All the Real Killers in American Horror Story, Pt. 2

I hope you liked last week’s rundown. Let’s take a stab at the next two seasons, shall we?

AHS Coven – Season 3

Season three might not have the most real killers, but it has the most recognizable.

The Axeman

The Axeman of New Orleans, played by Danny Houston, was a real serial killer who terrorized New Orleans in 1918 and 1919. He would remove his victims’ door panels with a chisel, enter their homes, then kill one or more of the residents with their own axe or straight razor. Nothing else would be taken from the home, besides their lives.

Most of his victims were Italian or Italian-American, causing some to believe the murders were ethnically motivated. His primary victims were women; he only killed men when they tried to protect women. This leads some modern criminologists to believe he was a sexual sadist.

On May 13, 1919, with a dateline from “Hell,” the Axeman (or someone claiming to be him) wrote a letter to “the esteemed morals of New Orleans.” Claiming to be a demon, he wrote that he would “pass over” New Orleans the following Tuesday at 12:15 a.m. and would spare anyone whose home was playing a jazz band in full swing. That night, every dancehall in the Crescent City was packed, and hundreds of professional and amateur musicians played. No one was killed that night.

The Axeman had killed six and injured a dozen, but was never caught.

The Savage Mistress

The other serial killer featured in season three was far more cruel and sadistic – and also never faced justice: Mad Madame LaLaurie, played by Kathy Bates. Madame Marie Delfine LaLaurie was born in 1787 into the New Orleans wealthy elite. She was known as kind and courteous to her social equals. She even freed two of her slaves.

Her third marriage was to the less wealthy Dr. Louis LaLaurie after she bore his child out of wedlock. Soon after their marriage, stories about her cruelty to her slaves began to emerge, and multiple complaints were filed against her for it. In an eerie reflection of Elizabeth Bathory, for whom she has been repeatedly compared, she flew into a rage when a 12-year-old servant girl named Leah (or Lia) pulled a tangle while brushing her hair. Fleeing from the furious, whip-wielding mistress, Leah jumped from the roof to her death. Witnesses later saw LaLaurie burying the girl’s mangled corpse, so she was fined $300 and forced to sell her nine slaves. But like rich people everywhere, she was able to buy her way out of punishment. Her family members simply purchased the slaves and sold them back to LaLaurie.

In 1834, the depth of her sadism was finally exposed for all to see. On April 10, 1834, a fire broke out in the LaLaurie mansion, set by a slave who had been chained to the stove and left to starve. She later confessed that she had set the fire as a suicide attempt to avoid being taken to the attic, because no one who was taken there ever came back.

As LaLaurie scrambled to save her valuables, townsfolk rushed in to help her. In the attic, they found “seven slaves, more or less horribly mutilated … suspended by the neck, with their limbs apparently stretched and torn from one extremity to the other.” They said they been imprisoned there for months. Details of the abuse have grown more fantastic over the years, including tales of slaves limbs being broken and reset an odd angles and other ghastly medical experiments. Though their conditions were torture by any standard, iron masks, collars with inward facing spikes, and beatings were actually common punishments used on slaves at the time.

Even in slave-holding New Orleans, however, this was more that they could tolerate. A mob of local citizens descended on the LaLaurie mansion and “demolished and destroyed everything upon which they could lay their hands.”

LaLaurie escaped with her slave driver to Paris, where she lived out the rest of her days in comfort and freedom. Her body was later exhumed and returned to New Orleans.

AHS Freakshow – Season 4

Season four, while being deliciously grotesque, doesn’t feature a lot of real killers. The most obviously inspired character is Twisty (played by John Caroll Lynch, no stranger to playing serial killers), a creature who is based on Pogo, the clown John Wayne Gacy would dress up as. Gacy would often entertain children dressed as Pogo, and, sometimes, he would dress as Pogo to assault and kill his victims.

There is one more serial killer that provided some inspiration for season four: Jeffrey Dahmer. In episode 5, “Pink Cupcakes,” Dandy begins choosing his victims by trawling the gay bar, just like Dahmer. Later, there is a scene at the bar where you can see a flyer in the background. It has a sketch of Dandy’s clown mask and says, “WANTED MAN.” This is also a callback to Dahmer. Many in Milwaukee’s gay community knew too many men and boys were going missing to be a coincidence. Thanks to the bigotry of the Milwaukee PD, the gay community had to try to solve the problem themselves, and to do so, they did put out flyers with some of the missing men’s photos on them. It’s a small detail, but it’s the kind of thing I love in this series.

Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments!

Join us next week when we’ll look at the real killers featured in seasons five and six.

Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer

We Need to Talk About Jeffrey

On the eve of Halloween, let’s start with what may be one of the darkest, most talked about, written about, and filmed about serial killers of the 20th Century: Jeffrey Dahmer. In fact, this weekend the movie My Friend Dahmer premiers, based on the excellent graphic novel by Derf Backderf.

I’m not going to rehash all the details of his crimes – everyone has access to Wikipedia – but rather, try to decipher what is so morbidly fascinating about this man. While I can’t speak for anyone but myself, I have a few thoughts about why that is.

He fascinates me because he doesn’t fit the pattern.

First, he wasn’t the victim of abuse or trauma as a child. We know his home life was less than idyllic – by most accounts, his mother suffered from mental health issues, and probably problems stemming from the medications she was prescribed. His parents’ marriage was contentious and ended in a bitter divorce. After that, his mother sent his father away and then took his little brother and moved away herself, leaving troubled teenaged Dahmer alone with his macabre urges. It was during this time that he killed (and violated the corpse of) his first victim, Steven Mark Hicks.

There are plenty of people – myself included – whose parents went through awful, traumatizing divorces, who didn’t turn into serial killers.

No, Dahmer’s sickness (if we can call it that) seems to have been inside him all along; from the time he was four years old, he was fascinated by animal bones, by what was inside of other beings. At first, his father saw it as merely curiosity, and indulged it. However, once he saw that maybe the curious hobby had maybe gone too far, he told him he needed to quit.

And that’s the other thing that doesn’t fit the pattern. Dahmer’s father saw red flags (of course, not imagining what young Jeffrey was capable of), and he did everything he could to try and help his son.

When Dahmer was little, and was having trouble making friends, his father did all he could to make him socialize with kids his age. When his father found out he was alone in the house, he moved back in (too late, sadly, for Hicks). After Dahmer dropped out of college and couldn’t keep a steady job, his father had him join the Army, thinking it would not only give him discipline, but put him on a respectable career track (instead, he found a perfect environment to commit rape and get away with it). When he was kicked out of the Army for his drinking, his father made him go see a counselor (which he skipped out on).

Lionel Dahmer genuinely loved his son, was concerned about him, and was willing to do whatever he could to help him. It’s just that none of it worked.

Jeffrey Dahmer doesn’t fit the typical serial-killer pattern for another reason: he seems to have known his urges were wrong, and he tried, at times, to control them. He drank heavily starting very young in an attempt to self-medicate and numb his urges. After killing his first victim, he managed to refrain from murdering anyone else for nine years (he did, however, drug and rape over a dozen victims during this time). While living with his grandmother, he used a mannequin as a substitute for an unconscious – or dead – sexual partner.

Of course, he never told any of this to the various counselors he saw. So the one thing that might have helped him (therapy and psychiatric drugs, I assume) he refused to consider.

The final difference might seem trivial, but it isn’t: his name. Or, more specifically, the fact that he doesn’t have a real nickname, as most infamous serial killers do. In this respect, he’s in a small club: John Wayne Gacy, H.H. Holmes, and most female serial killers.

Sure, some dubbed him “The Milwaukee Cannibal” after he was arrested, but it doesn’t stick.

Usually serial killers get their nicknames from the press or law enforcement as their crimes are discovered, but before they’re caught and identified. But no one knew Dahmer was a killer until he was caught. And this fact – that he could have murdered so many young men without it even being noticed by law enforcement or the media – is what angers so many about Dahmer’s reign of terror.

Serial killing is always about a power dynamic – the killer occupies a place of more power or status than their victims. This is why prostitutes are the number one demographic preyed upon by killers: they are the “untouchables” of American society, living on the lowest rungs, utterly without power or status. Jeffrey Dahmer held a much higher place in society – white and middle class – than his victims, who were predominately men and boys of color. Some were more or less vagrants, rejected by their families for being gay, so living on the edges of society. The gay community knew that men were going missing, but law enforcement never took their concerns seriously. The fact that their bodies never turned up made it even harder to attract attention to the problem.

Twice Dahmer was nearly caught. The first time, he had the decaying remains of his first victim in his car when he was pulled over by a cop in Bath, Ohio. Despite the smell, Dahmer was able to convince the cop it was just trash, and the cop didn’t search the car. Dahmer drove off, free to go on and murder 16 more men.

The second time he was nearly caught, when by all rights he should have been caught, was when 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone escaped. Naked and bloody, he ran out into the street, screaming for help, and two women who saw him called the police. When the cops showed up, Dahmer met them outside and claimed that Sinthasomphone was not only of legal age, but that he was Dahmer’s partner. Dahmer claimed Sinthasomphone was drunk, and that he did this kind of thing all the time.

Despite the boy’s (and the women’s) protests, ignoring the blood running down the boy’s legs, the cops believed Dahmer. They followed Dahmer up to his apartment, where the corpse of one of his victims was decomposing in the bedroom. They didn’t look around to investigate the source of the odor. They didn’t check Dahmer’s or Sinthasomphone’s ID – if they had, they would have found Dahmer was a registered sex offender. Instead, they left the 14-year-old boy with Dahmer. As they drove away, they even laughed about the “domestic dispute.”

As soon as the police left, Dahmer immediately killed Sinthasomphone.

Once Dahmer was finally caught, it “shone a spotlight on the racism and homophobia of the Milwaukee Police Department,” according to the Wisconsin Gazette.  Milwaukee’s LGBT and other minority communities were outraged. The case demonstrated the “glaring disparities between the level of service police provided to straight white citizens versus their non-white and LGBT counterparts,” according to the Wisconsin Gazette.  “Missing person reports filed by the families of young men of color, many of them gay, had been ignored.”

In response to these concerns, Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist appointed a  commission to hold hearings on police-community relations. After about a year, it produced a report “condemning Milwaukee police for dismissing citizens’ complaints, mistreating minorities, and discriminating by selective enforcement of the law.”

In addition, the commission developed recommendations to address the problems that it uncovered. According to the Wisconsin Gazette, many of those recommendations have since been implemented.

While the Dahmer case may have, in the end, improved community relations, it still stands as an anomaly, a freak storm of evil that could neither be predicted or avoided. Little wonder that in Milwaukee, they have done their best to erase Jeffrey Dahmer’s existence. The city demolished the apartment building where Dahmer killed and kept most of his victims. When his “estate” (a few personal items including the tools he used in his crimes) went up for auction, a community group raised the money to purchase the items and have them secretly disposed of.

I understand that. No one would want the site of their loved one’s violent murder turned into a tourist attraction.

Yet we can’t erase Jeffrey Dahmer, and we shouldn’t. Jeffrey Dahmer reminds us that polite, well-groomed white men from respectable backgrounds can do very evil things. Maybe if the police had believed that truth, he wouldn’t have done so much of that evil.