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________________________________Author info: Correspondence should be sent to: Dr. Terence Leary, Departmentof Psychology, Florida Gulf Coast University, 10501 FGCU Boulevard, SouthFort Myers, FL 33965-6565North American Journal of Psychology, 2017, Vol. 19, No. 3, 627-640. NAJPThe Macdonald Triad Revisited: An EmpiricalAssessment of Relationships between TriadicElements and Parental Abuse in Serial KillersTerence Leary, Larry Southard, Joe Hill III, & John AshmanFlorida Gulf Coast UniversityWe assessed the relationships between elements of the Macdonald triad(i.e., enuresis, cruelty to animals, and fire setting) and parental abuse (i.e.,psychological, physical, and sexual abuse) within a population of serialkillers. Data from 280 serial killers were retrieved from theRadford/Florida Gulf Coast University Serial Killer Database. Thisunique source of information was compiled from biographical books,newspaper articles, court documents, self-reports, and online sources. Aseries of chi-square tests for independence and binary logistic regressionanalyses were used to assess goodness of fit and regression relationships,respectively. The findings indicated significant statistical relationshipsamong enuresis, fire setting, and animal cruelty to key dimensions ofparental physical and psychological abuse, respectively. The use ofbinary logistic regression not only validated these joint associations butalso elucidated the very potent relationships of fire setting and enuresis tothat of psychological and physical parental abuse within this uniquesample of serial killers. Associations between enuresis, fire setting, andanimal cruelty to parental sexual abuse were not statistically significant.From a diagnostic perspective, enhanced awareness of these toxicrelationships reinforces the importance of clinical interventions that maypreempt adolescent delinquency.From its inception, components of the Macdonald triad (1963) andparental abuse have been considered contributing factors to severepsychopathy (e.g., serial killing). To date, however, research regardingthe unique relationship between each element of the triad (i.e., enuresis,cruelty to animals, and fire setting) and specific dimensions of parentalabuse (i.e., psychological, physical, and sexual) among serial killers hasbeen somewhat vague. The purpose of this study was to provide greaterclarity through an analysis of these discrete associations within a selectpopulation of serial killers.Serial Killers628 NORTH AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGYThe term “serial killer” was first used in the 1970s when FBI SpecialAgent Robert Ressler coined the term “serial murderer” during thenotorious Son of Sam killings (Miller, 2014a). This definition establishedserial murder as distinctly different from that of traditional murders. TheFederal Bureau of Investigation defines serial murder as “the unlawfulkilling of two or more victims by the same offender in separate events”(FBI, 2008). All serial killers in the database used for the present studymet these criteria.Historical prototypes of modern-day serial killers include the RomanEmperor Caligula (1st century), the Marshal of France, Gilles de Rais(15th century), the Hungarian countess Elizabeth Bathory (16th century),and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin (20th century). These individuals usedpowerful positions to exploit subordinates and satiate their twisteddesires (Cawthorne, 2012; Hickey, 2010; Miller, 2014a; Miller, 2014b;Stone, 2001). Today, the term “serial killer” is used to describe thosewho commit serial murder, regardless of their title or position; modernserial killers include David Berkowitz (aka “Son of Sam”), Ted Bundy,Ed Gein, and Dennis Rader (aka “BTK”).The terms “psychopath” and “serial killer” are not synonymous.However, the term “criminal psychopath” is reserved for thosepsychopaths who demonstrate a wide range of persistent and antisocialbehavior (Bartol & Bartol, 2014); antisocial personality disorderencompasses criminally psychopathic behaviors marked by a lifelongpattern of the manipulation and violation of others’ rights, as defined inthe Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders V (APA,2013).Serial killers are criminal psychopaths and represent an extremevariant on the spectrum of antisocial personality disorder.The Macdonald TriadAccording to Macdonald (1963), components of the triad, firstidentified by Yarnell (1940) as a unified entity, include persistentenuresis (e.g., bedwetting after age 5), fire setting (e.g., arson withoutclear motives), and acts of animal cruelty (e.g., children who abuseanimals). Sigmund Freud (1905) referred to evidence of psychopathologyrelated to these triadic elements when he hypothesized the relationshipsbetween and among fire setting, enuresis, and sexual problems (Heath,Hardesty,& Goldfine, 1984). More recently, Margaret Mead (1964)suggested that acts of animal cruelty were serious diagnostic signs andadvocated for immediate psychological intervention in order to preemptadolescent delinquency.Researchers have assessed the triad for associations with antisocialbehaviors such as homicide and aggression. Initially, Macdonald’sclinical case studies of homicidal patients (1963), Hellman andLeary, Southard, Hill III, & Ashman MACDONALD TRIAD 629Blackman’s (1966) retrospective study on aggressive adult prisoners, andWax and Haddox’s (1974)findings regarding incarcerated maleadolescents have provided substantial evidence for the association ofMacdonald’s triad to highly aggressive and/or homicidal behavior.However, the use of inadequate methodologies, such as case studies andretrospective assessments (Heath, Hardesty, & Goldfine, 1984), andinconsistent findings on the predictive validity of the triad (Khunley etal., 1982; Sendi & Blomgren, 1975), reinforced concerns that the triad, asa whole, had not been adequately tested (Wright & Hensley, 2003). Morerecently, Slavkin (2001) has found significant associations amongjuvenile delinquents between animal cruelty and fire setting. His data,however, revealed no significant relationship between enuresis and firesetting. Since research on the triad has generally been limited andsomewhat inconclusive, a focus on studies relative to individualcharacteristics of the triad has become a priority (Singer & Hensley,2004). This reorientation has provided greater clarity on the relativecontributions to criminal psychopathology of each element compared tothe triad as a unified entity.An FBI study that explored the specific association between thetriadic element of animal cruelty and serial killers (Humane Society ofthe United States, 2014), and work by Ressler and colleagues (1988)found that a substantial number of convicted serial murderers haveengaged in animal cruelty, heightening awareness of this potentiallyvenomous predictor of behavior. Using quasi-experimental techniques,Kellert and Felthous (1985) found a statistically significant presence ofanimal cruelty among incarcerated adults characterized as “highlyaggressive,” compared to their criminally “non-aggressive” counterparts.More recently, Wright and Hensley(2003) found that, among apopulation of 354 serial killers,75(21%) had engaged in acts of animalcruelty; out of five randomly selected perpetrators for clinical follow-up,all demonstrated a direct connection between childhood animal crueltyand serial homicide (Tallichet & Hensley, 2004). However, not allhomicidal and/or extremely violent individuals have a history of animalcruelty, even though a majority do (Ascione, 2001).Comorbidity between fire setting and serial murder has not beeninvestigated to any great extent (Singer & Hensley, 2004). However,Ressler’s classic (1988) study linking fire setting to serial murder andSinger and Hensley’s (2004) clinical assessment of three serial killersdemonstrated a clear association between arson and, prospectively, adultserial homicide. Other key findings of interest among inpatientpsychiatric juvenile fire setters indicated a significant, dyadic relationshipbetween animal cruelty and fire setting; juveniles who engaged in acts ofanimal cruelty were more likely to engage in recidivistic fire setting, in630 NORTH AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGYcontrast to their counterparts who did not engage in such acts (Kuhnley etal., 1982; Slavkin, 2001).Enuresis is an unconscious, involuntary, and non-violent act; linkingit directly to violent crime may be problematic (Hickey, 2010). Coupledwith the scant research relative to enuresis and serial homicide, the natureof this relationship is somewhat unclear; however, in previous analysesof case studies among serial killers, the presence of enuretic behaviorwas found to be the most prominent common trait when compared to:exposure to porn prior to the age of 12, isolation, fire setting, pettystealing, arrests, sexual deviance, and cruelty to animals (McKenzie,1995; Ressler, 1988).Ressler found a 68% rate of enuresis among 22cases, while McKenzie found a 50% rate among 16 subjects. Findings byHeath, Hardesty, and Goldfine (1984), and corroborated by Slavkin(2001), among juvenile delinquents found no significant relationshipbetween enuresis and fire setting; however, relative to a typical sample ofjuveniles, the level of enuresis among fire setters was statisticallysignificant. Enuresis may not be causal relative to subsequent homicidalbehaviors, but its presence may predict the likelihood of future predatorybehavior patterns (Ressler et al., 1988).Parental AbuseKey components of parental abuse include psychological abuse;intentional humiliation causing emotional conflict and/or psychologicaldamage; physical abuse, the causing or allowing any non-accidentalphysical injury; and sexual abuse, any illegal sexual act upon a childconsidered unhealthy for a child that meets the criminal definition assuch (Mitchell & Aamodt, 2005). Previous research linked parental abuseto psychopathy and/or one’s propensity to commit serial murder. Forexample, Ressler and Schactman (2002) reported that over 40% of serialmurderers reported childhood psychological abuse; Mitchell and Aamodt(2005) found that 70% of serial killers were abused as children, eitherpsychologically (50%), physically (36%), or sexually (26%); Borja andOstrosky (2013) extrapolated a strong alignment between parentalvictimization/abuse and severe psychopathy (e.g., serial killing). Suchfindings suggest potentially lethal outcomes associated with highlydysfunctional, abusive parental relationships. Stein (2009) found that80% of 65 violent offenders were subject to extreme levels of abuse aschildren and attributed the offenders’ outcomes to the underlyingdeviance of early attachments, making their interpersonal landscapeshighly toxic. According to Stein (2009), “abused children grown up maybe driven to recreate this toxic attachment, to share the dread and tormentthey once experienced–by finding victims of their own” (pp. 322–323).Leary, Southard, Hill III, & Ashman MACDONALD TRIAD 631The Macdonald Triad and Parental AbusePrior research on the triadic elements and parental abuse suggestedthat animal cruelty, fire setting, and enuresis are products of parentalabuse, and parental abuse is suggested to possess greater predictivevalidity, in regards to future homicidal tendencies, than the triad alone(Ryan, 2009). However, Macdonald (1963), Justice, Justice, and Kraft(1974), and Slavkin (2001) conceded that triadic behaviors can occursimultaneously with factors such as highly dysfunctional parenting,which may also predict violent, antisocial behavior. Much of the pastempirical research linking specific types of parental abuse(psychological, physical, and sexual) to criminal psychopathy has beenlacking, both quantitatively and methodologically (Marshall & Cooke,1999). Other than more recent findings by Mitchell and Aamodt (2005)relative to the prevalence of parental abuse among serial killers (50%psychological ,36% physical, 26% sexual), the nature of specificrelationships between each dimension of parental abuse to serialhomicide was, at best, vague.In order to provide greater clarity regarding each triadic element,separately, to that of each dimension of parental abuse among serialkillers, or as Macdonald (1963) stated, “his most sadistic patients,” wetook a closer look at the significance of these specific, discreteassociations in relation to one’s propensity to commit serial murder.Access to the Radford/Florida Gulf Coast University Serial KillerDatabase (Aamodt, 2013) made it possible to extrapolate and elucidatethe nature of these associations.We hypothesize that there is a statistically significant relationshipbetween each triadic component (animal cruelty, fire setting, andenuresis) and each dimension of parental abuse (psychological, physical,and sexual) within the sample of serial killers, and that examining themmakes it possible to elucidate specific relationships among thesevariables.METHODParticipantsTwo hundred eighty participants were selected for this study from the3,191 serial killers included in the Radford/Florida Gulf Coast UniversitySerial Killer Database (Aamodt, 2013).These participants were the onlyserial killers in the database with recorded data relevant to the presentstudy; in other words, these serial killers had provided “yes” or “no” datapertaining to one or more elements of both the Macdonald triad (enuresis,cruelty to animals, and fire setting) and parental abuse (psychological,physical, and sexual abuse). All participants committed crimes between1950 and the present. Sources of information for each profile includedbooks, court documents, newspapers, self-reports, and websites (Aamodt632 NORTH AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PSYCHOLOGY& Surrette, 2010). Demographically, 239 participants were male, and 41were female; 228 were Caucasian, 37 were Black, 9 were Hispanic, 5were Asian, and 1 was Native American.ProcedureResearch was conducted using the database to examine potentialrelationships between elements of the Macdonald triad and parentalabuse for 280 serial killers who met the inclusion criteria describedabove. To increase the integrity of the data, a hierarchal system was usedto rank the various source materials. For example, data obtained from theState of Kansas vs. Dennis L. Rader court documents are given highercredence than information collected from M. H. Stone’s book Anatomy ofEvil. In addition, three separate independent sources containing the samedata were required to validate each piece of information. The followingqueries were activated to determine the prevalence of each elementpertinent to the study:Cruelty to animals – Did the subject abuse animals?Enuresis– Did the subject have a habit of wetting the bed after age five?Fire setting – Did the subject commit arson or have an obsession withfire?Psychological abuse – Was the subject psychologically abused duringchildhood?Sexual abuse – Was the subject sexually abused during childhood?Physical abuse – Was the subject physically abused during childhood?RESULTSA series of chi-square tests of independence were performed on eachtriadic element, separately, in relation to the discrete dimensions ofparental abuse (see Table 1). Bar charts were created to represent thenature of these relationships visually (Figures 1–8, see end note). Phicoefficients were calculated to demonstrate the effect size of these dyadicrelationships (see Table 1), and binary logistic regression analyses wereperformed to analyze relationships among the type of abuse and thetriadic elements (see Table 2). Additionally, to gain a betterunderstanding of the somewhat enigmatic triadic element of enuresis, asingle sample chi-square test was performed to compare the percentageof serial killers exhibiting enuresis in the present study with that of thegeneral population.Chi-Square AnalysisA series of chi-square tests of independence were performed toanalyze relationships between discrete elements of the MacDonald triad,separately (fire setting, enuresis, and animal cruelty), relative to eachLeary, Southard, Hill III, & Ashman MACDONALD TRIAD 633dimension of parental abuse (psychological, physical, sexual) (see Table1). An alpha level of .05 was chosen to indicate whether relationshipswere statistically significant.TABLE 1 Chi Squared Analysis of the Relationships among theMacdonald Triad & Parental AbuseN X2 Ψ df P-ValueEnuresis (serial killersample v. population)221 687.72 NA NA


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