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Thriller Thursday: The Mask of Sanity

In 1948, Dr. Hervey Cleckley published The Mask of Sanity after working as a therapist in a mental institution. The book described clinical interviews with incarcerated psychopaths and is still considered on of the most influential clinical descriptions of psychopath. Cleckley’s basic elements of psychopathy outlined in the book are very much relevant today, including the term “mask of sanity,” for the psychopath wears the most versatile and complex of masks.

The psychopath feels no sort of emotional attachment (unlike the sociopath, who some experts believe differs from the psychopath while others consider the term interchangeable). No conscience, guilt, or remorse. No concern for the well-being of anyone. The idea of responsibility is foreign to a psychopath, something they cannot comprehend.

But the scariest aspect of a psychopath is their ability to mask their true identity. Most are highly intelligent, and almost all realize the need to appear as “normal” to society. Completely free of restraint and conscience, they lead double lives, hiding their true selves from everyone around them.

Ted Bundy, one of the most famous modern day psychopaths, during trial.

According to recent studies, psychopaths exists in about four percent of the population. Consider this: anorexic is considered to be a near epidemic, and it’s prevalence rate is estimated to be 3.43 percent. Schizophrenia, a well-known and feared disorder, occurs in only about one percent of the population. The CDC states the rate of colon cancer is “alarmingly high.” It only occurs in about 40 out of every 100,000. That’s still less that the estimated number of psychopaths walking around today. Source

Not every psychopath is a serial killer, but many of the most violent serial killers are psychopaths. While not all of them are as famous as Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, and Aileen Warnous, psychopaths have been killing for centuries.

Cordelia Botkin (1854-1910)

Cordelia Botkin met John Dunning in 1895, when she was forty-one. His bicycle had broken down in the park. Botkin was bold, and the younger Dunning (married to a former congressman’s daughter, no less) began an affair with Botkin. She led him into a raucous life of gambling, alcoholism, and sex. When he decided to end the affair, Botkin sent a Dunning’s wife a box of poisoned candy in the guise of a gift from a friend. Dunning’s wife and five friends and family members enjoyed the chocolate. Both the wife and her sister died. Botkin was eventually convicted, and while in jail, she exchanged sexual favors in order to leave whenever she had the notion. She died in 1910.

Dr. Thomas Cream (1850 – 1892)

Dr. Thomas Cream performed abortions in secret throughout Canada and later Chicago, Illinois. Several of his patients died (both genders), and in a bizarre twist, Cream demanded an examination of the bodies, presumably to drawn attention to himself. He was eventually convicted of poisoning the patients. Released in July of 1891, he moved to London and started killing prostitutes. Arrested and hanged in 1892, his last words were reported to have been “I am Jack.” He was imprisoned during the murders, but some authors purport he may have bribed officials and left before his release.

Leonarda Cianciulle (1893-1970)

Sweet little Leonarda Cianciulle murdered three women in Correggio, Italy between 1939 and 1940. Known as the “Soap-Maker of Corregio,” she turned their bodies into soap. Conceived from a rape, she endured a miserable childhood with a resentful mother and twice tried to killer herself. At the time of the murders, Leonarda owned a small soap shop and was thought of as kind, a doting mother and helpful neighbor. When she learned her eldest and favorite child, Giuseppe, was to join the Italian army, she became unhinged and decided human sacrifices were the best way to protect him. Her victims were three middle-aged neighbors. She described getting rid of the body of her first victim:

“I threw the pieces into a pot, added seven kilos of caustic soda, which I had bought to make soap, and stirred the whole mixture until the pieces dissolved in a thick, dark mush that I poured into several buckets and emptied in a nearby septic tank. As for the blood in the basin, I waited until it had coagulated, dried it in the oven, ground it and mixed it with flour, sugar, chocolate, milk and eggs, as well as a bit of margarine, kneading all the ingredients together. I made lots of crunchy tea cakes and served them to the ladies who came to visit, though Giuseppe and I also ate them.”

She also described the other murders and destroying the bodies in vivid detail. Her final victim was the opera singer Virgina Cacioppo.

“She ended up in the pot, like the other two…her flesh was fat and white, when it had melted I added a bottle of cologne, and after a long time on the boil I was able to make some most acceptable creamy soap. I gave bars to neighbors and acquaintances. The cakes, too, were better: that woman was really sweet.”

Eventually arrested and convicted, Cianciulli was sentenced to thirty years in jail and died of a brain hemorrhage.

So what can we learn from these heinous individuals? Don’t trust anyone comes to mind. Psychopaths can blend into any situation and manipulate even the most wary of individuals. That’s why they make such prolific serial killers, and in some cases, like Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, take decades to catch.

Have you ever encountered a psychopath? Remember, many of them aren’t killers. They just leave a wake of destruction. Who’s the best literary psychopath, Hannibal Lecter or Patrick Bateman?

27 comments on… “Thriller Thursday: The Mask of Sanity”

  1. Wow! I have always been fascinated with the sick & twisted. Unreal that Leonarda baked her victim’s remains and fed them to guests..

    Great post, Stacy.

  2. That soap maker story was horrifying. Can you imagine being one of her neighbors and finding that out afterward? Blech.

    Have I known a psychopath? Yes. No conscience, period. I don’t know how you rehabilitate violent psychopaths because they really don’t care what impact their actions have on others.

    Interesting post, Stacy.

    • Wasn’t she? The little old ladies who commit heinous crimes always blow my mind. They shouldn’t, I suppose, but they do. Like the one who ran a boarding house and then killed her inhabitants for their social security checks … I can’t remember her name.

      And wow. Scary for you. I can’t really fathom having no conscience. And no, I don’t think they can be rehabilitated. It’s a part of their DNA.


    • It is, isn’t it? And I haven’t either, thankfully. That’s the thing tho, as far as you know. How would you know for sure if the encounter was limited? Thanks!

  3. I write psychological horror as fiction in my short stories and try to understand people’s motives for crime, but I have to say your post has scared me terribly. I will have to check out this book, and thank you for sharing the stories here.

    • Ooh, psychological horror. That’s my favorite. It’s much more interesting than mainstream, blood and gore horror. You’re very welcome. So glad you liked the post … although I hate that you’re scared lol. Hope you enjoy the book. Thanks!

  4. 4%! AHHH! That’s crazy-scary.

    I don’t know why, but I find all of this fascinating. My favorite show is Criminal Minds. I find it so interested how Profilers see patterns in the seemingly mundane. 🙂

    • I’m the same way! If I’d been smart enough (or motivated, lol) I would have gone into psychology. It is fascinating, and I love Criminal Minds, too. I wish my brain worked that way. You should read some of John Douglas’s Mind Hunters books – he’s the “father” of profiling, and it’s amazing what he’s been able to do.


  5. I knew that I have a hard time trusting for a reason….WOW! I’m still fascinated with Ted Bundy. How he was able to do what he did. I’m a big fan of Hannibal Lector, and not in a creepy way. I think he may be one of the creepiest characters ever.

    Joining in with Angela, I also love watching Criminal Minds – breaking down the mind of the criminally insane. It’s a nice twist on the police procedural.

    Great post, Stacy!!

    • Thanks! Makes you think, doesn’t it? Psychopaths are the consumate actors, and who knows who you’ve encountered. Yes on Ted Bundy. Others, like Warnous and even Ridgeway, had some warning signs. But Bundy was just prolific and … normal. Have you read Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me? She actually worked with him, and if I recall, his case is the reason she got into writing true crime.

      And love Criminal Minds, of course.


  6. Stacy, the soap lady here got me the most! Her words…so chilling and awful and to what would you do finding out later you used that soap or ate those cakes? GAG! And 4% of the population pyschopaths? Even more chilling and that they hide themselves. What is missing in their makeup I wonder to make them like that? How horrifying. I have not known a pyschopath….however, now that I think about it I probably have and didnt know it!

    • Me, too. She was so cold and unfeeling. Doesn’t seem possibly coming from an old later. Yes, gag for sure. That’s an interesting question about their chemical makeup – I don’t know that there will ever be any answer, although there have been some interesting brain studies done.


  7. Patrick Bateman repulsed me more than Hannibal Lecter. Odd, huh?

    I’ve known two people whom I am sure were sociopaths or psychopaths. Both were capable of anything. And I do mean anything. Both of them caused a tornado of destruction in my life–one financial, the other emotional. I still bear scars from both.

    Have you ever read The Sociopath Next Door? I don’t remember the author’s name, but I think a simple search will turn up the book. Anyway, the author comments that most sociopaths burn out by the time they are 40. One of the people I mentioned in the above paragraph seems to be doing that.

    Scary, huh? They’re everywhere.

    • No! I felt for Hannibal because of the way he was treated, and the book did an excellent job of making him three dimensional. That’s why he’s the consumate villan, IMO.

      And WOW. Lucky you. I haven’t read that book, but I’ll add it to my list. ANd that’s really interesting, as is the cross/argument about psychopath vs. sociopath.

  8. I have to agree with the general feeling here, the soap lady is one creepy nutter.
    I’ve come across some very sick individuals. Some were probably certifiable. They created chaos and misery all around them, and had no qualms about hurting others. But were they psychopaths? I couldn’t say. That’s a difficult one for even a psychiatrist to call, because these people are so good at hiding their spots. As you’ve pointed out, Stacy, that’s what makes them so very scary. I had no idea there were so many!
    Hannibal is one of my favorite literary bad guys.

    • Yeah, she is. I get her losing it over her son, but there had to be more to it than her just freaking out over the possibility of his getting killed. Jumping to human sacrifice is a big step. And you’re so right. It is difficult for anyone to make that call, and their skill at hiding – and manipulating – is terrifying.

      Totally agree about Hannibal:) Thanks!

      • LauraElle

        What I want to know about the old lady is what led up to her killing humans? I’ll bet she started on animals first.

        • I wondered that myself! There has to be more to her story than just suddenly killing for her kid.

          Thanks for stopping by.

  9. Creepy!! There could be psychopaths all around us. Eeeekeee…and that soap makers story and the chilling and detached way in which she recounted the murders. Seriously creepy!

    • Yep, pretty much. It is very creepy, but fascinating as well. She’s definitely the story of the day, isn’t she? I may have to do a bigger post on her some time.


  10. The sociopaths who fascinate me are the non-killing ones. Who knows who they are and why they do the odd, almost robotic things they do? Could be your mother-in-law, even.

    • That’s a really good point, and there are certainly more of them than the ones that choose to kill. That would be a case study I would love to read. Thanks for commenting!

  11. Terrific post, Stacy. Knowing psychopathic killers are out there can at least motivate us to learn to trust and act safely upon our instincts. I’m pretty sure I’ve come across a few psychopaths, including a boyfriend who shall remain nameless! Fortunately, he wasn’t a killer. *whew*

    • Thanks, August. It was a fun one to do, even though it’s very dark and creepy, lol. Yes, I think trusting our instincts are so key. They’re usually spot on, and there are scary people out there. I’m glad your ex wasn’t a killer either, lol.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  12. Pingback: Mind Sieve 2/20/12 « Gloria Oliver

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