Countless serial killers have stalked us, roamed amongst us, and preyed upon us throughout history. Sly, cold, calculating, and ruthless, they are like things from our nightmares. For the most part they work alone in the darkness, lurching forth from whatever madness or quagmire of evil fuels them, yet this is not always the case. Sometimes the sickness, the lust for blood, the desire to kill and evil, can seep beyond the confines of just one and seem to jump about within a family. Perhaps they influence each other with their dark thoughts, or maybe they just share a genetic propensity for violently lashing out against their own kind. Maybe evil is just in some ways like an infectious plague or genetic defect that reaches out to those around it. Regardless of the root causes of this phenomenon, the main point here is that among all of the serial killers that have worked alone in solitude trying desperately to individually blend in to an environment that would abhor them, there are those who are not alone, and are precisely amongst their own kind, hunting and plotting within their own habitat; family just as murderous as they are.
One of the most ruthless, infamous, and indeed nightmarish serial killer families that has ever been supposedly operated on the western edge of Scotland in the 15th century, during the reign of James I. The tale starts with a man by the name of Alexander “Sawney” Bean, who left behind his grueling life as a hedger and ditcher under the authoritarian rule of his father to flee to the sea with his wife. Once there, they took up a simple residence within a cave next to the roaring surf in the county of Galloway, where they embraced a reclusive lifestyle and began to have a great many children to join their humble life. As their children grew, the family would begin to turn to sadistic activities, which would propel the clan into bloody legend.
The Bean family, who are said to have never visited any nearby towns and kept wholly to themselves in their murky cave lair, began to fan out into the countryside to rob and kill travelers passing by in cold blood. The bodies of the murdered are said to have been brought back to the cave, where they were butchered and the body parts pickled for consumption. The story goes that the Bean clan’s chief source of sustenance was human flesh, and their only influx of money and goods was looted from the cold corpses of the dead. The leftovers were apparently tossed into the sea, where they would float along the tides to wash up on far away shores to inspire terror and bafflement, or were dumped or buried in the countryside. This went on for decades, and throughout this all, the family grew in size through incest, until the cave was crowded with the inbred cannibalistic clan.
So many people were going missing in the region where the family operated that police were sometimes sent to investigate, only to never return themselves, and on many occasions suspicious travelers in the area were arrested for the crimes and wrongfully executed. Of course, the mysterious disappearances and deaths went on unabated, and some innkeepers of the region moved their businesses elsewhere so as not to be wrongly accused and possibly killed. The family was said to go out in roving packs, sometimes ambushing, attacking and slaughtering whole groups of travelers at a single time, before dragging the slain carcasses back to their den to be viciously butchered and eaten there in the dark.
Despite so many murders and vanishings, armed search parties sent out to try and find the culprits came back in failure, partly due to the fact that the Bean clan were experts at hiding away in their cave, which is said to have extended so far into subterranean darkness that one could pass by it, even make a cursory search of its mouth, and never suspect anyone was there at all, let alone a ravenous pack of killers wallowing in its depths. It is said the the Bean Clan operated in the shadows like this for over 25 years, killing, looting, breeding, living in darkness, and filling the countryside with mysterious corpses. Then, the family’s undoing is said to finally have come about through a victim who managed to escape; the first, and an account which reads like something from a horror movie.
According to the dramatic account, a man and his wife were traveling through the area on horseback on their way back from a county fair when they were set upon by a group of the Bean Clan. The husband, armed with a pistol and sword, bravely fought against the onslaught, and is said to have killed several of the clan members in the ensuing melee, shooting them, slashing them with his sword, and toppling them under horse hoof. During the violent encounter, his wife fell from the horse, and was allegedly killed right before her husband’s eyes in a most brutal fashion. According to the husband’s story, one of the clan women cut the wife’s throat open from ear to ear and to then greedily drink the spurting blood like some kind of blood crazed vampire, after which more of the clan emerged from hiding and began to cut open the woman’s body and pull out her entrails, all while the horrified husband looked on while still fighting for his life, his skill with his sword and pistol perhaps a bit more than the clan had been expecting.
It was at that time, as the woman was being ravaged as if by a roving group of ravenous zombies, that a large group of around 30 others on horseback appeared, traveling from the same fair the husband and wife had been at. The appearance of such a large number of people drove the Beans away, and they melted away into the countryside, clutching as much of the woman’s gory remains as they could and leaving blood and viscera behind. The corpse itself was dragged some distance and then dropped in their haste to scurry away. The badly shaken husband told the approaching group the horrifying story of what had just transpired, but by that time the clan members were gone, dissolved into the surroundings as if they had never been there at all.
This gruesome account found its way to the king himself, and a heavily armed group of 400 men on horseback was sent out to exterminate the Bean Clan once and for all, accompanied by a pack of bloodhounds and guided by the husband who had survived the barbarous attack. The group managed to locate the Bean Clan’s cave of horrors, and the sights awaiting them there were unsettling to say the least. Within the dark bowels of the cave were found human bodies and body parts in various states of butchery, as well as barrels containing pickled remains and dried body parts hanging from the ceiling. The macabre scene was so grotesque and repulsive that many of the battle hardened soldiers that had come to investigate are said to have run from the cave vomiting and in dazed shock.
In addition to the bodies, there were found piles of cash, jewels, and a myriad of other looted belongings scattered about in the murk. Also found were all of the clan members, who were promptly arrested. In total, the surviving clan members consisted of the patriarch, Sawney Bean, his wife, eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grand-sons, and fourteen grand-daughters. All of them were arrested, brought to Edinburgh, and supposedly executed brutally without trial or due process. It is said that the men of the clan were castrated, dismembered alive, and left to bleed to death. The women of the clan were made to watch the execution of the men, after which they were burned alive upon bonfires. At no time did any of the clan members show any sign of remorse for their decades of murder, which by some accounts had claimed over a thousand lives.
The tale of the Bean Clan is a popular tale in Scotland, although its historical accuracy is often questioned, mainly because the first accounts of it were not published until the 18th century and there seems to be no official record of such a grisly mass execution. Because of this, the tale is said to perhaps been fabricated or at the very least greatly exaggerated for the purposes of political propaganda at the time. Others say that the stories are true, and have merely been passed along orally, only to finally be printed in the 18th century. Whether the morbid tale of the Sawney Bean Clan is entirely true or not, it has captured the imagination for centuries, and has even found its way into popular culture, being the inspiration for Wes Craven’s 1977 cult classic film The Hills Have Eyes, which tells the tale of an inbred cannibal family terrorizing the deserts of Nevada. There are also stories that to this day the countryside and the cave where the clan resided are haunted by both the clan itself and their many victims.
While the extent of the truth behind the Bean Clan may be in dispute, other serial killer families were very much real. In 1798 a pair of either brothers or cousins born to Scottish immigrants, Micajah and Wiley Harpe, began to carve a path of murderous terror across the landscape of Tennessee and Kentucky during the turmoil of the Revolutionary War that would go on to earn them the nickname “America’s First Serial Killers.” Even before their bloody killing rampage, the two were prone to a variety of crime and violence. Originally planning to have their own plantation, the Harpes embarked instead on a crime-fueled spree of rape, arson, river piracy, and thievery while fighting on the side of the British.
It was perhaps this life of crime, or the fact that their parents had been killed during the war, that pushed them ever further into depravity and into full blown murder. Micajah, also called “Big Harpe” due being very tall, and Wiley, also called “Little Harpe,” took to roaming about the land, often accompanied by two young women who were either their “wives” or kidnapped sex slaves, and murdering people in order to steal from them. The two outlaws seemed to show no particular preferences in their victims, ruthlessly killing men, women, and children of all ages, black or white, and they also had no set way in which they killed except that it was always brutal. One victim of the Harpes was found floating about in a river, his insides having been ripped out and his body stuffed with stones, and others were found hacked apart and mutilated, decapitated, disembowled, and often simply left out in the wilderness to rot. There seems to have been no end to their depravity, and Micajah is even said to have killed his own infant son when he coldly dashed the child’s head on a rock to make him stop crying. On another occasion, they brutally killed an entire family; men, women, children and all, as well as their eight slaves.
By the end of their bloody murder spree, the Harpes are thought to have killed around 40 people across swaths of Tennessee and Kentucky, although it is unknown just what the final death toll was, leading to whispers among terrified locals that the Devil himself was out stalking the countryside. Their reign of terror might very well have gone on indefinitely if a posse hadn’t finally caught up to them and delivered a bit of frontier justice. Big Harpe would be wounded in a gunfight in 1800 and subsequently beheaded with a knife, during which Micajah is said to have spat in defiance to his killer even as he sawed away: “You’re a Goddamned rough butcher, but cut on and be damned.” Little Harpe would also be captured in 1804 and eventually hanged for his crimes, after which his head was also removed and displayed on a pike for all to see. These were violent ends strangely befitting of such violent lives.
Staying within the United States, in the 1800s, the U.S. state of Kansas was a hotbed of serial killer families, and there were at least three such families operating here at the time. In 1887, just as the state was already reeling from the gruesome exploits of yet another serial killer family called the Benders, which I have already written of extensively at Mysterious Universe before, there was another sinister family that began to make itself known. The Kelly family consisted of 55-year-old William Kelly, his wife Kate, their 20-year-old son Bill, and 18-year-old daughter Kit, who lived on a ranch near Oak City, Kansas, along a route popular with travelers heading out west. Those weary souls on their way to a new life through the dangerous badlands of the old west often stayed at houses and inns along the road, and the Kelly’s took to having guests as well, only the service would prove to be severely wanting, in that the guests tended to get a case of the dead, and it would evolve into a gruesome case very similar to that of the Benders before them.
Throughout the time the Kellys lived there, reports of missing cattlemen, salesmen, and travelers began to creep in to authorities, but there was little reason to suspect the for all appearances respectable family of any wrongdoing. At the time the region was notoriously dangerous, a haunt for robbers and bandits that was considered to be so dangerous that it was often referred to as the Kansas No-Man’s-Land. It was not completely unusual for people to turn up missing or dead here, and so authorities were slow to act on such things. Because of this, the Kellys were never investigated or questioned in any of the disappearances.
In December of 1887, the family suddenly and mysteriously moved away and headed off with all of their belongings without a word. At around the same time, a missing man was traced to the abandoned Kelly house and the premises were searched. At first there could be found no sign of any wrongdoing, but just as authorities were about to move on, a cleverly hidden trap door was found in the floor. When it was opened, it was found to lead down into a dark cellar, and when the cellar was checked the missing man’s body was found along with 2 other corpses festering in the gloom. A total of 4 more bodies would be found buried beneath the stable, 2 more located near the barn, and in a woodshed was found an axe with pieces of human flesh and hair splattered over it. The bodies were so badly decomposed that the only one that could be positively identified was that of the man who had gone missing, a J. T. Taylor. One prospector named Charles Randolph said of the family’s modus operandi:
A very ingeniously arranged trap door was found in the floor of the house through which it was supposed the victims were dropped and killed…Either the father or in some cases, the daughter, who was not a bad looking girl, carried on a conversation with the guest while the mother prepared the meal. Everything being ready for the sacrifice the victim was seated at the table, his chair being placed on the trap. At the given signal the spring was touched and the unhappy traveler would be thrown down into the basement, where in the dark—if the fall did not break his neck—he could be dispatched at pleasure. This is supposed to have been the modus operandi, for no one is known to have ever escaped from their clutches.
An investigation was immediately launched and it was soon found that according to witnesses the Kelly family had been headed to New Mexico loaded with money. The authorities went off in hot pursuit, and the posse caught up with them, after which the family reportedly ditched their wagon and took off on horseback. After a 2-hour pursuit, during which Kate Kelly fell from her horse, everyone was captured except William Kelly, who briefly escaped and put up a gunfight before also being apprehended. and bound with rope. When confronted about the crimes, William Kelly denied having anything to do with them, and when asked about why he had fled his home he said:
I moved to Kansas from the mountains Pennsylvania in 1869, and lived at different points along the southern border until I decided to move to No Man’s Land settled 25 miles from Beaver City, and went into the cattle business. Soon after I opened a sort of tavern. Several persons disappeared while passing along this trail but as to their death I have nothing to say. A good deal of talk of foul play was made and I determined to move on to south Texas. This is all I have to say.
The posse made preparations to hang him, and demanded that he confess for his crimes, but he refused. He would eventually confess after being danged by his neck from a rope. In his confession William claimed that he and his family had robbed and killed a total of 9 men and 2 women, and his story was confirmed by a gold watch found on him that bore the engraved initials of the missing man JT Taylor. Based on this confession, all of the Kelly family was immediately strung up and hanged.
Not long after the bloody escapades of the Benders and the Kellys, yet another clan of bloodthirsty killers would call Kansas home, in the form of the Staffleback family, of Galena, Kansas. The family consisted of the mother, Nancy, and her children Ed, George, Mike, Cora, Louisa and Emma, as well as George’s wife, Cora. The family was rather notorious even before their murder spree came to light, with many of them having been in and out of prison for a variety of crimes. The family had moved around a lot, and finally found themselves in Galena, Kansas, in a rundown area on the outskirts known as Picker’s Point.
Here the Staffleback family took up residence in a rickety shack that straddled a series of abandoned shafts that had once been used by zinc miners, and began murdering in earnest. The first killing occurred when two young women, one of them being Ed’s girlfriend, took up residence in the home and during a violent altercation Mike Staffleback beat one of them to death. In order to silence the other girl on the matter, brother Ed Staffleback beat her to death as well, and the two brothers wrapped the bodies in sheets and tossed them into one of the mining shafts. It seemed the mother knew of this and was fine with it. These deaths would be followed not long after by the death of a traveling salesman, who the brothers killed before stealing his money.
One killing carried out by the family was a miner named Frank Galbraith, who was invited back to the home by Emma Staffleback, only for his advances to be spurned. This caused a heated argument between them, and during the fight Emma’s mother grabbed a knife and chased the man outside. Once outside, brothers Wilson and Ed started firing at Galbraith as he tried to run away into the night. The miner was hit by a bullet and stumbled, but kept on hobbling down the road. Ed is then said to have calmly strolled up to the limping, fleeing man and shoot him point blank in the head. Shortly after, the mother Nancy appeared with her knife and cut the man’s throat open, after which she casually wiped the blood off on her apron. The body was unceremoniously disposed of in one of the old deserted mining shafts near their home.
This particular death would lead to the downfall of the killer family, when Galbraith’s corpse was found at the bottom of the shaft by authorities, leading to the arrest of Ed and George, with Wilson daringly escaping the law by fleeing. The arrests would eventually uncover the fact that the family had been in the murder game since before they had even lived in Galena, with at least two other deaths pinned on them; the robbery and death of a soldier named Rodabaugh, and the murder of a man named Moorhouse. The sinister matriarch of the family was never convicted of murder, but her sons were sent to prison, ending their reign of terror.
Serial Killer families are by no means unique to Scotland or the United States, and there are numerous such cases from all over the world. One group of murderous sisters operated from the 1950s up to the mid-1960s in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, around 200 miles from Mexico City. Sisters Delfina González, María de Jesús González, and Maria Luisa Gonzalez came from an abusive family run by a strict disciplinarian of a father named Isidro Torres, who was a police man notorious for abusing his power. In the wake of a shooting carried out by Torres that had resulted in death, the family moved to the rural locale of San Francisco del Rincon, Guanajuato.
As they grew up, the three sisters decided to open a saloon in order to rake in some extra cash to help pull them out of the poverty they found all around them. It was not long before the two young women would graduate from peddling drinks to prostitution, opening clandestine brothels throughout the area. In order to populate their whorehouses, the sisters would fan out into surrounding rural towns looking for the most attractive young women and offer them jobs as maids or waitresses, which the poverty stricken girls would usually accept without much question.
Of course, what they were told and the reality were quite different. The girls were forced into a life of prostitution, not allowed to leave the premises of the brothels and subjected to strict punishment if they disobeyed orders. It was not unusual for the girls to be force fed heroin or cocaine to keep them in a compliant daze. If one of the girls got pregnant, she was typically beaten and forced to have an abortion, and those were the lucky ones. If a girl at the brothel happened to get sick or contract an STD, she would be locked in a room and either starved to death or beaten to death, after which they would be burned to ashes or secretly buried. The same fate awaited any girl who became too unattractive to lure in customers. It was not even only the prostitutes that risked death by being there, as the sisters soon realized that it was sometimes easier to just kill a john and rob him rather than provide any service.
It was not until one of these prostitutes managed to escape in 1964 and make her way to authorities to tell her tale that the lid would be blown off the whole operation. When authorities arrived and started digging around on the premises of the brothel they would eventually uncover the remains of 91 men, women, and unborn babies scattered and dumped about. “The Poquianchis,” as the three sisters were called in the media, were accused by dozens of former prostitutes coming out of the woodwork of dabbling in everything from Satanism, torture, to murder, as well as bribing numerous local law enforcement officials and authorities. The chaotic trial of “The Bordello from Hell” that ensued became one of the most scandalous and well publicized in Mexico history, and all three women were sentenced to 40 years in prison. Delfina and María Luisa would die during their incarcerations, and María de Jesús would serve her time and drop off the radar.
One of the most notorious serial killer families comes to us from Russia. Inessa Tarverdiyeva, 46, her second husband Roman Podkopaev, 35, and two daughters Viktoria Tarverdiyeva, 25, and 13-year-old daughter Anastasiya embarked on a 6-year reign of murder and terror in the 2000s. The family was well off, with the father being a dentist, yet they spread out far and wide from their comfortable home to engage in senseless killings and robberies. During this murder spree, the family mercilessly killed a total of 30 victims, mostly with the motive of robbery, but perhaps out of a sick pleasure as well.
These killings are strikingly recent. In 2009, the family was responsible for the killing of paratrooper Dmitry Chudakov and his family. Chudakov’s wife and 7-year-old son would also be gunned down and his 11-year-old daughter stabbed 37 times, all just to steal a laptop, hair dryer and a camera. On another occasion, two teenage girls were killed and their eyes torn out, with one of them allegedly being Inessa’s own goddaughter, in a botched attempt to steal some guns. Throughout it all, the family would go on supposed “camping trips” in order to provide themselves with alibis as a smokescreen for their violent activities, ever vigilant about maintaining a respectable camouflage. One of the authorities on the case, a Vladimir Markin, of the Russian Investigation Committee, said of the family:
They looked like a totally good, nice family. Imagine them – a mother, a father, two children, including an underage girl. I am sure that when they were together one could hardly imagine that they could even plan a crime.
The family seemed to show a particular hatred towards law enforcement officers, and among the victims of their sadistic murders are 6 policemen, many of whom were apparently killed for the purpose of stealing their weapons. They also seemed to have access to police frequencies, as they showed an almost uncanny ability to know the movements of authorities. Podkopaev would be killed and Viktoria would be badly wounded in a shootout with police after a routine traffic stop in 2013. A subsequent search of their home would uncover a treasure trove of weapons; an arsenal including assault rifles, pistols, shotguns, grenades, and a large amount of ammunition. Who knows what other death they would have been capable if they had not been stopped.
There other other cases of serial killer families as well, a disturbing amount that goes beyond my ability to cover them all here. I have tried to provide a selection of some of the more well-known, most insidious and infamous cases among them. What is it about these families that has caused evil to so thoroughly spread out amongst them and permeate them? How can such depraved acts and callous indifference towards human life fester so freely here, breaking past the bounds of individual pathos to infect the whole family? Is this rooted in upbringing, genetics, circumstances, or something else? Serial killers may tend to work alone in most cases, but as we have seen here, sometimes it just seems to run in the family, and on certain occasions they can come together to become an ominous, ruthless, and sadistic force to be reckoned with. Whatever the causes or motives swirling underneath the dark surfaces of these families, their horrific legacies remain intact.