A Killer Revealed: Inside the Mind of Arthur Shawcross

September 29, 2018
Arthur Shawcross

All it takes is a cursory internet search for the name Arthur Shawcross to find a lot of competing information about the notorious serial killer, which sometimes flies in the face of his own recorded statements. But that seems somehow appropriate for a man who has been called a pathological liar. Of course, misrepresenting the truth is far from the worst crime that Arthur Shawcross has ever committed. Between 1988 and 1989 he killed at least 10 women in Rochester, New York, and they were not his first victims.

In a disturbing interview, Shawcross describes details of some of his crimes while also vehemently refusing to talk about others. First released under the title interview with a Serial Killer in 2008 -- the same year that Shawcross died in prison -- the documentary is currently on Netflix and offers a rare glimpse into the mind of a brutal serial killer, even if that glimpse has to be filtered through fabrications and fantasies.

The first words that we hear Shawcross speak in the interview are, “People on the outside do not know what evil is.”

“Do you know what evil is?” the interviewer asks.

Shawcross’ reply is chillingly simple: “Sure.”

By the time Arthur Shawcross claimed his earliest victims, he had already led a troubled life. According to his own testimony, he was sexually abused as a child, claims that his family has vehemently denied. He was drafted into the Army in 1967 and served in Vietnam. There, according to Shawcross, he went on secret, solo missions into the jungle where he engaged in savage acts. In the interview, he speaks frankly about beheading and cooking a Vietnamese woman and eating some of her flesh. When asked what it tasted like, he compares it to steak.

The problem is, like so much about Arthur Shawcross, we have no way of knowing if there is any truth in his gruesome -- and, frankly, unlikely -- war stories. In fact, according to police, he was not the “weapons specialist” that he claims but rather a supply clerk who never actually saw combat.

What we do know is that, after his discharge from the Army, Shawcross was arrested for arson and served 22 months of a five-year sentence before being released in October of 1971. Afterward, he returned to Watertown, New York, where he had grown up. There, he killed 10-year-old Jack Blake and, four months later, eight-year-old Karen Ann Hill. Both children were believed to have been raped and mutilated. In the documentary, one of the officers describes finding Hill’s body, his voice choking up as he recounts that “He stuffed her mouth with dirt”.

When Shawcross was arrested for the murder of Hill, he agreed to give the police information about the death of Blake as part of a plea deal. In the deal, Shawcross pled guilty to manslaughter in the case of Karen Hill, and all other charges against him were dropped. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison but was released in 1987, an act that many–then and now–have seen as a gross miscarriage of justice, especially given the tragic events that would follow.

Between 1988 and 1989, Arthur Shawcross murdered at least 11 women, many of them prostitutes that he picked up along one street in Rochester, New York, where he was then living with his fourth wife. Most of them were strangled to death, and their often-mutilated bodies were dumped in the nearby Genesee River. Shawcross would also sometimes return to the bodies of his victims in order to mutilate them further. In one case, he claims to have gone back to a decaying corpse, removed his victim’s head, and thrown it into the river.

In the course of interview with a Serial Killer, we are asked to consider less why than how a man like Shawcross comes to be. How does someone kill so many people, with seemingly so little regard for their humanity? When Shawcross was ultimately arrested for his crimes, his defense attempted to mount an argument that he was “not guilty by reason of insanity”, but the plea was ultimately dismissed. Shawcross was found guilty on 11 counts of murder and sentenced to 250 years in prison. He died behind bars in 2008.

In Interview with a Serial Killer, Shawcross demonstrates a consistent and notable physicaltic, constantly blinking and crinkling his eyes as he speaks. This, in addition to his casual tone when talking about his own atrocities, makes him difficult to read. He never denies what he did -- and, indeed, at times you get the sense that he may be embellishing it -- but he refuses absolutely any discussion of the murders of the two children in Watertown.

The documentary ends after Shawcross is reunited with a daughter that he didn’t even know he had, conceived while he was on leave from the Army, though it doesn’t mention a son that Shawcross did know about, one that he left with his first wife when the child was only 18 months old. Shawcross’ daughter and his grandchildren come to visit him in prison and send him letters. When the interviewer asks Shawcross how he would feel if something like what he did to his victims were to happen to his own daughter or her children, Shawcross says that he would be “devastated,” yet when pressed about his own crimes, he replies, “I don’t have any remorse, for some reason.”

When dealing with someone so prone to lies and exaggerations, it can be difficult to get to the truth of someone like Arthur Shawcross, even when we have the terrible evidence of his crimes in front of us. Still, maybe the truth is there in his interview, after all. In a follow-up to his question about what evil is, the interviewer asks Shawcross, “Are you evil?”

In his typically laconic way, Shawcross replies, “Somewhat.”

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