Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence. Reader discretion is advised.
John Wayne Gacy preferred strangulation. Wrapping a rope around his victims’ neck, he’d then tie it to a hammer and twist until they suffocated. (Although he stabbed to death his first known target.)
Ed Gein would shoot his victims before using a knife to carve the skin from their dead bodies, using it as a macabre fabric for skin suits, lampshades and seat covers.
Ted Bundy was known to bludgeon his victims with a metal rod or a crowbar first before sexually assaulting and then strangling them.
One of the first known serial killers in America, H.H. Holmes chose poison gas as his method of murder, killing as many as 200 victims in a hotel he opened in Chicago in 1893, later dubbed “The Murder Castle.” He would either fill the rooms with a deadly vapor or slip a little something to the guests that he had in his possession.
What is it that makes a murderer choose one killing method over another? Sometimes it’s what they derive pleasure from, but other times, it’s a matter of what’s most convenient. A&E True Crime spoke with experts about murder weapon preferences and what they mean.
Strangulation Is Personal
Murder by strangulation tends to be personal, according to Eric Beauregard, Ph.D., a professor at the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University. He says the murderer likely doesn’t want to remove themselves from the act by stepping back and firing a gun—they prefer placing their hands on the victim and taking away their life, in a close and personal manner.
“The majority [of these types of murderers] enjoy the personal contact and the fact that they’re the one causing death,” Beauregard tells A&E True Crime. “It’s bringing them a feeling of power and control.”
Some killers prefer strangulation with the option of keeping their victims alive a bit longer.
“I’ve interviewed offenders that were using strangulation to make the victim pass out, not necessarily to kill her right away,” says Beauregard, who has spend most of his career on sexual homicides—murders committed during or after sexual assaults.
Knives are Weapons of Convenience
Serial killer Herb Mullin, who murdered 13 people in the 1970s, believed that his stabbing people to death was the only way California would be spared from another deadly earthquake. (He did choose other methods occasionally, like a gun or a baseball bat, but seemed to prefer a knife.)
Why stab? Well, the simple answer is that knives are easier to obtain than guns. They’re readily available (most homes have a few), easy to use and easy to conceal. A knife can be a very innocuous thing—until it’s not.
Stabbing is the preferred murder weapon in countries where strict gun laws exist—China, Japan, Germany and the U.K., for example, see far more murders by stabbing than in the U.S., prompting some countries to ramp up anti-knife campaigns.
Poison Is the Pick of Killers With Medical Backgrounds
In a 2020 interview, Joni Johnston, a forensic psychologist and private investigator, told A&E True Crime that poison is more often the pick of murderers in medical professions. These kinds of killers are already familiar with medications and chemicals that will kill, and they know how to administer them.
The same is true in terms of at-home caretakers or workers in nursing homes. Johnston said 90 percent of poisoners kill someone they know. Typically, the motive is money, though sometimes it’s revenge.
Guns as a Weapon of Compliance
The most popular murder weapon in the United States today, by far, is a firearm of some kind. Every year in the U.S., more than 15,000 people are murdered by someone with a gun. But often they are not premeditated killings.
“The majority of homicides that occur in this country are escalated disputes,” Jesenia Pizarro, Ph.D., editor of Homicide Studies and a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, tells A&E True Crime. “That would indicate that most would be spontaneous.”
Pizzaro says those who choose guns often do so because they want compliance. A robber, drug dealer or rapist may choose a gun for their crimes because they know someone being threatened with a gun is likely to comply.
Of course, for those set on murder, Pizarro says guns are viewed as a way to get “the job” done faster—not every murderer takes pleasure in seeing someone die.
“There are definitely people who get something from [watching people die], but that’s not your average killer,” Pizarro says. “Those are the outliers.”
Murderers Who Drag It Out
And then there are murderers who choose sadistic rituals and long, drawn-out methods of killing. Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris, known as “The Tool Box Killers,” would rape and torture their victims using items from a toolbox—pliers, an ice pick, a sledgehammer—before killing them.
“In cases of sexual homicide, you have offenders that will present a sadistic approach to their killings,” says Beauregard. “For them, it’s not just a matter of causing death; it’s the process that’s important.”
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