What if you could catch a criminal by understanding his behavior patterns, even though you don’t know him? How about guessing his age range, race, and even what he usually wears? Welcome to the strange world of criminal profiling.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) method of profiling is used to classify personality and behavioral characteristics after analyzing the crimes that a person committed. FBI profiling has been around since the 1970s, but law enforcement started looking at behavior to catch criminals much earlier than that.

Once Upon a Time

Although the FBI profiling method is now considered the gold standard, there was criminal profiling long before the FBI started doing it.

Back in the 1880s, Jack the Ripper’s murders were rattling the streets of London. Although not the first serial killer in history, Jack the Ripper (also known as “the Whitechapel murderer” after the neighborhood where the murders happened) caused a media frenzy and caught the attraction of many specialists—including Metropolitan Police’s surgeon, Thomas Bond.

Dr Thomas Bond

Bond was asked to look into the brutal slaying of five of the Ripper’s victims. After examining the bodies, Bond wrote a detailed letter about it. Although Jack the Ripper was never caught, the Bond report could be considered the first ever criminal profile.

In it, Bond said that “all five murders were no doubt committed by the same hand… the murderer must have been a man of physical strength and of great coolness and daring … the murderer in external appearance is quite likely to be a quiet inoffensive looking man probably middle-aged and neatly and respectably dressed… he would be solitary and eccentric in his habits.”

Jack the Ripper Puck Magazine

Speculation as to the identity of Jack the Ripper. Cover of the 21 September 1889 issue of Puck magazine, by cartoonist Tom Merry.

A more recent example of criminal profiling was the one about New York City’s Mad Bomber, created by psychiatrist James Brussel in 1956. For his profile, Brussel looked into the bomber’s behavior—who, for 16 years, planted explosives everywhere from theaters to libraries to train stations—and worked backward from there.

He called his method reverse psychology and modeled it after the methods used by Edgar Alla Poe’s amateur detective, C. Auguste Dupin, in his quest to solve crimes.

Brussel deducted that the bomber was possibly “reclusive, antisocial and consumed with hatred for their imagined enemies… at least in his mid-40s, probably older…  almost certainly a very neat, proper man… as an employee, he had probably been exemplary… probably very neat, tidy, cleanshaven.”

When police officers eventually arrested Con Edison power plant worker, George Metesky, for the bombings, they discovered he met the description quite well—even down to the buttoned double-breasted jacket Brussel said he would likely wear.

Time to Make Things Official

The FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit first opened its doors in the early 1970s under the direction of agents Patrick Mullany and Howard Teten. The 70s were turbulent and violent times with a marked increase in homicide, and agents hoped to solve some of those crimes through profiling. Some of the most infamous serial killers in history–including the Zodiac Killer, the Hillside Strangler, and Son of Sam–were active during this decade.

Mullany and Teten taught their profiling techniques at the FBI academy and some of their students went on to capture notorious criminals.

One of those bright students was FBI profiler John Douglas, who spent his time traveling to different prisons, interviewing some of the most notable violent offenders of the time–including Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Charles Manson, and Richard Speck. Douglas used the knowledge acquired during those interviews, as well as the examination of crime scenes, to create a system to identify a killer’s signature.

Ted Bundy

Headshot of Ted Bundy from the Florida Photographic Collection

Douglas’ work helped capture Wayne Williams for his Atlanta murders of 1979–81, as well as serial killer Robert Hansen, who was eventually sentenced to 461 years in prison. In both cases, Douglas guessed correctly the race of the killer and the fact that Hansen had a stutter and was a hunter. Douglas became such a legend that he inspired the character of Agent Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs.

FBI profiling has continued to evolve throughout the years, moving towards a stronger focus on research and the investigative experience. And while there’s some controversy as to how well it works, there’s no doubt it’s taken enough criminals off the street to be worth it.

By Diana Bocco, contributor for Ripleys.com


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