Suicidology Online 2010; 1:19-27.
50% as sexually motivated and 14% as sadistic. (Some killers were assigned multiple motives.)
The number of victims was associated with the type of crime: Territorial killers killed fewer victims (5.2) than stationary (8.0) or nomadic (7.8) killers. The number of victims was not related to whether the motive was criminal enterprise, personal cause, sex, or sadism. The number of victims was not associated with the decade that the killings began, but men did kill more victims than women (means 6.6 versus 3.9).
1900 - present
1900 - 1949
1950 - present
Table 1. Suicide in serial killers in Newton’s data.
complete sample is shown in Table 1.) In contrast, in the study on rampage mass murderers in the United States during the same period, reported above, 34.7% committed suicide, a far higher proportion. It is perhaps possible that rampage murderers are energized by such a great amount of anger that even killing many victims is not sufficient to discharge the anger, and the residual anger is turned inward on the self. Serial killers, on the other hand, may be less impulsive, with much more cognitive planning and self-control. Empirical studies comparing the psychodynamics of rampage and serial killers are needed to explore such potential psychological differences.
The study was limited by the variables that Newton used to describe the serial killers. Future research should explore more characteristics of the serial killers and their criminal acts for their relationship to the deadliness of the killings and to the outcome (suicide versus capture).
2 victimsa pre 1900 1900 - present 1900 - 1949 1950 - present
Other Countries Total United Kingdom Australia/Canada/NZ
Europe Rest of the world
68 248 10 238
399 80 54 150 116
A More Extensive Study of Suicide In Serial Killers
In order to pursue the study of suicide in serial killers, a data set for serial killers who completed suicide was created. The list of serial killers is shown in Table 2, and data were available for 58 serial killers. For these, the timing of the
suicide was as follows:
Prior to identification To avoid arrest During arrest Before trial After conviction
5 (8.6%) 10 (17.2%) 13 (22.8%) 15 (25.9%) 15 (25.9%)
1950 - present
a Comparing the suicides with those with other outcomes
(1900-present) produced no significant differences with the variables (year, sex, race, criminal enterprise, personal cause, sexual motive, sadism, or territorial/stationary/ nomadic).
There were no differences by race (White, Black and Hispanic) in the number of victims. Those executed tended to kill fewer victims than those captured but not executed (means 4.9 versus 6.7).
Those committing suicide (n=26) were compared with those captured (n=547). The two groups did not differ in sex, race, whether territorial, stationary or nomadic, or motive (personal cause, sex, or sadism). However, those killing for criminal enterprise were more likely to complete suicide (5.7% versus 1.8%).
In this very large sample of serial killers in the United States from 1950 to 2002, only 26 committed suicide, that is, 4.4%. (A more detailed breakdown of the incidence of suicide in Newton’s
It can be seen that the timing of the suicide varies quite widely. Only 9% completed suicide prior to identification, motivated by guilt perhaps or despair at their uncontrollable murderous impulses, 17% completed suicide to avoid arrest, and 23% completed suicide during the arrest process. In contrast, almost all mass murderers complete suicide during these phases of the process. Suicide after arrest and suicide after conviction were equally common, each accounting for 26% of the suicides.
Analysis of the psychodynamics of the motives of these serial killers is difficult because the biographies are typically written by journalists or crime writers (rather than mental health professionals), and most of their accounts focus on the details of the crimes and crime scenes rather than psychodynamically relevant information. Whereas it has been relatively easy to profile the typical rampage mass murderer, there is no “typical” serial killer who completes suicide. However, it is of some interest to examine briefly two cases.