For decades it has been generally accepted that the term ‘Serial killer’ was first coined by FBI agent Robert K. Ressler in the late 1970s.
According to my dictionary coining a term or phrase means; “to invent a new word or expression, or to use one in a particular way for the first time”.
The term Serial Killer is defined as a murderer killing several people over a longer time (with other words, not all at once), for no apparent reason or for psychological and/or sadistic sexual motives.
Serial killers have been around since the dawn of time, they are not a new thing, but when was the term coined?
Robert K. Ressler himself stated he was the first person to use the phrase and this has been repeated many times, most recently in the (excellent) Netflix drama ‘Mindhunter’ and ‘Conversations with a serial killer, the Ted Bundy tapes’.
But he was not the first person to use it, even with the specific definition stated above.
It has been said that the term ‘Series killer’ was first used by writer Dorothy B. Hughes in her 1947 book ‘A lonely place‘.
From reviews I get the idea that she truly describes a (fictional) serial murderer and there is a lot of talk about murders that are a series, but after searching through the book I could not find that actual term anywhere.
The term ‘serial murder‘ in English was first used in the 1950 book ‘The complete detective; being the life and strange and exciting cases of Raymond Schindler, master detective’ by Richard Hughes.
Chapter two is titled; “The serial murderer” about Arthur Warren Waite who poisoned two people in 1916.
But this double murderer doesn’t really fit the modern definition of a serial killer.
So although it is the first example of the phrase being used in the English language it also doesn’t quite fit.
Before the book by Mr. Hughes, Historian Robert Eisler used the term ‘Serial killings‘ in a lecture given at the Royal Society of Medicine in London in 1948, speaking of ‘the serial killings’ in the Punch and Judy plays.
Which predates the 1950 book but does seem to describe a type of slapstick violence that doesn’t quite match the definition of serial killing it has today, so it also doesn’t quite fit.
However, a phrase or term being coined crosses language borders.
When we talk of serial killers or murderers we know what it means, regardless in which language it is being said/written.
And once we start looking outside the English language we soon find much earlier examples of the term being used with the actual meaning we still know today.
A very strong contender is Ernst August Ferdinand Gennat (1 January 1880 – August 20, 1939) who was a famous German detective in Berlin.
He worked on cases involving infamous serial killers Peter Kürten and Fritz Haarmann but also revolutionised police detective work, developed what we now call ‘profiling’ and set up the very first homicide squad.
In the 1930 publication “Die Düsseldorfer Sexualverbrechen” about Peter Kürten he used the term “Serienmörder” which directly translates as “serial murderer” but is generally translated into ‘Serial Killer’.
So Ernst Gennat used the term Serial Killer for the first time with the same meaning it has today back in 1930.
In a way he also popularised it, he was a famous detective, often mentioned in newspapers and magazines, and Inspector Karl Lohmann, the detective in one of the best movies ever made (M, 1931) was based on him.
Due to several serial killers getting a lot of media attention in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, it was a hot topic.
In a way this is a lot like what was happening in the US in the 1970s and 1980s when Ressler and the FBI started to look into this phenomenon again.
In the 20s-30s it was Gennat who brought Serial killers to the public’s attention, in the 70s-80s it was Ressler.
But… even Gennat mentioning it in his book was not the first time the term serial killer was used…
In 1927 an unknown Dutch journalist wrote a review about the film ‘The Coming of Amos‘ (1925) in the Algemeen Handelsblad newspaper.
The film is about an Australian sheep ranger who falls in love with a Russian princess who’s admirers keep being murdered.
The murderer is being described as a “serie-moordenaar” in the article.
I do not know who the actual journalist was but it is the earliest use of the term I could find.
And yes serie-moordenaar or seriemoordenaar translate into Serial Killer.
Is it the earliest time anyone ever said/wrote Serial Killer?
I can’t say for sure, I would not at all be surprised if sooner or later an even earlier occasion pops up.
At which time I’ll update this article.
If you find the term being used somewhere before 1927, let me know!
Picture(s) found online, used for (re-)educational purposes only.
I do not own the copyrights to this picture, I only share it here for educational purposes to try and make sure the real story behind it becomes known and people will stop spreading false information.
If the copyright owner objects to the sharing here, kindly contact me and I shall remove it right away.
The ‘Coming of Amos’ review can be read here; Delpher.nl
You can see ‘Coming of Amos’ here; Snagfilms
Thanks to Mr. Dommershuijzen
10 thoughts on “‘Serial killer’ NOT coined by FBI in 1970s”
Thank you for the great service you provide in correcting popular misconceptions of history.
However, I think it’s incorrect to label the Ressler “serial killer” story as fake history.
The phrase is descriptive so it’s not surprising that similar terms have been used for similar phenomena. (And, to be pedantic, “murderer” and “killer”- though synonymous – are different words.) But the FBI and others also used different words to describe this type of criminal.
It wasn’t until a universal label was needed that the term was “coined” – previously “serial killer/murderer” was a description, not a category. And the FBI considered several appellations before choosing Ressler’s suggestion.
In my opinion, this isn’t really fake history – especially when compared to false facts you debunk so well.
Again, thank you for your excellent work.
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Coining a term means “to invent a new word or expression, or to use one in a particular way for the first time”.
The term Serienmörder in German directly translates into Serial Killer even though the Germansused murderer.
So does the word seriemoordenaar.
Which shows that even though the setup of the words is a little different the meaning is the same and so is the criminal it describes.
But yes I guess we can say the FBI categorised the term although I reckon Gennat did something very similar in his book.
But we’re talking about who coined the term first, in which case I think stating that Ressler coined Serial Killer is still fake history 🙂
Sarah Chesham a poisoner of 1851, Essex, England was regularly referred to in the newspapers as a serial poisoner or killer – just Google her and check the images, etc..
I know of her and did look for newspaper articles where she was literally called a serial killer or murderer but have had no luck so far.
Same goes for Amelia Dyer.
Try this link to start with https://i.dailymail.co.uk/1s/2019/03/31/22/11696190-6870635-image-a-6_1554066399003.jpg
I think The Times refers to her as a serial killer – I’ll look later today and let you know
After further searching, it is almost certain that the newspaper image link above is a fake – probably produced in the 1970/80s as it has the look of fake newspaper articles produced at that time. A quick search of The Times suggests that the term wasn’t used much, with the earliest occurrence in the 1980s.
Thinking about it, the previous link I sent that purports to show a contemporary newspaper is perhaps a fake – there’s something wrong with it.
The term was also used in the August 13th, 1966 episode of Ultraman
In the “The Secret of the Miroganda” episode?
I’m not picking it up in the translation.
I must thank you for writing this article. I cited it when writing my capstone paper about the history of female serial killers from 331 BC to 1965 last year. The professor was greatly impressed by the stuff about Gennat and pre Ressler usages of the term, and as a result I got a degree in Criminal Justice. My first history YouTube episode is also about the history of serial killers and the bit about the usage in The Coming of Amos is also noted. Again, thank you Jo!