Over the course of its 69 outings, Columbo dished up an impressive 92 fatalities – that’s an average of 1.33 corpses per episode.
Poor, unloved Carol Flemming kicked off the cadaverous countdown in 1968’s Prescription: Murder, while tabloid hack Linwood Coben was the series’ final victim in 2003’s Columbo Likes the Nightlife.
In between them, dozens of others met the ick in a variety of fiendish ways. Amongst the most outlandish (and creative) were the deliberate plane crash in Swan Song, the blowfish poisoning in Murder Under Glass, the bull goring in A Matter of Honor and a grisly decapitation in Columbo Goes to the Guillotine.
Many more were the more common-or-garden shootings, or an honest, old-fashioned clobbering about the head. However, I’ve long had a hankering to deliver a more detailed breakdown of the murder methods employed across the series so we can easily see who died, and how. And that’s precisely what I’ve done here.
I’ve reviewed all the series’ killings, and although there are predictable variations in style, most of the deaths can attributed to a relatively small number of categories, such as shooting, bludgeoning, strangulation and poisoning. There’s also a separate category for head trauma victims for those not deliberately bludgeoned, but whose deaths were caused by a blow to the swede nevertheless.
While compiling this, I have included the death of Janice Caldwell in A Friend in Deed, even though it happened prior to the episode commencing. I’ve included accidental killings, such as the death of Tony Galper in Columbo Likes the Nightlife, who perished after a push from Vanessa Farrow saw him dash his head on a table. I also include weirdo kidnapper Rudy Strassa from No Time to Die. Although there was famously no murder in that episode, Strassa was gunned down by cops in the finale.
When there’s doubt as to what the precise cause of death was, I’ve made an executive decision (e.g. Stitch in Crime’s Harry Alexander killed of a lethal overdose rather than a fall down the stairs; Lovely but Lethal’s Shirley Blaine killed by a poisoned cigarette, not a car crash; Rachman Habib killed by car over precipice rather than blow to the head in A Case of Immunity).
Got that? Okay, then let’s take a closer look at who and how many died in which ways in the Columbo universe…
How the killings stack up
Hopefully the chart above is clear enough, but it’s easy to see that SHOOTING is by far the most common murder method in Columbo, with 38 confirmed deaths by gun, equating to 41.3% of the show’s fatalities. This is, however, well below the US average of 67% of homicides caused by shooting.
The next most popular method is BLUDGEONING, which accounts for 12 fatalities in Columbo, or 13% of the total death toll (which is significantly higher than the actual US average). After this, though, there are no other major stand-alone categories, with STRANGULATION, POISONING and CAR EXPLOSIONS each responsible for just 4 Columbo killings.
Interestingly, there are only two stabbing-related deaths in Columbo – the violent and bloody nature of such crimes very likely being a reason why the family-friendly show usually turned a blind eye to what is, sadly, second only to shootings as a cause of homicide in the United States.
Breaking down the Columbo killings
For your viewing pleasure, here’s a precise disassembly of who was killed by which method across all 69 Columbo episodes.
SHOOTING: 38 victims (Paul Williams, Ransom for a Dead Man; Jim Ferris, Murder by the Book; Colonel Dutton, Dead Weight; Rudy Matthews, Suitable for Framing; Bryce Chadwick, Lady in Waiting; Bo Williamson, Blueprint for Murder; Tony Goodland, Greenhouse Jungle; Harry Stone, Candidate for Crime; Vic Norris and Roger White, Double Exposure; Allan Mallory, Publish or Perish; Frances Galesko and Alvin Deschler, Negative Reaction; Rosanna Wells, Troubled Waters; Margaret Meadis, Playback; Henry Willis, Forgotten Lady; Jesse Jerome, Now You See Him; Claire Daly, Fade in to Murder; Milton Schaeffer and Edward Lytton, Old Fashioned Murder; Bertie Hastings, Bye-Bye Sky High; Mark McAndrews, Make Me a Perfect Murder; Vincent Pauley, The Conspirators; David Kincaid, Sex and the Married Detective; Frank Staplin, Agenda for Murder; Charlie Chambers, Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo; Theresa Goren, Murder in Malibu; Professor Rusk, Columbo Goes to College; Rudy Strassa, No Time to Die; Harold McCain, A Bird in the Hand; Nick Franco, It’s All in the Game; Gerry Winters, Butterfly in Shades of Grey; Mo Weinberg, Geraldine Ferguson and Unnamed Stooge, Undercover; Teddy McVeigh and Bruno Romano, Strange Bedfellows; Howard Seltzer, A Trace of Murder)
BLUDGEONING: 12 victims (Lily La Sanka, Murder by the Book; Tracy O’Connor, Suitable for Framing; Jennifer Welles, Etude in Black; Eric Wagner, The Most Crucial Game; Sharon Martin, A Stitch in Crime; Karl Lessing, Lovely but Lethal; Carl Donner, A Deadly State of Mind; Youseff Alafa, A Case of Immunity; Geronimo, Identity Crisis; Commodore Swanson and Charles Clay, Last Salute to the Commodore; Verity Chandler, Ashes to Ashes)
STRANGULATION: 4 victims (Carol Flemming, Prescription: Murder; Janice Caldwell, A Friend in Deed; Gene Stafford, An Exercise in Fatality; Marcy Edwards, Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star)
CAR EXPLOSION/BOMB: 4 victims (David Buckner and Quincey, Short Fuse; Jean Davis, Requiem for a Falling Star; Fernando, A Bird in the Hand)
POISONING: 4 victims (Shirley Blaine, Lovely but Lethal; Vittorio Rossi, Murder Under Glass; Adam Evans, Uneasy Lies the Crown; Budd Clarke, Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health)
HEAD TRAUMA: 3 victims (Lenore Kennicut, Death Lends a Hand; Sir Roger Haversham, Dagger of the Mind; Tony Galper, Columbo Likes the Nightlife)
DROWNING: 3 victims (Margaret Halperin, A Friend in Deed; Louise Barsini, Murder, A Self Portrait; Freddy Brower, Death Hits the Jackpot)
FALL / JUMP: 3 victims (Lisa Chambers, Double Shock; Nadia Donner, A Deadly State of Mind; Gabe McEnery, Murder With Too Many Notes)
ELECTROCUTION: 2 victims (Clifford Paris, Double Shock; Lenny Fisher, Murder, Smoke and Shadows)
LETHAL OVERDOSE: 2 victims (Harry Alexander, A Stitich in Crime; Tomlin Dudek, The Most Dangerous Match)
SUFFOCATION: 2 victims (Ric Carsini, Any Old Port in a Storm; Edmund Galvin, Try and Catch Me)
HIT-AND-RUN: 2 victims (Howard Nicholson, Mind Over Mayhem; Big Fred, A Bird in the Hand)
STABBING: 2 victims (Sergeant Keegan, Grand Deceptions; JJ Dillinger, Undercover)
HANGING: 2 victims (Tanner, Dagger of the Mind; Linwood Coben, Columbo Likes the Nightlife)
OTHER EXPLOSION: 2 victims (Eddie Kane, Publish or Perish; William Haynes, By Dawn’s Early Light)
PLANE CRASH: 2 victims (Edna Brown and Maryann Cobb, Swan Song)
KILLER DOGS: 1 victim (Charles Hunter, How to Dial a Murder)
NECK BREAK: 1 victim (Dian Hunter, Columbo Cries Wolf)
CAR OVER CLIFF: 1 victim (Rachman Habib, A Case of Immunity)
KILLER BULL: 1 victim (Hector Rangel, A Matter of Honor)
DECAPITATION: 1 victim (Max Dyson, Columbo Goes to the Guillotine)
Aside from the above stats, it’s notable that the least shooty season of all was Season 2, which featured only a single death by gunfire (Tony Goodland from The Greenhouse Jungle), while 1994 adventure Undercover is the bloodiest episode of them all, featuring four murders. In total, there are only 24 female fatalities compared to 68 male.
As a final stat of interest, the following baddies are multiple murderers, sometimes by design, sometimes by necessity, and were each guilty of committing two homicides: Ken Franklin, Dale Kingston, Roger Stanford, Dr Barry Mayfield, Norman and Dexter Paris, Viveca Scott, Dr Bart Kepple, Tommy Brown, Paul Galesko, Swanny Swanson, Ruth Lytton, Dr Mark Collier, Hassan Salah, Delores, Irving Krutch and Graham McVeigh.
However, it’s broadly hinted at (or a certainty) that Nora Chandler, Max Barsini, Ruth Lytton and Dr Eric Mason all committed murders earlier in their lives. If so, this would make softly spoken museum curator Ruth Lytton the deadliest Columbo killer of them all with three confirmed kills! Who’d have thought it, eh? It’s always the quiet ones…
So folks, that’s as much detail as you’re ever likely to need on the Columbo kill count. I’m not entirely sure whether this information will ever serve a material purpose for you, but I hope it’s at least given you a slightly macabre thrill nevertheless.
If you’ve a hankering for further reading on Columbo killers or victims, I can recommend the following articles for you from this blog’s increasingly distant past:-
- The most loathsome Columbo killers
- The most sympathetic Columbo killers
- The most deserving Columbo victims
- The most sympathetic Columbo victims
- The most fiendishly clever Columbo murders
- Top 10 most popular Columbo killers – as voted for by the fans
Until we next meet, keep outta trouble and whatever you do, DON’T accept a glass of chamomile tea from ageing spinster Ruth Lytton – unless you have designs of becoming victim number four…