We’re not usually a true crime operation here at the Order of the Good Death, but Sarah Marshall’s original piece on Ted Bundy (and spectacle, evil, and earthly remains) warmed our death obsessed heart. Enjoy.
On January 24, 1989, after languishing on death row for nearly a decade, Ted Bundy was executed by the State of Florida. He had been convicted of the murders of three women, and was suspected of thirty more, but had remained adamant about his innocence until the eve of his execution. Finally, hours before his death, Bundy began to confess. As he described his crimes, an estimated crowd of five hundred gathered outside the prison, selling T-shirts, drinking beers, and celebrating the imminent death of the man who had for so long seemed a larger-than-life caricature of evil, refusing to display guilt, fear, or even a belief in his own mortality. Finally, his time had run out.
Though Bundy refused to confess to any crime greater than shoplifting during the time he spent on death row, he had allowed journalists Hugh Aynesworth and Stephen Michaud to interview him about “the person” who had committed the murders of which he was accused—citing his expertise as a former psychology major as the basis of his insights. In the interviews, Bundy described a conflict between “the normal personality” and an “entity” that slowly began “to demand more of the attention and time of the individual.” At one point, he compared the entirety to a cancer, though he remained unsatisfied with the metaphor, as “one has no control over…a malign tumor, and yet, one would think that an individual would have control over the development of something purely psychological.” Bundy claimed that the entity was “not an independent thing,” and that “this person” was fully aware of his actions, and knew the difference between right and wrong, but suggested a gradual process during which the entity’s power became overpowering, and “finally, inevitably—would make a breakthrough,” and lead “this personality” to kill.
There were many things about Ted Bundy that infuriated the public during the nearly fifteen years he spent in the public eye. He was arrogant to the point of hubris (he had been a law student before he was arrested, and insisted on representing himself pro se during both of his Florida trials), and believed himself to be far more intelligent than any of the investigators or prosecutors assigned to his case. He complained bitterly about his “wrongful” imprisonment, but was clearly delighted with his newfound fame—not least because of how many letters he received from women offering him money, sympathy, and sex. While on death row, he married and fathered a daughter, and enjoyed regular visits from his family. He read, studied, wrote letters to numerous correspondents, and stayed in touch with his family back in Tacoma, and if he was troubled by guilt over the untold number of murders he had committed, he never revealed it. Even while locked away and forced to passively await his death, he experienced the things his victims would never know: growing older, getting married, starting a family, and essentially living a good life.
Bundy with his wife and daughter
Yet perhaps the most infuriating thing about Bundy was the fact that his self-proclaimed intelligence wasn’t a sham. During the time he was active, he had gained a deep understanding of the society he lived in, and successfully manipulated its weak spots for his own sadistic gain. He realized that the young, pretty girls he targeted were not encouraged to cultivate physical strength, or to question authority figures (he impersonated a police officer on at least one occasion). He recognized that the status he had attained—that of an attractive, educated, and genial young man—essentially placed him above suspicion. He worked in politics and aspired to a career in law, and saw that self-absorption, manipulation of others, and the cultivation of a deceptive exterior were not just encouraged but required of the powerful men he observed. The skills he cultivated in his career as a serial killer—deceit, evasiveness, greed, self-absorption, and a finely tuned ability to anticipate the actions of both his pursuers and his prey—were the same skills required of young politicians, lawyers, and businessmen. When Bundy was finally apprehended, it was largely by chance, and he managed to escape twice while in custody, killing three more victims after his second breakout. His arrogance may have been his downfall, but it was also, perhaps more than anything else, the thing that allowed him to remain so active for so long.
Bundy possessed almost nondescript facial features and few distinguishing marks, and was able to drastically change his appearance with very little effort. He needed only a shave and a haircut to go from a violent criminal to a dapper young lawyer.
So it was a shock to everyone when, hours before his execution, Bundy finally talked. His ability to manipulate the legal system had finally been bested; his appeals had finally run dry. Even his wife had finally abandoned him, taking their daughter with her. Bundy had one last hand to play, and the time had come to play it. He sat down with Bob Keppel, the Seattle investigator who had been working on his case in various capacities for the last fifteen years, and admitted to his guilt in thirty murders, though he hinted that he had committed more. (Many estimate that he murdered perhaps as many as one hundred women; some guess the number to be even higher.)
Bundy had already told Aynesworth and Michaud about what “the person” who committed the murders “might” have done with their bodies—how he might have dumped their corpses in secluded locations and revisited them on multiple occasions, sometimes staying with them overnight; how he might have applied makeup or nail polish, or shampooed their hair; how he might have had sex with the corpses until they were too thoroughly rotted and picked at by animals to be recognizable as human; how he might have sawn off their heads with a hacksaw and taken them home with him as souvenirs. Over the years, detectives had pieced together Bundy’s methods: his propensity for putting on a sling, singling out a victim, and convincing her to help carry something to his car, then driving to a secluded location, raping her, and strangling or bludgeoning her to death. They had found many of his victims’ remains—though often by chance—and had pieced together a picture of how the crimes had occurred, and of the man who had committed them. But now, for the first time, Bundy placed himself within the narrative. He stopped talking about “the entity” and “the personality,” and described his personality, his actions, and his murders, largely in the hope that a final show of contrition would grant him another stay of execution, long enough to confess to the very murder he had committed, and to reveal the locations of thirty or fifty or a hundred more women’s remains.
But it didn’t work. Bundy made his last confession mere moments before his scheduled execution, and was granted no more time to make another. The trade he was willing to make—the locations of their bodies in exchange for his; divesting himself of his last defense (arrogance and denial) in exchange for just a little more life—wasn’t good enough.
At 7:16 a.m., as the executioner flipped the switch and the current began to surge through Bundy’s body, the celebrants massed outside the prison began to cheer. Some had been waiting outside the prison gates for days, ever since Bundy’s execution date was set, and many more had gathered throughout the night—though it might be more accurate to say that many of them had been waiting for the last ten years. Rachelle H. Saltzman, who was working as a folklorist for the State of Florida at the time, wrote:
Those from the general public included “a white-haired 81-year-old grandmother from Jacksonville” who offered to “pull the switch.” University of Florida students from Gainesville…asked “‘Governor Martinez to host the next one at Florida Field’”; they even offered to “‘do cheers, and…sell tickets’ to offset state legal costs.” Also present were members of the Cochran family who had left their Orlando home “at 2:00 a.m. to catch the show”… Dorothy Cochran had “brought along her 6-year-old twin daughters” because she “though it would be educational for them, kind of like a field trip.”
The celebration was by no means confined to the area surrounding the prison. Lake City, Florida, which had once been home Bundy’s last victim—a twelve-year-old girl named Kimberly Leach—boasted a free barbecue the night before. (During one of Bundy’s appeals, Leach’s father told the press that he wanted to see Bundy electrocuted “well-done.”) Florida restaurants served up “Bundy fries” and “Bundy fingers,” and local radio stations played “Electric Avenue” and “Shock the Monkey” in reference to the electric chair. Outside the prison, hawkers sold commemorative pins, T-shirts, and tin foil hats meant to resemble the electric chair’s helmet, and spectators waved signs proclaiming “Burn Bundy Burn,” “Thank God It’s Fryday,” and “This Buzz is For You.”
Bob Keppel, who spent the night before the execution talking Bundy through his confessions, later wrote:
Bundy became transformed toward the end of his life into something he never was in real life. There were Bundy souvenirs, Bundy fan clubs, Bundy memorabilia, and a whole Bundy mystique…. Yet for all the mythos surrounding Ted Bundy, he always remained a cowardly individual who could not even muster the courage at the end of his life to accept total responsibility for what he had done…. Thus, Bundy probably didn’t understand what his case has become to the nation, that he himself had become kind of an icon embodying a special kind of malevolence.
Judging from the crowd that had congregated in anticipation of his death, one could almost argue that Bundy had become a kind of saint. Rather than carrying within him a great, beatific goodness, however, he was a vessel of pure evil—an evil that would be destroyed at the moment of his physical death. The joy that greeted his demise suggested that the world would be a palpably better place after his execution—despite the fact that he had not posed a threat to society for nearly ten years—and that the “special kind of malevolence” he possessed would be eradicated like a disease.
After Bundy’s death, celebrants cheered at the departure of the van carrying his remains to Gainesville, where he would be cremated. But the party ended there. Bundy was dead, and the evil he had carried was apparently gone from the world. Vendors packed up their souvenirs and counted their earnings. Spectators rolled up their signs, piled into their cars, and drove back home. Camera crews dismantled the equipment and left in search of the next story. And Ted Bundy’s ashes, along with all his other earthly possessions, were given to his attorney, with the instructions that they be scattered at an undisclosed location in Washington’s Cascade Range, in lieu of a public funeral. In many ways, he’d already had one.
Bundy had disposed of two of his victims in Lake Sammamish State Park, and of another two on Taylor Mountain, both locations west of Seattle and not far from the Washington Cascades. It was in these secluded, wooded areas that he revisited his victims for hours at a time, possessing them as fully as one human being can ever possess another. (In his interviews with Aynesworth and Michaud, Bundy described his fondness for theft, and how the joy of ownership was, for him, far superior to the thrill of the crime.) It is not so far-fetched to guess that there may be other, undiscovered bodies somewhere in the Washington Cascades—perhaps one, perhaps a dozen, perhaps all of them clustered in the undisclosed location where Bundy’s ashes were laid to rest.
The Washington Cascades
The truly remarkable thing about the disposal of Bundy’s remains, however, is how little anyone seemed to care what happened to them. Anyone who followed the Bundy case with even the vaguest interest can piece together the likelihood of his remains mingling with those of his victims. Yet the fate of his body became a nonissue once it became just that—the fate of a body, and not of a man.
If we are to believe in evil—evil as a substance, as nonhuman dark matter that sometimes comes to rest in human bodies, as something as intangible yet identifiable as a soul—then what happens when the person who possesses it dies? The people who clustered outside Florida State Prison on the morning of Bundy’s execution seemed to believe that it would simply dissipate, and would perhaps descend to hell just as a soul ascends to heaven. Yet this is a fiction that perpetuates the same blind spot that allowed Bundy to seem above suspicion for so long. If “evil” is an unknown quantity, a supernatural presence in an otherwise normal human body, then we will fail to suspect the seemingly normal humans surrounding us—let alone a handsome, successful, intelligent young man—of harboring “evil” impulses. Bundy, unable to acknowledge the enormity of his crimes until it was clear that doing so was his only hope at survival, comforted himself with the same fiction by describing “the entity” and “the personality”—two separate beings coexisting within the same body. But there was no entity. There was no pure evil or “special kind of malevolence.” Bundy wasn’t possessed, nor was he a larger-than-life monster. Though psychologically atypical, he was in all other ways a normal, flesh-and-blood member of the human race, and his death was the same as anyone else’s. No great evil departed the world at the moment he died. No one was safer. No one’s life was measurably improved. The human capacity for evil actions remained unaltered: greater in some, but present in every man, woman, and child on earth.
Bundy as a child
Ultimately, the scattering of Bundy’s ashes in the Cascades is a testament to his humanity, and a crucial reminder to us that he was human after all. He may have committed brutal crimes in Washington’s parks and woods, but they were also areas that he loved the same way the rest of us do: the way we love the beauty of an area that will live long after us; the way we love a place that affords us peace; the way we love our home. And Bundy himself, though no longer able to cause us harm, is still present in our world, his earthly remains at rest in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. They have no magic qualities. They pose no threat to the area they inhabit. They are, in the end, the remains of a human being—no more, no less.
Sarah Marshall is a graduate student and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. Her essays have recently appeared in The Hairpin, The Awl, The Montreal Review, and Propeller Magazine, on topics ranging from Linda Lovelace to Hannibal Lecter. When she was seventeen, she wrote a one-act play about Ted Bundy, and produced it as a project for school. Not much has changed since then.
Keppel, Bob. The Riverman: Ted Bundy and I Hunt for the Green River Killer. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004.
Michaud, Stephen G. and Hugh Aynesworth. Ted Bundy: Conversations with a Killer; The Death Row Interviews. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2000.
Saltzman, Rachelle H. “‘This Buzz is for You’: Popular Responses to the Ted Bundy Execution.” Journal of Folklore Research. 32.2 (1995): 101-119. Web. 21 December 2012.