Facts / Killers

The Columbo kill count: who died, how?

Columbo dagger of the mind murder
Cold cream jar to the noggin? Who’d Adam and Eve it?

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.

Columbo Edmund Galvin
“Hey-diddly-dee-dee, it’s death via suffocation for me…”

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

Columbo murder methods

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

Columbo Paul Galesko
Life Lesson #1: NEVER trust a man wearing driving gloves…

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)

Columbo Lily La Sanka
Too much Champagne gave Lily La Sanka an awful headache

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)

Columbo Clifford Paris
I’m pretty sure Clifford Paris was the only male victim to be slain whilst naked

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)

Columbo How to Dial a Murder
“Hello? HELLO? You’ll have to speak up… I can’t hear you over the noise of snarling dogs and human screaming…”

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…

Columbo Ruth Lytton
A deadly serial killer? Moi? Heavens to Betsy, what could give you such a notion?

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:-

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…


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Columbo Most Crucial Game Robert Culp
Paul Hanlon: the very definition of an ice-cold killer
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38 thoughts on “The Columbo kill count: who died, how?

  1. Murder in malibu is next to be reviewed , im strongly betting it will releive grand deceptions Of the woden spoon position .

     
  2. “If so, this would make softly spoken museum curator Ruth Lytton the deadliest Columbo killer of them all with three confirmed kills!”

    Have to disagree with this minor bit of speculation. If we are strictly going to speculate based on supposition, then it must be concluded that the Great Santini, who was a Nazi SS guard, surely was responsible for the most murders.

     
  3. Hi, CP.
    Very interesting. Me too I like figures.
    You counted 92 fatalities. Some years ago, I counted 101 fatalities AND attempts. People who could have died, but weren’t. Columbo himself was counted several times in that number. The figure I found can be different of what you, or another Columbofriend, can find, cause I remember I didn’t consider Harry Alexander being dead (Dr Barry Mayfield didn’t need him to die, only to be addicted; however, I finally think you’re right about him). And maybe my view on other fatalities was/is different of yours.
    I also had special attention for the “second victims”, those who were killed AFTER the police and Columbo started their investigations. I didn’t consider Margaret Halperin as one of them, but Lily La Sanka, Tracy O’Connor, Eddie Kane, Roger White, Alvin Deschler, Charles Clay, Nadia Donner, Lisa Chambers… Several of them could have known they were taking high risks (as a murderer himself: Eddie; as partner in crime: Tracy; as witness-blackmailer: Lily, Roger…; and in fact Joan Hudson and even Helen Stewart too), but others didn’t (Alvin, Nadia, Lisa, and Charles). Several of those “second victims” could have been avoided if the police and Columbo had done a quicker (and better) job. Especially the cases of Nadia and Lisa are tragic, cause the elements that permitted to trap the murderers were present before their death.

    I also looked at the gender of the murderers and the victims, and found 76 murders or attempts by men (or male teams), 17 by women (or female teams), and 8 by mixed teams. While 73 victims (or potential victims) were men, and 28 women. We can also notice that the naive complices or witnesses-blackmailers in the series are often female.
    [And I found 54 male and 4 female writers, 67 episode having been written by men, 1 by women and 1 by a mixed team. All 69 episodes were directed by men. (They were 31.) These figures were based on first names, so there can be some error in them.]

     
  4. I would consider adding Roger Stanford from Short Fuse to the list of murders who are hinted to have killed earlier in their lives. Another character mentions that both of Roger’s parents died in a freak accident at the chemical plant. We know from the murder of his uncle that he has the ability and inclination to arrange “freak accidents” for family members he wants out of the way. I thought the detail about his parents might have been added to make the viewer wonder if his career in murder extended back many years — perhaps his parents had begun to wise up about his dissolute ways and were about to cut him off, and so he rigged something up for them, and got away with it.

     
  5. As a stat nerd, I love analyses like this! Well done, sir!

    “but whose deaths were caused by a blow to the swede nevertheless…” I am pretty well up on British slang, a lot of it thanks to you, but this is a new one on me. Made me laugh!

     
  6. Love the pie chart. It lends an essay about death, malevolence, and homicide a bit more of the necessary scholarly weight, agree?

    Yes, knifings might tend to be a bit too messy for TV. But surely there could be cut-aways and other directorial tricks to minimize the bloodshed. I can speculate on a couple other reasons stabbings were rare.

    For television (especially back in the 70s), murders – at the actual point of death – tended to be brief affairs. Shootings and head-conkings could be depicted with believable speed and quick (pun alert) execution. Bleeding out from a knife wound is not only messy, it’s time-consuming (um…so I would imagine). In Columbo, the actual death was often a quickie, and the time was spent on the planning and cover-up.

    Also, murder via a gun or object-to-the-head could credibly be accomplished by just about anyone. Using a knife to ensure death would seem to require a bit more strength and/or specialized knowledge, which would limit the universe of potential murderers for Columbo to encounter. It’s of note that in “Grand Deceptions”, the stabbing is committed by a military figure who we could assume had some training in this.

     
    • Yes, but what about strangulation, and drowning? These murders are shown, and some of them take a lot of TV-time and viewers-attention (even if these TV-times are shorter than they must be in reality), and they are less “clean” than shooting or poisoning or suffocation. I mention Prescription (1968), Exercise (1974), Nightlife (2003)…
      In fact, by other murders, often the camera is cut just before the impact, especially by bludgeoning. The most violent murder (however clean for the murderer himself) is not shown: the dogs. (And I prefer it’s so.)

       
  7. Ain’t it a shame that the cruel but nonetheless creative murder method “carved up to pieces” didn’t make it to the kill count cake just because Emmet Clayton was deaf?

     
    • If attempted murders were included, there would be several creative additions — such as “near death by dissolving suture” (Dr. Edmund Heideman, A Stitch in Time).

       
    • Tomlin dudek is listed under lethal poisioning as he survived the initial trash compractorand was killed by the secondary poison method later , its suggested tomlin was likley to survive the original murder attempt.

       
  8. Theresa Goren (Murder In Malibu) must have suffered immensely. Just one look at the screenplay probably made her want to shoot herself.

     
  9. Mmm, but wasn’t it implied in the end that ms. lytton hadn’t actually killed her niece’s father and that columbo had lied about it to try and forward his case, and he admitted that in the end?

     
    • My impression was Ruth really did kill her niece’s father, but she convinced Columbo to say he lied about it to spare her niece’s feelings. In return, she agreed to confess to the two most recent murders.

       
      • Damn it, that makes me hate lytton even more, was already an annoying character to me before this 3rd murder and the lie!

         
    • I reached the opposite conclusion. Ruth knew that, if her murder case came to trial, the truth of her role in Peter Brandt‘s death would be revealed, destroying Janie. To avoid this inevitability, she agreed to waive a trial and admit her guilt for the Edward Lytton/Milton Schaeffer murders. Her one request in exchange was that Columbo disabuse Janie of his view that Ruth killed Peter. But Columbo knew better — as did Ruth.

       
  10. You include in the “bludgeoning” category several cases in which the actual cause of death was something else. Lily La Sanka and Eric Wagner drowned. Jennifer Welles was asphyxiated by gas. Similarly, Shirley Blaine was drugged, but didn’t die from “poisoning”; she actually died in a car accident.

     
    • While I don’t recall the exact M.E. dialogue, the slo-mo shot of Wagner falling backward after taking an ice block to the dome sure gave me the impression he was dead before he even hit the water.

      Hanlon certainly didn’t stick around to ensure he subsequently “drowned.”

       
      • M.E.: “He must have been diving, he slipped on the board, and that contusion would have knocked him unconscious. … He was knocked out and he was drowned.”

         
        • Semantics. He doesn’t drown without the bludgeoning. So death by drowning via bludgeoning. If you have to pick one, I’d go with the killer’s act (i.e., ice block). For all the M.E. knows, had Wagner fallen on dry land, he still may have never woke up.

           
          • Hanlon clearly wanted Wagner to drown. Why else insist twice (once from the box, once from the pay phone) that Wagner get in the pool? He didn’t want Wagner found bludgeoned to death, but found dead from drowning — i.e., something that would appear accidental. (And elsewhere, we don’t look at the killer’s physical act, but its result. We don’t say that Lenore Kennicut died from a “slap”, or that Nadia Donner was killed by “hypnosis.”)

             
  11. A number of the Columbo murders are quite graphic for family friendly tv. I’m thinking for example about the windpipe crushing in “Exercise in Fatality” – which is then emphasised later by Gretchen Corbett notably wincing when Columbo relays the apparent facts to her.
    This makes me wonder if the Columbo episodes were actually broadcast a bit later in the US. (In the UK, 9.00pm is still regarded as just on watershed time.) Another puzzler is that in “Swansong”, the Kris Kristofferson song “Sunday Morning coming Down”, sung by Johnny Cash, includes the controversial line, “Lord I wish that I was stoned”, which, surprisingly, there is no attempt to edit or muffle !

     
  12. Nice work! It doesn’t surprise me that stabbing is such a rare occasssion on Columbo, it’s terribly gruesome to watch.
    When I read the title of the article I immediately wondered what category Nadia Donner would be in: jumping while hypnotized? Well solved, that one.

     
  13. Greeeeat article, CP! Congratulations.

    I’m unsure that Nadia Donner wasn’t naked while jumping off to swim, but perhaps.
    But Margaret Halperin in the bathtub was naked for sure.

     
      • Even you cannot remember all minor details, and that thing doesn’t interfere our loving towards your extremely valuable contribution regarding the show.

        You know, we are fans of Columbo to get our minds sharpened to different little aspects of the show.
        As Friend in Deed is one of my favourite episode, it was easy to visualize the scene. 😉

         
              • To me, Eddie Kane is the murder weapon of Greenleaf, just like Marinaro, Laurel and Hardy are the murder weapons of Montoya and Mason, and to me, these three animals emit even more dignity than this wacko human being. So if Luis Montoya is a killer and Eric Mason is a killer, then Riley Greenleaf is a double killer.

                 
                  • I’m not a lawyer either, but I suspect Eddie Kane would have been charged with murder (if he were alive) and Riley would be charged with conspiracy to commit murder.

                     
                    • I’m not a lawyer either, but my imaginary knowledge of human nature (who knows for sure?) tells me, that Eddie Kane has to be an exemplary case of “non compos mentis” = insane and therefore not responsible for his criminal deeds. So the full response should shift over to the brain behind him.

                       

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