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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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FBI
Amateur Sleuths Claim to Have Uncovered D.B. Cooper's Real Identity
FBI
FBI

For decades, both the FBI and amateur investigators have been preoccupied with the identity of “Dan Cooper,” a mysterious passenger mistakenly reported by journalists as "D.B. Cooper" who boarded a flight from Portland to Seattle on November 24, 1971. Without appearing frantic or violent, Cooper informed the crew he had a bomb and demanded $200,000 in ransom. After making the pilots stop for fuel and then lift off again, the skyjacker collected his money and parachuted out of the plane, never to be seen or heard from again.

According to one Cooper devotee, that might not be exactly true. Tom Colbert has led a team of amateur investigators looking into the case and made headlines last year after acquiring some of the closed portions of the FBI’s file via a freedom of information lawsuit. According to Colbert, a letter purportedly written by Cooper and sent to the Oregonian shortly after the crime reveals a “confession” hidden in code. The man’s identity, Colbert claims, is that of Robert Rackstraw, a Vietnam veteran who is now 74 years old and living in San Diego.

“I want out of the system and saw a way through good ole Unk,” the letter read. “Now it is Uncle’s turn to weep and pay one of it’s [sic] own some cash for a change. (And please tell the lackey cops D.B. Cooper is not my real name).”

Colbert showed the letter to Rick Sherwood, a former codebreaker for the now-defunct Army Security Agency. Sherwood maintains the repetitive phrasing of Unk and other words corresponds with a simple letter-to-number code that, when broken, reveals the sentence “I am 1st LT Robert Rackstraw.”

Another letter uncovered in the FBI’s files earlier this year contains a numerical sequence that Colbert's team says they have matched to codes used by Rackstraw’s Army unit in Vietnam. That letter’s writer—who Colbert believes to be Rackstraw—claimed he used a toupee and a putty nose to disguise his appearance on the plane.

Rackstraw was at one time considered a suspect by the FBI but was later cleared in 1979. After initially teasing that he might be the culprit, Rackstraw backed off those claims and insisted the accusation was without merit. The bureau officially closed the case in 2016, citing a lack of strong leads. In February 2018, Colbert claimed the FBI wasn’t acknowledging his work out of embarrassment.

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Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock
Lies, Blackmail, and Murder: The Mysterious Life—and Death—of ‘Madame X’
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock

Three screams pierced the night air—loud enough to be heard over the waves crashing on the rocky beach below—and Olive Dimick froze.

It was February 4, 1929, and she had just said goodnight to her next-door-neighbor Kate Jackson, after spending a night out at the movies with her. The two women lived in a cluster of cliffside bungalows overlooking Limeslade Bay in Wales, on a headland known as Mumbles. The area is said to derive its name from two shapely rock formations just offshore; according to town lore, they once looked to French sailors like les mamelles, or a pair of breasts rising from the water.

It took just a few seconds for Olive to realize the screams sounded like her neighbor, and that they were coming from the direction of her backyard. She rushed over, where she found her friend crouched on her hands and knees, bleeding from her head and moaning. Kate's husband, a fishmonger named Thomas, stood over her, half-dressed.

The pair carried Kate into the kitchen, where Olive attended to her. At about 11:45, Thomas called a doctor, who arrived around midnight and said that Kate should be taken to the hospital. Once there—Thomas, Kate, and Olive travelled in a taxi, the doctor in his own car—Thomas made a very curious remark. When the doctor asked through the taxicab window how Kate was doing, Thomas replied that she was sleeping peacefully, and then added: "I have been married to her for ten years, and I still don't know who she really is. She has never been open with me."

This was not just a simple issue of marital miscommunication. Kate Jackson's identity—her background, her source of income, even her name—was ever-shifting. To her husband, she was an aristocrat born in a foreign land. To neighbors, she was a best-selling novelist and journalist. But to the local police, and soon a jury, she would become a murder case that has yet to be solved.

STRANGER THAN FICTION

The woman who would become Kate Jackson was born Kate Atkinson in the late 1880s to John Atkinson, a laborer in Lancaster, and his wife, Agnes. Sometime in her teens, she left Lancaster with a dream of becoming an actress on the London stage. She lived for a while with an artist named Leopold Le Grys, who later described her as uneducated, but "clever, and a good talker."

Never one to pass up an opportunity for the dramatic, she caught the attention of union official George Harrison in 1914 by fainting after witnessing a minor car accident on Charing Cross Road. She told him she hadn't eaten in three days, and so he took her to lunch. They became involved, and the next year she asked him for £40 for an abortion. Then she said there were complications from the procedure, so she needed more. For one reason or another—perhaps there were more procedures, perhaps she threatened to expose the affair, perhaps he was paying for her sexual services—Harrison sent her as much as £30 (over $4000 in 2018 dollars) a week over the course of a decade. All of it was embezzled through his position as the secretary of a cooper's union.

Harrison was far from the only man in Kate's life. When she met the man who would become her husband in 1919, Kate told him she was Madame Molly Le Grys, the Indian-born youngest daughter of the Duke of Abercorn. That wasn't all: She also said she was a writer under contract with publisher Alfred Harmsworth, an early-day Rupert Murdoch-type who pioneered tabloid-style journalism. It was a mutual deception, as he gave her a fake name of his own: Captain Harry-Gordon Ingram. Really, he was Thomas Jackson, a World War I veteran surviving on a pension.

The pair married later that year, and Thomas moved into Kate's palatial farmhouse in Surrey. Kate always seemed to have money—even after Harrison was put on trial in 1927 for embezzling £19,000 (over a million British pounds in today's dollars) from his union, £8000 of which reportedly went to Kate. She was called to give evidence at the trial, but was not identified; the police called her "Madame X," in hopes that she would return at least some of the money Harrison had stolen and given to her. (It's not clear what her husband thought about all this.)

Kate indeed signed over her beautiful house as restitution and moved with Thomas to a humble bungalow named Kenilworth. They adopted a daughter, Betty, whose origin was another of Kate's mysteries: She told Thomas that Betty was the illegitimate daughter of a lord, and he apparently asked no follow-up questions.

Though her setting was less rarefied, Kate was still behaving like a belle in a Gothic melodrama. She dressed in silk, her homes were luxuriously decorated, she tipped generously, and she spent more than her husband made in a week on her fresh flowers. The source of her income at this point is unclear: Harrison was serving a five-year prison stint, so he likely wasn't sending her cash any longer. But she was still receiving regular bundles of banknotes every Wednesday—money she may have earned through sex work, or possibly blackmail of other lovers/clients. Thomas later said that they mostly lived happily, except one time when she threw a flower pot at his head and threatened him with a knife for getting too friendly with Olive Dimick.

To Olive and her other neighbors, Kate explained the money by saying that she was a writer and the daughter of nobility. She let drop that she was secretly Ethel M. Dell, a well-known but critically reviled romance writer mocked by the likes of Orwell and Wodehouse. The real Dell was famously secretive; she was never interviewed and rarely photographed. So how were her neighbors supposed to fact-check their new friend? Besides, Dell's stories were quite racy, filled with passion and throbbing and exoticized visions of India, befitting Kate's made-up aristocratic origins.

"A PLEASANT SURPRISE"

Back at the hospital, Thomas Jackson left quickly, saying he had to return to his daughter. Kate spent six days there without ever fully regaining consciousness. When questioned about the identity of her attacker, she repeated the word Gorse, although it's not clear what—or who—she meant. She died on February 10, 1929, at the age of 43.

Police who arrived early in the morning after the attack found a tire iron under a cushion in the house, which Thomas later suggested Kate had hidden as a "pleasant surprise" (it's not clear if he was being ironic, or if he considered it a potential gift for his tool box). They also found a number of threatening letters. One read:

"Lest you forget. This is to tell you that we are watching you and we will get you. You husband-stealer. You robber of miner's money that would have fed starving children; you and that man of yours, I suppose he is somebody's husband, too. When we get you we will tar-and-feather you, and for every quid you have taken from us you will get another lump of tar and one more feather. We will show people you are as black outside as you are in. We don't mind doing quod [prison time] for you, you Picadilly Lily. We will get you yet."

It went on like that. Though he had been cooperative and there was no indication the letters were written by him, police arrested Thomas promptly. The next month he was charged with murder.

When the trial commenced in June 1929, the prosecution's theory was that Jackson, tired of his wife now that she was bringing in less money, had argued with and then attacked her as she was removing her coat. The prosecution pointed out that his story was weird—who hides a tire iron in a couch as a surprise?—and his behavior after her attack, including not summoning police immediately and not staying long at the hospital, was sketchy. They pointed to triangular cuts in her coat that looked like they could have been made with the tire iron. It was also alleged that all of the mystery in her life was entirely his creation, and that Kate never claimed to be anyone other than she was. The letters were ignored.

In his defense, Jackson produced expert witnesses who said it might not have been the tire iron that killed his wife. He spoke of her fear of attack after the threatening letters, saying that she was nervous to be left alone at night. Another neighbor, Rose Gammon, testified that Kate had been jumpy; Gammon recalled seeing Kate jump out of a bath, put on a robe, grab her gun, and walk out onto her dark veranda to investigate a noise (it's not clear if Gammon was spying on her neighbor, or how else she might have witnessed a bath).

The judge was firmly against Jackson, but during the trial, the fishmonger became a folk hero of sorts. He was charming and witty, playing up the grieving-single-father angle by emphasizing his concern for poor Betty. After just half an hour, the jury returned a verdict of "not guilty." The crowd went wild. As he left the courtroom after his verdict, a crush of women pressed upon Thomas, trying for a kiss.

The police never pursued any other leads, convinced that they had missed their shot at the true villain. And maybe they were right. Perhaps Kate's husband was her killer. Or perhaps it was a man who suffered from her blackmailing—"Gorse," or someone else. Perhaps it was a member of the union who felt she hadn't paid enough restitution. Kate Jackson had made a lot of enemies in her four decades, which helped make her death as mysterious and complicated and sad as her enigmatic life as Molly, and/or Kate, and/or Madame X; she was truly the stuff of the novels she never actually wrote.

Additional Sources: The Times of London: February 12, 1929; February 25-26, 1929; March 13-14, 1929; March 20-22, 1929, July 2-8, 1929; Still Unsolved: Great True Murder Cases; A-Z of Swansea: Places-People-History

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