Undoubtedly one of modern history’s most notorious and abhorrent killers — his crimes are the stuff of nightmares. Over the course of 13 years, he prowled for men and lured them back to his house before drugging and strangling them. In all he took the lives of 17 men between 1978 and 1991. But simply killing his victims wasn’t enough for Jeffrey Dahmer. He never wanted them to leave him so he saved “trophies” — including severed heads. Eventually, he ate parts of his victims.
Dahmer was captured in 1991 and sentenced to 16 life terms. He was killed by fellow prison inmate Christopher Scarver in 1994. Today let’s take a look back on the serial killer’s life.
Jeffrey Dahmer was born on May 21, 1960 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Lionel and Joyce Dahmer. He was described by his mother as a beautiful baby, and both parents considered him to be a normal child. His teachers saw him differently. At least one — his first grade teacher — wondered if Jeffrey was neglected at home and noted he was a reserved child on his report card. It’s true, both of Jeffrey’s parents didn’t spend a lot of time with him. When Jeffrey was young, his father was in college earning his chemistry degree and Jeffrey’s mother was often bedridden recovering from illnesses. Jeffrey’s parents had a tumultuous marriage that he later described as “extreme tension” from the constant arguing at home. Yet, there was no doubt Lionel and Joyce Dahmer loved their son and tried to do the best for him. When he was six years old, worried Jeffrey might not take well to a new baby brother, they let him pick out his name. Jeffrey named his younger brother David. The Dahmer family moved a few times before eventually settling in Bath, Ohio in 1968.
If there were any red flags that indicated future violence in the young Jeffrey, it was his fascination with animal bones and how they “fit together.” The interest in carcasses began when he was four years old. One day, Jeffrey was helping his father clear animal remains from under the house and Jeffrey was “oddly thrilled” by the sound of the bones dropping into the metal bucket. He later started collecting them; searching in ditches and along streets for roadkill. He began dismembering the bodies behind the house in a patch of wooded area and stored the various body parts in jars in the family’s woodshed. On one occasion, Jeffrey decapitated the corpse of a dog before nailing the body to a tree. When he was ten years old, over dinner, Jeffrey asked his father what would happen if chicken bones were placed in bleach. Lionel, a chemist, interpreted his son’s question as mere scientific curiosity and he took the opportunity to teach his son about the proper way to clean and preserve his collections.
Jeffrey later admitted at the age of 14 he began experiencing sexual “compulsions.” He desired boys, not girls, and the sexual fantasies involved submission, violence, and death.
He began drinking as a teenager to suppress his urges and didn’t talk to anyone about the disturbing thoughts he was having. At the age of 16, he fantasized about raping a jogger he saw regularly and planned to attack the man. One day Jeffrey lay in wait with a baseball bat in the bushes along the man’s regular route. The man didn’t come by that day, and Jeffrey never attempted to carry it out again.
At Revere High School, most of his classmates thought of Dahmer as an outcast with a few friends; some were troubled by his heavy drinking. He drank both beer and liquor while at school by smuggling it inside the lining of his army fatigue jacket. His grades were average and then took a dive as his drinking spun out of control in 1977. He played clarinet briefly in band, and was a decent tennis player. Overall, his teachers observed Jeffrey as polite and quiet. Although he was awkward, he regularly amused his classmates by staging pranks such as acting out seizures, knocking over items, and making loud, obnoxious noises. The pranks were so popular, similar behavior was referred to as “doing a Dahmer.”
By the end of his high school, Dahmer’s parents’ troubled marriage finally came to an end after an unsuccessful attempt at counseling. In early 1978, Lionel moved out of the house. Dahmer graduated in May the same year.
A few weeks after graduation, Dahmer committed his first murder when he picked up a hitchhiker. Eighteen-year-old Steven Mark Hicks was on his way to a rock concert when Dahmer lured him back to his house to hang out and drink a few beers before the show. By now, Dahmer lived alone at his parents’ house — his mother had moved out with younger brother David while his father took up residence at a local motel. Hicks and Dahmer spent a few hours together listening to music and drinking. When Hicks was ready to leave, Dahmer didn’t want him too, so he struck him in the head with a 10 lb. dumbbell and strangled him to death while Hicks was unconscious. He then masturbated over his body, moved him to the crawl space under the house and dissected his body before burying it in a shallow grave. Several weeks later, Dahmer unearthed Hicks’ body, pared the flesh from the bones and dissolved it in acid. He crushed Hicks’ bones with a sledgehammer and scattered them all in the woodlot behind the house.
A short time later, Dahmer’s father visited his son and learned he was living alone. He moved back in the house and convinced Dahmer to enroll in college. Dahmer spent three months at Ohio State University before dropping out. In early 1979, at the urging of his father, he joined the U.S. Army. Dahmer served as a combat medic in Germany but his performance deteriorated due to his drinking. He was honorably discharged in March of 1981. At least two soldiers later attested Dahmer raped them while in the service — one repeatedly over the course of 17 months and the other once after Dahmer drugged him.
“The only motive that there ever was was to completely control a person; a person I found physically attractive. And keep them with me as long as possible, even if it meant just keeping a part of them.”
Following his discharge, Dahmer returned home to Ohio but stayed only a brief time. He was arrested for disorderly conduct which prompted his father to arrange for Dahmer to live with his grandmother in Wisconsin. His alcoholism continued and he was arrested for indecent exposure. He was arrested again in 1986 when two boys accused him of masturbating in front of them.
In September of 1987, Dahmer took his second victim, Steven Tuomi. According to Dahmer, he has no memory of killing Tuomi — they had checked into a hotel room together and drank heavily…when Dahmer woke in the morning he discovered Tuomi’s dead body, with blood on his hands. Dahmer bought a large suitcase to transport Tuomi’s remains to his grandmother’s basement, where he dismembered and masturbated on the corpse before disposing of the remains. Only after Dahmer killed another two victims at his grandmother’s home did she tire of her grandson’s late nights and drunkenness — although she had no knowledge of his other activities — and she forced him to move out of the premises in 1988.
“It’s hard for me to believe that a human being could have done what I’ve done, but I know that I did it.”
That September 1989, Dahmer had an extremely lucky escape: An encounter with a 13-year-old Laotian boy resulted in charges of sexual exploitation and second-degree sexual assault for Dahmer. He pleaded guilty, claiming that the boy had appeared much older. While awaiting sentencing for his sexual assault case, Dahmer again put his grandmother’s basement to gruesome use: In March 1989, he lured, drugged, strangled, sodomized, photographed, dismembered and disposed of Anthony Sears, an aspiring model.
At his trial for child molestation in May 1989, Dahmer was the model of contrition, arguing eloquently, in his own defense, about how he had seen the error of his ways, and that his arrest marked a turning point in his life. His defense counsel argued that he needed treatment, not incarceration, and the judge agreed, handing down a one-year prison sentence on “day release” — allowing Dahmer to work at his job during the day and return to the prison at night — as well as a five-year probationary sentence.
Years later, in an interview with CNN, Lionel Dahmer stated that he wrote a letter to the court that issued the sentence, requesting psychological help before his son’s parole. However, Jeffrey Dahmer was granted an early release by the judge, after serving only 10 months of his sentence. He briefly lived with his grandmother following his release, during which time he does not appear to have added to his body count, before moving back into his own apartment.
Over the following two years, Dahmer’s victim count accelerated, bringing his total from four to 17. He developed rituals as he progressed, experimenting with chemical means of disposal and often consuming the flesh of his victims. Dahmer also attempted crude lobotomies, drilling into victims’ skulls while they were still alive and injecting them with muriatic acid. He was careful to select victims on the fringes of society, who were often itinerant or borderline criminal, making their disappearances less noticeable and reducing the likelihood of his capture. As the murders piled up, Dahmer was still unsatisfied, he said later:
“I was completely swept along with my own compulsion. I don’t know how else to put it. It didn’t satisfy me completely, so maybe I was thinking, ‘Maybe another one will. Maybe this one will.’ And the numbers started growing and growing and just got out of control, as you can see.”
On May 27, 1991, Dahmer’s neighbor Sandra Smith called the police to report that an Asian boy was running naked in the street. When the police arrived, the boy was incoherent, and they accepted the word of Dahmer — a white man in a largely poor African-American community — that the boy was his 19-year-old lover. In fact, the boy was 14 years old and a brother of the Laotian teen Dahmer had molested three years earlier.
The police escorted Dahmer and the boy home and, clearly not wishing to become embroiled in a homosexual domestic disturbance, took only a cursory look around before leaving. Once the police left the scene, Dahmer killed the boy and proceeded with his usual rituals. Had they conducted even a basic search, police officers would have found the body of Dahmer’s 12th victim, Tony Hughes. Before he was finally arrested, on July 22, 1991, he killed four more men.
The Crime Scene
Dahmer’s killing spree ended when he was arrested on July 22, 1991. That day, two Milwaukee police officers picked up Tracy Edwards, a 32-year-old African American man who was wandering the streets with a handcuff dangling from his wrist. They decided to investigate the man’s claims that a “weird dude” had drugged and restrained him. They arrived at Dahmer’s apartment, where he calmly offered to get the keys for the handcuffs.
Edwards claimed that the knife Dahmer had threatened him with was in the bedroom. When the officer went in to corroborate the story, he noticed Polaroid photographs of dismembered bodies lying around. Dahmer was subdued by the officers. Subsequent searches revealed a head in the refrigerator, three more in the freezer and a catalog of other horrors, including preserved skulls, jars containing genitalia and an extensive gallery of macabre Polaroid photographs of his victims.
Dahmer’s refrigerator and Polaroid photographs became inextricably associated with his notorious killing spree.
In 1996, following Dahmer’s death, a group of Milwaukee businessmen raised more than $400,000 to purchase the items he used for his victims — including blades, saws, handcuffs and a refrigerator to store body parts. They promptly destroyed them in an effort to distance the city from the horrors of Dahmer’s actions and the ensuing media circus surrounding his trial.
Trial and Imprisonment
Jeffrey Dahmer’s trial began in January 1992. Given that the majority of Dahmer’s victims were African American, there were considerable racial tensions and so strict security precautions were taken, including an eight-foot barrier of bulletproof glass that separated him from the gallery. The inclusion of only one African American on the jury provoked further unrest, but was ultimately contained and short lived. Lionel Dahmer and his second wife attended the trial throughout.
Dahmer initially pleaded not guilty to all charges, despite having confessed to the killings during police interrogation, but he eventually changed his plea to guilty by virtue of insanity. His defense then offered the gruesome details of his behavior, as proof that only someone insane could commit such terrible acts. Dahmer later said in an interview, “It’s hard for me to believe that a human being could have done what I’ve done, but I know that I did it.”
The jury chose to believe the prosecution’s assertion that Dahmer was fully aware that his acts were evil and chose to commit them anyway. On February 15, 1992, they returned after approximately 10 hours’ deliberation to find him guilty, but sane, on all counts. He was sentenced to 15 consecutive life terms in prison, with a 16th term tacked on in May.
“It is now over. This has never been a case of trying to get free. I didn’t ever want freedom. Frankly, I wanted death for myself. This was a case to tell the world that I did what I did, but not for reasons of hate. I hated no one. I knew I was sick or evil or both. Now I believe I was sick. The doctors have told me about my sickness, and now I have some peace. I know how much harm I have caused… Thank God there will be no more harm that I can do. I believe that only the Lord Jesus Christ can save me from my sins… I ask for no consideration.”
Dahmer reportedly adjusted well to prison life, although he was initially kept apart from the general population. He eventually convinced authorities to allow him to integrate more fully with other inmates. He found religion in the form of books and photos sent to him by his father, and he was granted permission by the Columbia Correctional Institution to be baptized by a local pastor.
On November 28, 1994, in accordance with his inclusion in regular work details, Dahmer was assigned to work with two other convicted murderers, Jesse Anderson and Christopher Scarver. After they had been left alone to complete their tasks, guards returned to find that Scarver had brutally beaten both men with a metal bar from the prison weight room. Dahmer was pronounced dead after approximately one hour. Anderson succumbed to his injuries days later.
In 2015, Christopher Scarver spoke to the New York Post about his reasons for killing Dahmer. Scarver alleged that he was disturbed not only by Dahmer’s crimes, but by a habit Dahmer had developed of fashioning severed limbs from prison food to antagonize other inmates. After being taunted by Dahmer and Anderson during their work detail, Scarver said that he confronted Dahmer about his crimes before beating the two men to death. He also claimed that prison guards allowed the murders to happen.
In Dahmer’s will, he had requested upon his death that his body be cremated as soon as possible, but some medical researchers wanted his brain preserved so it could be studied. Lionel Dahmer wanted to respect his son’s wishes and cremate all remains of his son. His mother felt his brain should go to research. The two parents went to court and a judge sided with Lionel. After over a year Dahmer’s body was released from being held as evidence and the remains were cremated as he had requested.
In August 2012, nearly two decades after his death, it was reported his childhood home in Bath, Ohio — where he committed his first murder in 1978, and buried his victim’s remains — was on the market. Its owner, musician Chris Butler, stated that the property would make a great home, as long as the buyer could “get past the horror factor.”
In March 2016, Butler put the house up for rent for $8,000 for the week of the Republican National Convention. As of July 2017, the house was no longer listed on the market, according to Zillow.com.