Katherine Ramsland: What Do You Get When You Cross a Gumshoe with a Serial Killer?

Dr. Katherine Ramsland: Inside the Archives of Rome's Crime History


Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D. has published 34 books and over 900 articles, and is the chair of Social Sciences at DeSales University, where she teaches about forensic psychology, profiling, serial murder, and forensic science. Her forthcoming book is The Devil’s Dozen: How Cutting-edge Forensics Took Down 12 Notorious Serial Killers.

What Do You Get When You Cross a Gumshoe with a Serial Killer?

“They know who he is and they’re closing in. After seven gruesome murders, intrepid investigators have chased down the killer, ready to corner him…or shoot him. Their lives are on the line, their weapons are ready, and they pray for the advantage. At least, that’s how it goes in fiction. Novels and film often play up the excitement of chasing a serial killer, and while such cases are actually rare, in the history of law enforcement some killers have posed such a challenge they’ve inspired extraordinary effort.”

This is my opening paragraph for “The Devil’s Dozen,” which features twelve serial murder investigations that were aided by a recent forensic innovation…or that inspired one. It’s a collection for cops, pretty much, as well as fans of detective fiction, because each case offers lessons in how some persistent or creative investigator stretched skills or methods, and thus made all the difference. From the detection of blood or arsenic to the analysis of brain patterns, serial murder has been intricately intertwined with investigative invention. We spend too much time thinking “inside the minds of serial killers” and not enough inside the minds of forensics teams. If not for them, many of these killers would never be caught. I describe several investigators who went the distance and well beyond, along with the joint efforts of cops and scientists that prompted an arrest or conviction.

For example, we’ve heard so much about H. H. Holmes, but not as much about Detective Frank Geyer, who painstakingly tracked down the whereabouts of three of his young victims as the entire nation held its collective breath.

H.H. Holmes

We know the gruesome story of Albert Fish, who cooked a murdered child in a stew, but hardly anyone recalls the name of the clever detective who caught him. How many people realize that the discovery of DNA analysis for solving crimes occurred during the investigation of serial rape-murder? Or how detectives exploited technology to reel in a serial killer who’d been playing cat-and-mouse with them for decades? Or how an emerging blood test stopped a brutal child killer?

Albert Fish

One of my favorite tales in the book occurred where I live. A cop staked out a house where the surviving victim of a three-time killer agreed to act as bait…and the perp arrived in the middle of the night, armed. It’s a tense story about how an ordinary patrol officer got to be a hero. I even interviewed him.

Sometimes an investigation required the prodigious coordination of a number of forensic specialties, as with pig farmer Robert Pickton, but other times it resulted from the simplicity of a shrewd deception. In every case, the investigators had to be experienced, patient, inventive, and aware of how to best utilize the available tools – or interested in devising better ones.

In a survey of 300 serial killers, I found that 21% were identified from persistent – even extraordinary – investigations and another 12% were apprehended during an unrelated police operation. Despite how much we hear these days about botched investigations, tunnel vision, Keystone Kops, and corrupted evidence, there have been some inspiring examples over the past century of what it truly means to detect and solve a heinous crime. Move over, Sherlock!

It was a scientific invention during the nineteenth century that ended the reign of arsenic as the murderer’s weapon of choice, and these days, detectives are learning about brain scans, digital evidence, and nano-technology to improve their skills. One case even involved a combination of gold and zinc. No matter what the era, whenever a series of crimes demands the capture of a killer, good guys have risen to the challenge. That truth remains comfortingly constant.

So what do you get when you cross intrepid gumshoes with serial killers? You get better and better at catching them.

Visit Dr. Katherine Ramsland at www.katherine Ramsland.com.

2 replies
  1. Katherine Ramsland
    Katherine Ramsland says:

    Yes, that’s correct, it was the subject of Wambaugh’s book. Many people do not realize that DNA analysis for crimes came from a serial murder case.

  2. D. Swords
    D. Swords says:

    Hello Doctor,

    If I’m not mistaken, the rape-murder case you refer to was in England. Joseph Wambaugh chronicled that case in a book entitled “The Blooding,” which I read about 10-15 years ago.

    I remember that one thing the police did in this small community was ask all males above a certain age to voluntarily submit to a blood test. Of course, one thing they were looking for was to see who did NOT come in.

    It was a very interesting read.

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