People who kill generally operate alone. Sometimes, however, an entire family turns to violence. Some of these acts are crimes; some are the by-products of actions that are bound to cause death and suffering.
When it comes to family, there are bonds of loyalty. These bonds can make a family partnership an extremely effective unit, for better or for worse. After all, blood is thicker than water—and there is a lot of blood here.
We will travel from the American frontier to Central Asia via an unremarkable house in rural England to look at some of the deadliest families in history. Their motives may sometimes surprise you.
10 The Bloody Benders
In the 1870s, travelers might have decided to stop for supplies and a meal at an unassuming cabin as they headed west on the Great Osage Trail. It was a cabin the Bender family had built in Labette County, Kansas. We don’t know how good the food was, but, for some visitors, it would be the last meal that they ever ate.
Diners would sit with their backs to a curtain that closed off the family’s private quarters. From behind the curtain, a Bender would smash the guest’s head with a sledgehammer. We don’t know exactly how many people met their end at the cabin. Nor do we know the reason for killing them. Perhaps robbery, although some victims were not wealthy, or perhaps it was simply for fun.
The Benders disappeared as locals got suspicious. We still have no idea what happened to them. Curiously enough, another family of four—the Kellys—popped up in Kansas shortly after the Benders disappeared. The Kellys also went on a killing spree. Were they the same people?
9 The Bean Clan
Scotland is a land of mystery—mists often cloak the beautiful hills and glens. Mists, too, hide some of the country’s history.
Back in the sixteenth century, Alexander Bean and his partner, Black Agnes Douglas, set up a home in a hidden sea cave and started producing children. Through incest, the clan eventually grew to about 45 members. Jobs were hard to come by, so the clan survived by murdering and eating travelers. The clan operated only at night, retiring to their cave by day where they could enjoy a roasted meal of unfortunate victim and rest.
Even the local people didn’t realize that the clan was living in the area, and the Beans survived for 25 years, killing perhaps 1,000 passers-by.
When the authorities finally tracked the clan down, the men had their genitalia cut off and thrown into a fire. Then, executioners cut off their hands and feet and let the Bean males bleed to death. The avengers then burned the women and children alive.
The story of the Beans seems to have first appeared in The Newgate Calendar in the eighteenth century. This publication highlighted awful crimes to titillate and educate its readers. Although The Calendar relished the sensational and might be a little flexible in its accounts, it didn’t just invent cases.
Is the story true, or is it a legend? Why did it take so long to become public? No smoke without fire, some say.
8 The Borgias
No list of truly nasty families would be complete without mentioning the Borgias. Originally from Spain, the family became important in the fifteenth-century political and religious world. Ambitious and hungry for yet more power, the family included two popes—Callixtus III (1455–1458) and Alexander VI (1492–1503)—and the infamous Lucrezia.
Lucrezia is perhaps the best-remembered member of the family. She was the daughter of Pope Alexander, and her family was perfectly happy to use her as a pawn in their power plays. She entered into several arranged marriages—each one helped the Borgias extend their grip.
Contemporaries often portrayed the extended family as ruthless, a family that would stop at nothing in pursuit of its own ends. By the time of Alexander’s papacy, people suspected them of adultery, theft, bribery, incest, and murder.
On the other hand, powerful families make enemies. Many historians now believe that many of the more lurid tales about them were invented by jealous rivals.
Certainly, on the positive side of the ledger, they were great patrons of the arts.
7 Inessa Tarverdiyeva and Family
Closer to the present day, we have Inessa Tarverdiyeva, her husband, Roman Podkopaev, and their two daughters, Viktoria and Anastasiya. Inessa was older than her husband, and Viktoria was her daughter from a previous relationship. Anastasiya was just 13.
The family lived in a comfortable home in the Stavropol district of Russia. Inessa was a nursery school teacher, and Roman was a dentist.
For this middle-class family, money was not the motive for the series of killings and robberies that began in 2007. The family took regular camping trips that were a cover for their crimes. They would break into houses and kill any occupants before taking whatever took their fancy. Often, the stuff that they took had little value—and were probably just trophies. Some of the murders were gruesome. In one raid, there were only two teenage girls in the house. The family tortured them, gouged their eyes out, and finally killed them.
Because of a relationship with a policeman that had not ended well, Inessa particularly enjoyed killing cops. The authorities finally arrested them in 2013. We don’t know how many people fell victim to the Tarverdiyeva family.
6 The Harpe Brothers
The Harpe brothers, Micajah and Wiley, terrorized settlers in the remote, sparsely populated territory west of the Appalachian Mountains immediately after the American Revolution. The brothers had stayed loyal to the British crown during the struggle and may have decided that they had better move west after the American victory.
They survived by robbing and killing the settlers who were beginning to cultivate the area and appeared to have thoroughly enjoyed the killing part. It wasn’t long before vigilantes started to try to bring the brothers to justice.
Micajah died of his wounds when a posse caught up with them in 1799. Wiley escaped, but the authorities captured and hanged him in 1804.
5 Fred and Rose West
There are some people in the world who are so fundamentally evil that their crimes defy logic. Fred West was certainly one of these. He committed at least twelve murders between 1967 and 1987. The victims were all young women, and Fred’s wife, Rose, was a willing participant in many of their crimes. Although evil in her own right, Rose seems to have been completely under Fred’s control. For example, at Fred’s suggestion, she worked as a prostitute to bring in some extra income.
The motive here was sexual gratification. The couple seemed to enjoy the cruelty they inflicted on their bound victims as they raped them in their small house in Gloucester, England. Fred saved the British taxpayers money by committing suicide while in prison in 1995. Rose remains behind bars.
4 The Kray Twins
Ronnie and Reggie Kray, identical twins, ruled the East End of London with iron fists. These were hard men who had risen from humble beginnings to cast a shadow over the London of the “Swinging Sixties.” Their criminal empire depended on armed robbery and protection rackets to thrive. The Krays and their associates would ensure compliance by readily resorting to arson, assault, and murder. Operating out of a nightclub they had forced the owner to sell, they were familiar figures on the streets.
And yet, ordinary people, who were untouched by the Krays’ business interests, revered them. The Krays acted as a sort of local authority that would help people with their problems and guarantee safety on the streets. And it was not just ordinary people who admired the Kray brothers. They were celebrities in their own right who rubbed shoulders with many of the stars of the day.
The police arrested them in 1968; their empire had lasted less than ten years. Ronnie, always the wilder and more impulsive of the two, was sent to Broadmoor Hospital—a high-security psychiatric facility. He died of a heart attack in 1995. His brother died of cancer in 2000, five weeks after authorities released him from prison on compassionate grounds.
3 Genghis Khan’s Clan
Genghis Khan rose from obscurity in a small corner of the Mongolian steppe to form what was to become the largest land empire in history. For the Mongols, the family was the central pillar of society. Genghis’ sons and then grandsons extended the empire to reach from the western shores of the Black Sea to the Pacific.
The Mongols, often outnumbered, conquered through their mastery of tactics and psychological warfare. If a city, or an entire people, surrendered, the Mongols would treat them well and allow them to enjoy the fruits of a secure world. If, however, people resisted the Mongol advance, they and their cities would feel the full fury of the enraged invaders.
Despite all the violence that took place as the Mongols extended their rule, once the Mongols were in power, their lands were safe and well-controlled. In many cases, this represented a distinct improvement from previous conditions. Subjects had considerable personal liberty. For example, people were free to follow their religion.
But the price was high. Some experts calculate that fully 11% of the world’s population died because of the Mongol expansion.
Shaka Zulu’s family had been chiefs of the Zulu clan, but the Zulus were relatively unimportant. Shaka changed that. He gradually expanded his power until he ruled with absolute authority. He had a grasp of tactics that made the Zulu warriors feared by all—including the technologically superior British colonists. As a fighting force, the Zulus moved rapidly over the land they knew well, followed orders without question, and were ruthless. They scared their enemies!
He insisted on absolute obedience and would ruthlessly punish anybody who didn’t live up to his expectations. Defeated warriors might return to camp to find that Shaka had had their families executed. They also would probably suffer the same fate.
People still debate whether he was just a cruel tyrant or the true father of a proud nation. Regardless, it was his own family who turned on him. After Shaka’s mother died, he began to behave erratically. He ordered mourning rituals that made great demands on his people and resulted in hardship for many. He was assassinated by his half-brothers in 1828.
Most Zulu people today revere him. He was a hard taskmaster but gave his people pride in themselves.
1 The Gonzalez Sisters
The four Gonzalez sisters ran a successful business from 1945 until the police closed it down in 1964. Their enterprise made its money through the age-old demand for sex. Their “Rancho El Angel” was a brothel in the Mexican state of Guanajuato and acted as the center of the sisters’ large-scale prostitution network.
The women who worked for the sisters often did not do so voluntarily. The Gonzalez family had kidnapped some while others had answered advertisements for housemaids. When the women arrived at the brothel, the sisters would often force heroin on those who were reluctant to provide the services that the sisters demanded.
The effective working life of a prostitute is limited. When the girls became unable or reluctant to work and satisfy their clients, the sisters killed them. If a client turned up with a lot of money, he too might end up dead and his cash stolen.
When police raided the property, they found the bodies of 80 women, 11 men, and various fetuses. There were probably many more victims who remained undiscovered. The Mexican courts sentenced the sisters to 40 years in prison.
Guinness World Records named them “the most prolific murder partnership.”