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8 Real-Life Vampire Crimes

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This Sunday, America’s war against vampire-kind will be reignited when the sixth season of True Blood premieres on HBO. While there’s no real evidence to prove the existence of vampires (unless you count that creepy photo of Nicolas Cage), murderers and other nefarious types have been blaming their evil deeds on bloodlust for more than 400 years. Here are eight examples.

1. COUNTESS ELIZABETH BÁTHORY

An early adopter of the vampire defense was Countess Elizabeth Báthory, a member of the Hungarian royal family whose cruelty toward her female servants was said to have included drenching them in water and leaving them to freeze to death outside in the winter. But it wasn’t until 1609, following the murder of a young noblewoman which Báthory staged to look like a suicide, that she was made accountable for her crimes.

While it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction in Báthory’s case, the legend surrounding her suggests that she killed more than 650 women and bathed in their blood (which she believed to have restorative powers). Báthory and four of her servants were eventually charged with 80 counts of murder, though the countess died while under house arrest before ever being brought to trial. In the book Dracula Was a Woman, historian Raymond T. McNally claims that Báthory was in part the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s famous bloodsucker.

2. FRITZ HAARMANN

Also known as “The Vampire of Hanover,” Fritz Haarmann was one of the world’s first serial killers. And one of its most prolific. Between 1918 and 1924, he murdered at least two dozen people, many of whom he killed by biting through their necks. On December 19, 1924, Haarmann was sentenced to death by guillotine for his crimes; he was beheaded on April 15, 1925. So that scientists could study Haarmann’s brain, his head was preserved in a jar. It is kept at a medical school in Göttingen, Germany.

3. RICHARD CHASE

A lifelong fascination with blood led to a horrific, month-long murder spree that turned Richard Chase into “The Vampire of Sacramento.” Between 1977 and 1978, Chase murdered, disemboweled, and drank the blood of six people, ranging in age from 22 months to 36 years. Chase chose his victims at random, but only entered those homes where the door was open. “If the door was locked that meant you weren't welcome,” he stated in court. Chase was sentenced to death after being found guilty on all six counts of first-degree murder, but took his own life with an overdose of stockpiled antidepressants in December of 1979.

4. JAMES P. RIVA

James P. Riva was just 23 years old when he killed his wheelchair-bound grandmother in Marshfield, Massachusetts in 1980, stabbing her repeatedly and shooting her four times through the heart with bullets he had painted gold. In order to cover up the crime, he then burned down her house. When questioned, Riva claimed that he was a 700-year-old vampire who killed his grandmother in order to drink her blood. He later changed his story, saying that he had acted in self-defense; Riva believed that his grandmother was the vampire and that she was using an ice pick to drain his blood at night. In 1981, Riva was sentenced to life in prison for second-degree murder and arson.

5. RODERICK FERRELL

Role-playing crossed into real life for “Vampire Killer” Roderick Ferrell in 1996, when the teenaged leader of a Vampire Clan brought a few of his followers from Murray, Kentucky to Eustis, Florida to murder the parents of his girlfriend, Heather, so that she could be initiated into his coven. After beating Heather’s father with a crowbar, Ferrell and a friend used cigarettes to burn a “V” into his chest. Upon his arrest, Ferrell told police that they would never be able to contain him because he was an all-powerful, 500-year-old vampire named Vesago. He wasn’t. Ferrell became the country’s youngest prisoner on death row in 1998, though his sentence has since been commuted to life without parole.

6. CAIUS DOMITIUS VEIOVIS

If you’re wondering what “real-life” vampires think of Twilight, Caius Domitius Veiovis has a very firm opinion. “Pop culture inspires me to vomit hot blood,” Veiovis wrote in a letter to Massachusetts’ Berkshire Eagle newspaper in 2011. Veiovis—who is set to stand trial in early 2014 for the abduction and murder of three men in Massachusetts and was convicted of aggravated assault charges in Maine over the ritualistic drinking of a teenage girl’s blood years before—has a forked tongue, sharpened teeth, implanted horns and the numbers “666” tattooed across his forehead. “I have never seen this silly movie,” he continued, “nor have I read the books, nor would I ever—even now—waste my time with such useless drivel.” Point taken.

7. ALLAN MENZIES

Allan Menzies was obsessed with the 2002 vampire film Queen of the Damned, which he had borrowed from his best friend, Thomas McKendrick. Watching it up to three times each day, Menzies began to believe that the main character, Akasha, was real and wanted him to kill someone so that he, too, could become a vampire. “I knew I had to murder somebody,” Menzies said at his trial. He decided on McKendrick after his friend insulted Akasha, prompting Menzies to stab him 42 times, hit him with a hammer, drink his blood and consume part of his brain. Menzies died in prison of an apparent suicide just over a year after being sentenced to life.

8. JOSEPHINE SMITH

A shuttered Hooters restaurant may not be the first place you’d think of as a vampire lair, but it’s where 22-year-old Josephine Smith attacked a 69-year-old homeless man in 2011 as he slept in St. Petersburg, Florida. Smith allegedly told the man that “I am a vampire, I am going to eat you,” before she bit off pieces of his face, lips, and arm. The victim managed to escape and call police, who found Smith covered in blood at the crime scene with no recollection of the incident.

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How a London Tragedy Led to the Creation of 911
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In trouble? Pick up the phone and call 911. According to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), 240 million 911 calls are made each year. But if it weren’t for a house fire and a group of angry Brits, the system might not exist today.

Though 911 is an American staple, its origins are in England. In 1935, there was no such thing as an emergency phone number, and phone calls were dependent on operators who connected people to exchanges or emergency services when necessary. England did have emergency fire call points, but they didn’t use telephone technology—instead, they relied on the telegraph, which was used to send a signal to fire departments from special boxes [PDF]. There were police call points, too, but they were generally unstandardized and inefficient, since police didn’t have a way to receive emergency calls while on their beats. Instead, officers would check in during their rounds at special police boxes, like the one you probably recognize from Doctor Who.

But all that changed after November 10, 1935, when a fire broke out at the home of a prominent London surgeon, Philip Franklin, at 27 Wimpole Street. As the blaze tore through the building, five women sleeping on the upper floors—Franklin’s wife and niece, as well as three servants—became trapped. A neighbor, Norman MacDonald, heard their screams and promptly picked up the phone to dial the operator. Nobody answered.

“It seemed entirely futile to continue holding on and listening to ringing tone, which awakened no response,” he later wrote. A neighbor went to a fire call point and firefighters soon arrived, but they were unable to save the five women.

27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
27 Wimpole Street, London, as it looks today
Eden, Janine and Jim, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The tragedy sparked a national inquiry—and outrage. Two years later, London unveiled a new service: the emergency number 999. Officials thought it would be best to choose a number that was easy to find by touch on a rotary dial, and rejected a number of other options, like 111, that might be triggered by equipment malfunctions. (It wasn’t unusual for lines rubbing together and other technical glitches to trigger a 111 call; 222 was already in use by a local exchange, while 000 would have just contacted the operator after the first zero.)

The new number wasn’t immediately embraced. Of over 1000 calls made the first week, nearly 7 percent were pranks. And some members of Parliament objected, saying it would be easier to just install an emergency button on phones instead.

A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
A New York City police officer takes an emergency call from his car in the 1960s
John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Images

The United States had a similar system of police telephones and signal boxes, but like the UK it lacked the technology to quickly and effectively call authorities during emergencies. In the 1950s, the National Association of Fire Chiefs, inspired by the UK’s system, requested a national emergency number, and by 1967 the FTC was meeting with AT&T, the nation’s largest telephone company, to hash out a plan.

The first 911 call in the United States—a test call made from a mayor’s office—was made in Haleyville, Alabama in 1968 [PDF]. The numbers 911 reportedly made the grade because they weren’t in use for any existing phone exchange, and were catchy and easily remembered.

As the service rolled out nationwide, police and fire departments struggled to keep up with call volume. Despite the success of the program, New York police, in particular, reported being strained and having to hire more officers.

It took a long time to implement the system. Only 50 percent of the United States had 911 service as of 1987, according to NENA. Today, coverage is still not universal, although it’s close: 96 percent of the country is currently covered.

The evolution of telephone technology has brought new challenges, however: The FCC estimates that a full 70 percent of calls now come from cell phones—and given the mobility of mobile phones, that’s a challenge for dispatchers and phone companies. The 911 system was built for landlines, and cell phone GPS systems don’t always transmit data quickly or accurately. Plus, the proliferation of cell phones has led to a spike in accidental butt dials, which tie up the line and can prevent real emergencies from getting the attention they need. Still, we've come a long way from the days of sending telegraph messages inside boxes.

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The Barnes Mystery: A Twisted Tale of Maids, Murder, and Mistaken Identity
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The Barnes Railway Bridge
Garry Knight, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In the late 1800s, Park Road was a quiet part of Richmond on the outskirts of London. Julia Martha Thomas, a retired schoolteacher, made her home there in the left portion of a semi-detached villa known as 2 Mayfield Cottages. It was a typical English house, two stories high and surrounded by a garden. For the most part, Thomas lived there alone; occasionally, she took on servants like the Irish-born Kate Webster, whom she hired in January 1879.

Three months later, Thomas was nowhere to be found. But her servant had seemingly come into a great deal of wealth.

AN UNSAVORY MAID

The Daily Telegraph would later describe Webster as a “tall, strongly-made woman ... with sallow and much freckled complexion and large and prominent teeth.” Unbeknownst to Thomas, her new maid's resume was far from ideal: She'd first been imprisoned for larceny in her native Ireland at 15 years old, and had lived a life of petty crime ever since. By the time she was 30, in 1879, she’d served multiple sentences for theft.

During one of these sentences, an 18-month stretch at Wandsworth prison in West London, Webster had put her young son in the care of Sarah Crease, an acquaintance and charwoman who worked for a Miss Loder. When Webster filled in for Crease one day, Loder recommended her to Thomas, who she knew was looking to hire a servant.

Webster got the job on the spot, but the relationship between Thomas and the young woman quickly became strained. “At first I thought her a nice old lady,” Webster would later say. But Thomas’s cleaning standards were strict—too strict—and she would “point out places where she said I did not clean, showing evidence of a nasty spirit towards me.” Webster’s love of drink, which she nourished regularly at a nearby pub, The Hole in the Wall, also failed to impress Thomas.

On February 28, after around a month of work, Thomas wrote in her diary that she “gave Katherine warning to leave.” When Webster asked Thomas to extend her employment through Sunday, March 2, Thomas begrudgingly agreed. It was a fatal mistake.

BLOODY SUNDAY

Sundays were half-days for Webster, who was expected at 2 Mayfield Cottages in the late afternoon. Dawdling too long at the ale house, Webster arrived late and Thomas went to church agitated. It was the last time she was seen in public.

That evening, Thomas's landlady's mother Jane Ives, who lived in the other half of the villa, heard a sound “like the fall of a heavy chair.” Ives and her daughter also noticed housework being done quite early the next morning.

The next two Sundays, Mrs. Thomas—a devout Christian—failed to show up for church. Webster, however, seemed to have a new lease on life. She soon met with Henry Porter, a former neighbor from when she had lived in Hammersmith, to share some news. Saying she had married a man named Thomas and spinning a tale of a wealthy dead relative who had left the contents of 2 Mayfield Cottages to her, Webster said she was looking for a broker for the items.

She wined and dined Porter and his son Robert at a local pub, leaving briefly to visit a friend who lived nearby. When she returned, both Porters noticed the heavy bag she had carried into the pub was nowhere to be seen. Robert Porter later helped her carry a heavy box from 2 Mayfield Cottages to a nearby bridge, where Webster said that a friend was coming to come pick it up. As Robert walked away he heard a faint splash, but as Webster caught up with him she assured him that her friend had picked up the container, and he continued on his way.

Several days later, Henry Porter introduced Webster to John Church. In the market for new furniture for his pub, Church offered Webster 68 pounds for an assortment of furnishings. They scheduled delivery vans for March 18.

A HORRIBLE DISCOVERY

The splash the younger Porter had heard was indeed the heavy box he'd helped Webster carry as it hit the river. But it didn't spend long in its watery grave. A coal porter who discovered it near the Barnes Railway Bridge on March 5, a few miles downstream along the Thames from where Webster had let it slip, was horrified to discover the mangled contents: a woman's torso and legs, minus one foot.

The relatively primitive forensic techniques of the day couldn't identify a body without a head, and an inquest failed to establish a cause of death. That a woman's foot shortly turned up in the nearby suburb of Twickenham was little help; police readily concluded that it belonged to the same body, but whose? The unidentified remains were buried in a local cemetery, and the press began buzzing about the "Barnes mystery."

Meanwhile, by the time Church's delivery vans arrived on March 18, Thomas had not been seen for two weeks—and her neighbors had grown suspicious. The younger Miss Ives went to investigate the vans, and was told that a “Mrs. Thomas” was selling her furniture. When “Mrs. Thomas” was summoned, it was none other than Webster, who Ives knew was Thomas’s servant. Webster told Ives that Thomas was away somewhere—she couldn't say where, exactly—but the game was up. Webster panicked and fled with her son, traveling by train to her family home in County Wexford, Ireland. Meanwhile, the police were summoned.

When authorities searched 2 Mayfield Cottages, they discovered a grisly scene: There were blood stains everywhere (some showing signs of cleaning), charred bones in the kitchen grate, and a fatty substance behind the laundry boiler. They also found Webster’s address in County Wexford. The criminal was hauled back to Richmond, and a trial began on July 2, 1879.

The trial turned into a major spectacle, and crowds gathered both inside and outside the courtroom. Webster’s social position made her crime especially salacious—not only had she committed a gruesome murder, but she had attacked her betters. And she was a woman. According to Shani D'Cruze, Sandra L. Walklate, and Samantha Pegg in Murder, “Victorian ideals of femininity envisaged women as moral, passive, and not physically strong enough to kill and dismember a body." Webster's crime had put the lie to those ideals.

Initially, Webster accused Church and Porter of the crime. Though police did find Thomas’s belongings at Church’s pub and home, both men had solid alibis and were cleared. Webster then said an ex-boyfriend, a “Mr. Strong”—whom she occasionally claimed was the father of her child—had driven her to crime. But despite her attempts to shift blame onto others, Webster was eventually convicted of killing her employer.

The night before her execution, she finally confessed to the priest: “I alone committed the murder of Mrs. Thomas.”

According to Webster, she and Thomas had argued when the latter returned home from church. The argument “ripened into a quarrel,” and Webster “threw [Thomas] from the top of the stairs to the ground floor.” Then, Webster “lost control” and grabbed her victim by the throat in an attempt to silence any screams that could alert the neighbors and send her back to prison. After choking Thomas, Webster “determined to do away with the body” by chopping up the limbs and boiling them in the laundry tub.

Legend says Webster attempted to sell the fat drippings from Thomas to the proprietress of a local pub, and even fed them to two local boys, but neither rumor has ever been substantiated. But Webster did burn some of Thomas’s remains in the hearth, and divided much of the rest between the heavy bag she had carried into the pub and the box. Running out of room, she also disposed of one of Thomas’s feet in the nearby suburb of Twickenham. She never revealed where she hid Thomas’s head.

Webster was executed on July 29, 1879. “The executioner having drawn the cap over her face, retired from the scaffold,” read a broadside detailing Webster’s sentencing and execution. “The unhappy criminal was launched into eternity.”

A SURPRISE IN THE GARDEN

The Execution of Catherine Webster at Wandsworth Gaol
The Execution of Catherine Webster at Wandsworth Gaol, The Illustrated Police News
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Thomas's story has a strange modern twist. In 2009, English broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough bought the vacant pub next door to his house. The building was the former home of the Hole in the Wall, Webster's favorite watering hole, which had closed three years previously.

As contractors were excavating the site to build an extension on Attenborough's property, "they saw a ‘dark circular object,’” according to The Telegraph. That object turned out to be a human skull—one missing its teeth and with “fracture marks consistent with the fall down the stairs and low collagen levels consistent with it being boiled,” an investigating officer told West London Coroners Court. According to a local coroner, there was “clear, convincing and compelling evidence” that the skull belonged to Julia Martha Thomas.

The discovery came too late for the murdered woman, however: Since records of her body’s precise location in Barnes Cemetery were lost, her head wasn’t laid to rest alongside her (its exact whereabouts are somewhat unclear). Though a disappointing ending for a woman who liked things neat and tidy, the Barnes Mystery, at last, was entirely solved.

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