Were psychos, serial kidnappers, and other (real) boogeymen around in the "good old days"?

It’s often said (most recently by my mother) that, when my sister and I were kids, she (Mom) could let us wander all over creation and not worry about us (as in, not worry about us getting abducted, or worse). Is it true tho that nobody (or fewer than we have today at least) was going around kidnapping kids and then killing them back then (60’s or earlier), or doing even more unspeakable things? Or is this an artifact of our sensationalistic media, who now will glom on to such cases in a fervor not seen in these earlier decades?

Albert Fish.

Fritz Haarman.

Peter Kürten.

Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the Moors Murderers.

Ed Gein was killing people and making garments out of their skin in the 50s. Starkweather went on his thrill-kill spree in the 50s as well; Leopold and Loeb did something similar to Bobby Franks in the 20s. Lizzie Borden probably dismembered her father and stepmother in the 1890s, and of course, the celebrated Jack the Ripper worked in the 19th century as well.

ETA: Oh, I see the OP specifically requested those who targeted children (which criterion perhaps only L&L meet).

Also, Peter Woodcock,

Mack Ray Edwards,

Jeanne Weber,

and if you want to go really far back, Gilles de Rais.

Three Chicago boys were murdered in 1955. In 1994 Kenneth Hansen was arrested for the crime.


Hansen died in prison in 2007.

Chances of being murdered or raped by a stranger have decreased a lot in the last 30 years. Crime has gone down overall.

Perception and media coverage have changed a lot, and parents in particular are terrified now.

Changes of kids being molested and effed up for life by a family friend or relative are about the same now as then. We’re focusing on the wrong bogeyman.

Hmm, good question. I like to study serial killers (mostly through www.crimelibrary.com) and there are several possible answers for your question:

  1. Media coverage fueling fear: definitely. As reporting gets better and faster, it appears that there are more serious crimes now than before, when it is possible that there is just more coverage of the same number of crimes. However, I haven’t seen any studies to prove that murders actually increase. For example, The Chicago Tylenol Murders were isolated to 6 people in a single city, but Tylenol’s market share when from 35% to 8%, a 75% drop.

  2. The data shows that we are safer now than in the 70’s, but the 70’s were an usually dangerous time. Also, the data shows that the 50’s were the safest time, but again, it was an unusually safe time.


(LOL, nice page name, DOJ!)

  1. However, there’s another way to look at the same table. As you can see, the number of homicides per 100k people is only slightly higher than it was in the 50’s. However, the total number of homicides has increased by 400%. Therefore, the gross number of homicides has increased, but the homicide rate has not.

  2. A WAG here based on my reading, but it seems that serial killers have a common psychiatric disorder, as they share many of the same characteristics, usually manic depression, disassociative disorders, and a lack of empathy. While there is no evidence that this disorder is affected by any environmental factors such as the drinking water, it would seem logical that there are more of them in a larger population.

So, while the stats say you are just as safe now as then, we definitely have more crazies now than before, simply because we have more people now than before.

This would also include child abductions, rapes, etc. The only crime I know of that has increased over population growth is drug abuse and theft, although the two seem to be closely related.

Read the account of The Mysterious Mr. Holmes in the book A Book of Remarkable Criminals by Henry Brodribb Irving. There are some mentally deranged and amoral people in this book. The accounts are from the 1800’s.

In the Holmes account he was a polygamist huckster committing fraud and then killing people including his children afterward mounting the fresh stripped skeleton or burning the body in a wood stove.

Another factor is that people are much more paranoid about their children’s safety than they used to be. People used to let their children wander around the neighborhood much more, but that’s not because it was any safer back then. It’s because they now think that they have to protect them from any possible harm, while back then it was expected that children should be allowed to go anywhere in the neighborhood and get used to a little independence.

Also, back in the past no-one expected 100% of their children to reach adulthood.

You simply hear about them all these days. It used to be the press hid details of horrific crimes and sometimes the crimes themselves. You certainly wouldn’t have heard about such things that happened in other countries.

Now, to take my own country as an example, I read and see accounts of attempted abductions of children from streets anywhere across Australia. Before the prevalence of TV news over printed, and the rise of national over local news, no-one outside the affected city - possibly even the affected suburb - would even have known about such an attempt.

So between that and the much higher population “these days” the impression is certainly conveyed that violent crime is far more common now, when as stated above it is rather less common (per head - so to speak). I have this conversation with my father all the time when he complains about modern life being so awful and Sydney being so dangerous - half the crimes he cites weren’t even in this state.

What is horrible is that school massacres only started recently. The Columbine, CO shootings really touched off that craze. Wait, let me check my facts.

[spoiler]Columbine was chump change. The worst school massacre in U.S. history occured in Bath, MI in 1927 where 45 students were killed and 58 others were wounded. Many of them were very young students.



My dad was 10-13 years old when the Torso Killer was doing his thing in Cleveland back in the 30s. It never stopped him from hauling ass all over town on his own.

I have asked him about it before and he doesn’t seem to think that there was any unusual paranoia. It certainly got a fair amount of media attention, not least because Cleveland had Eliot Ness running the show . But at the same time, they didn’t lead off every hour with “Search for the Torso Killer!” on the radio with gruesome details of every killing. I think it just wasn’t considered appropriate.

Today, we would get every gory detail on CNN for weeks on end feeding the paranoia.

I’m not sure how old the OP is, but probably not old enough for that to be relevant.

attitudes towards child safety are in part dependent on the number of children people typically have. If you have several and are young enough to have more if needed, you will be less scared of having one of them killed by lightning than if you have only one and are now too old / tired to do it all over again, because you married too late and had the kid even later.

This same factor plays quite a bit of role in the greater willingness of certain nations in the Middle East to fight endless wars against heavy odds - they have plenty of young men and can always have more. By contrast, societies with low birthrates end up with Cindy Sheehan chasing government officials.

Those of us who were kids in 1950s suburbia never knew what kind of dangers were out there. Sure, we were told not to talk to strangers, but I don’t recall ever being told why. We went out to play all day in the woods near our home, or in houses under construction, or biking to neighboring suburbs . . . and the only admonition was that we didn’t cause any trouble. And nobody locked their doors at night. In retrospect, it seems that even the adults were unaware of any dangers. Crimes reported on the news were considered anomalies, and not relevant to our lives.

The widowed mother of a friend of mine (an only child), in order to teach him independence, would drive him to a random location miles away, give him some pocket change, and tell him to find his way home. Nobody thought this was a dangerous practice.

One of my favorite MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE moments was Cloris Leachman as Lois’s evil “eastern European of some extraction” mother visiting after her grandchild Jamie was born. The family is sitting at the dinner table.

LOIS- Could you see if Jamie is crying.
MOTHER- Who the hell is Jamie?
LOIS- The baby!
MOTHER- Oh… in my day we didn’t name them til we were sure they were going to make it. Malcolm… check Baby.

Don’t forget:

John Norman Collins http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michigan_murders


Richard Speck http://crime.about.com/od/serial/p/speck.htm

Not to mention Dunblane (1996, 18 dead, 16 of them primary school aged children). The reason we don’t let anyone legally own a handgun in these parts.