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From Animal Cruelty to Serial Murder: Applying the Graduation Hypothesis

NCJ Number
International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology Volume: 47 Issue: 1 Dated: February 2003 Pages: 71-88
Jeremy Wright; Christopher Hensley
Date Published
February 2003
18 pages
Based on five case studies of serial murderers, this article applies the graduation hypothesis in exploring the possible link between childhood cruelty toward animals and subsequent serial murder.
In this study, five serial murderers were identified as having engaged in childhood animal cruelty. The cases selected were chosen largely because of the amount of information available on the subjects. The case studies selected were those of Carroll Edward Cole, Jeffery Lionel Dahmer, Edmund Emil Kemper III, Henry Lee Lucas, and Arthur Shawcross. In the case of numerous serial murderers, episodes of prolonged humiliation have been shown to exist during their childhood (Hale, 1993; Hickey, 1997). This humiliation can eventually transform into frustration for the child. Since the source of humiliation and frustration is often from one or both parents, it is difficult for the child to gain retribution for the humiliation. After a substantial amount of humiliation and frustration, the children seek other means of venting their frustration to regain their dignity and sense of self. The five serial murderers in the current study all turned to animals to vent their anger. The persons who caused the frustration were perceived as too powerful to hurt, so they chose weak and vulnerable animals. Within the framework of the graduation hypothesis, children who are cruel to animals may graduate to aggressive behaviors toward humans. It can be assumed that if killing animals made them feel powerful under a persistent psychological state of powerlessness and low self-esteem coupled with rage, then killing would become a pattern for resolving intolerable mental states. It is interesting that the five serial killers examined in this study used the same method of killing their human victims as they had used with their animal victims. Limitations of this study are discussed, and future research is suggested. 52 references