Serial killers are everywhere you look these days. Of course, that’s assuming you are looking at the television, where at any given time there are 20 or more shows featuring serial killers, one of which (Criminal Minds) has featured over 100 during its run. In reality, serial murder is a relatively rare event, accounting for less than one percent of all murders annually.
In 2005, the FBI held a serial killer symposium (fortunately not the kind found in The Sandman) and came up with the definition of a serial killer as: “The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.”
I noticed when people make lists of serial killers, that war criminals and democidal killers (“The murder of any person or people by their government”) are inevitably left off, even though the FBI definition fits pretty well. I understand the reasoning. When I think of a serial killer, I imagine a normal person that could be lurking around any corner, not a murderous dictator or tyrant. That’s why it was nice to see Liu Pengli, current holder of the world’s first serial killer title, fits almost all the murderous categories.
In 144 BCE, Emperor Jing, a member of the Han royal family, made his cousin Liu Pengli the king of Jidong, a city in pre-Buddhist China. Liu Pengli ruled as king there from 144-121 BCE, during which time he would gather up large groups of slaves and go out pillaging his own kingdom. Liu probably would have been a fan of “The Most Dangerous Game”, because it appears he committed his murders purely for sport, hunting down his subjects and leaving the rest too scared to leave their homes at night.
Liu Pengli hunted and killed for over two decades without consequence, leaving a body count at least 100 people high. It wasn’t until the son of one of Pengli’s victims told the Emperor what his cousin had been up to that he was finally caught and punished. The courts wanted to execute Pengli, but Jing, apparently having too much of a family bond, decided to show him mercy and instead stripped him of his title and exiled him. There is no further record I could find on Liu Pengli, but I’m sure he saw the error of his ways and never killed again for fear of being double exiled.
Take Liu Pengli being the first serial killer with a grain of salt, as it would mean that no other person in the 200,000 plus years of human history before 144 BCE ever committed “The unlawful killing of two or more victims in separate events.” Liu is cited by several sources as the world’s first serial killer, but almost everything I could find had the exact same paragraph of information about him, so again, salt grains.
There have been countless serial killers since Liu, including the infamous ones like Jack the Ripper in 1888 London England, and more recent killers like Ted Bundy, BTK, and the Green River Killer all hailing from the good old U.S. of A. The Serial Killer Symposium in 2005 came to the conclusion that there is no “single identifiable cause or factor that leads to the development of a serial killer.” It’s instead a series of factors, including a combination of biological, social, and psychological traits and events that lead to a killer’s personal decision to commit their crimes.
Just remember this comforting quote also mentioned at the symposium: “many serial murderers can blend in so effortlessly, they are oftentimes overlooked by law enforcement and public.” If you see a friend, family member, or neighbor washing their hands vigorously and then looking much happier and more content afterword, like their sins just washed away, based on the Lady Macbeth Effect, you may want to avoid them.
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