Book Review: American Serial Killers: The Epidemic Years 1950-2000 by Peter Vronsky
Peter Vronsky’s American Serial Killers is a brutal, engaging, meticulously researched account of the start, development, and conclusion of the fifty-year period knows as the “golden age” of serial killers in the United States. While the book focuses on serial killers, Vronsky digs deep into the psychology that shapes them, tracing the development of the U.S.’s national identity as well as the effects of WWII, Vietnam, pulp magazines, and other cultural elements that had a huge impact on popular culture and the mental health of the country. Drawing on a wealth of sources, Vronsky offers readers a sharp look at the relationship the United States has with violence to explore how and why it often leads to serial killing.
This book contains a collection of gruesome, detailed chronicles of some heinous acts of murder, necrophilia, and cannibalism, but Vronsky is an outstanding researcher whose knowledge of a diversity of topics makes this a nonfiction narrative that goes above and beyond reporting shocking facts. In the introduction, the author promises the book will be tackling the “golden age” epidemic years of serial killers and “describing some of its most consequential cases, the response from law enforcement and the forensic psychiatric communities, and the historical, sociological, and cultural context.” It sounds like a lot, but Vronsky delivers on every single promise made in his introduction.
It’d be impossible to discuss the plethora of things Vronsky does to pull off the promises made at the beginning of the book. However, there are a few elements that deserve attention here. The first one is the clear, concise way in which he turns his research, understanding of serial killers and their psychology, and historical context into passages that pack a lot of information but are incredibly easy to digest. For example, he explains why some cases like Jack the Ripper acquire notoriety and others, like that of the Louisiana-Texas axe murderer in the early 1900s, fade into obscurity:
“The primary difference is that London in 1888 was the center of a huge global English-language newspaper industry, while North Dakota, Louisiana and Texas were not. The story of jack the Ripper was retold endlessly and entered popular myth and literature—while the Louisiana-Texas axe murderer faded from public consciousness. Like real state serial murder “epidemics” are all about location, location, location, more so than they are about the number of victims.”
While American Serial Killers focuses on the half-century before the year 2000, Vronsky starts reporting three decades earlier in order to explain where the killers of the 1950s came from. While doing this, Vronsky speaks about a lot of elements that played a role not only in the way the country became a hotbed for serial killers but also larger elements that affected the culture at large. Race, for example, is something that’s present throughout the narrative. The same goes for poverty. The mix of these two—and later the addition of homosexuality to that list—lead to a phenomenon Vronsky calls the “less dead”: people who were murdered by serial killers but whose deaths weren’t scrutinized like they should have been because they belonged to a group that was not seen as important as average white Americans at the time (a problem that persists to this day).
The work Vronsky did in terms of seeing the history of the country from the early 1900s to the 2000s (there is even a discussion of serial killer lawyers asking for their release due to the Covid-19 pandemic) through the lens of violence is superb. Things like the biography of the father of a few serial killers, an exploration of the way freeways made it easy for roaming killers to rack up a large number of victims, and the impact of true-detective and men’s adventure magazines in the psyche of young men who eventually became vicious murderers all speak volumes about the amount of research Vronsky did not only for this book but also for his previous books, all of which get mentioned in this narrative: Serial Killers: The Method and the Madness of Monsters, How and Why Women Become Monsters, and Sons of Cain: A History of Serial Killers from the Stone Age to the Present. Using previous books, biographies, newspaper articles, academic peer-reviewed journal articles, magazine articles, interviews, and historical texts, Vronsky created a book that, despite containing so much information that it sometimes feels slightly disconnected, belongs on the list of definitive texts on serial killing.
Besides the superb construction of a narrative that contextualizes the many cultural and historical elements that gave rise to the “golden age” of serial killers in America, Vronsky also digs deep into the biographies and atrocious acts of well known serial killers as well as those that are rarely brought up in conversation. Famous killers like Albert Fish, Jack the Ripper, Ed Gein, and Ted Bundy, are here, but so are less known killers like Jarvis Theodore Roosevelt Catoe, Willian Heirens, Dean Corll, Melvin Davis Rees, Harvey Murray Glatman, and John Linley Frazier. The scope of what Vronsky covers results in a book in which every serial killer in modern American history is considered and that task alone makes American Serial Killers a must-read for fans of true crime.
American Serial Killers is an outstanding addition to the genre that cements Vronsky as one of the most knowledgeable writers working on this topic. The formidable research presented here not only makes the narrative one for ages but also turns into a bibliography that opens an important door to those interested in serial killers. Furthermore, the author discusses how his lifelong interest in serial killers stems from brief encounters he had with two serial killers, and that allows him to include chunks of his own biography into the text in a way that makes the book feel not only academic but also incredibly personal.