Woman - the gentle and fairer sex, is known for her caring and compassionate nature. Conventionally, her role in society is of the doting mother, loving wife, affectionate daughter, supporting sister, sympathetic friend and many more such positive characters. Then out of the blue, we hear of a series of gruesome, ghastly murders that send a wave of revulsion across the spine. They make us sit up and think how a woman capable of bestowing life can succumb to her inner monster and kill innocent men, women and even children?
So, what makes female serial killers tick? What are the catalysts that unleash the capacity of atrocities within a woman that lead her to commit such unparalleled acts of savagery? And how different are female psychopaths from the psycho killers of the opposite sex?
Traditionally, we stereotype femininity with frailty, fragility and daintily passive behavior. But in contrast to it, female serial killers have an uncontrollable passive rage inside them. A study done by Robert Ressler (a former FBI agent and to whom the credit of coining the term serial killer is given) has helped the FBI in many serial killing cases and reasoning out the motives and modus operandi (MO) of numerous serial killers. Voices in the head, childhood abuse or trauma, sexual incompetency, attention seeking, inferiority complex, dysfunctional personality are some of the driving factors which lead male serial killers on a killing spree. Since a female offender's reason for committing crimes are much different from her male counterparts, police and law enforcement agencies have a difficult time tracking her and putting her behind the bars.
Money and materialistic tendencies is what drives them for committing multiple murders. However, attention seeking behavior, cult, sex, need to overpower, personality disorders to name a few are also leading causes of turning women into mass murderesses. In 1998, a study was conducted by M. D. Kelleher and C. L. Kelleher where 100 female serial killing cases were taken into account and its conclusions led to the classification of female serial killers into nine categories.
- Angel of Death - She can be seen in the role of medical caretaker, nurse, midwife, home aide, doctor, etc. Angel of death usually preys on the sick, vulnerable or invalid in order to fulfill the desires of control and domination.
- Black Widow - A black widow murders for greed. Her husband, children or other family member become sacrificial to her lust for money. They are generally seen to kill for inheritance or collecting life insurance.
- Sexual Predator - A woman serial killer in the role of sexual predator is a rarity, especially without a partner. But recently new cases have come up which would shed more light on female sexual predator behavior.
- Avenger - She lashes out at all those who have thwarted her in her gains. Deep seated anger and desire for revenge drives this woman to commit mass murders.
- Partner in Crime - Crime teams are not unheard of and male-female partnership for serial killing is also not that uncommon. They often commit crimes of sexual nature where the male accomplices mostly dominate their female partners.
- Profit or Crime - Profit killers, again, are a rarity. They are considered as bright and resourceful without any conscience. They are sociopaths who are ready to kill just to get their way in the world.
- Question of Sanity - Delusions, paranoia, schizophrenia and other mental disorders are some of the reasons which are responsible for crimes done by female offenders. Although these are mainly male serial killer's characteristics, some women psychopathic killers are believed to have heard voices in their heads and suffering from varied delusions.
- Unexplained - Killings by a woman in a random and unapparent manner which baffles the law enforcement, particularly where the motives remain obscure and inexplicable.
- Unsolved - The unsolved crimes which are believed to be the work of a woman.
Choice of Weapon/Methods
- They kill for money and other coveted gains.
- It takes around eight years to catch a black widow or an angel of death which is about two times longer than it takes to catch a male psychopathic serial killer.
- They generally keep a low profile and more often than not, kill people who are close to them, or with whom they have a personal connection.
- They target vulnerable victims like sick people, children, spouses and old people.
- Angel of death are killers who are often diagnosed with Munchausen syndrome or Muchausen syndrome by proxy. In the former disorder, the person pretends to be ill, often taking elaborate lengths to mislead doctors and create the symptoms of a disease just to gain the attention of people, and their sympathy. Moreover, they enjoy duping medical practitioners and get a sense of elation from it. Similarly, in Muchausen syndrome by proxy, the person deliberately makes a child or family member sick in order to gain sympathy.
As they prefer to keep a low visibility and tend to work silently, methodically and precisely, they choose less aggressive modes for killing than their male counterparts like:
Evil Ladies Who Horrified the World
Killing Zone: La Porte, Indiana
Modus Operandi: Stabbed, beheaded, beat victims to death
Span of Killings: 1900-1908
No. of Victims: 40+
Story: Belle Gunness was a remorseless black widow who killed her children, adopted children, many husbands and wooers in order to collect money from their insurance policy. Every time her husband or children died or her house caught on fire, she applied for the insurance claim and was handed over the insurance money albeit reluctantly. Although suspicions grew when her guests, mostly her suitors, and her children started disappearing or dying mysteriously, she still managed to convince law enforcement people of her innocence. In 1908, when she realized that her game was up, she staged her own death with the help of her loyal servant Lamphere and evaded arrest. After that, her whereabouts are little known.
Capture and Punishment: Never caught
Killing Zone: Florida
Modus Operandi: Shot strangers mostly her clients while she was working as a prostitute
Span of Killings: 1989-1990
No. of Victims: 7
Story: Alieen Wuornos had a tough childhood, with her father serving a sentence on the charges of child molestation and attempted murder, and her mother abandoning her brother and her. She and her brother were raised by her grandparents, but later on they too passed away. At the age of 14, she was reportedly raped and impregnated by an unknown assailant. She gave her child for adoption and hit the road to work as a prostitute. After some petty crimes, she began on a killing spree, mostly shooting strangers (males) and robbing them of their belongings. Upon getting caught, she claimed she did it in self-defense, as they were trying to rape her. However, she gave a full and real confession later at the behest of her lover.
Capture and Punishment: Arrested in 1991 and died in 2002 through lethal injection administered by state
Báthory de Ecsed
Killing Zone: Csejte, Slovakia and Sarvar, Hungry
Modus Operandi: Tortured, burned and froze to death many victims
Span of Killings: 1590-1610
No. of Victims: 600+ girls and young women
Story: Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed was known as the Blood Countess or Countess Dracula, she was born into a noble family and later married Count Ferenc Nadasdy. Her earlier victims were the servant girls of Csejte Castle, where she lived with her husband. After her husband's death, she got a free rein to torture and kill women which she accomplished with the help of her four faithful servants. She was believed to bathe in the blood of young women in the pursuit of eternal beauty. As the number of bodies and her "hobby" grew, rumors started to spread. Eventually, some of her intended victims ran away from her capture and ratted out the whole tale to the authorities. Being of aristocratic lineage, she was never put on a trial, though her accomplices were awarded capital punishment.
Capture and Punishment: Was put on castle arrest in 1610 till her death but never brought to trial
Killing Zone: London
Span of Killings: Over 20 years
Modus Operandi: Killed babies by strangling or poison and threw their bodies in Thames
No. of Victims: 247 babies
Story: Amelia Dyer was notoriously called baby farmer killer or baby butcher for killing babies whom she adopted from unmarried mothers in the pretext of raising them. She charged a considerable fee for her services and even advertised in the newspaper. In the beginning of her killing career, she used to let the toddlers or newborns die from neglect or starvation but later on, she decidedly started murdering them by strangulation or opium injection and thus, pocketing the entire money of their upkeep.
Capture and Punishment: Caught by London Police in 1896 and was put to death through hanging.
Killing Zone: Samara, Russia
Modus Operandi: Killed abusive husbands for a nominal fee
Span of Killings: 1879-1909
No. of Victims: 300+ men
Story: Modame Popova was a profit killer who freed women from the shackles of cruel husbands and in return charged a fee. She chose inexpensive methods like poisons to put her victims six feet under. In 1909, the police received information from a recently widowed and repenting woman about Madame Popova involvement in her husband's death which led to her capture.
Capture and Punishment: Caught in 1909, and was executed through a firing squad.
Killing Zone: Boston, USA
Modus Operandi: Killed her patients with lethal injections
Span of Killings:1885-1901
No. of Victims: 31
Story: This angel of death had a troubled childhood where she scarcely received any love and affection from her foster parents and foster siblings. Although hailing from a biological family which had a history of mental illness, her final breakdown was when she was left standing alone at the altar. After passing her nursing examination, she commenced her career as a medical practitioner and also as an impenitent silent murderess, and began to inject lethal doses of morphine and atropine into her patients. Her ambition was to kill more people than anyone else. Fortunately in 1901, her killing spree came to an end when she was arrested for murdering her foster-sister. She confessed to all the killings and pleaded insanity and hence, spent rest of her life in an insane hospital.
Capture and Punishment: Died a natural death in an asylum
Killing Zone: Mexico City, Mexico
Modus Operandi: Clubbed or strangled women over 60 years of age and looted them.
Span of Killings: Late 1990s-2006
No. of Victims: 11+
Story: This broad-shouldered and masculine looking serial killer was a professional wrestler, who used to enter the house of lone old women by feigning to be a social worker and killed them. Sometimes, traces of sexual activity was also found at the crime scenes. Mexican police was bewildered at these killings and even attempted to dismiss them by calling it "media sensationalism". Finally when the police got its act together, they found clues which led them on the hunt of a large "transvestite". However, when this 'old lady killer' was fleeing from a crime scene, she was caught.
Capture and Punishment: Arrested and sentenced to 759 years of imprisonment
Killing Zone: Vienna
Modus Operandi: Worked with three other partners and injected lethal doses of morphine into patients, and drowned the victims
Span of Killings: 1983-1991
No. of Victims: 40+
Story: Waltraud Wagner, an angel of death, worked in a Vienna hospital as a nurse where she resorted to killing patients in order to play God and enjoyed the control it gave her. Later on, she "enrolled" three more nurses in this killing business. They made a special kind of camaraderie among themselves and killed many innocent unsuspecting patients. They even devised a special kind of water torture where they used to pour water into the mouth of a patient with his nose forcibly closed till he drowned.
Capture and Punishment: Went on trial in 1991 and was given a life sentence
Killing Zone: New South Wales, Australia
Modus Operandi: Smothered her own children
Span of Killings:1991-1999
No. of Victims: 4
Story: Kathleen Folbigg had unpleasant childhood memories. Her mother was violently stabbed to death by her biological father. Moreover, she was tossed off from many foster homes because of her deviant behavior and her mother's murder. She married in 1985, and was a doting and loving wife and mother from the outside. After a while, she incessantly started bringing her kids to the hospital who were dead on arrival. SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) was held responsible for their deaths. However, her husband happened to discover her personal diary by-chance, where detailed account of the baby killings were jotted down.
Capture and Punishment: Serving 40 years of imprisonment
Mary Ann Cotton
Killing Zone: England
Modus Operandi: Used arsenic to poison people
Span of Killings: Unknown
No. of Victims: 21
Story: In the 19th century, morality rate was quite high especially of infants. This was one of the reasons why so many deaths in single family was not investigated. Mary Ann Cotton invariably poisoned her kids, her four husbands and many lovers by arsenic. She applied for insurance pay out after almost every death until the rising body counts raised some eyebrows and instigated her arrest.
Capture and Punishment: Hanged to death by state
Such killers not only shocked the world due to the nature of the crimes but also because of the relationship they shared with their victims. Paraded as more like an anomaly than a common occurrence, female serial killers choose to work wordlessly and often go undetected in the society. For law enforcement, psychologists, and the common folks, they are a puzzle and a shocking reminder of the depravity of human psyche.