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Historical True Crime Stories Every True Crime Lover Should Know

These classics of true crime will lead you down terrifying rabbit holes.

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True crime is a topic that’s fascinated people for hundreds of years. From the so-called Countess of Blood to Jack the Ripper, the minds and crimes of murderers have raised questions about human nature and psychology. We’ve compiled a list of ten historical true crime stories that every true crime lover should be familiar with. These stories are from all around the world, and from various eras—one dating as far back as the 16th century.

Elizabeth Bathory, The Blood Countess

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Where Vlad the Impaler has gone down in the history books as a precursor to vampiric myth, a place should also be reserved for Elizabeth Bathory. Born in 1560, this Hungarian Countess was said to have tortured and killed well over 600 peasant girls. Bathory was said to have ingested victims’ blood as part of rituals, as well as bathing in their blood to maintain a young appearance for her husband. 

When peasant girls became hard to come by, she started to pick off daughters of less wealthy nobility. When the Hungarian king could no longer turn a blind eye to this crime, Bathory was confined to her room for the remainder of her life.

The Criminal Case of Dr. Crippen

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When Cora Crippen abruptly disappeared from London in 1910, friends and family had questions for Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen. Dr. Crippen insisted that Cora had returned to her home in the United States, where she’d then passed away and been cremated. In the meantime, his secretary, Ethel Le Neve, moved in with the good doctor and began to wear his late wife’s clothing and jewelry. Authorities searched the Crippen home and questioned the man, who admitted lying about Cora’s passing, claiming that he was embarrassed about Cora leaving him for another man. Authorities initially bought this new story, and left the couple be. 

However, Crippen and Le Neve’s sudden departure for Canada led to a second search of the house—which was when they found a gruesome discovery under the brick floor of the basement: a human torso, missing its head, arms, and legs. Crippen and Le Neve were apprehended and tried for Cora’s death. Crippen himself was hanged for the murder; Le Neve, as she was only an accessory, was let go, and moved to the States. 

The Lalauries—High Crimes in High Society

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In the vein of Elizabeth Bathory, Delpine Lalaurie was said to take pleasure in harming the people that she considered to be at her disposal. This murderess married three times, but it was her home with Dr. Leonard Louis Nicolas Lalaurie that would become the most infamous. Her mansion on the Rue Royale in the French Quarter was a palace of horrors while also functioning as a center of New Orleans high society. 

However, despite this glittering exterior, rumors persisted about Delphine’s harsh mistreatment of her slaves and short temper. When a fire broke out in the Lalaurie home in 1834, the town’s suspicions were confirmed in the worst way. The attic of the Lalaurie home was a torture chamber, filled with the mutilated bodies and body parts of slaves. Louis Lalaurie is said to have left town and showed neither hide nor hair again; Delphine herself supposedly fled to New Orleans’ port and supposedly moved to Europe.

What Really Happened to the Bordens?

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Despite the fact that she was acquitted of her supposed crimes, Lizzie Borden is a prominent figure in true crime history. Borden is said to have taken an axe to her parents on August 4th, 1892. Lizzie supposedly attacked Abby and Andrew Borden, giving “40 whacks” to one and “41” to the other. 

However, according to the coroner’s report, Abby was hit 19 times by a hatchet-like weapon, and Andrew Borden was hit either 10 or 11 times. No physical evidence was ever found in the Borden home; there was no blood found on Lizzie, or on any of her clothing. The motive behind Lizzie’s supposed crime is still widely speculated about, as is her involvement at all. 

Amelia Dyer, The “Ogress of Reading”

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Born in a small village near Bristol in 1838, Amelia Dyer was a child murderer and a baby farmer in the Victorian era. Baby farming was a practice wherein someone was paid to accept the custody of an infant. This was commonly seized on by single or unwed mothers that were desperate to give their children a better life. Dyer put out several ads in newspapers under different aliases, assuring that the children would go to a good home for £10.

 Dyer always insisted on full adoption, with no further contact from the birth mother. When a number of death certificates naming Dyer as the birth mother surfaced, authorities grew suspicious. Dyer was arrested for her abominable crimes three separate times—and her work continued through her daughter even after the murderess was hanged. 

Jack the Ripper—The Most Notorious Unidentified Serial Killer

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A hallmark of both true crime and pop culture, Jack the Ripper was so named because his victims had their throats slit and were slashed, or ripped wide open, with their major organs removed. All of the victims were sex workers; their bodies were discovered in London’s Whitechaple district. 

Between five and 18 women (and potentially one young boy) are believed to have been murdered by Jack the Ripper. It’s been theorized that the Ripper’s killings came to an end either because the perpetrator was imprisoned or killed, but he has never been successfully identified.

The Appalling Papin Sisters

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Close sisters, Christine and Léa Papin preferred to take jobs together. They often found employment working in wealthier households. In 1926, the two got positions as maids in the house of the Lancelin family in Le Mans, France. Things seemed to be going well enough on the outset. However, the Papins were said to be working 14-hour days and found themselves subjected to the demands of a demanding mistress in Léonie Lancelin. 

According to the account that the Papin sisters would later give authorities, a fight broke out between Léonie and Genevieve Lancelin and the Papins after the Papins failed to have an iron repaired. The Papins reportedly gouged out their employers eyes, beat them, and then stabbed them. When questioned about the murder, the Papins immediately confessed to their crime. 

H.H. Holmes, The American Ripper

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A con man and serial killer, Holmes admitted to 27 murdered, though only 9 were confirmed. Similar to Bathory, however, it was theorized that he committed far more than he was convicted of—Holmes was suspected of committing up to 200 murders in his lifetime. Holmes did the majority of his killing in Chicago between 1893 and 1894 in his own hotel, during the World’s Fair. It was a labyrinth of death, which Holmes had designed for maximum casualties. 

There were said to be stairwells that ended abruptly; doors with had perplexing locks that would seal people into rooms; bedrooms that were soundproofed to keep people in other rooms or outside from knowing what was happening to other guests; alarms that would alert Holmes to any guest movements. Holmes was connected to nine murders, tried for one, and found guilty. He was later hanged for his crime. 

Jolly Jane Toppan - Boston’s Angel of Death

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Raised by a foster family that treated her poorly, Jane Toppan left the family to become a nurse at Cambridge Hospital in Massachusetts. Toppan began her cruel treatment on helpless patients, experimenting with morphine and other narcotics. She claimed to be testing their nervous system responses. However, Toppan began giving her patients strychnine, commonly used as rat poison to her patients. 

When Cambridge Hospital could no longer ignore Jane’s actions, they transferred her to Massachusetts General rather than fire her. When Massachusetts General dismissed Toppan in 1891, she became a private nurse. Toppan would go on to poison her clients, her landlords, a friend whose job she wanted, and even her foster sister. 

The Suspicious Snead Sisters

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The police arrived at a dilapidated New Jersey home and found a 24-year-old single mother lying dead in her bathtub on November 29th, 1909. Beside the tub was Oceana Snead’s clothing, along with a suicide note. At the outset, it was deemed a straightforward case, but as the authorities looked deeper into the circumstances surrounding Oceana’s death, they found it increasingly suspicious. Looking more deeply into it, one doctor ruled that Oceana weighed less than 80 pounds when she died, having suffered malnourishment and chronic illness. 

To add to this suspicion, the Snead matriarchs, Oceana’s mother and aunts, Caroline, Virginia, and Mary, made a show of wandering around the home in all-black dresses and floor-length veils while being investigated. It was uncovered that while Oceana may in fact have suffered from depression, as her suicide note stated, she hadn’t taken her own life. Her family had taken it— as well as the $32,000 of Oceana’s life insurance.

Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons