by Lise LaSalle

“Never apologize, mister, it’s a sign of weakness.”

“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”

“A man deserves a second chance, but keep an eye on him.”

“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”

There is a real fascination in our society for serial killers like John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Richard Ramirez and many more.  And it is not a new trend as we can trace this type of interest as far back in time as the documented cases will take us.

gift4Ironically, it appears that these killers are not that lethal in the grand scheme of things, if we compare their death toll to that of the most dangerous gangs out there. In fact, gangs like the Triads in Asia, los Zetas in Mexico, the international crime syndicate Yazuka mostly based in Japan, the Area Boys in Nigeria and the 18th street gang in LA, just to name a few, wreck much more havoc than our famous celebrity killers.  But we are not as enthralled by their handy work probably because they show their true colors publicly.

The gang members tend to be visible through tattoos, colors, clothing, etc. Their violent mentality is very clear and they demonstrate it proudly. They are killing hundreds and even thousands of people while subsisting on a gamut of crimes like drug dealing, car theft, burglary, home invasion, extortion and much more.  Everything goes for these outlaws who snub their noses at the system.

The mafia is a syndicate that was less visible and seemed a bit more sophisticated. Their tentacles reached into the pockets of businesses and even the government. And once upon a time, they used to have a code of honor about not killing children, women and innocent bystanders. They certainly appeared less savage at times than the notorious gift10modern gangs. But once again, even if we know the names of some mob bosses and more than a few movies have been made about the subject in general, this interest cannot compare to the morbid fascination many have for a boogey man like John Wayne Gacy, or even Charles gift5Manson who is a legend even if he has never killed anyone himself. Sometimes I wonder if Manson would have been able to accomplish anything physically violent without his doped-up and brainwashed disciples who were more a rag-tag group of losers than an organized gang. Manson pretended to be a flower power hippie and, in reality, he is a pretty insignificant little man compared to many gang leaders. But nonetheless he became the poster boy for infamous celebrity.

When men travel in packs and operate as a group, we tend not to focus so much on specific members, unless they really stand out. Plus, they are not hiding their true nature so there is no big mystery to uncover. On the other hand, the lone wolves who are wearing sheep’s clothing like John Wayne Gacy and who appear to lead a normal life on the outside, become an irresistible enigma because they live among us and act like us. Their efforts to hide their true nature make them oh so irresistible to analyze because it is almost like asking ourselves how any of us could be capable of such behavior.

Plato said, ‘At the touch of love everybody becomes a poet’, and I believe that at the touch of evil everybody becomes a truth seeker; we want to understand and know the reasons why evil happens as if it were contagious and we were afraid to catch it somehow before we could cure it or prevent it from happening again.  Not unlike driving by the site of an accident and slowing down automatically out of morbid fascination.

But people like Gacy are human beings just like you and me except that they got twisted and damaged along the way and lost their conscience if they ever had one, which is often the question. Nature versus nurture does not seem to cut it all the time but in Gacy’s case, it offers interesting insight.

John Wayne Gacy

gift9John Wayne Gacy was born in Chicago on March 17th, 1942. He was the second child of John Stanley and Marion Elaine Gacy. The young couple already had a daughter but John was longing to have a son to carry on the family name. They named him John Wayne after Marion’s favorite movie star and for John, it was the personification of manhood he expected from his son.

In Europe, many parents consult numerologists to try to find a well-balanced name for their offspring to make sure that they will not carry the burden of a name that could lead them in a negative direction. I can only imagine in the 40s and 50s that being called John Wayne, would have represented a burden for any boy who did not show any inclination to be tough and cowboyish.

The Gacy family welcomed a third child two years later. It was a lovely little girl they named Karen. The family was now complete and settled in a modest bungalow in a blue collar neighborhood. The father was the son of Polish immigrants and a world war Veteran who worked as a machinist building control panels for a utility company. He was an old-fashioned breadwinner who put food on the table and a roof over their heads but he was not the nurturing kind. On the contrary, he was an uncompromising man who demanded obedience from his children and was particularly hard on his only son John Wayne.

He expected him to be like the other boys and play sports, fish and participate in rough and tumble activities. As an avid fisherman, he tried to get John Wayne to share his passion, but to no avail because he had no interest in these pursuits. Instead, he loved nothing more than to cook with his sister or garden with his mother.

When John wanted to work on flower beds around the house, an activity he took pride in, his father would call him a sissy and would be very vocal and demeaning towards him. He would often ridicule him in front of his sisters and other kids and it grew into a constant stream of criticism and disdain.

gift7According to John Wayne’s childhood friend, Barry Boschelli, it was devastating for him and a terrible humiliation not to be accepted for who he really was. His father would tell him that he would never amount to anything and that he was one of the girls.

On the other hand, John’s mom was his confidant and he developed a special bond with her that made his father feel even more threatened. She was a homemaker who tried very hard to keep peace at home especially when her husband, who drank to escape his numbing job on the assembly line, would become violent and abusive and usually turn on John. He tried to run the household with an iron fist and it became very difficult — especially for the boy.

John learned to toughen up and not to cry when his father would hit him with a razor strap and to be stoic through it all. He felt alienated at home but longed to be accepted by his classmates. A congenital heart condition prevented him from playing with the other kids because he would pass out if he tried to be active or wrestle. It was another blow to the ego of his father who showed no sympathy for his son who was now a sickly sissy. The name John Wayne was a bust and in his father’s eyes, he may as well have been called Shirley Temple.

gift14John disappointed his father even more when he did not do well in his studies and fell behind in spite of working hard because he was sick and missed school so often. When he was twelve, he joined the boy scouts in another attempt to fit in. Let’s say that he excelled mostly in campfire cooking. He felt alienated from everyone except his best friend Barry who recognized what was going on and found out that John was in the habit of trying on his mother’s silk stockings and bra.

Gacy was obviously very confused about his sexuality and was receiving constant negative reinforcement about his own identity. He had no one to help him so he buried his secret desires deep down in his psyche and continued on with his life trying to be the man he was supposed to be.

By the time he was a teenager, he had mastered the art of deception and was dating girls and acting like everything was fine in his world. But his grades and his health had not improved. He attended a vocational high school to learn a trade but would pass out in shop class and it became clear he would never be able to work with machinery.

He dropped out of high school which disappointed his overbearing father once again so he decided to leave home to get away from the constant barrage of insults. He moved to Springfield, Illinois and at age twenty two, became a shoe salesman. Very Al Bundy so to speak.

He finally could feel alive and be himself, at least to a certain extent. He was very ambitious and determined to make a name for himself. He craved acceptance and became a volunteer at the Junior Chamber of Commerce. He rubbed elbows with politicians and organized quite a few campaigns for the community. He ended up marrying a shy bookkeeper he had met at the shoe store. Her name was Marlene and she was from a well-to-do family. Gacy saw it as a way to improve his image. They had a son named Michael that he was very proud of, but his demons had reared their ugly heads and the day his son was born, Gacy had his first homosexual encounter with a man, which delighted him and disgusted him at the same time.

gift16Unlike his father, Gacy was very nurturing with his son and even his dad seemed pleased to see him as a family man who had a decent job.  But it was not to last.

As he made a name for himself as a civic leader, he was also fighting a terrible sexual compulsion that would destroy everything he was trying to build. In 1966, he moved his family to Waterloo, Iowa because his father-in-law owned three Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants and he needed a good manager. Gacy loved being the boss and took to it like a fish in water or like chicken in fat.

He also became chairman of membership at the local Jaycee’s. He was charming and very social and he lured members by showing illegal porno and organizing orgies with prostitutes. Gacy even managed to get his wife Marlene to participate in wife swapping. By 1967, he became the father of another child called Christine and had become president of the Jaycee chapter. But his insatiable appetite for young boys had surfaced with a vengeance and was threatening to destroy the life he was trying to build by going against the grain.

One day, he lured a 15-year old boy to his house and after taking advantage of him sexually, gave him $50 and scared him with his supposed mob connections so he would not tell on him. The kid finally broke down and told his parents about Gacy’s sexual abuse. He was arrested and charged with sodomy and received 10 years at the local penitentiary. He tried to say it was consensual and became very afraid for his public image. The mask he was wearing had been ripped away.

His wife and children left him and he would never see them again. He was jailed in 1968 and released in June 1970 for good behavior. He did well in jail and mingled with the guards, the inmates, the social workers and even the warden. He became head cook at the prison which in a way, was a dream come true for him. He was even interviewed on television about the meals he would cook for the inmates during the holidays. And he talked with pride about his Christmas menu.

gift8During his stay in prison, his father John Stanley died which devastated Gacy because he was convinced that his conduct had been the main contributing factor in his passing.  He was tortured with the thought that his father had died of shame. But his grief turned into rage and he became violent towards gay men in prison. He kicked one of them in the face for having oral sex with another inmate. It is like he was trying to kill his inner pulsion. It was not about hating homosexuals but about hating his attraction towards them.

He returned to Chicago after being released and told his family he was turning over a new leaf and would lead a new and better life. He moved in with his mom and worked as a cook. He was still driven but his temperament had changed according to his sister. In 1971, he started a home repair company called PDM and bought a house.

gift17He married a girl named Carole whom he was honest with about his stint in jail and his homosexuality. She had two daughters from a previous marriage and Gacy was very kind to them and they even called him daddy.

But it was as if the strain of living the conventional life was more than Gacy could bear. Not long after their marriage, in 1972, John snapped and killed his first victim, a teenage boy and buried him in the crawl space under his house. Even if he had married his best friend Carole, their relationship deteriorated because of his longing to be with young men. In 1975, he killed one of his young employees after tricking him into slipping on a pair of handcuffs. He sexually tortured him and strangled him with a tourniquet.

That was the end of his so-called normal life. He had now killed two young men. He liked to hurt them mostly as an experiment to see how they would react. He was losing all sense of humanity. His way of regressing into childhood was to dress as a clown named Pogo to try to relive his innocence. This is how he escaped while entertaining children and from all accounts, he was always very kind to them.

When he was not torturing teenage boys, he would dabble in politics and continue with his hectic work schedule. In 1975, his wife filed for divorce and left with her daughters. Now single, Gacy was free to indulge in his obsession: torturing and killing young men.  He had his basement dug up in order to bury more victims.

gift2He rented out a room to an employee named David who one night came home to find Gacy drunk and dressed in his clown costume. He tried the ‘magic handcuffs’ trick on him but it did not work because David was strong and wrestled with him. He is the only live witness who was able to describe Gacy during his murderous rages. He said that he was laughing like a little kid and in the middle of a sentence, changed like a light switch and started growling like an animal and lunged at him while shouting, ‘I am going to rape you’. David managed to escape to his room and he moved out soon after. He was the lucky one who escaped Gacy.

In 1977, Gacy killed 19 young men disposing of them in his basement while maintaining his double life. He was committing a murder every two or three weeks while organizing the Chicago parade and mingling with Rosalynn Carter.

He was smart enough to pick boys that would generally not be missed. But he made a big mistake on December 11th, 1978 when he went after 15-year-old Rob Piest who worked at a pharmacy where Gacy was bidding on a remodelling job. He lured Rob to his house with the promise of a better paying job and he was never seen alive again. He had become Gacy’s 33rd and final victim.

gift11He was questioned about the boy’s disappearance after witnesses reported seeing them together. This time he could not talk his way out of it. The police were beginning to tie him to the other murders. He was placed under 24 hour surveillance. Gacy tried to look confident and to act like nothing had happened. His hustling skills were such that he invited the cops to his house for a fish dinner. What nerve this guy had considering that dozens of bodies were in the basement!

Gacy realized he was toast and decided to meet his attorney for an all-night confession. He offered to show him the crawl space but the police descended on the scene first. On December 21, 1978, Gacy was arrested for murder. He remained cool and collected as he had always done when times were tough and when they booked him and asked him where he was born, he answered that “he was born in a state of confusion.’’ In his mug shot you can see him laughing at his own joke.

gift15He tried to pull the ‘multiple personality disorder’ defence when talking to the police and told them he was nuts. While the excavation of the dead bodies was going on, the world was introduced to John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer. His own family was in shock. His sister Karen was in denial at first and his mother died inside the day he was arrested. She became a shadow of herself but still had love in her heart for her son.

Gacy’s attorneys tried a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. More than anything else, Gacy didn’t want to be perceived as a homosexual and he denied the charge. Much later, during interviews, he stated that he was not homosexual but bisexual.

During his trial, experts were baffled by John Wayne because he did not fit any label in existence. They basically knew what he had done but could not say what he was. On March 23, 1980, a jury of his peers found him guilty and sentenced him to death.

Always the enigma, Gacy consoled his defense team and asked to talk to the prosecutors to tell them they had done a good job and to congratulate them on getting the death penalty. He was sent to death row at the Menard Correction Centre in Southern Illinois.

gift3Once there, he capitalized on his celebrity by creating paintings that were mostly appreciated by that select group who like the macabre aspect of a killer clown. Later on, he even published a book proclaiming his innocence that was titled A Question of Doubt in which he passed himself off as a victim and claimed that the bodies were planted in his house by his employees.

His mother Marion was his only ally and defender. She died in 1989 after having suffered a series of strokes. She had lost all memory of her son or his crimes and I say thank God for small miracles.

On May 10, 1994 he was executed with his sister there with him saying a final goodbye while a crowd celebrated outside. Karen asked him if he had made his peace with God and he said yes. He told Karen that he loved her and passed away at age 52.

A forensic psychiatrist called Helen Morrison extracted Gacy’s brain hoping to find some clue or abnormality but did not detect anything out of the ordinary. She might have been able to find some abnormal activity through an MRI when he was still alive but it was too late and the mystery would prevail.

It seems that John Wayne Gacy was very driven to do good but equally driven to do bad, and of course his bad side was far more dramatic. In his interviews, he never showed or expressed remorse of any kind for his victims. He had plenty of emotions for his family but his crimes were in a completely separate compartment.

gift12He never admitted to his true nature and would cringe at the idea of being compared to Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer. He grew up repressing his emotions and his own sexuality and continued doing so as an adult. He excelled at living a lie and we will never know if he was born this way or if the sensitive boy who loved cooking and gardening with his mother had been crushed to the extent that he developed a fixation on his own ambiguous sexuality. After all, he only killed teenage boys who represented what his father hated the most about him but that he was so attracted to.

When all is said and done, the name John Wayne he was given at birth became a curse and the representation of everything he could not live up to – a huge burden to carry for a boy who could never please his father and be a real man like the movie hero. But when he became a killer, some of the famous quotes from big tough John Wayne became strangely appropriate. Gacy never apologized for his actions and must have been scared to death. He thought he deserved a second chance and did what he had to do. He might have lived up to his name after all. I think he made it Pilgrim!

“Never apologize, mister, it’s a sign of weakness.”

“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”

“A man deserves a second chance, but keep an eye on him.”

“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.” 

 

2 Responses to John Wayne Gacy Never Lived Up to His Name or Did He?

  1. Cookie Little says:

    A well written and informative article on John Wayne Gacy. I as many wonder at what point in a child life do they turn away from innocence and become creatures without empathy and conscious.

    • liselasalle says:

      Thank you. It is always an interesting question and in this case, his childhood might have been the leading factor. But we can never be sure. He certainly seemed to have ended up compartmentalizing his life as a result.

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