Back in the old days, desperate singles in search of a mate might turn to a professional matchmaker. Nowadays, they are more likely to look in the personals section of the classified ads or subscribe to an Internet dating service. Of course, when it comes to getting anything that people are peddling in newspapers or online—whether it’s a used car or themselves—it pays to take heed of the old warning: Buyer Beware! Those Handsome SWMs and Sensual DWFs who make themselves look and sound so attractive in their digital photos and printed descriptions might turn out to be very different when you meet them in person.
Occasionally, in fact, they might turn out to be serial killers.
Using classifieds as a way of snaring potential victims is a ploy that dates back at least as far as the early 1900s. That’s when the infamous American Black Widow, Belle Gunness, lured a string of unwary bachelors into her clutches by placing matrimonial ads in newspapers across the country: “Rich, good-looking widow, young, owner of a large farm, wishes to get in touch with a gentleman of wealth with cultured tastes.” There was a certain amount of misrepresentation in this classified, since Gunness was actually fat, fiftyish, and bulldog-ugly. She wasn’t lying about being a rich widow, though, since she had murdered at least fourteen husbands after separating them from their life savings.
In France, Gunness’s near contemporary, Henri Landru, known as the “Bluebeard of Paris,” also found his lover-victims through the newspapers. Some of the classifieds were matrimonial ads in which Landru presented himself as a wealthy widower searching for a mate. In others, he pretended to be a used-furniture dealer looking for merchandise. In either case, if the person who responded was a lonely woman of means, Landru would turn up the charm. The results were always the same. The woman’s money would end up in his bank account. The woman herself would end up as a pile of ashes in the stove of his country villa.
In the late 1950s, a sexual psychopath and bondage nut named Harvey Murray Glatman was able to procure victims by posing as a professional photographer and placing ads for female models. After luring an unwary woman into his “studio,” Glatman would rape her, truss her up, take pictures of her while she screamed in terror, then strangle her. (Glatman’s case served as the real-life basis for Mary Higgins Clark’s bestselling novel Loves Music, Loves to Dance, which—as the title suggests—deals with the sometimes perilous world of the personals.)
In more recent times, a vicious sociopath named Harvey Louis Carignan lured young women to their deaths by advertising for employees at the Seattle gas station he managed. Carignan’s MO earned him the nickname the “Want-Ad Killer” (the title of Ann Rule’s 1983 bestselling true crime book on the subject). At roughly the same time, an Alaskan baker named Robert Hansen—who was ultimately convicted of four savage sex killings, though he was allegedly responsible for seventeen—used the personals page of his local newspaper to attract several of his victims. Hansen, who was married with children, would send his family off on a vacation, then take out a classified, seeking women to “join me in finding what’s around the next bend.” After snaring a victim, he would fly her out to the wilderness in his private plane. Then, after raping her at knifepoint, he would strip off her clothing, give her a head start, and (in a sick, real-life duplication of Richard Connell’s famous short story “The Most Dangerous Game”) stalk her like an animal.
Even scarier was the wizened cannibal and child killer Albert Fish, who regularly scoured the classifieds in his endless search for victims. In 1928, Fish came across a Situation Wanted ad placed by a young man named Edward Budd, who was looking for a summer job in the country. Masquerading as the owner of a big Long Island farm, the monstrous old man visited the Budd household, intending to lure the youth to an abandoned house and torture him to death. Fish altered his plans when he laid eyes on Edward’s little sister, a beautiful twelve-year-old girl named Grace. It was the little girl who ended up dead, dismembered, and cannibalized—and all because her brother’s innocent ad brought a monster to their door.
Arguably the most bizarre advertising gambit in the annals of psychopathic sex crime occurred in 2002, when a forty-one-year-old German computer technician, Armin Meiwes, posted an Internet ad that read: “Wanted: Well-Built Man for Slaughter and Consumption.”
Though it is impossible to conceive of a less enticing come-on, it caught the fancy of a forty-two-year-old microchip designer named Bernd-Jürgen Brandes, who showed up at Meiwes’s door, eager to be butchered. With the victim’s enthusiastic cooperation, Meiwes cut off Brandes’s penis, cooked it, then served it up for the two of them to eat together. He then stabbed Brandes through the neck, chopped up the corpse, froze certain parts for future consumption, and buried the rest To describe Herr Meiwes as “disturbed” is clearly an understatement. It must be acknowledged, however, that—in contrast to such wolves-in-sheep’s-clothing as Robert Hansen and Albert Fish—at least he wasn’t guilty of false advertising.
Advertising for Victims
In the 1989 film Sea of Love, a serial killer with a seductive line goes trolling for male victims in the classifieds. When a sucker bites, the killer reels him in, then leaves him facedown on the mattress, a bullet in the back of his skull.
As he did nine years earlier in Cruising, Al Pacino plays a homicide detective who goes undercover to catch the killer. By placing his own ad in the papers, he turns himself into live bait. In the process he plunges into a turbulent affair with Ellen Barkin—who may or may not be the killer.
A riveting thriller, Sea of Love is especially good at conveying the dangerous undercurrents that run beneath the surface of big-city singles life, where lonely people looking for a good catch sometimes end up with a barracuda.