A Life From Beginning to End
“I didn’t know what made things tick. I didn’t know what made people want to be friends. I didn’t know what made people attractive to one another. I didn’t know what underlay social interactions.”
For his entire childhood and into his early adulthood, Ted Bundy did not know the real identity of his mother. Ann Rule, Bundy’s most notable biographer and a friend of Bundy’s before he was exposed as a serial killer, suggests in her book The Stranger Beside Me that Bundy did not know who his mother was until he was 24 years old. It’s possible that Bundy suspected the truth before this time but had no proof.
The truth was kept from Bundy during his early life; the woman he believed to be his mother was actually his grandmother.
Bundy was born on November 24, 1946, in the Elizabeth Lund Home for Unwed Mothers in Burlington, Vermont to Eleanor “Louise” Cowell. Bundy was raised to believe that Louise was his sister and that his grandparents, Samuel and Eleanor Cowell, were his parents.
At the time of Bundy’s birth in the late 1940s, it was still considered scandalous in American society for a child to be born out of wedlock. Not only was Louise Cowell unmarried when she became pregnant with Bundy, but she did not know or was unwilling to reveal the identity of his father. In an effort to protect their grandson and daughter from the intense stigma associated with illegitimate children, Samuel and Eleanor Cowell took on the role of father and mother to Bundy.
Even close family members and friends believed that Bundy was Samuel and Eleanor’s child. Still, it seems all was not well in the Cowell household. While Bundy
generally spoke well of Samuel and Eleanor, information emerged once Bundy was incarcerated that painted a very different picture. Bundy described the early years of his life as marred by the violent and abusive behavior of his grandfather, Samuel Cowell.
In descriptions corroborated by other members of the family, Bundy revealed that Samuel was a bully, a bigot, and a racist and that he displayed behavior consistent with mental illness. Samuel would launch into abusive rants about people of different races or religious beliefs and was physically violent towards the family. He also had a habit of speaking aloud to invisible presences.
Bundy’s true parentage was such a sensitive topic in the Cowell family household that Samuel would fly into a violent rage at the vaguest mention of it. Members of the extended Cowell family who witnessed these rages later said that
Samuel’s anger was so extreme that they came to believe that Bundy was in fact the result of incest between Samuel and his daughter, Louise. Eleanor Cowell also suffered from mental health issues and underwent electroconvulsive therapy as treatment for her depression.
In 1950, when Bundy was four years old, Louise, Bundy’s real mother, decided to remove herself and her child from this challenging home life and moved to Tacoma, Washington. Here in Tacoma, Louise and Bundy initially lived with Louise’s cousins, Alan and Jane Scott. In 1951, Louise met Johnny Culpepper Bundy at a church single’s night, and the pair married a year later. Johnny and Louise went on to have four children together, and while Johnny formally adopted Ted soon after his marriage to Louise, Johnny and Ted never became close. The Bundy house was small for such a large family and money was tight. Ted was extremely
introverted, but his parents didn’t see his shyness as problematic and allowed him to fully indulge it while they dealt with their more demanding children.
It’s difficult to describe Bundy’s childhood beyond the indisputable facts as Bundy himself offered radically different accounts of his own life at this time. Bundy attended Woodrow Wilson High School and graduated in 1965. He appears to have been a mediocre student, fairly well-known and well-liked but struggled to make real friendships. Bundy told biographers that he had no friends as a teenager and chose to be alone as he struggled to understand social interactions.
It was during Bundy’s high school years, he told biographers, that he first became intrigued by sexual violence. Bundy described searching for images of naked women in his neighbors’ trash barrels and reading and watching true crime, looking for descriptions of sexual violence, but then
later refuted this. It was also during Bundy’s high school years that he began to commit crimes. Bundy described looking through neighbors’ windows in an attempt to see women undressing but was never charged or questioned about his voyeurism. Bundy was, however, arrested at least twice on suspicion of burglary and auto theft. Bundy would steal in order to fund his expensive hobby of snow skiing.
The police expunged Bundy’s criminal record when he reached the age of 18, and he was able to move into adulthood and attend the University of Puget Sound with a clean criminal record.
“Ted was never as handsome, brilliant or charismatic as crime folklore deemed him. But as I said before, infamy became him.”
Right after Bundy graduated from Woodrow Wilson High, he enrolled at the University of Puget Sound, a liberal arts college in Tacoma, Washington. Bundy was able to attend the University of Puget Sound thanks to a scholarship but stayed for just two semesters, studying psychology and oriental studies, as the study of Asian cultures was then known.
In the autumn of 1966, Bundy transferred from the University of Puget Sound to the University of Washington. Bundy later suggested that this transfer was instigated by his feelings of inadequacy
at Puget Sound, where the majority of the students came from wealthy backgrounds that were radically different from Bundy’s working-class roots. Now, at the University of Washington, Bundy studied Chinese studies and lived in a student dorm in a building named called McMahon Hall.
It is here at McMahon Hall that Bundy met his first notable girlfriend, known by the pseudonym Stephanie Brooks. Stephanie was, like Bundy, an avid skier and the pair spent as much time as they could on the slopes. Described as wealthy, attractive, and intelligent, Stephanie inspired a desire for self-improvement in Bundy. Bundy was supporting himself during his studies by working at a Safeway but took on extra part-time jobs to improve his financial situation. Bundy also began to volunteer with the Republican Party. Working for a time with the Seattle office of Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential campaign, Bundy attended the 1968 Republican
National Convention in Miami.
Stephanie ended her relationship with Bundy not long after the convention, a move that left Bundy devastated. Stephanie’s motivation for ending her relationship with Bundy was likely complicated, but she described Bundy’s lack of ambition, floundering academic situation, and immaturity as the main factors. After Stephanie’s rejection, Bundy dropped out of the University of Washington and left the city. Bundy moved restlessly from place to place, visiting family in Colorado before briefly heading to Arkansas and enrolling in Temple University in Philadelphia for one semester. In 1969, Bundy returned to Washington. Biographer Ann Rule believes that it was during this period of wandering that Bundy returned to his hometown of Burlington, Vermont and retrieved a copy of his birth certificate, inadvertently discovering the true identity of his parents.
Psychologists and biographers have highlighted this first difficult breakup in Bundy’s life as a pivotal moment and have linked it to Bundy’s later crimes. Stephanie had long, straight hair that she wore parted in the middle. This detail is notable because the vast majority of Bundy’s victims also had long, straight hair parted in the middle. Bundy himself denied that he chose his victims based on their similarity to Stephanie, stating that his only requirement was that they be attractive.
Settled back in Washington State, Bundy began a relationship with Elizabeth Kloepfer. Liz, as her friends called her, was a secretary at the University of Washington School of Medicine and originally from Utah. A divorced woman, Liz was solo parenting her daughter and met Bundy at a bar one night. Liz rejected Bundy’s initial offer to dance but was taken enough by the supposedly handsome Bundy to strike up a
conversation with him.
The relationship between Liz and Bundy was intense from the outset, with Liz telling people that it was love at first sight and hoping that Bundy would be a father to her child. Liz also stuck by Bundy after his initial arrest in Utah in 1976 and continued the relationship after reporting him to police herself three times. Now, in the early days of their relationship, Liz, like Stephanie before her, encouraged Bundy to improve himself and in the summer of 1970, Bundy enrolled once more in the University of Washington.
This time, Bundy majored in psychology and seemed to have a genuine aptitude for the subject. Bundy soon became an honors student and bonded with a number of his professors, one of which later described him as a “tormented soul in a lot of respects” but a person who provided a good front so that “nobody who interacted with him actually suspected what was going on.”Around this time, Bundy began a volunteer position at Seattle’s Suicide Hotline crisis center, located on Capitol Hill. In this role, the newly studious Bundy earned credits towards his psychology degree and met Ann Rule. Ann was a former police officer and crime reporter who aspired to write true crime best-sellers. With absolutely no hint that Bundy was anything other than a charming, handsome colleague, Ann and Bundy became friends.
“I know that it was Ted Bundy that did that to us, but I can’t tell you how I know.”
—Lisa Wick, possible Bundy victim
Bundy graduated from the University of Washington in 1972 and began working for Washington Governor Daniel Evans. Evans was up for re-election and Bundy contributed greatly to his success by pretending to be a college student and infiltrating Evan’s opponent’s team. Impressed, the chairman of the Washington State Republic Party hired Ted Bundy as his assistant. By now, Bundy had impressed several important people and, despite getting low admission test scores, he was accepted to a number of law schools on the strength of recommendations. In
1973, Bundy began a law degree at the University of Puget Sound.
Around this time, Bundy restarted his relationship with Stephanie Brooks. Stephanie lived in California, which was convenient for Bundy as it allowed him to continue his relationship with Liz in Washington. As Stephanie had been the one to end the relationship with Bundy in 1968 due to his poor prospects, it seems that Bundy’s political work and the promise of a law degree was enough to impress her. Without retreating from his relationship with Liz, Bundy’s relationship with Stephanie became so serious that he introduced her as his fiancée.
Then, in the autumn of 1974, Bundy suddenly cut off all contact with Stephanie. Bewildered, Stephanie tried in vain to contact Bundy for a month with no response. Eventually, Bundy answered the phone when Stephanie called only to rebuff her, saying that he had no idea what she
was talking about, they had never rekindled their relationship. Stephanie never heard from Bundy again, and the whole episode appeared to be Bundy’s convoluted idea of revenge.
Bundy was working at the Washington State Department of Emergency Services at this time, and here he began a close friendship with his colleague Carol Ann Boone. Carol did not become romantically involved with Bundy until later, but it is significant that she knew Bundy way before he was accused of his crimes. Eventually, Carol would become Mrs. Ted Bundy, but that is a story for later.
It is impossible to discern exactly when Bundy began his violent crimes against women. Bundy gave conflicting information to detectives, psychologists, friends, and writers such as Ann Rule about the specifics of his earliest crimes while he was in custody.