There is a book that has been called by many the most comprehensive work on serial killers.
It is called “The method and madness of monsters” and was written in 2003/2004 by
a man called Peter Vronsky.
In the introduction he explains one of the reasons why he started writing the book, telling
the reader that one Sunday morning in 1979 he checked into a New York city hotel.
He was momentarily irked by the fact someone had held the elevator on the top floor.
When that person finally came down he passed Vronsky.
He had a bag in his hand.
Years later Vronsky would discover that two heads and body parts were in that bag.
The mutilated torsos of the women those heads belonged to were on fire in a room on the
Vronsky later smelled burning, but he didn’t know it was the smell of roasting flesh.
That’s our introduction to a man who could be the USA’s most prolific serial killer.
We say could, and we’ll explain later why.
First let’s start the story at the beginning.
Before Cottingham got the title, The New York Ripper, or the Butcher of Times Square, or
the Torso Killer (how do you kill a torso?), he was a young man from a middle class family
living in New Jersey.
His father was a Vice Chairman at an insurance company and his mother was a homemaker.
By all accounts the family was a loving one, except for the fact the dad enjoyed binge-drinking
his weekends away at the local bars.
It’s said the family was large, and Cottingham as a boy was always surrounded by lots of
Most of those people, however, were girls and women since his own family and relatives
we are told were mostly of the fairer sex.
Cottingham has said he grew up doted on because of this and always received lots of attention.
We know all this because many years after Vronsky’s book was written he would go on
to interview Cottingham.
In an interview in 2018 with a Bangkok-based podcast called “This Strange Life” Vronsky
talked about those interviews and partly about Cottingham’s childhood.
By all accounts, he did indeed come from a normal, loving family.
He did not fall into the category of what’s called the McDonald Triad.
This is related to three things common in the childhood of serial killers.
Those are cruelty to animals, setting fires and constant bedwetting.
If you are watching this and are now thinking, “Oh my God, that’s me,” don’t worry,
as Vronsky is quick to say that this is common for many kids, but it just seems the triad
is a feature in many serial killers’ early lives.
Cottingham loved animals, with Vronsky saying, “He had homing pigeons as a boy.
He loved animals and still does.”
He explained that he couldn’t even kill one when one needed to be put down.
“He couldn’t have possibly killed one of those homing pigeons,” said Vronsky.
But he didn’t mind killing humans later in life.
In his book Vronsky writes that Cottingham would drug, torture, and mutilate women, and
whether they were dead or alive at the end of this he didn’t much care.
It’s said at times he made sure some women were dead, but that’s only because he had
known them and so wanted to get rid of their hands and head so they could not be identified
and a trail lead back to him.
What Cottingham would do is pick up women selling their bodies on the streets, and we
must remember that back in the 1970s around New York those women were plentiful, young
girls were travelling from all over the U.S. to work the streets of a city which we might
say were not paved with gold.
If the women went with Cottingham he might drug them and torture them, and sometimes
they might survive.
But an awful lot, perhaps as many as 80 women, did not.
Some sources say as many as 100.
According to Vronsky, many of these women might have died during the mutilation and
beating, and that it was not always Cottingham’s intention to kill them.
“They died on him” said Vronsky.
The women were often tied up, and then Cottingham would start his process with his hands, teeth
and a bag of tools.
We cannot go into details, but those details are nothing short of horrific.
“I have a problem with women,” Cottingham once said, and that might be the understatement
of the century.
It’s said that many of the women that did survive this ordeal didn’t report it, mostly
because they were already doing illegal things.
Some did, some didn’t, but Cottingham was never under suspicion.
He was for the most part invisible, an American psycho, a man with three kids who loved him
and a very normal family life.
One hour he might be standing over his small child as she blew out her birthday cake candles,
and the next hour he might be dismembering one of his victims.
According to the experts, Cottingham was what is referred to as a sadistic killer, a person
who derives excitement from the process of causing extreme pain, a person who gets off
on the woman’s expression during her ordeal.
The type of killer often doesn’t care about the coup de gras, the death blow, the process
where other killers get all their pleasure.
Murder is often just a way to prevent capture by police.
Asked what Cottingham, now an old man in bad shape, is like now, Vronsky says he is very
He had given just one interview before he spoke with Vronsky, with the reason likely
being he didn’t want exposure as it would hurt his three children.
They no longer visit him, not after he admitted what he’d done.
“What’s he like?
Evil?” asks the interviewee in Bangkok.
“He is a great guy,” replies Vronsky, surprising his interlocutor.
But this is how it often works, because serial killers might need to be charming to lure
people into their web.
“I could see why all those women trusted him,” says Vronsky.
He adds that Cottingham is amiable, intelligent, well read, talkative, and yet, he adds, you
know you are sitting next to someone tremendously evil, someone who is open, but at the same
Vronsky says the psychologists 30 years ago said the same thing about Cottingham.
The only reason he talked to Vronsky is a lurid story in itself.
One of those women that Cottingham had decapitated in 1979 and then set on fire had had a child.
Forensics new this because she had a scar where the cesarean had been performed.
The child was adopted, and years later that child found out who her mother was.
She subsequently read Vronsky’s book and went to visit Cottingham in prison, after
which she asked Vronsky to help her talk to him to retrieve any information pertaining
to her mother.
As we speak, said Vronsky a few months ago when he did the interview, police are trying
to find the head.
Cottingham had at least been helpful there.
He is close to death now, and it seems he wants some kind of redemption.
The problem is his memory has faded, and Cottingham has said he has never remembered the torture
and killing part but only his meticulous clean up.
He said during the time he was getting rid of evidence he was in what he called “the
He was rather good at evading detection by police, and he’d been doing it for a long
Cottingham was only ever convicted of killing five women.
Vronsky says that some serial killers have lied about the number of people they killed,
but he believes Cottingham might be telling the truth about the 80 number.
Ongoing investigations have indeed found that he definitely did kill more people, but as
for the 80 count, it just won’t be possible to prove if that’s true.
He was just 21 when he committed his first murder in 1968, but the next murder he was
charged with didn’t happen until 1979.
That’s a big gap, and Cottingham has said he was prowling the streets, finding and hurting
women, all that time.
Many women as we said, he didn’t kill, but he says a lot of bodies of women found by
police throughout the 70s were on him.
He was bringing up children at the time of the murders, and those kids we are told loved
He did have two mistresses in New York, but apparently he was also very kindhearted with
In fact, it’s said they thought he was very shy and often unable to manifest his more
normal sexual desire on them.
He held down a good job and was liked by those who knew him.
So, how did he get caught, this invisible monster?
According to Vronsky he had gotten sloppy.
Police had been discovering dead young women at hotels, each of them having been strangled
In 1980 Cottingham did this to one girl, and then just stuffed her under the bed in the
She was later found by a maid, covered in bite marks, badly beaten, throat slit with
A maniac was on the loose.
Then Cottingham just a short time later picked up another woman, and he took her to the same
The staff didn’t think anything of it; for some reason they didn’t remember Cottingham
and the fact he had gone there just 18 days before with a girl that ended up being killed.
He took this girl to a room and told her he would like to give her a massage, and then
he proceeded to hold her down, handcuff her, and torture her.
She screamed, and she later said in court he had told her, “You have to take it.
The other girls did, you have to take it too.”
But those screams had been heard, and because staff at the hotel were already shaken by
what had happened before, they immediately called the police.
Cottingham was caught red-handed, the girl still on the bed, alive.
At Cottingham’s side were replica pistols, slave collars, a knife, and lots of prescription
Police wasted no time in searching Cottingham’s house and there they found trophies he’d
collected from other women he had murdered.
The game was up, it was an easy case to solve from there.
As we said, he was only convicted of five murders in the end, but that number certainly
isn’t the number of his actual victims.
Vronsky said during his visits with him, which are still ongoing, or at least were not long
ago, he appears looking like Santa Claus with his portly figure and white beard.
He uses a wheelchair, and now at the edge of his own life, Vronsky says he is in a “confessional
Not because he feels bad about what he did, according to Vronsky, but because he’s hedging
his bets on an afterlife.
According to Vronsky, Cottingham says there is more to what he did that has not come out.
“He hints that no one knows exactly what he did,” said Vronsky in the interview,
“and people will be shocked when they find out.”
Needless to say, Cottingham won’t ever be getting out of prison.
So, there you have the story of a loving family man who had a double identity, a man who evaded
arrest in part because he didn’t fit the profile of what most of us would think is
a maniac who is capable of doing the most despicable things to another human being.
Maybe there were signs, but if that’s true, no one talked about them.
In time most of us realize that the real monsters in life come with human faces, sometimes all
too normal, the boy next door, the doting dad, the guy with the briefcase and business
suit who spends his weekends watching his young kids play sports.
Cottingham is perhaps the perfect example of a Jekyll and Hyde character.
There are many in the serial killing world.
All we can ask you is what do you think about this story?
Tell us in the comments.
Also, be sure to check out our other show The Acid Bath English Serial Killer - John
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