- John Wayne Gacy, a man who dressed up as a clown named Pogo, would go on to become one of the worst serial killers in American history.
- The true number is unknown, but reports claim that Ted Bundy killed as many as forty women during his murder spree.
- When Guyanese officials arrived at Jonestown in November 1978, they found 909 dead bodies, a third of which were children.
When Charles Manson was put in jail on April 22, 1971, it seemed like the United States had finally rid itself of its deadliest cult. But little did people know that the 1970s would give rise to the Peoples Temple, a church-turned-cult which resulted in the largest mass murder-suicide in American history. In addition to a murderous clown and the heartless evil that was Ted Bundy, this seventh part to World Atlas’s True Crimes of the Century series examines the unspeakable horrors that defined the decade of disco.
In case you missed it:
The Killer Clown (1972 – 1978)
John Wayne Gacy grew up in Chicago in an abusive home. Because he feared his father’s belt, he never divulged that he was gay. He also suffered from a series of heath issues, including a congenital heart condition, which his father took as a sign of weakness.
After he graduated from Northwestern Business College, Gacy married Marlynn Myers in 1964 and soon took over as manager of one of his father-in-law’s KFC franchises. No one knew that he was secretly offering his basement as a hangout place to teenagers who wanted to play pool and drink without the watchful gaze of their parents.
In August 1967, he hired a 15-year-old boy named Donald Voorhees to do some work around the house. Without thinking about the consequences, he lured the boy into the basement, filled him with alcohol, and forced him to perform oral sex. When Voorhees broke his silence on the incident, Gacy was sentenced to ten years in prison. Soon after, Myers filed for divorce.
Gacy was paroled two years later for good behavior. He moved in with his mother in Des Plaines, Illinois where he started his own construction business. In the dark about the man’s past, his neighbors all agreed that he was a kind-hearted and generous individual. They particularly enjoyed that he dressed up as a clown named Pogo on weekends to attended birthday parties and charity events. But this seemingly innocent man would go on to become one of the worst serial killers in American history.
In January 1972, he met Timothy McCoy at a bus terminal and offered the 16-year-old a place to spend the night. McCoy agreed. The next morning, he went to wake Gacy, his breakfast knife still in hand. Thinking McCoy intended to kill him, Gacy stabbed the young man in the chest. He buried the body in the crawlspace beneath his house, but the thrill of murder could not easily be ignored.
After a second divorce with a high school sweetheart in 1975, his killing spree began in earnest. Gacy lured his victims into the now empty house to rape and murder them. When the boys were dead, their bodies joined McCoy’s in the hidden crawlspace.
Gacy was caught several years later when Elizabeth Piest’s son, Robert, went missing in December 1978. She knew that he had gone off to talk to a man who might offer her son a contract at his construction sight. All fingers pointed to Gacy. In possession of a search warrant, the police entered his house. They did not find any bodies, but they did find an abundance of evidence that proved that Robert and a bunch of other missing boys had been there.
Gacy confessed and soon the bodies under his house were located. Having decomposed over a couple of years, most were identifiable only by their teeth.
Dubbed as the Killer Clown, his trial began in February 1980. He pleaded insanity, but the jury was not convinced. He was sentenced to death for the murder of 33 teenage boys.
John Wayne Gacy spent fourteen years in jail before he was executed by lethal injection on May 10, 1994. For his last meal on death row, he ordered KFC.
Ted Bundy (1974 – 1978)
Born an illegitimate child, Ted Bundy was first raised by his grandparents to avoid slandering the family name. His grandfather, who regularly beat the boy, even convinced him for the better part of his childhood that his mother was actually his sister.
Bundy eventually moved to Tacoma, Washington with his mother. There, she married Johnnie Bundy. Even as a teenager, Ted—who took the man’s last name—did not have much respect for his uneducated, working-class step-father. It was around this time that he began peeping through people’s windows and stealing whatever suited his fancy.
Bundy enrolled in and out of university, changing majors numerous times before settling on a degree in psychology. In 1969, three years before graduating, he met single-mom Elizabeth Kloepfer. The two started dating and would remain together for six years.
The future serial killer was soon accepted to law school, but he never completed his courses. It has never been confirmed whether it prompted his sudden disinterest in becoming a lawyer, but in January 1974, Bundy sexually assaulted an 18-year-old student, leaving her in a coma for ten days.
A month later, he claimed his first life: Lynda Ann Healy. Bundy would continue to prey on female students, having his way with them before dumping their bodies in a remote area in a nearby woods. He often had sex with his victims’ corpses and in some cases, kept their skulls as sick souvenirs.
Police quickly got involved, employing various government agencies for aid. The more killings Bundy committed, the more witnesses came forward with information tying the man and his Volkswagen Beetle to numerous murders.
Bundy eventually sold his car, which the authorities located and discovered hair matching three of the dead young women. Bundy was picked out of a police lineup and put on trial. Kloepfer, who had been seeing less and less of her boyfriend, severed ties with the man for good.
Serving as his own lawyer, Bundy was in the law library at the courthouse in Aspen, Colorado researching his case, when he decided to jump out the second-floor window. He stole a car, but was recaptured six days later for speeding.
While incarcerated, Bundy managed to hack his way through the ceiling of his cell, find a pair of civilian clothes, and walk right out the front door. With money smuggled in for him by Carole Ann Boone, a woman he had been seeing, he made his way to Florida.
In January 1978, two weeks after his escape, Bundy sexually assaulted and murdered two members of a Florida State University sorority. The next month, he abducted a 12-year-old girl and dumped her body on a pig farm.
Not having learned his lesson, Bundy continued to drive recklessly, which got the attention of the authorities yet again. Inside his car, police found the IDs of the murdered girls from the sorority.
Bundy confessed to many murders and denied others. The true number is unknown, but reports claim he killed as many as forty women. While on trial, he married Boone and conceived a child with her, but she would later divorce him.
Ted Bundy was executed on January 24, 1989. Hundreds congregated outside Florida State Prison to celebrate and set off fireworks. After all was said and done, Bundy’s lawyer described the serial killer as “the very definition of heartless evil.”
The Jonestown Massacre (1978)
In the early 1950s, self-ordained minister Jim Jones did everything he could to raise money to start his own church, including selling monkeys as a door-to-door salesman. He eventually earned enough to open the first Peoples Temple. With a racially diverse congregation, Jones had no affiliation with any particular religious denomination.
Throughout the 1960s and early 70s, they moved to various locations across the United States, before finally settling in San Francisco. By this time, Jones had positioned himself as an influential and respected leader. He made friends with local politicians, donated money to charities, and ran social programs for the city’s in-need population. From an outsider’s perspective, it seemed to be a wonderful organization making a positive impact on society.
But in 1977, whispers about the Peoples Temple began to frame it as a cult. Members were forced to give up their possessions and were frequently beaten if they opposed Jones’s wishes. There were even rumors of people giving up custody of their children to the church. Those that were happy had been brainwashed into believing they were a part of something special.
Jones grew increasingly paranoid due to the sudden negative press coverage and police investigations. As a result, he moved his congregation to Guyana, a small country in South America where the Peoples Temple would build the perfect socialist utopia. More than 1,000 members relocated, but it was far from paradise.
The drug-addled Jones—who began comparing himself to Jesus—shifted from cult leader to dictator. Passports were confiscated. Phone calls were censored. Armed patrolmen prowled the commune. Anyone who contradicted Jones endured harsh punishments. And on top of all that, members had not been prepared for the long workdays, the swarm of mosquitoes, and foreign diseases.
US Congressman Leo Ryan eventually received word that people were being held against their will at a place in Guyana called Jonestown. In November 1978, he went to investigate with a group of news reporters, photographers, and worried relatives. During their visit, they were treated kindly by Jones, but certain members managed to ask for help.
On November 18, Ryan and a group of defectors were waiting at a nearby airstrip when they were ambushed by Jones’s gunmen. Ryan and four others were killed. Eleven were injured.
Later that same day, Jones orchestrated a mass murder-suicide. Gathered in the main pavilion, he told his congregation that guards were on their way to torture them. To save themselves from pain, he instructed everyone to drink fruit juice laced with sedatives and cyanide. And thus, the expression “drink the Kool-Aid” was coined.
Guyanese officials arrived the following day and found 909 bodies, a third of which were children. Jim Jones, who was 47 at the time, had committed suicide not by poison, but by a bullet. Only 33 members of the Peoples Temple survived. The Jonestown massacre was the largest loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.