Chicago, Illinois. You know who John Wayne Gacy was while he lived: one of the most prolific (as they call them) serial killers in American history. He was known as the Killer Clown because he dressed up as Pogo the Clown and attended children’s birthday parties and various community events. Tellingly, the sharp corners Gacy painted at the edges of his mouth are discouraged in professional clowns, so as not to scare children. Even his clown makeup was creepy. If you ever feared clowns before, you’ve got another reason now.
Gacy preyed on boys and young men. He liked them between 15 and 20. Teenagers especially appealed to him because they were utterly naive and easy to overcome physically. Gacy raped and murdered 33 young men, burying them beneath the crawl space in his house, between 1972 – 1978 before he was finally caught, convicted, and executed by lethal injection in 1994 in the state of Stateville, Illinois. No one cried over his death. Many people cheered.
They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and Gacy was the perfect example of this phenomenon. It was his low self-esteem and sense of personal isolation that prevented him from establishing normal relationships with people around him. The lonelier he got, the angrier he felt. That can’t be good. His unhappiness stemmed from his early childhood. Gacy had one of the worst fathers ever to walk the earth. In spite of this, after his arrest Gacy Jr vehemently denied he hated his father. However, if he did hate the old man, he had good reason.
John Stanley Gacy was physically and verbally abusive. He took great delight in humiliating his son in front of his peers and his siblings. Although his mother, Marion Elaine Robinson, probably wasn’t blameless – she admitted to giving her 3-week-old infant son an enema, then later denied it to a reporter – he developed a close relationship with her. I liken this to the Stockholm Syndrome. Gacy probably favored his mother, the lesser of two evils, over his father as a type of hostage response to his father’s abuse. Their relationship was a source of aggravation for Gacy, who believed Mother and son conspired against him. Husband and wife argued constantly about who ran the household and how to discipline the children. Clearly, Robinson lost most of the arguments.
Gacy Sr named his son after Robinson’s favorite actor, John Wayne (I bet Wayne was tickled over that one). Gacy was a blue-collar man, a machinist and a WWI veteran. was a demanding father, especially toward his son. He was the kind of father who wanted his son to be a man’s man and he would beat it into Johnny if that was what it took and beat him he did. One of Gacy’s childhood memories was of being beaten with a leather belt by his father at the age of four for accidentally disarranging car engine components his father had assembled. First, the child shows an interest in cars, a decidedly male hobby. Then, his father beat him for it. Make up your mind, Gacy.
When he was six years old, Johnny stole a toy truck from a store. In a perfectly reasonable response, his mother made him return the toy and apologize to the owners. However, she told his father, who beat Gacy with a razor strap until he left welts. After witnessing her husband’s unending cruelty toward her son, Robinson did her best to intervene whenever Gacy Sr took out the leather belt. Gacy was very demanding of his daughters, and he disciplined them with the razor strap too. Boy or girl, when it came to corporal punishment, gender didn’t stop Gacy Sr.
Child predators recognize lonely and neglected children. They make easy targets and Johnny was no exception. At the age of nine, young Gacy was molested by a family friend, a contractor who took Johnny for rides in his truck, then fondled him. Johnny never told his father about these incidents as he was afraid his father would blame him and rightly so. One can imagine his father calling his son a “faggot” and insisting he “asked for it.” It’s fair to say he probably would have beaten Johnny for being a sexual abuse victim.
In front of his friends, Gacy ridiculed his son for being a pansy. He mocked his son for not taking part in sports with other boys, even though his son had a congenital heart condition that made it impossible for him to compete in sports. This isolated him from his schoolmates. Rather than accepting his son’s illness, Gacy mocked him even more for it, as though having a weak heart was Johnny’s fault. Eventually his scrawny boy became overweight due to his lack of physical activity, making him even more of a target for his father’s cruelty.
Johnny often suffered from blackouts due to his heart condition. His father suspected the episodes were an effort to gain sympathy and attention. On one occasion he even accused his son of faking while Johnny lay ill in a hospital bed. No matter what happened to his son, Gacy was determined to degrade him. On one occasion in 1957, Gacy’s father began shouting at Johnny for no reason, then began hitting him in front of a childhood friend. His mother tried to intervene, but occasionally, Gacy threatened his wife to turn against her if she didn’t move out of his way.
Gacy was an avid fisherman and where Johnny was concerned he didn’t spare the rod (pun). He wanted Johnny to like fishing, but his son didn’t. This enraged his father. Gacy Jr recalled, “I couldn’t get along with my father. He was overbearing. I was dumb and stupid and never would amount to anything.” Naturally, when Johnny failed to develop a talent for fishing his father beat him. Abuse and anger reigned in the Gacy household. It would become a part of Johnny’s way of life after he ran away from home and eventually established himself in the world away from his father.
As a child, Gacy was interested in more effeminate activities. He liked gardening. He made garden beds around the house, something his sister recalled was considered “the sissy thing to do.” He enjoyed baking with his mother and sisters. He probably sewed but kept that one a secret. All of his interests were decidedly feminine and that served to irritate his father even further. Johnny’s childhood friend, Barry Boschelli, recalled that his unhappy friend craved his father’s acceptance. Alas, it was not to be. Gacy insisted Johnny was going to be “one of the girls.”
Johnny didn’t thrive in the classroom either. His heart condition led to him missing a significant amount of school and as a result his grades were poor. It is possible he also suffered from a learning disability. Once again, Gacy was disappointed in his only boy.
The Boy Scouts
There is too much irony in this one. At 12, Johnny joined the Boy Scouts in an attempt to fit in with his peers. He did quite well, earning merit badges in wilderness survival and, of course, campfire cooking. Gacy was placated somewhat by this activity and his son’s successes but he wasn’t especially verbal about it.
Johnny knew he was a horse of a different safari and he desperately needed to share this secret with a friend. One day he showed Boschelli a bag with his mother’s bra and panties in it, stashed inside his bedroom closet. Naturally, Boschelli was shocked and asked him why he had stolen the garments. Johnny admitted he wanted to know how he would look as a girl. His sexual orientation and gender confusion were a constant, private concern. He languished inside, not knowing how to handle his dilemma. Although he dated girls in high school and brought them to school dances, he simply wasn’t interested in girls in a romantic sense. If anyone suspected, no one said so out loud.
When he turned 18, Johnny’s father bought him a car, with the ownership being in his father’s name until Gacy had completed the monthly payments to his father. These payments took years to complete, and naturally during this time, the vehicle came with conditions. Gacy would confiscate the keys if Johnny displeased him in some manner, which was often. On one occasion in 1962, Johnny had the wherewithal to buy an extra set of keys after his father confiscated the original keys from him. In response, his father removed the distributor cap from the car for three days. The man just couldn’t get enough of demeaning his son. In later years, Gacy Jr recalled that as a result of this incident, he felt “totally sick; drained“. In other words, he just couldn’t do it anymore.
Eventually, Johnny got a job as a mortuary attendant. Uh-oh. This couldn’t bode well. He actually slept in a cot behind the embalming room. Ick. He observed morticians embalming dead bodies and later confessed that the whole process aroused him. One night, Johnny climbed into the coffin of a deceased teenage male, embracing and caressing the body. He claimed he “experienced a sense of shock,” from the incident. It was as though he was outside of the experience and “awoke” to find himself engaged in the necrophilic act. This was the beginning of Johnny’s morbidity and his ability to separate himself mentally from his own loathsome activities. However, his own revulsion at what he had done prompted Johnny to call his mother the next day and ask whether his father would allow him to return home. Surprisingly Gacy agreed and the same day, Johnny drove back to live with his family. Didn’t see that one coming.
Eventually John married a woman named Marlynn Myers. During his courtship with Marlynn, John had his second homosexual experience. He claimed that he and a friend went out drinking after work. The young man plied him with drinks, invited John to spend the evening upon his sofa, then performed oral sex upon him while he was drunk. Eventually, Gacy and Myers had a daughter and a son. His sister Karen claimed “he was such a good father. He was very nurturing…it was just like a natural thing to him.” Photographs show a happy, chubby baby, content to sit in his father’s arms. For the first time ever, Gacy Sr. showed pride toward his son. Their relationship took a turn for the better: his son was a family man with a beautiful family. Never again would there be tension and abuse between father and son. Alas, this development had come way too late for Gacy Jr. He was irreparably damaged and held at his core an inner rage and a penchant for sexual sadism.
By the time he reached adulthood, Gacy Jr was an angry, isolated man with sadistic sexual fantasies about young boys and young men. It may be a stretch to say his depravity stemmed only from his father’s abuse, but definitely it was a highly contributing factor. Had Gacy hailed from a supportive family, there might never have been a Killer Clown. One psychiatrist claimed, “He liked to hurt people but he did it more in the sense of wanting to experiment, to see how people would react.” Another psychiatrist claimed he was attempting “to overcome this childhood sense of failure and his sexual desires and needs.”
Gacy liked to dress up as a clown and entertain children (a scary thought). He stated “you could make a fool out of yourself” without negative social consequences. It was also a chance for him to be accepted in his community. It was telling that he was at his most confident when he was in disguise. However, Gacy became a master manipulator without needing the clown costume. An intelligent man, he developed a successful construction business. In 1967, he was named “outstanding vice-president” of the Waterloo Jaycees. He became involved in community activities and was well-respected around town. Gacy was finally receiving the acceptance and approval he had craved from his peers and his family as a child.
In 1975, Gacy was appointed director of Chicago’s annual Polish Constitution Day Parade. Through his work with the parade, Gacy met First Lady Rosalynn Carter on May 6, 1978. The photograph later became an embarrassment to the United States Secret Service; Gacy can be seen wearing an “S” pin, extended to a person who receives special clearance by the Secret Service. Oopsie. .
It should come as no surprise that there was a seedier side of the Jaycees, where wife swapping, prostitution, pornography and drugs reigned. Gacy held sexual orgies with fellow Jaycees and prostitutes. Gacy regularly cheated on his wife who usually refused to indulge him in spouse swapping. When he admitted his activities to his sister Karen, her regard for him significantly diminished. She would have been even less impressed by Gacy’s insatiable lust for teenage boys.
Gacy allowed young male employees to drink alcohol in his basement. Many were given alcohol before Gacy made sexual advances, which he dismissed as a joke if the teenager rebuffed him. Perhaps he assured the teenagers he was only “clowning around.” Ba-dum ching! In August 1967, Gacy committed his first known sexual assault against 15-year-old Donald Voorhees, the son of a fellow Jaycee. Gacy lured the youth to his house, plied the boy with alcohol and persuaded him to perform oral sex. He paid the boy $50 to keep his silence.
In March 1968, the traumatized Voorhees reported to his father that Gacy had sexually assaulted him. Voorhees Sr., an Iowa state senator, informed the police and Gacy was arrested and charged with oral sodomy. Gacy vehemently denied the charges. He accused Vorhees of being a liar. Gacy confidently took a lie detector test and failed. Other teenage boys came forward with allegations of sexual abuse. At first, his fellow Jaycees rallied around him, supporting his denials but over time, the ongoing accusations turned the tide against him.
On August 30, 1968, Gacy persuaded 18-year-old Russell Schroeder, to physically attack Voorhees in an effort to discourage the boy from testifying against him. Schroeder lured Voorhees to a secluded spot, sprayed him with Mace, and beat him while shouting he was not to testify against Gacy. Vorhees bravely reported the assault to police, identifying Schroeder as his attacker, and the boy was arrested the following day. Gacy was also arrested and charged for hiring Schroeder to assault and intimidate Voorhees. Gacy just didn’t know when to quit.
Incredibly, he once claimed “I have never claimed to be an angel [hooo boy] and I have openly admitted to everything I have ever done.”
Prison and Divorce
Gacy was convicted of the sodomy charge on December 3, 1968 and sentenced to 10 years at the Anamosa State Penitentiary. Gacy wasn’t especially devastated at least not publicly. He was stoic when the sentence was handed down, even when his brutish father cried. He would serve – wait for it – 18 months of that sentence then he was released. The very day he was sentenced his wife, tired of the forced wife swapping and appalled at the sexual assault against Vorhees, petitioned for divorce. Gacy never saw his first wife or children again, lucky for them. However, Gacy made the best of a bad situation. Ever the charmer, Gacy mingled with the guards and got in good with the Warden. He became head cook in the prison and was interviewed by a reporter. Gacy kept seeking the limelight and he kept receiving it.
Gacy’s father drank himself to death, dying from cirrhosis of the liver on Christmas Day 1969. Gacy was not told that his father had died until two days after his death. Gacy broke down in tears and had to be supported back to his cell by prison staff. He believed his conviction for the sexual assault against Vorhees was what killed his father. The man who had abused and belittled him all of his life still held a strong hold over Gacy, even from the grave. Gacy requested supervised compassionate leave from prison to attend his father’s funeral, but his request was denied.
After his father’s death Gacy became enraged and he took it out on prisoners he believed were gay. Once he saw two prisoners engaged in oral sex. Gacy kicked one of the men in the face then returned to his cell. He didn’t hate homosexuals of course. He hated “his attraction to them.” It was during his hated incarceration in prison that Gacy’s loathing for his own interest toward males increased significantly.
Within one year of his release, Gacy was up to his old tricks. He sexually assaulted a 17-year-old boy. This complaint was dismissed when the youth failed to appear in court. The Iowa Parole Board wasn’t notified of this development and Gacy, slipping between the cracks in the justice system, was released from parole within one year of his release from prison. Incredible, really.
Gacy bought a house in Norwood Park Township, in Cook County. The address, 8213 West Summerdale Avenue, would be where he committed all of his known murders. In August 1971, shortly after Gacy and his mother moved into the house, he became engaged to Carole Hoff, herself a divorcee with two young daughters. He had briefly dated Hoff in high school, and she had been a friend of his younger sister. At first, the marriage was undeniably a success; they were both friends and lovers. His fiancée moved into his home soon after the couple announced their engagement. Gacy’s mother moved out of the house shortly before his wedding. In-laws. Pah.
After a time the marriage began to falter. Gacy was obsessed with teenage boys and craved sex with them. Sex with Hoff was unfulfilling and it happened less often. One afternoon in 1975, Hoff filed for divorce and left, taking their two daughters. Gacy “was like a wild beast uncaged.” Hoff’s abandonment was welcomed; it made ample opportunity for his killing spree.
As far as it is known, it was on January 2, 1972, that Gacy committed his first murder. He picked up 15-year-old Timothy Jack McCoy, a runaway, from Chicago’s Greyhound bus terminal. Gacy drove McCoy to his Cook County home with the promise that the boy could spend the night and be driven back to the station the following morning to catch the bus. Gacy claimed it was McCoy who initiated an assault on him. He claimed that McCoy stood in his bedroom doorway with a kitchen knife in his hand and attempted to stab Gacy to death. Gacy managed to straddle McCoy and stabbed him repeatedly in the chest. Later, Gacy buried him beneath the crawl space of his house. The only believable part of the story is that Gacy stabbed poor McCoy to death and buried him in the cellar. Naturally, Gacy must have raped the youth but he refused to admit to this assault. The death wasn’t planned but it afforded Gacy “the ultimate power trip.”
McCoy’s murder would be the first in a long line of rape-murders. It was the search for a missing youth that led to Gacy’s downfall. Armed with a warrant, police entered Gacy’s home, arrested him and found the foul-smelling crawl space that served as a mass grave for 33 young men and teenage boys. Some of the youth were runaways and would never be identified. Gacy’s reign of terror and torture over Chicago youth was over. Gacy seemed to take the news well. He joked happily with police as he was arrested. When asked where he was born, Gacy laughingly replied, “in a state of confusion.”
The arrest and trial were a media sensation. Although he had originally admitted freely admitted to the murders, torture and sexual assaults, he retained attorneys who pled not guilty on the basis of insanity on his behalf. It was important to Gacy that he not be considered homosexual. “I’m bisexual,” he stated in an interview and there was some truth to that. He had marital sex with two women. He had fathered children. He had participated in wife swapping with the Jaycees.
His family and friends were stunned by his admissions and guilty verdict. They realized they had never known Gacy. Karen stated “there was never that twinkle [in her mother’s eye]….she said I’m a mother. How can I stop loving him?” Years later Gacy ridiculously claimed he’d been framed and that “the bodies had been planted beneath the cellar” by his employees. Until her death Robinson believed her son, as much for her own sake as for his.
For his final hours, Karen kept her brother company. She told herself “this person is not dying because they’re sick. They’re dying because someone will murder him.” Outside the prison, crowds of people cheered, “kill him! Kill him!” To be sure the man deserved his sentence but I don’t agree with making the event into a celebration. It reminds me of the gladiator spectator sport of Ancient Greece wherein captured soldiers were forced to fight each other to the death. Nasty.
After the lethal injection, Gacy’s body was brought to a hospital where a Dr. Morrison had his brain removed for study. She found no anomaly that could explain his behavior. He was simply evil. In the end, Pogo the Clown, the children’s entertainer, and John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer, paid the ultimate price for his crimes and were executed, taking their many twisted secrets and desires with them.