All told, “Big Ed” killed ten people—his grandparents, his mother, his mother’s friend, and six young women he picked up hitchhiking in Northern California from 1972-1973, which earned him the moniker “The Co-Ed Killer.” His gruesome crimes involved decapitation, necrophilia, and cannibalism.
What seems nearly as unsettling as his crimes, though, is his rare ability to articulate his motivations. Even though he is very careful not to blame his mother for his later deeds, he insists that understanding her role in his formative years could help prevent the development of future Ed Kempers.
Early Years: Confined To The Basement
Edmund Emil Kemper III was born in California in 1948, the only son of three children born to Edmund Emil Kemper II and Clarnell Kemper. Weighing thirteen pounds at birth, he was a giant from the start.
In every interview he’s ever granted, Kemper has described his family as “matriarchal” and his mother as controlling and abusive. He called her a “big, ugly, awkward woman who was six feet tall and she was always trying to get me to go out with girls who were just like her.” Ed’s father, a veteran who allegedly was belittled by Clarnell for his “menial” job as an electrician, concurred: “suicide missions in wartime and the atomic bomb testings were nothing compared to living with her,” his father later said after divorcing Clarnell.
Ed says he started to feel his mother’s searing misandry when she allowed his two sisters to sleep upstairs while she forced him to sleep in the basement. He says she continually called him “stupid,” a “sissy,” a “real weirdo,” and would smack the hell out of him for the slightest act of insubordination.
Ed claims his older sister tortured him, once shoving him in front of an oncoming train and another time almost drowning him in a swimming pool. He would play macabre games with his sisters such as “Electric Chair” and “Gas Chamber,” where they’d sit on a chair in his bedroom and pretend they were receiving the death penalty. When one of his sisters gave him a doll for Christmas, he cut off its hands and head. He also buried the family cat alive before chopping off its head, placing it on a stick, and muttering a prayer. At one point when his sister teased him by saying he wanted to kiss his female teacher, a very young Ed ominously said, “If I kissed her, I’d have to kill her first.”
Age 15: Ed Murders His Grandparents
Feeling despised and deeply unwanted by his mother, Ed went to live with his dad and his new stepmother in Los Angeles when he was 14, at which point he was already 6’4”. But this new stepmother resented him too, and Ed was sent to live with his grandparents in Montana.
Here, too, Ed felt he was trapped in an anti-male matriarchy, complaining that his grandmother “was constantly emasculating me and my grandfather.” On August 27, 1964, Ed and his grandmother quarreled in the kitchen. Ed left the room and returned with a hunting rifle, whereupon he shot his grandmother in the head and twice in the back, killing her. Fearing that she had not died yet and claiming that he didn’t want her to suffer, he stabbed her multiple times with a kitchen knife and let the life bleed out of her. When his grandfather returned home, Ed stepped out into the driveway and shot him dead. He then called his mother and told her what he’d done. She told him to call the police, which he did. When asked why he murdered his grandparents, he reportedly told investigators, ‘I just wondered how it would feel to shoot grandma.”
Court psychiatrists diagnosed Kemper with paranoid schizophrenia and shuffled him off to the criminally insane unit at Atascadero State Hospital. But authorities at the hospital disagreed and said that Kemper “showed no signs of delusion no flight of ideas, no interference with thought, no expression of delusions or hallucinations, and no evidence of bizarre thinking.” At best, they said he was passive-aggressive.
During his stay at the mental hospital, Kemper was allegedly a model prisoner and claims he successfully helped introduce the concept of “Overt Hostility” to the popular Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory test.
On his 21st birthday in December 1969, Kemper was released from the mental hospital and—against the strong recommendations of psychiatrists—he was released back into his mother’s care.
Edmund Kemper is the Co-Ed Killer
Kemper claims that upon his return to live with his mother, the verbal abuse continued.
He found a job as a construction-company flagman and spent his spare time poring over detective magazines, snuff films, and John Wayne movies. He collected weapons, his favorite being a grotesquely large hunting knife which he called “The General.” He was again subjected to Clarnell’s incessant put-downs and petty humiliations. He fantasized about killing her, frequently tiptoeing into her room with a gun as she slept, yet finding himself unable to pull the trigger.
Around 1972, Ed started prowling Northern California’s roads for hitchhikers. His first co-ed victims were a pair of female students from Fresno State University. He forced one of them at gunpoint to climb into his trunk. He placed a plastic bag over the other’s head, stabbing her in the back and stomach before slitting her throat. Kemper then knifed the woman who was in the trunk and took both girls home, where they were decapitated and buried nearby.
His next victim was a dance student, whom he killed and then raped, ejaculating into the corpse almost upon contact. He brought her body home and severed her hands and feet, just as he had done to his sister’s doll years before.
Co-ed number four was shot and taken to Kemper’s house, where she was beheaded. He had sex with the cadaver and later axed it to pieces, tossing the remains into the ocean near Carmel, CA.
He killed two more co-eds on February 5, 1973, again placing their bodies in his trunk and chopping off their had. The next day, while mom was working, Ed washed blood off one of the girls’ bodies and had intercourse with the headless corpse.
Clarnell Kemper was right—her son was a real weirdo. Ed sometimes chilled his victims’ heads in the refrigerator and buried one girl’s head facing his house so he could fantasize that she was watching him: “I talked to her, saying love things, the way you do to a girlfriend or wife,” he later would claim. He ate strips of another’s leg as part of a macaroni casserole. Ed also snapped Polaroids of his victims and saved their skin and teeth as mementos.
In the midst of his spree, he often went to a local bar frequented by off-duty cops, grilling them for details about the murders.
On Easter Sunday, 1973, he went straight for the source of his animus, whacking Clarnell in the head with a hammer while she slept and slitting her throat with The General. He decapitated her and threw her vocal cords, which had berated him since he was a boy, into the garbage disposal.
The next day, he invited his mother’s friend over for dinner. He strangled the woman when she arrived and spent the night in mom’s bed. Ed balanced Clarnell’s head on a box and used it as a dartboard for several days. Regarding the brutality he visited on his mother’s corpse, he said, “That seemed appropriate, as much as she’d bitched and screamed and yelled at me for so many years.”
Then he drove to Colorado and called police from a pay phone, admitting to the Co-Ed Killings. He politely waited for cops to arrest him and enthusiastically confessed. Kemper, who claimed to be “terrified of violence,” begged for the death penalty.
He would later claim that after killing his mother, he had gotten to the root of his problems and there was no more work to be done.
Trial And Imprisonment
Since Kemper eagerly confessed to his crimes in great detail, his defense lawyers were left with only the insanity defense as an option—after all, what sane person would use his mother’s decapitated head as a dartboard?
However, the insanity defense failed and Kemper was sentenced to eight terms of seven years to life for the eight murders, to be run concurrently.
In prison he has spent over 5,000 narrating books for the blind. FBI profiler John E. Douglas says Kemper is “among the brightest prison inmates” and displays “rare insight for a violent criminal.”
Although we continue to live in an overly simplistic world that views things through a binary lens where everything is black or white, good or evil, guilty or innocent, Kemper says he hopes his experience proves instructive and that people use his case to learn how early childhood abuse can create monsters. For now, the best we can learn from his grisly string of murders is a perverse take on an old country and western song:
“Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be serial killers.”
The Killer In His Own Words
These and many other Ed Kemper quotes are at Quote Catalog.
My mother was there. She was there to beat me, she was there to humiliate me, she was there to use me as an example of how inferior men are.
At first I picked up girls just to talk to them, just to try to get acquainted with people my own age and try to strike up a friendship.
Oh, what is it like to have sex with a dead body?…What does it feel like to sit on your living room couch and look over and see two decapitated girls’ heads on the arm of the couch? The first time, it makes you sick to your stomach.
When they were being killed, there wasn’t anything going on in my mind except that they were going to be mine….That was the only way they could be mine.
They were like spirit wives….I still had their spirits. I still have them.
I remember it was very exciting.….there was actually a sexual thrill.…It was kind of an exalted triumphant type thing, like taking the head of a deer or an elk or something would be to a hunter….I was the hunter and they were the victims.
I just wanted the exaltation over the party. In other words, winning over death. They were dead and I was alive. That was the victory in my case.