Literary Hub

Female Serial Killers Are More Common Than You Think

When we think about serial killers, we think about men. Well, “man,” actually—some vicious, twisted sociopath, working alone. He probably has a dreadful nickname, given to him by the media with loving precision: the Ripper, the Vampire Rapist, the Son of Sam, the Shadow Killer, the Berlin Butcher. His nickname is his brand, a nightmare name for a nightmare man whose victims are, more often than not, innocent women.

It’s true: men spill most of the blood in history books. And serial killers, specifically, are overwhelmingly male. During the past hundred years, fewer than ten percent of serial murderers were women—or so we think. (The records are far from immaculate. In 2007, an exhaustively researched book listed 140 known female serial killers. A blog for the men’s rights movement lists almost 1,000. We do know that the number, whatever it is, has increased in the US since the 1970s.) Society tends to sink into “collective amnesia” about female violence, so much so that when Aileen Wuornos was charged with seven violent murders in 1992, the press pronounced her “America’s first female serial killer” and continued to do so for decades following

Aileen wasn’t America’s first female serial killer—not by a long shot. But female serial killers are master masqueraders: they walk among us looking for all the world like our wives, mothers, and grandmothers. Even after they’ve been apprehended and punished, most of them eventually sink back into the mists of history in a way that male killers do not. Historians are still wondering who Jack the Ripper was, but almost never concern themselves with his creepy countrywoman, Mary Ann Cotton, who claimed three or four times as many victims, most of them children.

It’s not that society doesn’t recognize the existence of evil in women, because women have been portrayed as conniving and malevolent and the bringers of the apocalypse since Eve ate the apple. But we seem to prefer evil women ensconced in our fiction. They might lead men onto the rocks (the Sirens), frame them for murder (Gone Girl), or suck out their breath in a poem (“La Belle Dame sans Merci”); it’s when they enter real life and start slaying real people that our imaginations balk. We can’t imagine that they did it, you know, on purpose. Typically, women are seen as solely capable of reactive homicide—murder done in self-defense, a burst of passion, an imbalance of hormones, a wave of hysteria—and not instrumental homicide, which can be plotted, calculated, and performed in cold blood.

Thus the infamous 1998 quote from Roy Hazelwood of the FBI: “There are no female serial killers.”

*

What happens when people are confronted with a female serial killer? When ideas of the “weaker sex” break down and we’re staring into the unnerving eyes of a woman with dried blood under her fingernails? First, we’ll probably check to see if she’s hot or not. (A 2015 study took pains to determine which of the 64 female serial killers they profiled were of “above-average attractiveness.”) This helps their crimes go down easier—a spoonful of sugar, etc. Today, we remember the killer Erzsébet Báthory as a sexy vampire who bathed in virgin blood, which isn’t at all true, but it makes her less human, more myth—and in turn excuses us from asking uncomfortable questions like: if men are supposed to be the aggressors, why do Erzsébets exist? In general, people take pains to link female serial killers to lust at every possible turn, even if their crimes have nothing to do with it. A clickbait-y 1890 essay titled “Truth About Female Criminals” lays it out well, caps lock and all: “Native or foreign, young or old, handsome or hideous, she plants herself confidently upon the vantage-ground of SEX.”

If the woman in question isn’t hot? Burn her at the stake! And give her a silly nickname while you’re at it, like Giggling Grandma, Hell’s Belle, or Arsenic Annie. In 2015, an elderly Russian woman was caught on camera carrying a pot alleged to contain the head of her best friend, and the media promptly christened her Grannyball Lecter. These are not names calculated to keep us up at night; they’re punch lines to the great overarching joke that is female aggression. (There goes Arsenic Annie. She’s never fully dressed without a restraining order!)

Like nicknames, archetypes can be useful organizational tools, but they, too, often end up suppressing more nuanced ideas of evil and darkness in femininity. For example, the image of woman as nurturer is lovely, conjuring up shades of Mother Earth herself, but Mother Earth is also a merciless destroyer whose wrath obliterates guilty and innocent alike. That side of her, however, is rarely invoked when talking about women. Or what about the archetype of the mannish, violent female? That one really confuses the critics. Due to the “myth of female passivity,” a woman who doesn’t internalize her anger is often seen not just as masculine but as, almost literally, a man. It’s seemingly the only way to understand her. When 17th-century Paris was suffering from a spate of female poisoners, one journalist mused, “One must not suppose them like others, and they are sooner compared to the most evil men.”

Listen, I do understand that it’s easier to swallow serial killing when it’s diminished by a nickname or sweetened by sex or organized by archetype. People have endless tricks up their sleeves for softening the violence of the female: dehumanizing female serial killers by comparing them to monsters, vampires, witches, and animals; eroticizing them until they feel safe (Bad Girls Do It!: An Encyclopedia of Female Murderers, “Hot Female Murderers That You’d Probably Go Home With”); even shrieking the tired Kipling quote, “The female of the species is deadlier than the male!” and then walking away, satisfied that the situation has been sufficiently analyzed. I get it. Murder is scary; who wants to claim it? Who wants to understand it? But at the end of the day, I believe there’s something to be gained from acknowledging female aggression, even when it’s sick and twisted. Otherwise, we’re living in denial. And just for the record, this denial is exactly why so many charming grandmothers managed to kill for decades without being suspected of a thing.

*

If there’s one word I would use to describe the women I write about in Lady Killers (other than “yikes”), it would be “hustle.” Time and again I found myself gasping in grudging admiration at the number of jobs these ladies worked, the number of husbands they conned, the number of times they fooled the authorities. I disagree with their stoic and deranged belief that the best way to rid themselves of their problems and to move forward in the world was to murder. But I acknowledge their sick drive to improve their circumstances. (This is not really applicable to the ultra-rich killers, like Erzsébet, who were basically just flailing about in the darkness, choking on their own power.) Nietzsche touched on this drive back in 1887, when he wrote, “Man will desire oblivion rather than not desire at all.”

We could ask ourselves, “Why do women kill?” But I think we might as well ask, “Why does anyone kill?” And that’s a subject for a longer and more sobering conversation. People kill for all sorts of reasons: anger, greed, malignant narcissism, petty irritation. Murder is such a horrible conundrum, because it’s so unnatural (snuffing out a human life—it’s like playing God), and yet it’s still so predictable. From the beginning of time, we’ve been sleeping, eating, having sex, and murdering each other (sometimes in that order, female praying mantises!). It’s Humanity 101. You’ll see a lot of pearl-clutching in the historical records presented in this book, and I find that kind of amusing. Oh, we’re surprised that people are “still” killing each other? We’re shocked that women, too, are both the inheritors and the performers of all this horror?

In the introduction to War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy brings up the case of Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova, a Russian serial killer from the 1700s who appears in this book. “On studying letters, diaries, and traditions [of Darya’s time], I did not find the horrors of such savagery to a greater extent than I find them now, or at any other period,” he writes. “In those days also people loved, envied, sought truth and virtue, and were carried away by passion.”

While every woman in Lady Killers was molded by her era, it’s a fallacy to think their crimes, “the horrors of such savagery,” happened in some primordial sociocultural soup that we, in our flawless present, have evolved out of. Sure, one day I fully expect we’ll live in a utopian pod culture where all the stories of our past transgressions as a human race will be gloriously burned down, like the library of Alexandria, and we’ll brainwash ourselves into believing in our own perfection. But until then, we have to face the facts: there are, indeed, female serial killers.

These lady killers were clever, bad tempered, conniving, seductive, reckless, self-serving, delusional, and willing to do whatever it took to claw their way into what they saw as a better life. They were ruthless and inflexible. They were lost and confused. They were psychopaths and child slayers. But they were not wolves. They were not vampires. They were not men. Time and again, the record shows: they were horrifyingly, quintessentially, inescapably human.

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From Lady Killers, by Tori Telfer. Courtesy Harper Perennial, copyright 2017, Tori Telfer.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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