Gunman with Three Names

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
"Serial killers only have two names. Ever notice that? But lone assassins always have three. John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, Mark David Chapman..."

The paranoid assertion above, as it turns out, is more or less true (much more so than the ones Gibson comes up with on his own time, certainly). For reasons that are not entirely clear even to themselves, news media in the United States (print as well as television) go out of their way to make sure every lone gunman and solitary crazed killer is identified by his full name, regardless of how he is called by relatives, friends and neighbors.

According to at least one broadcast journalism writing textbook, the reason for this is that a person is more likely to have the same two-part name as someone else than the same three-part name. So it lets John Henry Booth or Mark Daniel Chapman not have to wonder why everyone is looking at him funny. TV reporters also generally read the police report verbatim, figuring they can't be sued for slander if they merely report what is in a public document. Also note that this might be an American thing—in most European countries, middle names aren't that common, or used even if people have them, and people in Hispanic countries often have four names. Naming conventions in non-western countries are a whole different topic altogether. Furthermore, in many European countries middle name is often associated with sophistication, so it usually does not suit common criminals, though it can be a part of a Professional Killer's image.

Note that this isn't the case for just any handgun-wielding punk who makes the news. It takes a special crime that catches the public's attention. "Ordinary" shooters—as well as the rare sympathetic figure—are accorded less formal (and less obsessive) address by the media.

An interesting case in point would be that of New York's so-called "Subway Vigilante" in 1984. When his actions were still viewed as a shocking unmotivated attack, the news media consistently referred to him by his full name, "Bernhard Hugo Goetz". However, as his story came out and public opinion shifted more and more in his favor, the news programs began calling him just "Bernhard Goetz" and finally "Bernie".

(The quoted assertion is false, as John Wayne Gacy/Sirhan Sirhan demonstrate.)

Also note that none of them has an Embarrassing Middle Name. (Then again, would you really laugh at someone about to kill you?)

Examples of Gunman with Three Names include:

Comic Books

  • This tendency is lampshaded in one What If? comic, where, during an alternate version of the Dark Reign storyline, Hawkeye follows through on his promise to kill Norman Osborn. The news gets out, and suddenly the whole world knows his full name.


Dom: "Brian Earl Spilner. Sounds like a serial killer."

  • In a variant (serial killer, not gunman) there's Charles Lee Ray (referencing Manson, Oswald and the guy who killed MLK), later known as Chucky, from Childs Play.


  • Even though he's not a villain, the vengeful father from A Time To Kill who shoots two brutal rapists is named Carl Lee Hailey.
  • In the book All-American Girl, the title character saves the president from an assassin named Larry Wayne Rogers.
  • Aversion: The eponymous assassin of The Day of the Jackal is known only by his code name.
  • Lewis Black, in his autobiography Nothing's Sacred, tells about how his high-school guidance counselor botched his college application process, forcing him to spend his first year at his safety school, University of Maryland.

Not a day went by that I didn't dream of killing my high-school guidance counselor. I was this close to inspiring the kind of headlines usually reserved for people with three names. People like John Wayne Gacy and Mark David Chapman. "Student, Lewis Niles Black, sought in gruesome death of counselor; Police find brilliant essay."

Live Action TV

  • The X Files had tons of these, including Eugene Victor Tooms, Luther Lee Boggs, Warren James Dupre, Darin Peter Oswald, Robert Patrick Modell (presumably not named after Robert Patrick, who wouldn't join the cast for another 5 years), John Lee Roche, and Wilson Pinker Rawls.
    • Then, of course, there is Lone Gunman John Fitzgerald Byers.
    • And the Gunmen's sometimes-ally, sometimes rival, who goes by "Yves Adel Harlowe" or some alias that is an anagram of Lee Harvey Oswald...probably just to mess with the Gunmen.
  • Criminal Minds sometimes inverts this trope giving us serial killers with three names. The most (in)famous ones are Floyd Feylinn Ferrel and Jason Clark Battle.
  • On Burn Notice, when the gang runs up against a serial killer, Sam suggests they call him by "Dennis Wayne Barfield" for that extra serial-killer flavor.
  • Buckwheat's assassin in the famous "Buckwheat has been shot" sketches on Saturday Night Live was named John David Stutts.
  • Dr. Charles Henry Moffett, the evil creator of Airwolf
  • The Dollhouse episode "Omega" references this, when looking at the file of Alpha's original personality:

Adelle: Carl William Kraft.
Paul: Three names. Always ominous.

Detective Robert Goren: "As serial killers go, this Mark Ford Brady is well within the hash marks."
Captain Danny Ross: "Right down to having three names."

Stand Up Comedy

  • Spoofed by Otis Lee Crenshaw, who suggests some people are just born with a 'Death Row name'; if your parents christened you 'Wayne Lee Turner', you've been marked down since day one, you are going to kill someone and fry for it. He then suggests changing your name before you kill someone, to something like 'Jizz Biscuits Murphy' or something equally stupid, so you get laughed out of the courtroom before your trial can begin.


  • John Wilkes Booth mentions this in a conversation with Lee Harvey Oswald (also referencing James Earl Ray, and referring to all three as "rednecks") in the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins.

Video Games

  • The backstory of Mass Effect mentions a gunman named Michael Moser Lang who assassinated the US and Chinese presidents with a powerful submachine gun several years before the events of the first game. (Both at once. The Chinese president tackled the American, and the slugs fatally penetrated both bodies. It's implied he only intended to kill the American.) Shepard gets his/her hands on the original weapon (and a copy) in Mass Effect 2.

Real Life

  • One of the American Wild West's greatest real killers was the poorly remembered John Wesley Hardin. He is commonly credited with inventing throwing cards into the air and shooting them as they fall, for instance, but was also said to practice his quick-draw in front of a mirror for hours a day. Then, there was the whole shooting a man for snoring too loudly thing.
    • He's probably better known for inspiring the name (and the name only) of a Bob Dylan album (John Wesley Harding).
  • A running reference in Chuck Shepherd's News of the Weird column is that there seem to be an awful lot of murderers with the middle name "Wayne".
  • Mehmet Ali Ağca, who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981 and previously murdered journalist Abdi İpekçi.
  • Jerry Seinfeld, on the allegations that his wife was plagiarizing another author's cookbook idea (each book happens to be about making healthy—yet inconspicuously tasty—meals for their kids; Missy Chase Lapine's is "The Sneaky Chef", while Jessica Seinfeld's is "Deceptively Delicious"). Seinfeld, in his wife's defense, appeared on talk shows joking around at how he's noticed assassins tend to often have, like Lapine, three names—Mark David Chapman, James Earl Ray, etc. (This, naturally, caused a bit of a stink.)
  • Christopher Wayne Hudson, who shot three people in the Melbourne CBD in 2007, killing one.
  • John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the Washington, DC snipers in 2002.
  • Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech shooter.
    • Although in this case, it's just because he was Korean-American, rather than any preference on the part of the media; it's quite common for traditional Korean names to be structured in such a manner, more akin to a double-barreled given name than separate given and middle names.
    • But definitely Played Straight for an earlier killer at Virginia Tech: a local crook named William Morva who murdered two people and spent a day or so on the lam in 2006, causing brief hubbub and the cancellation of a day's classes. Though Morva was known before and after the incident as "William Morva," for the couple of days surrounding the murders he was always "William Charles Morva."
  • Mark David Chapman, murderer of John Lennon.
  • James Earl Ray, assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr.
    • Curiously, the victim in this case is also usually known by three names.
  • In Presidential assassins it's 50/50, but the three-named ones are a lot more famous:
    • John Wilkes Booth—assassin of President Abraham Lincoln
    • Lee Harvey Oswald—assassin of President John F. Kennedy
    • Leon Czolgosz—assassin of President William McKinley (had no middle name)
    • Charles J. Guiteau—assassin of President James Garfield (his middle name was Julius, but he never used it)
  • Sara Jane Moore, who attempted to assasinate President Gerald Ford.
  • Robert William Pickton, a Canadian pig farmer convicted of killing 6 women and charged with killing 20 more.
  • Jared Lee Loughner, the man who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and more than a dozen other people, killing six (Giffords survived) on January 8, 2011.
  • Johnny Paul Penry, convicted of killing Pamela Carpenter (sister of American Football player Mark Moseley) and sentenced to death. (Various anti-death penalty activists have since called his sentence unconstitutional, claiming that he only has the mental ability of a 7-year-old.)
  • This trope seems to apply to a number of serial arsonists as well. But a few examples are Paul Kenneth Keller, John Leonard Orr, Cayetano Santos Godino and Bruce George Peter Lee.
  • Classic example of how this prevents overlap with Name's the Same: Joel (Patrick) Courtney (b.1966), rapist and serial killer, not to be confused with Joel Courtney (b.1996), star of Super 8. It Gets Worse - the former's Tru TV Crime Library page is headlined "Bad Actor".
  • The man arrested for the 2011 Norway massacre has been named as Anders Behring Breivik, despite being European where this trope is not usually in effect.
    • Brievik has taken a great deal of influence from the English speaking Western world so perhaps this can in part explain the phenomenom
      • The other part possibly being that both Behring and Breivik are surnames (his mother is Behring and his father is Breivik).
  • Michael Robert Ryan, who shot 16 people in Hungerford, England in 1987.
  • Chuck Shepherd's "News of the Weird" column runs a periodic feature called "The Fatal Middle Name" chronicling the bizarre antics perpetrated by people who go by "X (usually John) Wayne Somebody."
  • For whatever reason, TV news reports related to the LA Riots frequently referred to Rodney King as "motorist Rodney King," as though owning and driving a car were still a novelty in 1992. Even Wikipedia still calls him a motorist.
  • Averted as hell with Fanny Kaplan, who shot at Vladimir Lenin. First, only two names. Second, a woman, not a man. Third, there is very strong evidence she was framed all along.