikipedia also states that bundy often returned to “secondary crime scenes” multiple times where he would perform acts consistent with necrophilia such as raping the corpses until they decomposed and were no longer able to satiate his sexual desires. Interestingly, alcohol seemed to be a key component to carrying out his murders and he described it as a way to let a second personality be fully in control while diminishing the power of his primary personality. Although there remains uncertainty towards Bundy’s statements as he was often deflective of his personal responsibility and instead used society as a tool to justify his deviant acts while he was in custody of the U.S criminal system. He was sentenced to the death penalty by electric chair in Florida in 1989 but, he was initially due for execution in 1986 and managed to get a stay of execution mere minutes before he was supposed to die. Four months later again in 1986 he was able to get another stay of execution several hours before he was due.

The Black Widow

Childhood History

As described by Wikipedia, Mary Ann Cotton (Initially Mary Ann Robson) was remembered as a very well kept sweet and smart girl. She lost her father at about 10 years old and experienced eviction because their housing situation had been provided by her fathers job. Her mother had remarried shortly after to another miner whom she reportedly did not get along with and had developed some hatred for him. When she was 16 she pursued a career in nursing in a neighboring village and later came back home to become a dressmaker in hopes of becoming vastly successful in her trade.

Post-Adolescent Life

At the ripe age of 20 Cotton secured her first husband named William Mowbray and 4-5 of her children who had no records, died at young ages. She had 3 more children with him but during this time, one more had died in addition to the death of her husband. Mowbray had reportedly died from an intestinal issue. Cotton had received a total of 60 pounds in insurance money, this was the same as a year's salary in this time period. When she had been dating a man named Joseph Nattrass, 1 out of 2 of her children died from typhus fever and sent her last child to her mothers while she worked at an infirmary.

She met her second husband when he was a patient of hers and they ended up getting married. His name was George Ward and he was an engineer who had died a year later from his illnesses. The doctors had been surprised he had died so quickly despite his ongoing sickness. His cause of death was reported to be cholera and typhoid. Of course Cotton had gone and collected the insurance money in lieu of his death.

She met her third husband, also a widow named James Robinson as she worked for him as a maid. When his infant son died of gastric fever, he had taken an interest in Cotton and shortly after conceived a child with him. Her mother had contracted hepatitis and while she had been recovering she had also bouts of aabdominal pain and died nearly over a week later when her daughter had arrived. The daughter that had lived with her mother died after moving back in with Cotton and also experienced stomach pain before her death along with 2 of her soon to be husbands children and collected 5 pounds in insurance money for one child. They later officially married and their daughter was born but died within the next year. They had another son together, while she was adamant about her husband getting life insurance he quickly knew something was awry. He found out about her debt and money stolen from him and about her convincing his older children to pawn items in the house. Following his intuition he kicked her out and took custody of their son. While she was homeless, her friend Margaret Cotton set her up with her brother named Frederick who was a widow. His sister had helped raise 2 of his children but died shortly after from stomach pain. Mary comforted him and also conceived a child with him, they married what is described as “bigamously” since she had failed to kill off her previous husband and was still legally married to him as well. The man she had previously dated (Nattrass had become a widow and she also relocated her family closer to him not that he had lived too much further from them anyways. She had an affair with him and her husband had died from gastric fever along with their son, she then collected the insurance for their lives. She moved in with Nattrass but, had a child with one of her patients shortly after. Her only surviving child was sent to a workhouse as she worked as a nurse for a woman. She made strange statements before the death of her son to an official saying things along the lines of he’ll soon be out of the way and she would no longer be weighed down by him implicating his impending death. The official had caught on and asked not to release a death certificate until cause of death was verified. The death of her child was ruled as due to “natural causes” while the media was covering it and revealed a trend in the deaths of the people around her.

Criminal History

It was discovered arsenic was in her last sons body upon death and she was sentenced to trial but not before she gave birth to her final child. She was the first “black widow” who had used arsenic to poison, and was convicted of her crime. Her punishment was by hanging and died from strangulation of the rope during her hanging. According to Murderpedia, Blanco says that her death was longer than expected and had been suffocated for 3 minutes instead of her neck simply breaking. He also included speculations that an alternative motive may have been that she felt the people close to her were in the way of a goal somehow.


Bundy and Cotton could be considered primary psychopaths because of their calculated method of committing murders in combination with cooling off periods between each murder. Additionally, they both could be considered charming as they easily attracted many members of the opposite sex, had a strong lack of remorse for their victims and completely disregarded the expectations of society without regret while carrying out their crimes for years undetected. They also possessed cognitively distorted perceptions of the world that supported their own interests. Such as Bundy’s need to satisfy his carnal sexual needs and arguably his need to exact revenge on women because of his resentment towards his mother. While in Cottons case, she had expected to become very successful and well off financially as a dressmaker but it was not fulfilled and as a way to attempt to make this a reality quickly for short periods of time she murdered off nearly all of her family for insurance money. Bresin et al., (2013) says as a result of their study “Individuals high in primary psychopathy...saw the subsequent perceptual world in a manner consistent with the self’s activated lateralized state...individuals low in primary psychopathy did not exhibit such biases and secondary psychopathy did not moderate the magnitude of such effects.” (p. 614) Social environmental risk factors may have been prevalent in Bundy’s early life in regard to social isolation as he was remembered as a loner and seems to have presented signs of affective social competence in some instances such as when he would momentarily experience a complete inner change in personality around family members. He definitely was subject to family risk factors as he was deceived of the true structure of his family. Cotton was also exposed to family risk factors when her father died and did not develop a positive relationship with her step father as well as being low income. It is difficult to say for sure which parenting styles were used in both cases but there was likely low parental monitoring for Bundy and Cotton in their adolescence. Neither seemed to have many protective factors other than Bundy’s interest in school and Cottons willingness to pick up a trade but they weren’t strong enough to counteract the following events of their lives. The developmental cascade model would say that both the risk factors and protective factors would mesh together and result in the child excelling. Which is true in a professional sense that both Bundy and Cotton were exceptionally intelligent, he had gotten into law school and accepted to many degree programs and she had studied some nursing and dressmaking. While the cumulative risk model would argue that all of these risk factors outweighed the little protective factors they had so it resulted in social deviance; which would account for the murders they committed in their lifetime. Expectancy theory would imply that Bundy believed murdering women and raping corpses would satisfy his sexual needs or equate him to the characters in the crime comics he read. Another explanation would be that he expected the slayings of these women would satisfy his inner persona or it would be relieve the hatred he had for his mother and would be a form of personal justice. Expectancy theory would also say that Cotton expected to receive compensation for murdering her family and it was fulfilled each time. There may have been hope for Bundy if he was given an intervention early on when his bizarre behavior was noticed and it may have aided in the avoidance of his porn addiction and alcohol consumption becoming full blown which may have served as triggers. Additionally, it would have offered him support when discovering the truth about his family and how to handle different stressors that may have arisen in his life such as his first relationship ending. As for Cotton perhaps, if she was given an intervention it would have supported her in her childhood years when her father died and the adjustment of an additional family member as well as any trauma she may have experienced such as potential sexual trauma from her step father if it had occurred. Shelleby and Shaw (2014) found that “overall the results support the hypothesis that greater levels of problematic child behavior at baseline may be associated with greater benefit from intervention.” (p. 640) Which may imply that Cotton would have needed to present signs of relational aggression but Bundy’s social deviance of intrusively looking at undressed women, drinking alcohol in his early teens, social isolation, and tendency to reach for graphic pornography would be enough grounds for therapy to have potentially been effective.

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