Some of the worst mass murders in recent history include the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, the Virginia Tech shootings, and the terrible tragedy in Aurora, Colorado in which James Holmes opened fire in a movie theater, killing 12 and wounding 58 other individuals. While mass murders in public settings garner most of the headlines, the majority of mass murders occur because of family arguments and romantic break-ups. The following information describes definitions and statistics regarding mass murder as well as some of the most famous mass murderers and worst mass murder incidents in recent history.
Mass Murder Definition
When trying to define mass murder there are a few criteria to keep in mind. It is usually understood to mean the murder of four or more victims. The murders usually occur at the same time or over a relatively short period of time. The FBI further defines mass murder as not having a “cooling off” period between the murders. It also involves a single individual murdering each of the victims. Mass murder is distinguished between spree and serial killing by several other types of criteria.
Mass Murderer Definition
There are three basic types of killers that commit multiple murders. These include spree killers, serial killers, and mass murderers. According to crime.about.com, a mass murderer is someone who kills four or more individuals at one location during a relatively short, continuous time period. That period of time may be a few minutes or over a few days. Spree killers kill two or more people, but in different locations. Even though the killings happen in different locations it is still considered a single event. This is because the murderer doesn’t have a cooling off period between the murders. Serial killers will murder more than three people but each person is killed on separate occasions and serial killers usually pick out their victims. They also have a cooling off period between murders and often plan their murders as well. Serial killers may spread their murders out over a dozen years or more.
Mass Murder Statistics
In spite of the massive coverage by the media when these tragic events occur, mass murders in the United States have declined in recent years. According to criminologist Grant Duwe there are on average about 30 mass murders each year in the United States. In an article written on hereandnow.wbur.org, Duwe went on to say that the suicidal mass murderers are more common than those that get all the public attention such as those involved in school shootings. This type of mass murder is called familicide. It usually happens when the male head of a family kills his significant other, the children, and then kills himself. The FBI states that approximately 20 mass murders occur each year and that statistically it’s one of the most stable crimes, with the number of mass murders neither rising nor falling but remaining fairly consistent each year. Some experts define mass murder as 3 or more victims while the FBI uses 4 or more as their criteria. This is probably why there is a slight discrepancy between the number of mass murders reported by the FBI each year and the numbers that Duwe puts out.
According to statistics put out by USAtoday.com family killings make up about 52 percent of all mass murders while public killings only account for approximately 15 percent. Robberies and other types of killings make up the remaining 33 percent. It’s estimated that 77 percent of mass murders involve a gun. That leaves the remaining 23 percent that used a variety of weapons ranging from explosives, to saws and baseball bats, to their bare hands. A large number of mass murderers never face trial because they are either killed by police or commit suicide. The average age of an individual who commits a mass killing is 32.
Famous Mass Murderers
Serial killers usually gain the most notoriety and often become household names because they kill so many people over a long period of time. Most everyone has heard of John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Ted Bundy. Some of the more well-known killers who officially fall into the category of a mass murderer would be Adam Lanza and James Holmes. A list of mass murderers wouldn’t be complete without including Charles Joseph Whitman. In 1966 Whitman shot 44 people, killing a total of 14 before being killed himself by a police officer. After climbing a tower at the University of Texas in Austin he went on a 90 minute shooting rampage.
Female mass murderers are not as common as male mass murderers. There are, however, several women who in recent years have murdered several people. Serial Killer Aileen Wuornus is probably the most infamous female killer in the United States. Wuornus killed 7 men while working as a prostitute. Mass murderer Jennifer San Marco shot her one time neighbor before driving to her former workplace to shoot six employees. She then committed suicide. San Marco had a history of mental illness leading up to the killings. In 1980 Priscilla Joyce Ford injured 22 individuals and killed 7 when she tried to run over as many people as possible with her car. She had been diagnosed with schizophrenia as well as having several people testify to her mental problems. Andrea Yates is a female mass murderer who received quite a bit of media attention in the United States. Yates drowned all five of her children, one by one, in less than an hour in the family bathtub. Yates suffered from extreme depression and had sought psychiatric care on more than one occasion.
Worst Mass Murderers in History
While spree killings and school shootings have increased in frequency during the last decade, of all the mass murders in America, the worst happened in 1927 in Michigan. Andrew Kehoe, using dynamite, firebombs, and other weapons, murdered 38 children and 6 adults at the Bath Consolidated School. He injured approximately 58 other people. The reasons for this rampage were complex and it was reported that he had planned it for some time. Some of the reasons were believed to be revenge for being defeated in a local election, his wife suffering from tuberculosis, and financial problems.
Although technically classified as a serial murderer, the murders committed by Dean Corll are still considered some of the worst in American history. These Houston mass murders occurred between 1970 and 1973. What made these mass murders so horrific was that Corll kidnapped, tortured, raped, and then killed a total of 28 boys. Corll also had accomplices during most of the abductions. Corll was eventually murdered by one of his accomplices.
According to historynewsnetwork.org the following are the worst American mass murderers in history.
- The first is Andrew Kehoe in 1927 at the Bath School.
- The second worst mass murder involved Seung-Hui Cho murdering 33 people, including himself, and injuring 23 other individuals. This shooting occurred on the Virginia Tech Campus in 2007. While Cho had suffered from a history of mental illness, his exact motive in the killings remain a mystery.
- The third worst mass killings were committed by Adam Lanza at Sandy Hook Elementary. After murdering his mother he went to the school and killed 26 people, mostly first-graders, before killing himself.
- The fourth most deadly rampage happened when George Hennard murdered 23 people and injured approximately 20 in 1991 in Killeen, Texas. With two semi-automatic pistols in hand, Hennard drove his truck through a large window in Luby’s Restaurant. Hennard had struggled with depression and a hatred of women.
- The fifth worst mass murderer is James Huberty, who murdered 22 people and injured 19 others in what was called the McDonald’s Massacre. It happened in 1984 in San Ysidro, California. James Huberty used several different types of guns when embarking on his rampage.
- Number six occurred when Charles Whitman killed his wife and mother. After that he purchased more weapons and ammo and drove to the University of Texas Campus where he barricaded himself in a clock tower and killed 17 more people that day, including himself.
- The mass murderers list ends with the 7th worst — Patrick Sherrill. He killed 15 individuals, including himself at the Edmond Post Office in Oklahoma in 1986.
What Makes a Mass Murderer?
Is there a common thread among the biggest mass murderers in history? Perhaps there’s not a single issue that is found in every individual who commits mass murder, but there is one that seems to be prevalent the vast majority of the time. That single ingredient appears to be some sort of mental illness. Psychology Today cites mental illness as well as substance abuse as two problems that most mass murderers likely have in common.
While serial killers may seem to live normal lives on the surface, with families and jobs, the mass murderer’s life is often falling apart around him or her. The History of Forensic Psychology website describes the following general types or reasons behind mass murder.
The Family Slayer – This is the person who kills his family and then commits suicide.
The Murderer for Sex – This person’s main goal is to rape, torture, and murder victims.
The Murderer for Profit – This individual may kill family, friends, or coworkers for material gain.
The Pseudo-Commando Murderer – This person has an obssession with guns.
The Psychotic Murderer – This person is considered to be legally insane.
The Set and Run Murderer – This individual makes an escape plan after the killings.
The Disciple Type Murderer – Murders are committed on behalf of a charismatic leader.
The Disgruntled Employee – A person who seeks revenge against a boss or coworkers.
The Ideological Mass Murderer – A cult leader persuades others to kill people or each other.
Preventing Mass Murders
Since mental illness is a factor with the majority of those who commit mass murders, recognizing and treating mental disorders may at least help to limit the number of mass killings that occur each year. While many people are hesitant to involve themselves in personal situations that may not involve them, certain behaviors should not be ignored. According to HG.org, an online legal resource, hurting and killing animals is a serious sign in adolescents that should not be ignored. Some studies have shown that nearly 100 percent of those who commit sexual homicides had abused animals when they were younger. Watching out for this type of behavior and tightening laws regarding animal abuse may help limit the number of mass murders that occur.