Top 10 American Serial Killers
Many years ago we wrote the definitive list of Serial Killers. That 2007 list ranked killers based on various factors, only one of which was their death toll. It included a variety of nations. This new list is a little more precise: focussing on American male killers only and ranking based on the verified death toll. Consider this a bit of housekeeping. A future list will look at female killers, though there is only one who had sufficient kills to be included on this list based on the death toll, and she is added as a bonus item.
10 Paul John Knowles
Proven Death Toll: 18
Presumptive Death Toll: >35
Years Active: 1974
Paul John Knowles murdered anywhere between 18 and 35 women. He was killed in 1974 while in custody after attempting to grab the handgun off the sheriff escorting him. At least one woman who met Knowles described him as “ruggedly handsome,” hence the name the “Casanova Killer.” There was another woman in Knowles’s life who also survived her encounter, thanks to a psychic warning.
Her name was Angela Covic. A recent California divorcee, she started corresponding with Knowles during the early 1970s while he was in prison for lesser convictions. Thinking she had found her dream man, Covic used her money to provide legal counsel for Knowles and, in May 1974, secured his release on parole. Out of Florida State Prison in Raiford, Knowles flew to San Francisco to meet his bride-to-be. In the meantime, however, Covic had consulted with a psychic who warned her of a new, dangerous man entering her life.
She soon broke off the engagement after meeting Knowles in person. The Casanova Killer later claimed the rejection made him so angry he went out and killed three people that night, although this has not been verified. His cross-country killing spree began in July 1974 and ended in November of the same year, taking him from Florida to California and back to Florida again.
9 William Bonin
Proven Death Toll: 21
Presumptive Death Toll: >36
Years Active: 1979–1980
One of the lesser-known serial killers, William Bonin, born in 1947, was nicknamed “The Freeway Killer.” Like the “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez and the “Hillside Stranglers” Angelo Buono Jr. and Kenneth Bianchi, Bonin employed the vast Los Angeles and Orange County freeway systems to pick up his victims and later dispose of their bodies.
Bonin killed at least 21 youths in the greater Los Angeles and Orange County areas in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The murder of 15-year-old Donald Ray Hyden stands out as especially brutal.
August 27, 1979, was Hyden’s last night alive. He was last seen on Santa Monica Boulevard at around 1:00 AM. Later that day, his lifeless body was found beaten and strangled in a dumpster. There was evidence that Bonin had attempted to remove the boy’s testicles while he was still alive and that he had been sodomized. Bonin also attempted to slash Hyden’s throat.
This wasn’t unusual for Bonin as he liked to torture his victims with ice picks and coat hangers before strangling them to death with their own T-shirts. He was eventually convicted and sent to death row in 1982. He was executed by lethal injection at San Quentin Prison in February 1996.
8 Patrick Kearney
Proven Death Toll: 21
Presumptive Death Toll: >43
Years Active: 1965–1977
Kearney joins William Bonin and Randy Kraft in the dubious achievement of being nicknamed “The Freeway Killer.” Born in 1934, Patrick Kearney preyed on young men (the youngest of whom was 8) he picked up along freeways or at gay bars. Kearney was a necrophile, and he was strongly averse to inflicting pain on his victims, so he developed a technique of shooting them in the temple whilst driving. He would then drive to a secluded place to have sex with their corpses.
He would often beat his victim’s lifeless bodies in a macabre way of getting back at the bullies who made fun of his 5’5″ height during his high school years. He was meticulous in his clean-up. He would mutilate and cut his victims into pieces with a hacksaw, and he would dispose of the parts along various stops on the highway and in industrial areas.
He was caught when his live-in lover, David Hill, gave his address to a young man for a hookup. The young man told his family the address before departing, and upon his disappearance, the information was handed to the police. Due to a plea bargain, Kearney was spared the death penalty and is incarcerated in California, where he will remain until his death.
7 Earle Nelson
Proven Death Toll: 22
Presumptive Death Toll: 25
Years Active: 1926–1927
Earle Leonard Nelson was known as The Gorilla Killer. He was born in 1897, and around the age of 10, Nelson collided with a streetcar while riding his bicycle and remained unconscious for six days. After he awoke, his behavior became erratic, and he suffered from frequent headaches and memory loss. He began his criminal behavior early, and he was sentenced to two years in San Quentin State Prison in 1915, after breaking into a cabin he believed to be abandoned. He later spent time in mental institutions.
Nelson began engaging in sex crimes when he was 21 years old. In 1921, he attempted to molest a 12-year-old girl named Mary Summers, but he was thwarted when she screamed and brought attention to him. He was committed to a mental hospital again, and he began his killing spree when he was released in 1925. Nelson’s victims were mostly landladies, whom he would approach on the premise of renting a room. Once he gained their trust, he would kill them, almost always by strangling them, and engage in necrophilia with their corpses.
He would often hide the body, leaving the corpse under the nearest bed for days. He went on to murder more than 20 people and was finally caught and hanged in 1928.
6 Donald Harvey
Proven Death Toll: 24
Presumptive Death Toll: >37
Years Active: 1970–1987
Donald Harvey was known as the “Angel of Death.” Born in Ohio in 1952, Harvey later moved to London, Kentucky, to care for an ailing relative, a patient at Marymount Hospital. He got a job as an orderly at the hospital in 1970. Unlike many who enter the medical field out of a desire to help people, Harvey saw the job as a way to have total control and power over a person’s life. He soon became judge, jury, and executioner to certain patients who angered him. Logan Evans, a stroke patient, was the first of Harvey’s victims, only two weeks after becoming employed.
For nearly 20 years, Harvey was a so-called angel of death at numerous facilities, most often smothering or hooking patients up to faulty oxygen machines. Later, Harvey also expanded his methods, using either cyanide injections or adding arsenic or rat poison to patients’ food. Harvey was also suspected of killing friends and acquaintances if they angered him.
In 1987, he was finally arrested in Cincinnati, Ohio, after a patient’s autopsy revealed he died from cyanide poisoning. He eventually pled guilty to 24 counts of first-degree murder; however, he confessed to killing more. A later investigation added another 13 counts, bringing his count to 37. He is suspected of having killed about 50 people. In March 2017, he was found severely beaten in his jail cell. He died two days later. Another inmate, James Elliot, was charged with Harvey’s murder.
5 Juan Corona
Proven Death Toll: 25
Presumptive Death Toll: >25
Years Active: 1971
Born in Mexico in 1934, Juan Corona moved to the United States in the 1950s. In 1962, he was hired as a labor contractor at some fruit orchards in Yuba City, California, which had a population of about 13,000. He eventually set up his own business, supplying seasonal laborers to the local farmers.
On May 19, 1971, a peach farmer named Goro Kagehiro noticed an unusual hole, about the size of a man, in his orchard near Yuba City. The next day, the hole had been filled in. Concerned, Kagehiro called the police, who discovered the mutilated body of Kenneth Whiteacre. Four days later, the bodies of nine more men were found in shallow graves in the orchards. All of them had been hacked or stabbed to death, most likely with a machete. A number of the men were found with their pants pulled down around their ankles, suggesting a sexual motive. Along with the bodies were two receipts signed by Juan Corona.
Altogether, the police unearthed 25 bodies, and eyewitnesses could link many of the victims to Corona. Circumstantial evidence was found in his home, including possible murder weapons and ledgers containing the victims’ names. He was convicted in 1973, but the verdict was overturned in 1978 due to problems with his original lawyer. He was found guilty again in 1982 and received 25 concurrent life sentences.
At the time of the murders, Corona was the most prolific serial killer in the United States. He applied for and was denied parole a total of eight times. He died in prison, at Corcoran State Prison in California, in 2019 at the age of 85.
4 John Wayne Gacy
Proven Death Toll: 33
Presumptive Death Toll: >34
Years Active: 1967–1978
Born in Chicago in 1942, John Wayne Gacy was Pogo the Clown by day and a cold-blooded killer by night. Gacy assaulted, tortured, and murdered at least 33 young men and boys between 1967 and 1978. Many of his victims were vulnerable runaways whom he would pick up from the streets. His sinister killing spree finally came to an end when witnesses reported he was the last person to have seen the final victim alive.
When police arrived at his home in Cook County, Illinois, they noticed a very strong and foul odor. Returning with a search warrant, it was discovered that the crawl space under the property had been used as a dumping ground for the bodies, or what he would later call “a funeral parlor without a license.” On May 10, 1994, Gacy’s last meal before his execution was a bucket of KFC fried chicken, French fries, a dozen fried shrimp, and a pound of strawberries.
Gacy’s legacy has lived on in the form of movies and even paintings he created himself, which caused quite a stir when they went up for sale some years ago. Most were purchased and burnt.
3 Ted Bundy
Proven Death Toll: 35
Presumptive Death Toll: >36
Years Active: 1974–1978
Ted Bundy is one of the most recognizable and widely discussed serial killers in history. Charming, handsome, and evil to the core, he confessed to brutally assaulting and murdering at least 30 women in several different states during the 1970s. Born in 1946, Bundy’s family life was a complicated one. He was brought up to believe that his biological mother was his sister, but he was not mistreated or unloved. On the documentary-style program Snapped: Notorious Ted Bundy, it was revealed that Bundy had taken knives from the kitchen and placed them on the bed where his aunt was sleeping when he was just a small child. Bundy also became deeply interested in violent crime magazines that often depicted gruesome pictures of slain women.
Psychologist Al Carlisle said, “[Bundy experienced] a lot of sexual relieving through the fictional stories.” Still, nobody could have guessed how violent the young Bundy would grow up to be. On January 24, 1989, he was executed in the electric chair at Florida State Prison.
2 Gary Ridgway
Proven Death Toll: 49
Presumptive Death Toll: >90
Years Active: 1982–2000
Gary Ridgway was born in 1949 in Utan and became known as the “Green River Killer” after he confessed to murdering 48 prostitutes and runaways in the state of Washington during the 1980s and 1990s. Ridgway said, “I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.” In 1984, he wrote a letter about the murders titled “What you need to know about the green river man” and sent it to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In disturbing detail, the killer wrote about necrophilia and cutting off the fingernails of victims before signing off as “callmefred.”
Police claimed that it was a “brazen attempt to throw off investigators.” At the time, they did not follow up on this key evidence. Ridgway’s game of playing cat and mouse with the police finally came to an end in 2001 when DNA evidence connected him to the murders. He was spared the death penalty as part of a plea bargain in which he disclosed the locations of the missing bodies. His plea bargain raised his murder convictions to 49.
1 Samuel Little
Proven Death Toll: 50
Presumptive Death Toll: 93
Years Active: 1970–2005
Born June 7, 1940, in Reynolds, Georgia, Samuel Little said his mother was a “lady of the night,” and investigators believe he was born in jail during one of his teenage mother’s arrests. He claimed she abandoned him on the side of a dirt road and was instead raised by his grandmother in Lorain, Ohio. In high school, he had problems with discipline and was held in an institution for juvenile offenders after breaking into various properties.
He eventually dropped out of school and took up amateur boxing with dreams of becoming a fighter like his hero Sugar Ray Robinson. As a light-heavyweight prizefighter, he was known for his speed and earned the nicknames “Mad Daddy” and “Mad Machine.” Later in life, he used these skills to get away with murder. When it came to his female victims, he would knock them out cold with one punch before strangling them. This often meant there were no “obvious signs” that a murder had taken place. The cause of death was often wrongly listed as accidental.
Little has a photographic memory that allows him to recall the faces and body types of his victims. He also remembers specific details of the location of his crimes, such as how many arches were on a building or how far down a road he would drive until he reached the exact spot to dump the body. Investigators have found that the serial killer enjoys the attention he receives from recounting all these details after decades of his crimes going undetected. The FBI continued to work to identify the victims Little spoke of in taped confessions. Little died in December 2020, likely due to one of his numerous health conditions.
+ Clementine Barnabet
Proven Death Toll: 35
Presumptive Death Toll: 35
Years Active: 1911
Clementine Barnabet has been included here as a bonus because she is the only female who fell into the ranking of top American serial killers based on the death toll. In the early 1900s, life could not have been easy for a black woman in Lafayette, Louisiana, which is why Clementine Barnabet sought solace in voodoo. As a teenager, she became the leader of a voodoo cult named the Church of the Sacrifice, which quickly gained a large following.
Her preaching became deadly when her followers began murdering people with axes as they slept—40 in total. They did this to show their devotion to her as a high priestess. They also believed that immortality could be gained through human sacrifice.
None of these crimes were committed mercifully, either. The victims were all brutally slaughtered and dismembered. Barnabet herself was responsible for 17 ax murders and is considered the first black female serial killer.
For more grueling lists like this, check out 10 Craziest Privileges Serial Killers Enjoyed In Prison, and 10 Creepiest Letters Written By Serial Killers