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Meet Robert Ressler – The Man Who Coined The Term ‘Serial Killer’

Madeline Hiltz
(Photo Credit: Paul Harris/ Getty Images and MovieStills DB)

If you are a fan of true crime or have ever watched the show Criminal Minds or Mindhunter, then you know about serial killers and the importance of psychological profiling. Although we might be familiar with these concepts, we never really knew who came up with them. Unbelievably, the FBI once didn’t have a name for killers who claimed multiple victims –  until a man named Robert Ressler coined the term “serial killer.” Ressler not only helped create the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, but also became the first serial killer profiler, interviewing some of the most notorious criminals of all time.

He was always fascinated by crime

Robert Ressler 1993

Robert Ressler circa 1993. (Photo Credit: Paul Harris/ Getty Images)

Robert Ressler was born on February 21, 1937, and grew up in Chicago, Illinois. He became interested in killers from an early age, as he followed the case of “The Lipstick Killer” being reported in the Chicago Tribune. In his 1993 book, Whoever Fights Monsters, Ressler recalls being more “fascinated than afraid” of whoever was committing these heinous crimes.

Ressler decided to join the United States Army after the conclusion of the Second World War. After two years in the Army, he enrolled in the School of Criminology and Police Administration at Michigan State University. He earned his bachelor’s degree and began a master’s program, though he only finished one semester before returning to the Army.

From 1957 to 1962, Ressler served in the U.S. Army as a provost marshal of a platoon of Military Police Corps in Aschaffenburg, Germany. He helped solve criminal cases, including arson, robberies, and homicides. Ressler then decided to go back to school to finish up his master’s degree in police administration. After receiving his graduate degree, he served in the Army for an additional two years before moving on to the FBI in 1970.

Creating the term ‘serial killer’

Message written by the lipstick killer

The haunting plea of convicted murderer William Heirens is scrawled with lipstick on a bedroom wall of one his three victims. Heirens was called The Lipstick Killer and at the time of his death in 2012 was the longest serving prisoner in the world. (Photo Credit: Kirn Vintage Stock/ Corbis via Getty Images)

Two years after joining the FBI, Ressler was recruited to the newly created Behavioral Science Unit. This FBI unit was created in response to the rise in violent crimes in the early 1970s. After being recruited to this newly formed unit, Ressler began tackling killers from a more analytical angle.

Shortly after working with the Behavioral Science Unit, Robert Ressler started describing some of the criminals he was investigating as “serial killers” because “the offender’s behavior is so distinctly episodic, like the movie-house serials he enjoyed as a boy.” To Ressler, these were killers who seemed to strike their victims at random. They were violent criminals who lashed out at their victims, and who killed multiple times.

Throughout his career with the FBI, Ressler worked on high-profile serial killer cases, including John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy, and Ed Kemper. Ressler theorized that many serial killers were loners, cruel to animals, and control freaks absorbed by their fantasies. They tended to migrate to larger cities to have a better choice of victims and to be able to blend in more.

Interviews with evil

John Wayne Gacy's mugshot

Serial killer John Wayne Gacy posed for the above Des Plaines Police Department mug shot in December 1978. (Photo Credit: Bureau of Prisons/ Donaldson Collection/ Getty Images)

John Wayne Gacy was executed in 1994 for killing 33 young men and burying their remains under his home in Des Plaines, Illinois. Robert Ressler interviewed Gacy before his death and picked up on a few things. Ressler wrote: “Gacy was an overweight, middle-sized, intelligent, and articulate man… who attempted to show his power by ordering lunch. Snapping his fingers, he summoned a guard and had a conversation with him as if the guard were a waiter in a fancy restaurant. Gacy hoped that we were impressed by his ability to command that things happen even while he was on Death Row. Later I learned two other Death Row inmates had forgone their lunches that day so that Gacy could impress us.”

Robert Ressler interviewed Jeffrey Dahmer before his trial. Dahmer killed 17 people during his murder spree, keeping dismembered body parts in a drum of acid. Many of his later murders involved cannibalism, necrophilia and the preservation of different body parts. Ressler noted during these interviews that although Dahmer exhibited many characteristics of an organized offender, he also exhibited characteristics of a disorganized offender, making Jeffery Dahmer a “mixed” offender. This, Ressler noted, was an entirely new category of serial killer. However, Ressler also noted that Dahmer had trouble comprehending the crimes he committed before in jail.

Jeffrey Dahmer during trial

Photograph of Jeffrey Dahmer taken during his trial. (Photo Credit: Universal History Archive/ Getty Images)

During Ressler’s third interview with Ed Kemper, Ressler realized the buzzer to alert the guards wasn’t working. Kemper, who stood six feet nine inches tall, was a serial killer who had murdered 10 people including his own mother. After realizing the buzzer wasn’t working, Kemper said to Ressler: “If I went [crazy] in here, you’d be in a lot of trouble, wouldn’t you? I could screw your head off and place it on the table to greet the guard.” Ressler told Kemper that he would be in deep trouble himself, but Kemper just responded, “What would they do – cut off my TV privileges?”

Work takes its toll

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter

Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ (Photo Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/ MovieStills DB)

More from us: The Ted Bundy Enigma: History’s Most Charismatic Serial Killer

Despite being a successful profiler, interviewing serial killers surely takes its toll on a person. After Robert Ressler retired from the FBI in 1990, he continued working as a consultant. He advised Thomas Harris on the character of Hannibal Lecter, who shares many characteristics with the serial killers Ressler interviewed. Ressler’s former partner John Douglas also wrote an influential book called Mindhunter, which inspired a Netflix show with the same name. The character Bill Tench is based on Robert Ressler.

Robert Ressler passed away on May 5, 2013. His groundbreaking work continues to aid criminal profilers today.