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Arthur Shawcross: Portrait of a Killer and Pathological Liar

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Serial killer Arthur John Shawcross, also called the Rochester Strangler or the Genesee River Killer, was prolific in the short time that he was an active killer. From March 1988 to December 1989, Shawcross is believed to have killed 12 women, mostly prostitutes in the Rochester, New York, area and then dumping most of the bodies nearby in areas where he liked to hunt and fish. Interestingly, the initial profile of the killer was extremely accurate once compared to Shawcross, but police were stymied in finding him because of bureaucratic snafus that hid the fact that they had a convicted violent sex offender living in the neighborhood where the attacks occurred.

This discussion is intended to look at the psychology of the serial killer, focusing on Shawcross in particular, and evaluate how well various media relayed his story after the fact. Furthermore, this paper will look at the traits of male killers and how they relate to Shawcross’ case, as well as typology; biological and/or environmental factors may have contributed to this individual’s behavior; psychogenetics; as well as paraphilia’s and victimology he exhibited. It is hoped, that this writing will give the reader some insight to the life of this monster as well as the realization that these killers walk and live among us, possibly right next door or working beside you, or teaching your children.

One of the reasons for psychologists to study Arthur Shawcross is that they did everything right in profiling and identifying this serial killer, but he eluded police for a year, hunting and killing almost literally right under their noses, because of a flawed judicial/prison system. Perhaps the best understanding of Shawcross comes from the true crime novel The Misbegotten Son by Jack Olsen. Olsen conducted dozens of interviews with Shawcross, his family and friends and his victims’ families. Though his serial killing spree may perhaps be blamed on the New York prison system that let him out on parole after serving 14 years of a 25 year sentence, he is a perfect case study for psychologists, especially those in profiling, because he adheres to many of the metaphors and beliefs about where serial killers come from. Background

Over the course of his interviews with psychologists during his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity and even dating back to his original conviction for manslaughter, Shawcross saw the value of claiming that he had all the background behaviors that psychologists associate with mental illness. At various points, he claimed to have been molested, to molesting a younger sister, to bed-wetting, homosexuality, bestiality and more (Olsen, 1993; Yuku, 1999). “Arthur Shawcross’ parents dispute his claims that he was molested as a child, but it’s clear that he was troubled,” (Biography.com, n.d.). What seems equally likely is that Shawcross, who proved to be a master at manipulation and deceit, was aware of the developmental risk factors for adult anti-social behavior and claimed to have exhibited them as an attempt to get away with his behaviors. In their book Criminal Behavior: A Psychological Approach, Curt Bartol and Anne Bartol list more than a dozen risk factors for anti-social behavior (2011, p. 42). Physical and emotional abuses are considered family risks and low IQ scores, which Shawcross had as verified by his school records, can be earlier indicators of a future problem (Bartol & Bartol, 2011).

One analyst argues that Shawcross is almost a perfect argument for nature versus nurture, believing that his stories of abuse were just that, stories, and that the serial killer developed from a typical, “normal” childhood, (Yuku, 1999). What is verifiable from outside sources is that Shawcross was a slow learner, held back twice before he quit high school. He was drafted and served a four year tour of duty in Vietnam. At a young age he was violent and a bully. His first trouble with the law was in many ways typically adolescent anti-social behaviors revolving around theft and violence, including arson. His time as a soldier did nothing to counteract these behaviors and may have increased his pathological lying. “He also claimed a “combat kill” total of 39 which, when investigated later, was also discounted as fabrication; authorities claim he killed no one on his tour of duty,” (Biography.com, n.d.). He also claimed to have cannibalized at least one Vietnamese young woman, but there is no proof of this ever having occurred. Shawcross’ trouble with the law began in earnest in 1965 when he received probation for unlawful entry (burglary).

In 1968 just after returning from Vietnam, he was convicted of arson and sentenced to five years in prison (Olsen, 1993). He served two years, gaining his release in October 1971 (Biography.com, n.d.). Five months later he killed for the first time. During this time, he was married and divorced twice. Before the body of his first victim was found, he married for a third time. In September 1972, less than a year after being released from prison the first time, he took a second life. His first two victims were children; he molested his second victim and stuffed debris down her throat after asphyxiating her. He later claimed to have molested his first victim, cutting off his genitals and eating them, but again there is no evidence that this is true (Yuku, 1999). Because there was no physical evidence linking him to the first victim’s death, prosecutor’s plea bargained Shawcross’ sentence, convicting him only of the second child’s death.

He was sentenced to 25 years in prison for manslaughter. He was released after serving less than 15. His third wife divorced him after he was charged. In April, 1987, he was released and moved back to Binghamton (where he killed the children), but local residents raised such an outcry at having a child killer live there, the parole board recommended moving him and his newest girlfriend. They also sealed his conviction records to prevent the same sort of outcry in his new home in Rochester. This would end up being a huge factor in the case, preventing police in Rochester from finding him as quickly as they might have had those records been available (Olsen, 1993). Biological and/or Environmental Factors

When taking on a perspective of serial killers like Arthur Shawcross, one must ask the question of whether biological and/or environmental factors may have contributed to this individual’s behavior. Is this individual sociopathic (‘antisocial personality disorder’ is the preferred term) or psychopathic (which refers not only to specific behavioral patterns but measurable cognitive, emotional, and neuropsychological differences)? In Shawcross’ case, both physical and environmental factors adversely affected his behavior. Biological factors such as an extra male chromosome, enuresis (chronic bedwetting) and suffering from Kryptopyroluria may have been factors for the cause of his behavior. (Kryptopyroluria allows high levels of bile or uric acid to pile up in the bloodstream and can affect short-term memory, temperament, and tolerance for stress (there were indications that he had 10x’s the normal level). He also suffered head injuries as a child (he was diagnosed with brain inflammation) and as an adult. Shawcross came from a dysfunctional family whose childhood was plagued with parental conflict, as well as physical/sexual abuse, and claimed to have had sex with animals.

Throughout his youth he engaged in stealing, acts of vandalism and was a bully. He also had impulsiveness issues, as evident by his multiple marriages and relationships (Hickey, p. 56-57). Considering that Shawcross had a dysfunctional family background, there were other personas that presented sociopathic traits (e.g., his inability to fit in with his peers at school (peers ostracized him and referred to him as “Oddie”; he, in reaction to their treatment of him, bullied other students), besides being in a state of dissatisfaction (e.g., his marriages & other personal relationships), he had committed previous offenses of property & violent crimes. By all accounts, Arthur Shawcross seemed to be entirely dominated by his inner paraphilias, and as a result, was unable to prevent himself from giving into them completely. Psychology of a Killer

Understanding the mind of a serial killer begins with looking at his personality typography, psychogenetics and victimology. Studying the paraphilias of a specific killer can provide additional insight into the psychology behind their actions; knowing the traits that are most common among male killers can help identify and understand behaviors from these individuals. Many of these factors are used in developing the typographic profile most commonly used in the United States, (Sammons, 2009). ” Unlike geographic profiling, which looks at the distribution of series of crimes, typological profiling focuses primarily on behavioral evidence obtained at the scene(s) of specific crime(s). Evidence about how the offender committed the crimes is used to assign them to a particular category of offender,” (Sammons, 2009). To address this further, Guttmacher (1973) provides an explanation that best describes the typology (classification) of Shawcross which states that, “sadistic serial killers in this category derive sexual gratification from killing and often establish a pattern, (e.g., the manner in which they kill, or the types of victims they select, such as prostitutes, children, or the elderly). Shawcross is this type in fact, as his crimes were motivated by fantasies, and he displayed taking pleasure in dehumanizing his victims” (Hickey, 2010).

In this case, local police made assumptions about the killer based on the first four victims identified. “That made four apparently dead by asphyxia, with three in quick succession… Some of these women had been concealed beneath something, and a cop suspected the killer might be afraid of air patrols, which indicated either criminal or military experience. The pressure was on now to stop this person. It was suggested, from the lack of struggle on the part of the victims, that this strangler killed quickly and that he was probably quite strong. He appeared to strangle these women without much effort,” (Yuku, 1999). Police also believed that this was the work of someone who had previously committed violent or sexual crimes. They searched New York prison records for someone fitting that profile, but failed to find Shawcross because the records had been sealed. Eventually, police, working with the FBI, would determine that the killer was likely to be someone familiar to the prostitutes; someone who worked a menial job; someone who lived in the area and perhaps, because there was no evidence of sexual assault of the victims; perhaps someone who had sexual dysfunction of some sort.

Once they narrowed in on a suspect, police also began to suspect that the most common thread among Shawcross’ victims would be that he imagined a reason why he killed them. Again, this trait was evident in his first killing. Shawcross said that his first victim, Jack Blake, was pestering him and he hit him to shut him up, accidentally killing him. Likewise, his second victim was bothering him (Olsen, 1993). When he finally confessed, Shawcross would initially have an excuse for every person he admitted to killing. He was believed to be a power/control type who got satisfaction “by having complete life-or-death control over the victim,” (Bartol & Bartol, 2011; p. 309). The psychogenetics of Shawcross are difficult to identify because the killer changed his stories so often, (Olsen, 1993). In his book Arthur Shawcross: The Genesee River Killer: The Grisly True Crime Account of the Rochester Prostitute Murders!, Dr. Joel Norris (1992) argues that Bartol & Bartol are correct and that the origin of Shawcross’ behavior is in his childhood trauma.

His deviant sexual behavior including being molested and molesting his younger sister are offered up as explanations for his development of anti-social and murderous behaviors, as are his IQ and apparent learning problems. However, most of the credible psychologists and psychiatrists who examined Shawcross argue about the believability of his molestation claims. Several, including some who supported his insanity plea, continued to doubt his claims of abuse and cannibalism, (Yuku, 1999). Another interesting facet of the Shawcross case is that his victimology appeared to morph over time. His first two victims, in 1972, were children; his later victims were all adult women, though most were prostitutes.

There is some argument that he chose prostitutes because there would be less outcry over missing prostitutes than missing children and that he was cunning enough to know that fewer resources would be devoted to finding a man killing prostitutes, (Olsen, 1993). Likewise, Shawcross exhibited changing paraphilias though they primarily centered on death, anal intercourse (as evidenced by the positioning of his victims), and strangulation. He also mutilated the genitals of at least two victims. Shawcross deviated from the typical traits of male serial killers in that most of his victims were known to him. Generally, male killers choose strangers as victims and kill for reasons like sex and power, whereas female killers choose family, former lovers and other people that they were close to and kill for much more emotional reasons, (Bartol & Bartol, 2011). Media Portrayals

Olsen’s book, The Misbegotten Son, is generally considered to be the definitive work on Shawcross. He conducted hours of interviews and brought life to Shawcross’ victims. He appeared to do a thorough job of presenting as much factual information about the cases as was reasonably possible. Other media coverage has not been so even-handed. Norris’ book, Arthur Shawcross: The Genesee River Killer: The Grisly True Crime Account of the Rochester Prostitute Murders!, practically screams exploitation, right down to the exclamation point in the title. This book focused on the more outlandish claims that Shawcross made about his victims, including his claims of cannibalism. It is based on taped interviews that Norris had with Shawcross during his trial, while the killer was trying to convince people to support his insanity plea.

The general perception is that the book is at the very least unethical and more likely exploitative. It was determined that Shawcross was indeed able to appreciate the wrongfulness of his actions. The jury wasn’t favorably influenced by the defense’s version of Shawcross’s behavior. It only took half a day to find him both sane and guilty of murder in the second degree (not premeditated) on ten counts. Shawcross was sentenced to 25 years to life on each of the ten counts, meaning that he will have to serve 250 years in prison before he’s eligible for a parole hearing. Likewise, on Cannibal: The Real Hannibal Lectors, a 2003 HBO documentary, British reporter Katherine English ignored the evidence that Shawcross most likely lied about eating human flesh and went for the exploitation factor. Shawcross was incarcerated in 1990 at Sullivan Correctional Facility, Fallsburg, NY for his crimes. On November 10th, 2008, at the Albany Medical Center, Arthur J. Shawcross went into cardiac arrest and died there at 9:50 p.m.


Bartol, C. R. and Bartol, A. M. (2011) Criminal Behavior: A Psychological Approach, Pearson Education, Upper Saddle River, N.J.

Biography.com (n.d.) Arthur shawcross. biography, Retrieved June 14, 2012, from http://www.biography.com/people/arthur-shawcross-15423749?page=1

Hickey, E.W., (2010). Serial Murderers and Their Victims. 5th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Norris, J. (1992) Arthur Shawcross: The Genesee River Killer: The Grisly True Crime Account of the Rochester Prostitute Murders!, Pinnacle, New York.

Olsen, J. (1993) The Misbegotten Son, Island Book, New York.

Sammons, A. (2009). Typological offender profiling, psychlotron.org.uk. Retrieved June 13, 2012, from http://www.psychlotron.org.uk/newResources/criminological/A2_AQB_crim_typoProfiling.pdf

Yuku.com (2009) Beautiful Chaos, Retrieved June 12, 2012, from http://beautifulchaos.yuku.com/topic/2356

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