The killer’s early years featured problematic behavior and hints of the darkness that led to him becoming a serial rapist and murderer.
According to Ted Bundy, he had an uneventful childhood. His friends and family often backed up this claim. But a closer look reveals he was a socially awkward child who sometimes crossed the lines of propriety, morality and legality. Though the suspect behavior exhibited by a young Bundy has been seen in others who didn’t go on to rape and murder numerous victims, his childhood offers some clues as to how he became a serial killer.
Bundy initially thought his mother was his sister
Bundy was born at a home for unwed mothers in Burlington, Vermont, on November 24, 1946. He remained there for two months after his birth. His mother, Eleanor Louise Cowell, known as Louise, considered placing her baby up for adoption, but her father, Sam Cowell, apparently wanted the baby to join the family in Philadelphia. There, Bundy, then known as Theodore Cowell, began life thinking Louise was his sister, not his mother. However, in The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule notes that Bundy had told her he’d seen through the lie: “Maybe I just figured out that there couldn’t be twenty years’ difference in age between a brother and a sister, and Louise always took care of me. I just grew up knowing that she was really my mother.”
At first glance, the Cowells were a normal family. But Bundy’s grandmother suffered from depression and agoraphobia, and his grandfather has been described as the owner of a raging temper. His violent acts touched everyone from cats and dogs to employees and family members (some Bundy experts have theorized he was the result of Louise being raped by her father, though she said she’d been seduced and abandoned by a war veteran). Bundy may have experienced physical or psychological abuse at the hands of his grandfather, despite his later insistence that the two had a good relationship.
Bundy’s behavior could be disturbing. On at least one occasion, his aunt woke up to find her toddler nephew placing knives near her sleeping form. She later told Vanity Fair, “I remember thinking at the time that I was the only one who thought it was strange. Nobody did anything.” In the same Vanity Fair article, Dr. Dorothy Lewis, an experienced psychiatrist, gives her opinion that such actions would occur “only in very seriously traumatized children who have either themselves been the victims of extraordinary abuse or who have witnessed extreme violence among family members.”
He didn’t get along with his stepfather and would act out
When Bundy was three years old, he and Louise left Philadelphia for Tacoma, Washington. So as not to draw attention to her son’s illegitimacy, Louise gave Bundy the last name of Nelson before the move. But moving was still upsetting to the young boy. He missed Philadelphia and initially didn’t care for the Seattle area. And he became even more upset when his mother met and got involved with Johnnie Bundy, an Army hospital cook.
Louise and Johnnie married in 1951. Jealous of his mother’s new relationship, Bundy had a deliberate public tantrum at Sears, wetting his pants as part of the display. This didn’t keep Louise’s new husband from adopting her son and giving him the name that would become notorious years later.
Relations between Bundy and his stepfather were always tense. Bundy was materialistic, wanting expensive clothes and belongings that his working-class stepfather could not provide. Bundy fantasized about being adopted by the popular Western stars Roy Rogers and Dale Evans because they could give him the things he wanted. As Bundy grew older, he disdained his stepfather’s intellect. Friends witnessed him provoke his stepfather, who would sometimes strike out at Bundy in frustration.
Bundy resented his mother because he was ‘illegitimate’
There were fewer surface tensions between Bundy and his mother, who always made sure he was physically cared for. But she went on to have four more children, so her attention was divided. After Bundy’s capture, he expressed a feeling of being unloved, though he voiced appreciation that Louise had “paid all the bills.” And Bundy’s illegitimacy was another sore spot in their relationship.
There are different versions of how Bundy learned the truth about his birth. According to a psychologist who interviewed Bundy, as a teenager, he found his birth certificate and saw the space for “Father” had been marked “Unknown.” In another account, shared by Bundy’s girlfriend in the book Phantom Prince, a preteen Bundy was teased by a cousin about being illegitimate. When Bundy objected, the cousin used his birth certificate to prove the truth. Bundy’s girlfriend shared that Bundy subsequently resented Louise because he felt he’d been humiliated.
A friend remembered trying to reassure Bundy that his illegitimacy didn’t matter. But a bitter Bundy couldn’t be consoled, telling him, “Well, it’s not you that’s a bastard.”
He didn’t fit in with his classmates
As a child, Bundy lacked the social graces he would later use to charm people into believing he couldn’t possibly be a killer. In Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, Sandi Holt, who grew up with Bundy, shared that he was teased for having a speech impediment and that he couldn’t keep up with his fellow Boy Scouts.
Though Bundy wasn’t a bad athlete, he didn’t make his school basketball or baseball teams, a failure that was difficult for him to deal with. In high school, he was a loner who went on only one date. He later explained, “It wasn’t that I disliked women or were afraid of them, it was just that I didn’t seem to have an inkling as to what to do about them.”
Bundy handled academics better than other situations. Interviewed in prison in Florida, he said that while in class, “Your performance is measured by different rules than what happens when everybody’s peeling off into little cliques down the hallway.” He did well enough in school but never made it to the top of the class.
Bundy’s childhood also contained many moments of normality. He had a few good friends and took jobs like delivering newspapers and cutting lawns. He went to church with his parents and became the Methodist Youth Fellowship’s vice president. Notably, for a future killer, he saved the life of a friend’s niece when she was at risk of drowning.
Young Bundy had violent tendencies and began to break the law
Yet Bundy’s childhood behavior sometimes went beyond social awkwardness. A fellow Boy Scout remembered Bundy once coming from behind to hit him over the head with a stick. On Conversations with a Killer, Holt said Bundy “liked to scare people.” She recounted his fondness for digging holes in the ground, putting stakes inside, then covering them with vegetation. At least one girl fell in and hurt her leg in one of these “tiger traps.”
Bundy enjoyed pulpy detective fiction stories with gore-filled depictions of rape and murder. He may have started looking at pornography long before he was a teenager, as it’s possible he accessed his grandfather’s collection while living in Philadelphia. Bundy would sometimes masturbate inside closets at his junior high school, getting doused with water when his classmates caught him.
A young Bundy also began breaking the law. He was a good skier who shoplifted ski equipment he desired but couldn’t afford, among other items. In addition, he forged lift tickets in order to hit the slopes for free. As a teen, he attempted car theft (he received a warning as punishment). Most disturbingly, Bundy became a “peeping Tom” who spied on strangers (such voyeurism is a common precursor to sexual violence).
Bundy may have killed his first victim when he was 14
Bundy’s first known victim was killed in 1974, but he’s suspected of earlier killings. One possible Bundy victim was eight-year-old Ann Marie Burr, who disappeared from her Tacoma home in the middle of the night of August 31, 1961. At the time, a 14-year-old Bundy lived a few miles from the Burr household. It’s possible he’d been spying on people’s homes that night and spotted an opportunity his violent predilections couldn’t pass up.
Among the few clues left at the Burr home were an open window, a footprint and an unlocked front door. Ann Marie’s parents and sister were in the house when she vanished — likewise, some of Bundy’s confirmed victims were taken while others were nearby. Ann Marie’s mother felt it was likely her daughter had known her abductor; Bundy may have met Ann Marie on his paper route or while visiting an uncle who lived in the neighborhood.
Bundy denied he was responsible for Ann Marie’s disappearance, including when Ann Marie’s mother wrote to him asking for closure before his execution (which took place on January 24, 1989). Yet Bundy, who’d hinted there were more victims than he’d been officially linked to, could have been reluctant to admit to a crime that took place while he was still living with his family. In 2011, existing evidence did not contain enough amplifiable DNA to be compared to Bundy’s DNA profile. It remains possible that his murderous acts date from childhood.
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