20 Killer Words Every True Crime Buff Should Know

iStock.com/PaulFleet
iStock.com/PaulFleet

Whether we're preparing ourselves for the worst or we just love a good mystery, many of us can't get enough true crime content. True crime intersects with different fields like law, medicine, and forensics—all of which have their own vocabularies that can be hard for people on the outside to decode. Before binging The Staircase or Making a Murderer, brush up on these important terms every true crime fan should be familiar with.

1. COLD CASE

In legalese, a cold case describes a crime that remains unsolved, but isn't being actively investigated due to lack of evidence. The murder of JonBenét Ramsey, the D.B. Cooper hijacking, and the Jack the Ripper killings are all famous examples of cold cases.

2. LATENT PRINT

Crime scene investigator dusting door for prints.
iStock.com/zoka74

A latent print is a fingerprint made of the sweat and oil from one's skin (rather than blood or something more visible). Crime scene investigators usually need powders or chemicals to identify this type of print.

3. BLOOD SPATTER

Blood spatter is the pattern of bloodstains left at a violent crime scene. It's such important evidence in murder cases that there's an entire area of forensics dedicated to studying it. In theory, by analyzing the pattern of blood stains in a crime scene, the investigator can determine important details about the crime committed. But in recent years blood spatter analysis has been criticized. A 2009 report declared that it can give useful information about certain aspects of a crime, but that “the uncertainties associated with bloodstain pattern analysis are enormous” and that “the opinions of bloodstain pattern analysts are more subjective than scientific.”

4. PETECHIAL HEMORRHAGING

Cause of death isn't always obvious in murder cases. When looking at a potential strangulation victim, investigators examine their eyes for petechial hemorrhaging, or the tiny red dots that appear as a result of bleeding beneath the skin. Petechial hemorrhaging isn't a sure sign that someone has been choked to death, but it is likely to appear when the blood vessels in someone's head have been subjected to severe pressure.

5. MASK OF SANITY

Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy—these serial killers were famous not only for their crimes, but their deceptively charming dispositions. This is what crime experts refer to as the Mask of Sanity. Coined by psychiatrist Hervey M. Cleckley in his 1941 book, this describes the phenomena of psychopaths easily blending in with their peers because they don't typically suffer from more noticeable mental symptoms like hallucinations and delusions.

6. MACDONALD TRIAD

The phrase Macdonald Triad first appeared in a paper by J. M. Macdonald published in a 1963 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry. It refers to the three behaviors that, if exhibited in childhood, may indicate one's tendencies toward violence later in life. Those behaviors are animal cruelty, fire-starting, and chronic bed-wetting. While many prominent murderers have checked these boxes, experts today are skeptical of using this as a metric to identify future serial killers.

7. RIGOR MORTIS

Rigor mortis occurs when a body stiffens up a few hours after death as a result of calcium build-up in the joints and muscles. This can last a few days, and is one of the clues crime scene investigators use to determine when a murder took place.

8. ANGEL OF DEATH

"Angel of death" is the name given to medical professionals who intentionally kill their patients. In some cases the killer has convinced themselves they're helping the victim by choosing to end their life, which is why they're sometimes called "angels of mercy."

9. BLACK WIDOW

Female murderers are rare—they comprise just 15 percent of serial killers—but not unheard of. Women who commit murder are sometimes dubbed Black Widows after the spiders that devour their own mates after copulating. The moniker is usually reserved for a woman who targets people close to her, kills for personal gain, or uses her femininity to her advantage when committing the crime.

10. LUMINOL

Luminol reacting in glass.
deradrian, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Luminol is a chemical that emits a blue glow when mixed with a certain oxidizing agent. One of the substances that triggers this reaction is hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein found in red blood cells. By spraying a violent crime scene with luminol, investigators can detect traces of blood that aren't visible to the naked eye.

11. GLASGOW SMILE

The Black Dahlia murderer mutilated Elizabeth Short before leaving her remains in a Los Angeles park in 1947. The wounds that would come to symbolize the case were two cuts connecting her ears to the corners of her mouth, giving her the appearance of a perpetual grin. Dubbed a Glasgow Smile because of its prevalent use among Scottish gangs in the 1920s and '30s, this mark has appeared in numerous murder cases since.

12. GUNSHOT RESIDUE

Gunshot residue (GSR) is made up of the propellant particles that are discharged during a gunshot. It often settles on the clothing of anyone who was within a few feet of a fired gun, and it can be an essential piece of evidence when connecting suspects to a crime.

13. BRAIN FINGERPRINTING

Recently featured in season 2 of Making a Murderer, brain fingerprinting is a relatively new practice in crime investigations. After a suspect is hooked up to a helmet that senses brain activity, they're given details about the alleged crime that only the perpetrator would know. If they recognize what's being described, the sensor is supposed to pick up the telltale electrical signals in their brain. While what research there is suggests that the technology may be more reliable than a polygraph test, there still haven't been enough studies to prove its validity.

14. JOHN/JANE DOE

In the world of crime, John or Jane Doe are the names given to a murder victim whose identity is being concealed from the public. These names are often used as placeholders in court cases.

15. MÜNCHAUSEN SYNDROME BY PROXY

Like Münchausen syndrome, people with Münchausen syndrome by proxy manufacture trauma to gain sympathy—but instead of harming themselves they choose people who are close to them as their victims. People with this condition might intentionally make their children sick or disabled, which sometimes leads to their death.

16. COPYCAT CRIME

A copycat crime occurs when the perpetrator is inspired by a different crime, whether it was depicted in a book, movie, or TV show or it happened in real-life. Investigators sometimes have trouble distinguishing between copycat killings and the acts of a single serial murderer.

17. TROPHY

Many serial killers collect "trophies" from their victims after committing a crime. These can be fairly innocuous, like jewelry and footwear, or as gruesome as body parts. Ed Gein—the real-life inspiration for the novel and movie Psycho—used the human souvenirs he kept from his murders to make clothing and furniture.

18. BALLISTICS

Gun at crime scene.
iStock.com/FireAtDusk

Ballistics is the study of the mechanics of firearms. In forensics, this science can help investigators identify gun deaths and determine where and how the weapon was used in a crime—and possibly who pulled the trigger. Though, in the past few years, the ability of ballistics to provide a definite answer has been called into question, with courts preferring "more likely than not" statements.

19. FORENSIC ENTOMOLOGY

One of the more unusual careers for someone who studies bugs is that of a forensic entomologist. These scientists look at how insects interact with crime scenes. Based on what type of bugs are hanging around a corpse and which stage of development they're in, a forensic entomologist can help investigators determine a time of death.

20. LOCARD'S EXCHANGE PRINCIPLE

Put simply, Locard's exchange principle is "with contact between two items, there will be an exchange." Twentieth-century forensic scientist Dr. Edmond Locard came up with this idea after observing that criminals will almost always bring something into the crime scene with them and leave something behind, providing valuable evidence to investigators.

The Real Reason Costco Employees Check Receipts at Exits

Tim Boyle, Getty Images
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

If shoppers have one complaint about Costco—the vast discount warehouse chain with a notoriously permissive return policy and speedy checkout lanes—it’s that the employees posted at the exits to take a marker to customers' receipts seem vaguely insulting. Is the premise that everyone is a shoplifter until proven otherwise?

Not exactly. A recent rundown of Costco's policy from The Takeout (via Cheat Sheet) points out that the true motivation of these exit-door sentries isn’t to identify potential thieves. It’s to make sure that Costco isn’t picking the pockets of its customers.

According to employees who have made not-for-attribution comments, Costco is actually examining receipts to make sure a shopper hasn’t been overcharged for their purchases. Someone with three giant bundles of toilet paper in their cart, for example, might have been charged for four. By giving the receipt a cursory glance, the employee can make sure a cashier didn’t inadvertently ring up phantom crates of canned tuna.

Of course, if someone did try to wheel out several big-screen televisions without a receipt, the exit door employee would likely make an issue of it. But they’re not in loss prevention, and the measure isn’t intended to deter thieves. If you do have something in your cart you didn’t pay for, their immediate assumption is that the mistake is almost certainly the result of a cashier not scanning the item.

In fact, hardly any criminals are caught at the door—which isn't to say the store isn't immune to theft. Earlier this year, thieves at a Seattle Costco were busted with armloads of laptops after they barged out of the back entrance. In June, a Costco in Alpharetta, Georgia, was victimized by burglars who smashed the jewelry case at night and made off with $10,000 worth of valuables.

[h/t The Takeout]

8 Dishes Made by Notorious Poisoners

iStock/com/bhofack2
iStock/com/bhofack2

While many poisoners throughout history have stirred their deadly potions and powders into drinks, some of the more culinarily inclined have crafted killer dishes instead. The nurturing image these poisoners often presented—with casseroles and cakes always at the ready—may have even helped distract from their murderous ways.

1. NANNIE DOSS’S APPLE AND PRUNE PIE

Nannie Doss (1905–1965) poisoned as many as 12 family members. She allegedly added poison to both prune cake and an apple-prune pie, soaking the fruit overnight in rat poison. Her reported recipe included sprinkling the top of the crust with sugar when it was fresh from the oven, which probably helped disguise the taste of the poison.

2. ANJETTE LYLES’S BANANA PUDDING

Anjette Donovan Lyles (1925–1977) owned and operated a thriving luncheonette in Macon, Georgia. She was known for simple Southern fare and desserts such as her banana pudding with vanilla wafers (which you can find a recipe for here alongside a selection of her other popular creations). She took frequent breaks from the restaurant to tend to two dying husbands, a mother-in-law, and a daughter, all of whom she killed by adding rat poison to their food—though it's not clear precisely which specific dishes she served them.

3. BLANCHE TAYLOR-MOORE’S PEANUT BUTTER MILKSHAKE

Milkshake in nostalgic glass with whipped cream and cherry on top
iStock.com/sandoclr

Blanche Taylor-Moore (1933-) dispatched of at least three people in a prolonged and agonizing fashion by repeatedly serving them arsenic-laced meals. She then hindered recovery by bringing digestive-friendly foodstuffs laced with poison (including banana pudding) to their hospital beds. Shakes made with vanilla ice cream, milk, and creamy peanut butter were the favorite of her second husband, the Reverend Dwight Moore, who survived despite reportedly having 100 times the normal levels of arsenic in his system.

4. LYDA SOUTHARD’S APPLE PIE

She sprinkled it with cinnamon, a dash of nutmeg too
And sugared it with arsenic, a tasty devil's brew.
That famous apple pie, which ne'er forgot will be,
And for Lyda Southard's apple pie, men lay them down to die.

Idaho folk song

Lyda Trueblood Southard (1892-1958) and her family are said to have moved from their home in Missouri around 1907 after seeing a photo of a man holding a cantaloupe-sized apple grown near the new town of Twin Falls, Idaho. She put these apples to use in pies ... along with arsenic from boiled flypaper, which she reportedly used to poison four husbands, one daughter, and a brother-in-law [PDF]. Although she proclaimed her innocence to the end, it's rumored that her body was hairless, revealing a prolonged exposure to arsenic.

5. LYDIA SHERMAN’S CLAM CHOWDER

Bowl of clam chowder
iStock.com/MSPhotographic

Lydia Sherman (1824-1878) poisoned three husbands and eight children with milk, oatmeal, and New England clam chowder. The standard Civil War recipe involves salt pork, potatoes, shucked clams or quahogs, and plenty of milk and cream. In Lydia's case, it also involved arsenic, which helped earn her $20,000 worth of real estate and $10,000 in cash after one inconvenient husband died. She went the easier route with her next husband by simply adding arsenic to his bottle of brandy.

6. DEBORA GREEN'S HAM AND BEANS

When Debora Green's (1951-) marriage dissolved in the summer of 1995, her husband began suffering from mysterious bouts of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Although he at first blamed the symptoms on a bug picked up during a recent vacation in Peru, investigators grew suspicious after a fire burned down the family home that fall, killing two of the couple's children. Police looking into the blaze soon discovered that Green had burned down her own home in a rage—and that she been poisoning her husband by putting castor beans in his chicken-salad sandwich and ham and beans. Castor oil is commonly used as a laxative, but when crushed, the beans produce the deadly toxin ricin.

7. LOCUSTA'S MUSHROOMS

An Amanita phalloides in the woods
iStock.com/empire331

The Roman emperor Claudius (10 BCE-54 CE) loved mushrooms, a fact that the notorious female poisoner Locusta allegedly used to help finish him off. Locusta was acting on the orders of Agrippina the Younger, Claudius's fourth wife, who wanted to clear the path so that her son Nero (from a previous marriage) could ascend to the throne. Historians debate whether the assassination ever really happened, but some report that Locusta added the juice from death cap mushrooms (Amanita phalloides, known as "the destroying angel") to a dish of Claudius's preferred fungi, Amanita caesarea. The details after that vary—a poisoned feather stuck down Claudius's throat or a poison enema may have also been involved—but either way, the death would have been slow and painful.

8. CAROLINE GRILLS’S TEA CAKES

Caroline Grills (1888–1960) was a prolific baker known for bringing home-baked cakes and cookies to tea with relatives. Unfortunately, Grills was lacing her goodies and tea with thallium, a popular rat poison, and may have killed as many as four family members doing so. The symptoms of thallium poisoning often involve fever, delirium, convulsions, and progressive blindness, followed by death.

Still, Grills's sweets were so delicious that even when she was under suspicion of murder, it didn't stop people from consuming them: One relative given some candied ginger couldn't resist trying it and was rewarded with pains in his neck and chest and numbed toes. Grills was eventually arrested and charged with four murders and one attempted murder, but only convicted on one count. Her case was part of a string of thallium poisonings in post-war Australia, with dozens of cases, several high-profile trials, and 10 deaths.

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