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Natural born killers?

Once upon a time, a young and ambitious FBI agent met a charming man. This man was exceedingly polite, well mannered, and highly intelligent.

The agent couldn’t help but like him, even though he knew the charming man had murdered ten people.

The man was Ed Kemper, and he was a serial killer. Netflix fans may have been introduced to Kemper through the series Mindhunter, which is loosely based (very loosely) on the life of John Douglas, the agent who helped found the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit (now known as the Behavioral Analysis Unit). Douglas was one of the first profilers, and yes, he did like Kemper, in spite of what the man had done.

Although I feel more sympathy for Kemper’s victims than I do for the killer himself, I’ve always felt a bit sorry for Ed. I wonder what might have been if the man had been raised differently.

Kemper is a genius with an IQ of 145. He’s also an extremely large man, standing six feet nine inches tall and weighing between two-hundred and fifty and three-hundred pounds. It was his size that terrified his mother. Hating the fact that Kemper looked like his father, who had left her, she verbally and psychologically abused her son from a young age. By the time Kemper was a teen, he was already 6’4″. Deciding he would attack his sisters in the night, his mother regularly locked him in the basement. She also called him a weirdo and told him no woman would ever love him. Fearing affection would “turn him gay,” she refused to show her son any love.

 Are serial killers like Ed Kemper born bad, or turned that way?

When Kemper was fourteen, he ran away to live with his father, whom he’d once had a close relationship with. Sadly, his father had remarried and there was no place for Kemper among the new family. Kemper’s father sent him to live with his own parents. Unfortunately, his mother was reportedly a domineering woman who bullied Kemper and his grandfather. When Kemper was fifteen, he shot and killed his grandmother after a heated argument, and then turned the gun on his grandfather so the elderly man wouldn’t find out his wife was dead.

Sent to a hospital for the criminally insane, the brilliant young Kemper talked rings around his therapists, easily able to convince them he’d been rehabilitated. They even trained him to give other inmates psychiatric tests. Against the psychiatrists’ recommendations, he was released into his mother’s care when he turned twenty-one, his record wiped clean.

Absence hadn’t made his mother’s heart grow fonder:

“My mother and I started right in on horrendous battles, just horrible battles, violent and vicious. I’ve never been in such a vicious verbal battle with anyone. It would go to fists with a man, but this was my mother and I couldn’t stand the thought of my mother and I doing these things. She insisted on it, and just over stupid things. I remember one roof-raiser was over whether I should have my teeth cleaned.” (An interview with Ed from The Co-Ed Killer by Margaret Cheney.)

Whenever he saved enough money to rent his own apartment, he would, but his mother followed him, calling and dropping by for surprise visits. A regular lack of funds meant he was often resigned to living with her.

In 1972, Kemper started killing young co-eds who attended the university where his mother worked. He frequented a police bar and was well known by local officers, who called him Big Ed and were happy to unofficially discuss the case with him.  Kemper killed six young women before finally turning his rage on his mother. After brutally murdering her and her best friend, he called the police and turned himself in. The cops had a hard time believing their buddy Big Ed was the serial killer they’d been searching for.

Was Kemper a natural born killer, or was his ill treatment at the hands of his mother to blame? A model prisoner at the California Medical Facility, Kemper crafts ceramic cups, records audio books, schedules other inmates’ psychiatric appointments, and has willingly participated in several documentaries and interviews, including the FBI’s groundbreaking serial killer study. Even so, he feels he should never be released.

What could this brilliant, insightful man have accomplished if he’d been raised by loving parents? That’s the question that will always haunt me…and no doubt the families of his victims as well.

What do you think? Could Ed Kemper have been “saved,” or was he a natural born killer all along?

PS: If you enjoyed this post, you’ll be interested in this chilling story of a remorseless female serial killer.

PPS: In honour of Women in Horror month, two of my supernatural suspense books–The Girl Who Talks to Ghosts and Temple of Ghosts–are on sale this week. Post a review of Temple of Ghosts on Amazon and Goodreads, and you could win a $100 Amazon gift card.

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48 Comments

  1. I haven’t watched Mindhunter, but I did watch The Unabomber. He too had some bad experiences and you can’t help but wonder how it affected his behavior.

    Reply
  2. When I first got the email with the title of the blog post I thought it said “Natural Born Kittens.” =)

    I’ve always wondered how differently the lives of certain people, especially serial killers, could have had if their upbringing had been different. If their circumstances and lives had been different they may have been remarkable people. I have always felt that, while some people are able to rise above the way they were raised or the tragedies they faced, so many people are just one bad day, one bad circumstance away from being completely different people.

    Reply
    • JH

      So well said, Nikki. I totally agree.

      Natural Born Kitties will happen. It has to now.

      Reply
  3. Sad to see a life destroyed like that. He might have accomplished so much more in a different environment. Hopefully they listen to him and he’s never released.

    Reply
    • JH

      Oh, I’m sure they will, Alex. The system is flawed, but they usually keep serial killers behind bars, at least.

      Reply
  4. Sad, scary, chilling… I read a lot of Douglas Preston the FBI agent who wrote a lot books about this and started the profile stuff in my early 20’s. I tried watching Mindhunter but the dark content was just too much for me. Easier to read than watch.

    Reply
    • JH

      You don’t mean John Douglas, do you Juneta? That was the man I referenced in my post. Would be strange if two “Douglases” were the founders of profiling for the FBI.

      Reply
  5. Terrible story. Yes, how he was treated made difference in his life. We need love.

    Reply
    • JH

      We do indeed. Especially as children.

      Reply
  6. I liked the first season of Mindhunter overall, although I found some of it dragged.

    The fact that Kemper himself says he shouldn’t be released should definitely be taken into consideration.

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, I don’t think we need to worry about him getting out. Serial killers tend to stay in prison when/if they’re caught.

      Reply
  7. If he’d had different opportunities when he was young like a loving family and somewhere to direct that mental energy (a special school program or even a trade to practice), the circumstances may well have been different.
    Sounds like the abandonment by his father may have been a huge factor in this case. Whatever authority figures he had failed him. At the end of the day, he is still responsible for overcoming these life obstacles, though. He made the choice to repeatedly murder others. Sad.

    Reply
    • JH

      It is really sad, Lisa. And I agree, his father leaving was the turning point. Before that, I believe his father was a buffer and a role model. Willing to bet Ed blamed his mother for the end of the marriage.

      Reply
  8. I believe that a lack of human connection can put someone on a dangerous path, and it sounds like everywhere this guy turned, there was zero compassion or understanding. After years, decades, who knows what affect that might have.

    Then again, there are stories of killers who had all sorts of love and affection.

    Reply
    • JH

      True, Ryan, but I do think Ed would have been different. I think that’s why I’ve always felt some sympathy for him.

      Hope you’re ready to be reunited this summer!

      Reply
  9. I can’t help but think Kemper would have been a contributing member to our society if he’d had some parenting instead of abuse. Of course, with brilliance often comes madness, so I could be totally wrong.

    You’re celebrating this Women in Horror month beautifully.

    Reply
    • JH

      Aw, thanks so much, Lee. What a nice thing to say re: celebrating WIHM.

      He might have ended up being a ruthless CEO or mad scientist, but I don’t think he would have become a killer.

      Reply
  10. This is kind of a disgusting story. I can hardly believe the hate that built upon itself. I’m not surprised that the cops didn’t believe their pal was a serial killer, though. Ed, beyond the high IQ, seems as though he was really socially smart – he knew how to work his community. Any idea of Kemper is still alive? And what prison he’s at?

    Reply
    • JH

      Yes, he’s at the California Medical Facility and is in his sixties. The info at the end about him making ceramic cups and scheduling psychiatric appointments for other inmates, etc., is current.

      Reply
  11. Another fascinating true story! I can totally see how this could be part of a TV series. Chilling to know it all happened for real, though.

    I think a child’s education and the way he/she is raised (and loved) can have a massive impact on that person’s life. If Ed would have been treated differently as a child, these murders might have never happened. But, we will never know! I also think something can snatch in people’s minds when they are pushed too far. And this goes not only for natural born killers or poorly treated children…

    Reply
    • JH

      True, Liesbet. I absolutely agree. There have been many cases of seemingly good, moral, law-abiding people who snapped and did something horrible. The mind can be surprisingly fragile.

      Reply
  12. My husband and I were foster parents and I know what little it takes to completely screw up a child for life. People don’t realize what abuse, even verbal abuse, does to kids.

    Reply
    • JH

      So true. Thanks for being a foster parent! The world is in desperate need of good foster parents.

      Reply
  13. Some people are born without a conscience. Some people are brutalized out of one. Science can’t tell us yet how to know the difference. Child abuse is much more of a “norm” than society would like to admit. So, as in so many situations, we must learn how to protect ourselves. Women, particularly, must learn to listen to that inner, ancient voice that tells us when something is just not right.

    Reply
    • JH

      Sad but true, Lee. Ed was such a smooth talker that he actually locked one of his victims in his vehicle while she was still alive, and was able to convince her to let him in. She unlocked the door for him, and he killed her. 🙁

      Reply
  14. Because of his treatment all of his formative years we will never know for sure what might of been. I believe upbringing has a heavy influence on all people. Yet, a person’s core makeup causes one to respond one way and another to go a different way. Hence, personal accountability. No matter how much is brought to bare to push us one way, we all have a choice in the end.

    Reply
    • JH

      Well said, Barbara. True. I think certain events can definitely warp one’s mind, though.

      Reply
  15. I watched a documentary about this very subject and it was very interesting. It is found, from numerous testing tools that people who are serial killers are born with a predisposition to becoming this because they show deep sociopathic ways and psychopathic ways. They spoke to someone who studies this andnwhen he took the test, he was found to have the same sociopathic ways but he never killed anyone. He had an excellent upbringing raised by very loving parents who were always there for him. So, the documentary did question this very question and it lead to some surprises. No matter what, this person should never be released because he will kill again

    Reply
    • JH

      Most definitely, Birgit. That sounds like a documentary I’d be interested in. Do you remember the name of it?

      Reply
  16. The guy playing Kemper did an excellent job at the role. As for whether he would have been a contributing member of society…who knows? I think anyone who can swing to such an extreme of murdering women like he did had something off to begin with. Maybe it would have taken a different form or taken longer. A friend of mine was in the first class to go through under Douglas and the others, and as he says, no one snaps. The bad was there to begin with. Maybe a crappy, stressful job would have triggered it if he’d had a good childhood. I do think nurture plays a huge part; I just don’t think it plays enough of a part that a man like Kemper would have been a good soul without an awful mother. I do feel for his childhood, too. No kid deserves what he dealt with.

    Reply
    • JH

      Good points, Shannon. I’d like to think there was some way early intervention could have “saved” Kemper and his victims, but perhaps not. Sadly, we’ll never know.

      Reply
  17. After the way he was treated, I can understand killing the grandmother and the mother and I can even sympathise a little – if you push someone far enough, there’s always a risk they will break.
    But I don’t think we can blame all of the other murders on a bad upbringing, otherwise everyone who had a horrible childhood would go out murdering. The murders of the women implies he was projecting his anger over his mother onto them – arguably if his mother hadn’t made him mad, then he wouldn’t have done this, but he was clearly emotionally unstable to act this way and even with a loving childhood, something could still have triggered this.
    What really convinces me that he’s just very clever manipulator and able to get sympathy from those around him is the murder of his grandfather. That was cold, calculated and self serving.
    Debbie

    Reply
    • JH

      Good points, Debbie. He definitely was projecting anger at his mother onto the young women he killed. He targeted women who went to the university where his mother worked. He violated and mutilated the corpses in his mother’s home. He even buried one woman’s head facing his mother’s bedroom window because his mother “always wanted people to look up to her.”

      Ed’s problems began when his father abandoned the family. I wonder what he was like before that happened. It was highly traumatic for him, and he was so young. He no doubt blamed his mother for the loss of his father.

      Reply
  18. It breaks my heart that a child was treated like that. Yes, what parents believe of their children can convince them they are less than they are. All parents have regrets–me included. My suggestion is read a parenting book or ten.

    I’d prefer not to share my opinion on Big Ed. One post isn’t enough to understand him.

    Anna from elements of emaginette

    Reply
    • JH

      Fair enough, Anna. But you’ve certainly aroused my curiosity!

      Reply
  19. What may have been – always a question worth asking in a serious way at least in part to determine ‘what went wrong’. Who knows, maybe we all have those dark ‘tendencies’ but we have learned how to inhibit them and make better choices …

    Reply
    • JH

      I’d love to learn more about what makes these people tick. It’s been a lifelong quest for better understanding.

      Reply
  20. I haven’t watched Mindhunter, but I do have some books by John Douglas and they are good reads. Ed Kemper is always mentioned in books on serial killers to, so I’ve read his profile a few times. It’s hard to say if he would have turned out differently because serial killers always seem a different breed that we haven’t yet been able to figure out why they kill when others who have the same raising don’t.

    Reply
    • JH

      True. Glad you’ve read some of Douglas’s books. They’re the best.

      Reply
  21. That’s an excellent question. You would think that the abuse caused Kemper to become a serial killer, but there are people who suffer incredible abuse and do not kill, so it’s still a toss up.

    Reply
    • JH

      True. There may have been some innate propensity for violence that was triggered by the abuse. I still believe Ed’s story could have turned out differently. Most serial killers had abusive childhoods. Makes you wonder how much is based on nurture, and what makes an abused child turn out to be a killer?

      Reply
  22. I think when people go so far awry, it’s always a mix of nature AND nurture. Some part of him had this propensity for violence, which may have remained hidden all his life if not unlocked by years of abuse. At least he’s smart enough to know that he’s where he belongs and willing to help when needed. Not a total lost cause, but perhaps unable to truly be saved.

    Reply
    • JH

      True. Good point, Hunter. I’d like to believe Ed would have been different if he’d been raised by loving parents, but perhaps the result would have been one of the many sociopathic CEOs. He’s certainly intelligent enough.

      Reply
  23. Yeah, that does seem to be a case of nature versus nurture. It’s horrible how he was treated, and yeah, I think it probably had something to do with how he turned out.

    Reply
  24. I wish I could remember it..it was on Nova but that’s all i remember. I’ll ask my hubby and see if he remembers but I doubt it

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Birgit.

      Reply
  25. The investigation determined that Kemper used the resident’s own ‘hidden key’ to enter the three separate Rossmoor residences, according to police. Looks like people need to find a better hiding place for their keys Do you use a hidden key? We don”t.

    Reply
  26. The investigation determined that Kemper used the resident’s own ‘hidden key’ to enter the three separate Rossmoor residences, according to police. Looks like people need to find a better hiding place for their keys Do you use a hidden key? We don”t.

    Reply

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