Wednesday, March 02, 2005


It’s become a cinematic cliche that serial killers send taunting notes to the police as a tortured plea to be caught — a cliche that’s forgivable because it happens in real life, too. BTK is only the latest in a long line of killers to do so.

In fact, “BTK” (for his tendency to “bind, torture, kill”) was chosen by the killer himself in two letters. After a series of poems, notes and packages since he started killing in 1974, he expressed frustration when, with seven victims under his belt (“and many more to go,” he said), the media still didn’t have a cute name for him.

In addition to the BTK Strangler, he proposed the Wichita Strangler, the Poetic Strangler, the Bondage Stranger (probably intended to be Strangler), Psycho (probably intended to be the Bondage Psycho), the Wichita Hangman, the Wichita Executioner, the Garote Phathom (pathetically, this was intended to be the Garrote Phantom) or the Asphyxiater (which should really have been the Asphyxiator).

This is all reminiscent of that grandaddy of serial killers, Jack the Ripper — the signature on a series of letters during murders in London’s East End in late 1888.

The letters provided all sorts of clues to the identity of the killer, including the very first words used — “Dear Boss” — an Americanism uncommon in Britain at the time — and such things as “They say I am a doctor now ha. ha.”

What’s wrong with all this is that no one investigating or reporting on the crimes, or those who study them now, believe that the killer wrote, sent or had anything to do with these letters. Universally, it was believed that the author was a journalist trying to keep the story alive, writes Paul Begg in “Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History” (Pearson Longman, 2004).

“But the chilling sobriquet was a fortuitous stroke of genius and bestowed upon the unknown murderer an immortality among the greatest villains of fact or fiction,” Begg writes. From an 1889 book called “Police!” by Charles Tempest Clarkson and J. Hall Richardson, Begg quotes:

The fame of “Jack the Ripper” spread far and wide. It is probable that nothing would have been heard of this cognomen had it not been for the indiscretion of Scotland Yard in publishing a facsimile of sensational letters sent to a news agency, which thereby gave to these interesting documents the stamp of official authority.

Too late. Although some killer would eventually have written such letters and similarly named himself, it was Jack the Ripper that set the tone into the next two centuries — and he was never even Jack the Ripper. Now we’ve madmen emulating someone that essentially never existed, trying in a bizarrely cutesy manner to live up to a pattern created out of nothing.

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