Serial Homicide before ‘Serial Killers’: British Poisoners

Legal History Miscellany

Despite the now well-established academic interest in homicide, criminal justice historians have paid relatively little attention to a sub-group of murderers with whom the media has long been obsessed: the so-called serial killers. Whilst there remains a debate about how many victims a killer must claim before the ‘serial killer’ label is applied,[1] and a distinction should be made between spree and serial killers,[2] for our purposes it is more important to note that the term is now used mainly to describe male sex killers of the type personified by the infamous Jack the Ripper of 1888.[3] Those who kill successive victims for purely financial reasons tend to inspire less enduring fascination. However, they too are serial murderers and, as such, offer historians valuable insights on the investigative and legal tactics used to identify and convict uniquely dangerous repeat offenders. In Britain, poisoners were among the earliest…

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