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The Religious Affiliation of Milwaukee Serial Killer
Jeffrey Dahmer was one of the most infamous and notorious serial killers in American history. Part of the reason he became so well known was the number of victims he killed: at least 17 young men and teenage boys between the years 1978 and 1991. Another reason for Dahmer's infamy was the peculiar nature of his killings. He stored the body parts of many victims in his apartment. He also engaged in cannibalism, although the extent of this is less than was widely believed after this detail was sensationalized in media reports. Dahmer's killing spree was finally discovered and halted in 1991 when one of his intended victims was able to escape and lead police to Dahmer's apartment, where the remains of 11 bodies were found.
Dahmer was born into a family of devout members of the Stone-Campbell denomination known as the "church of Christ" or "Churches of Christ." He was an active churchgoer until the age of 5. After that, Dahmer was never again actively religious or a regular churchgoer until after his arrest and imprisonment. After being imprisoned for his crimes, Dahmer sought out the church of his childhood and petitioned to be re-baptized in the Church of Christ. This caused some controversy, but he persisted until he was able receive this rite, which he was apparently sincere in requesting. Shortly after being re-baptized into the Church of Christ, Dahmer was murdered by his cellmate.
Jeffrey Dahmer's religious affiliation as a member of the Stone-Campbell denomination known as the Church of Christ is unusual. We are aware of no other members of this denomination who were famous serial killers. Jeffrey Dahmer's homosexuality, on the other hand, is not unusual among serial killers. The fact that Dahmer was a homosexual, as were most or all of his victims, was widely publicized at the time of his arrest and trial. Prior to his arrest, Dahmer was active in the Milwaukee gay community, although the word had reportedly spread through this tight-knit GLBT community that Dahmer was a person who should be avoided. Other well known homosexual or bisexual serial killers include Andrew Cunanan, John Wayne Gacy, Patrick Wayne Kearney, Gilles de Rais, Randy Steven Kraft, Michael Swango, Andrei Chikatilo, David D. Hill, Wayne Williams, Larry Eyler, Henry Lee Lucas, Fritz Haarmann, and dozens more. It is not clear why Dahmer became associated with homosexuality in the public consciousness more than many other serial killers, including many whose victims outnumbered Dahmer's. This may simply have occurred because homosexuality was a more widely-discussed topic in public media at the time of Dahmer's arrest. Certainly most homosexuals are law-abiding individuals, and Dahmer's sexual identity was not a direct cause of his violent behavior.
Although there was much disagreement among expert witnesses and psychologists who testified in Dahmer's trial, there seemed to be a general consensus that Dahmer harbored some type of hatred toward homosexuals. Although there was clearly a sexual component to his killing, as his victims were generally his sexual partners as well as his murder victims, experts generally agreed that Dahmer had control over his actions and that his murders were not purely a result of sexual compulsion or aberrant sexuality. Some people have speculated that Dahmer's Biblical religious background may have contributed to a negative view of homosexuals, which in turn contributed to a negative self-image and a hatred of himself and other homosexuals, which in turn led him to become a serial killer. Whether or not this is what happened is unclear. One problem with this theory is the minimal exposure Dahmer had to organized religion during most of his life. Another theory (also far from certain) holds that Dahmer felt rage toward the gay community for their lack of acceptance of him. Far more likely than either of these theories is the notion that the reasons Dahmer became a serial killer are essentially the same reasons that have caused other people to become serial killers.
From: Steven Walters, "Dahmer Is Baptized In Prison Tub" in The Milwaukee Sentinel, front page, 12 May 1994:
Madison -- A Madison minister said Wednesday he baptized convicted serial killer Jeffrey L. Dahmer in a state prison whirlpool Tuesday afternoon.
From: Roy Ratcliff, "The Baptism of Jeffrey Dahmer", printed in Christian Woman May/April 1995, "Jeffrey Dahmer's Life" webpage on "Jeffrey Dahmer's The Lair" website (http://www.tornadohills.com/dahmer/life.htm; viewed 20 September 2005):
Roy Ratcliff, 47, said he, Dahmer, the prison chaplain and two guards walked from Dahmer's cell area down a long hall about 2p.m. Tuesday to the prison infirmary, where Dahmer was baptized by immersion.
The whirlpool at the Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage, where Dahmer is serving 15 life terms, was filled for Tuesday's ceremony, Ratcliff said.
Baptism by immersion requires that the celebrant be dunked under water, signifying that person's cleansing of sins and new relationship with God.
An assistant to the prison warden confirmed the baptism took place, but said no further details would be released.
"It's a personal matter," the official said.
Ratcliff, minister of the 100-member Church of Christ, said he began making plans to baptize Dahmer after a one-hour meeting April 20.
Ratcliff said he believes Dahmer made a true spiritual decision to be baptized.
Dahmer "was able to convince me this was not just a gag. It was something he felt and believed in," Ratcliff said.
"I was convinced that he wanted God in his life," Ratcliff said of their April meeting.
They met "in a little room with just a table and a couple of chairs," and Dahmer said he wanted his "sins washed away" by renewing his personal relationship with Jesus Christ, Ratcliff said.
Convinced of Dahmer's sincerity, Ratcliff said, he will begin meeting with Dahmer at 1:30p.m. Wednesdays, starting next week, to read and study the Bible together.
Ratcliff said both he and Dahmer were nervous during their first meeting.
"You're a little bit anxious about it," Ratcliff said. "I had no idea what his thinking was."
Ratcliff said he was asked to baptize Dahmer by Mary H. Mott, an Arlington, Va., woman who called him after she sent Dahmer 12 Bible correspondence lessons in mid-March.
After seeing a televised interview with Dahmer and his father, Mott, 69, said she concluded "that young man dowsn't know anything except evil." Dahmer has confessed to killing 17 young men and boys.
Mott said she then called the prison, was told by a guard how to send materials to Dahmer and sent him a Bible and the 12 "World Bible School" correspondence school lessons.
On April 1, Mott said, Dahmer typed her a note, thanked her for the Bible and the study lessons, and added:
"I want to accept the Lord. Would you please try to find someone to bring a baptistry tank to the prison?"
In that letter, Dahmer also signed a statement acknowledging that he wanted to accept Christ, Mott said.
When she got that letter, Mott said, "I got on the phone again."
"God forgives all sins," said Mott, who retured in 1975 after a 32-year career with the Defense Department. "God does not consider one sin greater than the other."
Mott said she first called a Baraboo-area minister, who explained that he was moving from the area and gave her Ratcliff's name.
Mott said Dahmer also sent her the completed Bible study lessons, which she "graded."
"He did very well," she said of the lessons. "He had to miss two or three (questions), out of 12 lessons."
After returning from the April 20 meeting with Dahmer, Ratcliff said, he began working with prison officials on whether a baptistry tank could be shipped into the maximum-security prison.
When prison officials offered the whirlpool, Ratcliff said, he and Dahmer agreed.
Mott said Ratcliff phoned her after Tuesday's ceremony.
"It was just real exciting," she said. "It's all to glorify God."
In his career as a minister and evangelist, Ratcliff said, he has baptized people "in rivers and creeks," but never anyone "so well-known."
Dahmer "seemed to understand very clearly what needed to be done," Ratcliff added.
Convicted serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was beaten and killed Nov. 28, 1994, by a fellow inmate at the Colombia Correctional Institution in Portage, Wis. The attack occurred while Dahmer and another inmate were cleansing a bathroom in the prison gymnasium.
From: David Doege, "Anger at his homosexuality led Dahmer to kill, psychiatrist says", in The Milwaukee Sentinel, 7 February 1992:
The minister who baptized Dahmer shares his story and tells about a courageous woman who thought Dahmer was worth saving.
I first heard about Jeffrey Dahmer's desire for baptism through Roy McRay, a preacher in Milwaukee. He had received a phone call from Curtis Booth of Crescent, Okla., who had sent a Bible correspondence course to Jeffrey. Just a couple of weeks later, Mary Mott of Arlington, Va., had done the same; and at the end of the course, Jeffrey had requested baptism. After making the necessary arrangements with the prison chaplain to meet Jeffrey and to confirm his understanding, I learned about Mary. She had sent Jeffrey a World Bible School correspondence course after seeing a TV report about the book written by Lionel Dahmer, Jeffrey's father. Mary felt a deep conviction that this young man needed to hear the Gospel. She sent him a letter that said essentially, "I don't know if you want to do this, but I believe it would help you if you studied the Bible." In the New Testament, Paul wrote about Timothy's sincere faith, which first came from the women in his life, his grandmother and his mother. Paul then added these words: "For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline" (2 Timothy 1:7). Mary is to be commended for the faithful spirit of power and love that drove her to reach out, even against the advice of other people, and try to save the soul of someone so commonly despised.
Mary did not know whether her efforts would be well received. She simply acted on faith. To her delight and surprise, Jeffrey answered positively. At the end of the Bible study course, he wrote both Mary and Curtis requesting baptism.
Mary didn't know whom to call, but she tried the best she could to tell others that Jeffrey wanted to be baptized. When I first was informed of this request, I contacted the prison chaplain. I told him that the congregation in Baraboo, Wis., was closer than mine. I said that I would contact the minister and that we would make arrangements to meet with Jeffrey.
The minister in Baraboo told me he was planning to move out of state and could not come with me. He also had been contacted by Mary. He had received a phone call from her and photocopies of her letter to Jeffrey, including his reply asking for baptism. I was given the photocopies, and we wished each other well.
After my initial meeting with Jeffrey, I phoned Mary to tell her how the meeting had gone. We have been in contact with each other ever since. When I first met Jeffrey, I asked him why he wanted to be baptized. He answered that he always had thought from watching televangelists that baptism was optional. But he had concluded from his Bible study that baptism was necessary.
Physically, Jeffrey was an average-sized man of 33. He did not appear to be a weight-lifter but looked quite normal in build. I would guess his height to have been around 6 feet and his weight about 190 pounds. His hair was slightly blond, and he wore glasses. Some days he was shaven; other days he was not. He usually wore prison clothing and looked like all the other prisoners.
Jeffrey appeared to get along well with the other inmates. One earlier physical attack was made on him in prison, but that was exceptional. The attacker only recently had been placed in Jeffrey's unit, and he later confessed that he had attacked Jeffrey only to gain publicity. Jeffrey revered the Bible as God's Word. Because of some information he had read, he preferred the King James translation more than others, believing it to be more accurate. We spent quite a lot of time discussing Bible translations.
He also was influenced deeply toward the premillennial viewpoint of the second coming of Christ and the once-saved-always-saved viewpoint of the televangelists. But he was very open to Bible study and studied on his own as much as he could. He also read everything that was sent to him.
I asked Jeffrey what his religious background was. He explained that his parents had attended the church of Christ when he was a small child and continued to attend until he was about 5 years old. From that time on, he had not had any religious contact at all except for television and the times he lived with his grandmother. He did note that his father had been a faithful member of the church when Jeffrey was a child.
I was not able to study the Bible much with Jeff before baptizing him. Most of our time was taken up with how to accomplish the baptism in a prison setting.
The chaplain was resistant to bringing in a baptistry, even a donated one. Apparently, he had received a similar request before because he said prison policy did allow using the prison whirlpool tub for that purpose. Someone previously had donated a baptismal robe, which was in storage. Once permission was granted, which took two weeks, I met with Jeff, the chaplain, and two prison guards. After taking Jeff's confession, we were escorted to the medical facility where the tub was located.
Jeff was concerned about the baptismal "formula" to use. I normally say, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of your sins." He had been told that baptism was invalid unless the name of Jesus was the only name mentioned. After studying with him about this matter, he agreed to allow me to us the words with which I was comfortable. After Jeff changed into the baptistry robe, I went in and baptized him.
Nearly everyone raises the question about Jeff's sincerity. But I was there, and these questioners weren't. I deal with people who want to be baptized all the time. Knowing for certain the sincerity of the one requesting baptism is impossible. I just accept the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 12: "[O]ut of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks" (v.34 NIV).
I cannot know the condition of another person's heart unless I listen to his or her words. I listened to Jeff's words, and I watched his eyes and his body language. I listened to the tone of his voice and observed his mannerisms, and I am convinced that he was totally sincere in his desire.
Some people wonder how baptism might have benefited Jeff in terms of his stature with the prison system. The answer is that it had absolutely no effect on his life sentences. He still had 15 life sentences to serve in Wisconsin and one in Ohio, if he was ever released from the Wisconsin prison. But being released never would have happened. He had accepted the fact that he would die in prison.
Jeff had nothing to gain in this life by being baptized; he had everything to gain in the next life. He was baptized for the same reason anyone else is baptized. In the light of the Bible, he surveyed his life and concluded that he needed to be saved.
Jeff's death comes as a major surprise to me and his family. I last saw him when we studied together the day before Thanksgiving. He was in good spirits. He led a prayer and gave me a Thanksgiving card, expressing his gratitude to me for studying the Bible with him.
Jeff was beginning to embrace the Christian spirit. His father and several pen pals saw a major transformation in who he was after he became a Christian.
His father has been restored and is again a faithful member of the church, as is a younger brother, who was converted in college.
A memorial service was held for Jeff, which was attended by his family, several Christians, and two sisters of one of his victims who had grown close to the Dahmer family since their brother's death.
I developed a very good sense of friendship with Jeff, and I am feeling a sense of loss. He had a hunger and a thirst for righteousness like I haven't seen in a long time, and I will miss him.
Roy Ratcliff, a graduate of York College and Oklahoma Christian College, has been a minister for 24 years and works with the church of Christ in Madison, Wis. He and his wife, Susan, have two grown children.
Serial killer Jeffrey L. Dahmer killed his victims out of anger at his homosexuality and kept body parts as trophies, like a hunter, a psychiatrist testified in Dahmer's sanity trial Thursday.
From: Eldon Knoche, "Dahmer Likely To Turn To Religion, Expert Says", in The Milwaukee Sentinel, 17 Febreuary 1992:
"I don't believe his behavior was sexually motivated," psychiatrist George Palermo said. "I believe Jeffrey Dahmer killed his victims because he hated homosexuality."
Palermo, the first mental health expert in Dahmer's trial to testify that he was sane and criminally responsible when he murdered, also said that Dahmer has lied for years and still lies today.
"He lied to the judge in 1989 (when Dahmer was sentenced for sexual assault)," Palermo said. "He lied to his lawyer...
Palermo was the first witness to testify after defense attorney Gerald P. Boyle rested his case. Appointed by Circuit Judge Laurence C. Gram, Jr. as an impartial examiner, Palermo put Boyle in the position of attacking a psychiatric opinion for the first time in the trial.
While Boyle could not get Palermo to back down on his opinion that Dahmer was criminally responsible for his killings, Boyle did get the psychiatrist to concede that Dahmer needed treatment to stop his killing spree.
"If he doesn't go for any help at all, he would have killed again, wouldn't he?" asked Boyle, who called the previous mental health experts to testify as defense witnesses.
"I would say so," Palermo acknowledged...
Palermo said Dahmer was "a very complex man" afflicted by severe mixed personality disorder with features of sadism, compulsion, anti-social behavior and narcissism, among other things. Palermo said it would be wrong to categorize Dahmer as having one type of behavior that controls his actions...
Boyle noted that many of the features cited by Palermo were by themselves indicative of a sexual disorder. Boyle added that the "Diagnostics and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," a highly regarded guidebook used by mental health experts nationwide, indicated that the features denoted sexual deviancy...
Concerning Dahmer's difficulty in coming to grips with his homosexuality, Palermo indicated that was a problem since adolescence because he believed his family could not accept it. The difficulty evolved into a hatred over the years which later led to the killings, Palermo said.
Jeffrey Dahmer is likely to turn to religion in prison, but 40 years from now he probably will be psychologically unchanged, psychiatrist Basil Jackson said Sunday.
Though debate has focused on whether the convicted killer should be sent to prison or a mental hospital, "from a psychiatric point of view it doesn't make much difference for Mr. Dahmer," Jackson said. "Even if sent to the best psychiatric treatment, the outlook would not be good."
Jackson, who has counseled jailed televangelist Jim Bakker, among others, was asked for his assessment of how Dahmer will function in incarceration.
"I would anticipate that he would become deeply religious," Jackson said. "There's already signs of that."
"This is a very common method of adaptation in an isolated environment. He has the potential for the quasi-spiritual, as evidenced by the temples. He has been reading the New Testament."
There was testimony at Dahmer's trial about how he had planned to build a temple in his apartment, using skulls of his victims.
Jackson expects Dahmer to adjust well in prison and to "kind of fade into the woodwork. As long as he can have the basic needs satisfied -- cigarettes, reading, radio -- he will vegetate the rest of his life.
Webpage created 20 September 2005. Last modified 20 September 2005.
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