Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Common Names for Serial Killers

Hello, readers!

Today's post takes a bit of a turn from previous writing, as I'm incorporating one of my other major interests: serial killers. I'm a huge fan of true crime media, and over the past few months of traveling I've binged crime documentaries, podcasts (My Favorite Murder and Last Podcast on the Left in particular), and dramatizations on the lives and deeds of some of the most deranged murderers in history. Of course, I've been keeping an ear out for name-related trivia as well.

Edmund Emil Kemper III, the "Co-Ed Killer"

Years ago, I read an article online that claimed Wayne was more popular as a middle name among criminals (here's a more recent article on the "Wayne Theory") than in the general population. While there's no real evidence of this phenomenon - the United States doesn't collect or publish data on middle names, as far as I can tell - the idea that one's name might predict later criminal behavior was fascinating to me. Family relationships, class, financial status, race, gender, and environment all factor in to the likelihood of someone becoming a criminal - could names indicate these factors early on?

I'm not going to draw any dramatic conclusions until I can look at real data and sift through the complicated links between predictive factors for criminal behavior, but some theories have come to mind. What if men of a certain personality - hyper-masculine, traditional, intimidating - named their sons after a hero of mid-century cinema, John Wayne? And what if these men were more likely to raise children who would exhibit criminal behaviors?

What else can name data tell us about "deviants"? I decided to look at the data on the first, middle, and adopted names of serial killers in the United States. Using this Wikipedia entry (obviously not complete, but a decent representation) and discarding the names of female killers, I came up with a group of 201 names.

These are men of varying ages, mostly white, with some black and Latino individuals. A majority of these men were active in the twentieth century. Most common first/middle names:

12   - Joseph 
11   - Edward
10* - John 
10* - Richard 
10   - David
10   - Robert
9     - Lee 
8*   - Michael 
8     - Charles
7     - William
6*   - James 
6     - Anthony
6     - Wayne 

* = One name would be added if nicknames were to be included

Of the 13 names listed above, 11 fall into the 25 most popular names for men in the United States over the past century: Joseph, Edward, John, Richard, David, Robert, Michael, Charles, William, James, Anthony. The other two names rank much lower for the general male population versus the serial killer summation: Lee and Wayne.

Wayne! Based on my not-super-scientific data, there may be a correlation between criminals and use of the name. I'm eager to access real data someday and follow this theory.

Lee's popularity over time is directly related to the Confederate Civil War general Robert E. Lee - many Southern parents chose the name Lee to honor him in the decades after the war. The name has been decreasing in popularity since 1900, and since many of the killers listed were born in the twentieth century, it may indicate that their families had stronger-than-average ties to the South, or the tradition of using honorific names. Which brings me to another interesting finding...

The name community uses the term "honorific name" to refer to the practice of choosing a name for a child that celebrates a relative, friend, or place important to the parents. This could be anything from using Charlotte to honor Uncle Charlie, Ruby to honor Grandma's birthstone, Denali in honor of her parents' honeymoon site, etc. However, I'm going to use the term here to specifically refer to names directly taken from fathers and grandfathers, names that end in Jr., III, IV, etc.

Out of 201 names, 23 of these serial killers have Jr/III/IV at the end of their names. That's over 11% of them! This number seems particularly high, but the only article I found that listed data on the percentage of honorific names in the population referred to studies from the 1940's. At that time, 3% of the general population was named for a father, and that number has been supposedly decreasing over time. But among serial murderers, the tradition of naming a child after the father seems to be alive and well (excuse the terrible joke).

Using honorific names for children is a practice much more common in "honor states," where an emphasis on "traditional family values" is at play (these values include adhering to assigned gender roles, identifying as a Christian, and highlighting nationalism). Often, these communities also exhibit higher rates of patriarchal thought and the elevation of stereotypical masculinity. Honor states mostly include Western and Southern states - another connection to the Southernness of Lee and my John Wayne theory mentioned earlier.

What's the takeaway from this? Well, since it's correlative data and a small sample size, not much. But there's enough here to keep me asking questions... what questions would you want to ask?


Here are some interesting articles I referenced in this post:

The Wayne Theory - Heather Sutfin, Sword and Scale

Deciding on a baby name? Steer clear of these because they’re the most common among MURDERERS - Hannah Ferrett, The Sun

Babies Named After Dads: Which States Have More (And Why) - Stephanie Pappas, Live Science

Junior Status: Sharing dad's name a mixed bag - Melissa Dahl, NBC News

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