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Serial Killer vs. Mass Murderer: What's the Difference?

gacy-clown-300.jpgThe Dilemma: The guy sitting next to you at the bar keeps insisting that John Wayne Gacy wasn't a serial killer but a mass murderer, which is really creepy. But is he right?

People You Can Impress: Authors of true crime novels and suckers for semantics.

The Quick Trick: The creepy guy at the bar is full of it: Gacy was a serial killer because he committed many murders over a long period of time; mass murderers commit many murders all at once.

The Explanation:
The difference here is all about the details—but then, any CSI fan knows that the magic of police work is in the little things. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Statistics Bureau (and yes, there really is such a thing), "mass murder" is a single event at one location involving the murder of four or more people. Kill three people at once, therefore, and you're merely a homicidal jerk. Terrorism and government-sanctioned murder often are considered mass murder.

Serial killers, on the other hand, kill in a series of events. The killers usually don't know their victims (the opposite is true with mass murderers), they almost always have "cooling off " periods between murders, and they usually derive sexual excitement from the killings. To qualify as a serial killer, one needs three victims. It rather goes without saying, but serial killers tend to be pretty screwed up individuals. Although there are records of serial killers going back to at least 1400, the term wasn't coined until the 1970s, when killers Ted Bundy and David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz were frequently in the news.

Serial Killers

GILLES DE RAIS (1404"“1440): Once one of the richest men in France, Rais raped, tortured, and murdered between 80 and 200 boys—and a few girls—on the grounds of his various estates.

Long before there was Aileen "Monster" Wuornos, there was ELIZABETH "THE BLOODY LADY" Bathory (1560"“1614). Some sources claim that Bathory, a Hungarian countess, tortured and killed 2,000 young girls (mostly peasants, but some lower gentry).

When it comes to British serial killers in the 19th century, Jack the Ripper gets all the press. But MARY ANN COTTON (1832"“1873) was more prolific, killing as many as 21 people. Cotton probably poisoned four of her husbands, a variety of her friends and in-laws, and several of her own children with arsenic.

Mass Murderers

The term "going postal" has its roots in the case of one PATRICK SHERRILL, a disgruntled former postman who walked into the post office in Edmond, Ill. on August 20, 1986, and killed 14 employees before committing suicide.

On November 1, 1955, JACK GILBERT GRAHAM put his mother on a flight from Denver to Portland with a dynamite bomb in her suitcase. (Graham wanted her life insurance money.) The bomb exploded midair, killing all 44 people aboard.

This post was excerpted from the mental_floss book What's the Difference? For more columns like this, click here.

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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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