Dark Beauties: Female Murderers in History

We never really hear about female murderers. Gender associations with serial murderers almost always skew male. In fact, only 10% of the total murders committed in the United States are by women. Interestingly, they are responsible for 17% of all serial murders; therefore, a female offender is more likely to be in this group. What helps to explain these statistics? Criminology expert Meda Chesney-Lind has devoted her time to examining the sociology of women, gender, and crime. Some sociologists point to traditional gender roles where boys are raised to be dominant and competitive, while girls are expected to be nurturing and gentle. Others believe it is a matter of evolved sexual differences related to competition for status and female partners. But not all serial killers are demented men.

Concerning female criminality, psychologists point to many myths perpetrated around women serial killers in history, such as the reluctant sidekick or manipulated victim of a domineering male who is coerced into criminal acts out of the need for survival. There are appearance-based theories tied to the murderous vixen or the unappealing, revengeful outcast, the copycat criminal following in male footsteps, or a scorned man-hater out for revenge. None of this explains the mystique around these femmes fatales. What motivates them? How are they different than their male counterparts?


Dying for Love

One such killer that seemingly fits prevailing stereotypes is Canadian-born Karla Homolka who assisted her husband, Paul Bernardo, in the rape and murder of at least three minors in Ontario, Canada between 1991 and 1992. As the result of a plea bargain, Homolka served only 12 years for two of the murders after stating she was an unwilling accomplice. After her sentencing, a video surfaced to the contrary, and the deal she had struck with prosecutors was dubbed “the deal with the devil.” Martha Beck, along with her partner, Raymond Martinez Fernandez, predates the dynamic duo as the “lonely hearts killers” responsible for seducing, robbing, and killing four women through personal newspaper ads.

Black widow serial killers like Judy Buenoano were arrested after attempting to kill her fiancé by a car explosion to benefit from $100,000 in insurance money. It was later discovered that she killed her former husband, boyfriend, and even her son for the same reason in the 1970s and 1980s.

Just a Pinch of Arsenic Will Do

Some historical female murderers, such as Gesche Gottfried (born in the late eighteenth century), were successful based on appearances as well as the subtlety of their crimes. Gottfried responded to an unhappy marriage by adding poison to her husband’s breakfast. Not long after, he died. A year later, she would go on to poison both of her parents and two of her children, and went on to kill her third child, second husband, and another love interest. Based on her attractive, strong, steadfast persona in the face of adversity, she would be praised as “The Angel of Bremen.” It was a neighbor’s discovery of arsenic on a salad that ultimately led to her public execution. In the nineteenth century, history seemingly repeated itself when Tilley Klimek, a Polish American "fortune teller" predicted, then murdered husbands, relatives, and neighbors, including a neighborhood dog by poisoning them with arsenic.

Caregivers in Crime

Murderer Madame Delphine LaLaurie came from a privileged background and relied on her position and status as a slave owner to cover her crimes. Over a four-year period (also in the eighteenth century) the deaths of twelve slaves in her charge were registered without cause. A fire, caused because a female slave was chained to a stove, led to the discovery of other victims who were imprisoned in LaLaurie’s care, including evidence of scars and mutilations. A mob scene ensued, during which the mansion was torn down. LaLaurie escaped, ironically with the help of a slave, during the chaos.

Others engaged in female crime posed as caregivers to gain access to their victims. Among the most notorious women serial killers in history, Amelia Dyer was accused of infanticide. The Victorian nurse and baby farmer starved, strangled, and drugged hundreds of babies in the nineteenth century. Likewise, Danish serial killer Dagmar Overbye strangled, drowned, or burned between nine and 25 children to death in a seven-year period during the early twentieth century, then cremated their bodies. There was also an English nurse, known as “Jolly” Jane Toppan, who killed more than 31 of her patients by poison between 1880 and 1901. Similarly, Genene Jones, a licensed vocational nurse, injected 60 infants and children in her care with a deadly cocktail to induce medical crises leading to their deaths.

Capital Punishment

Historically, the favored punishment for murder has often been the death penalty, especially in Christian nations where religion is often the foundation for the legal system and “An eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:23–27) is considered appropriate punishment for a wrong, especially personal injury. Martha M. Place (September 18, 1849–March 20, 1899) was an American murderer and the first woman to die in the electric chair. She was executed on March 20, 1899, at Sing Sing Correctional Facility for the murder of her stepdaughter Ida Place. Ruth Ellis (October 9, 1926–July 13, 1955) was a British nightclub hostess and convicted murderer who became the last woman to be hanged in the United Kingdom at HM Prison Holloway following the fatal shooting of her lover, David Blakely. Experts say that women are much less likely to torture their victims or engage in acts of cannibalism or necrophilia. Yet, there are plenty of examples of women acting alone who are equally effective in committing premeditated, violent murders. Aileen Wuornos, an abused woman, and highway prostitute was considered to be one of America’s most prolific female serial killers in history. Her crime—shooting dead point-blank and robbing seven of her male clients between 1989 and 1990 born out of rage and vengeance for her victims after a lifetime of rape and beatings. Her punishment: death by lethal injection.

Many of the most notorious women serial killers in the history of female criminality have tended to fly under the radar. To this day, not much is known about female serial killer tendencies, which stands in stark contrast to men. Experts believe that they are greater in number precisely because of their tendency to blend in, rather than stand out from the backdrop of everyday life.

  • Monographs on and by Women from the American Antiquarian Society

    Voice and Vision features a substantial monograph collection from the American Antiquarian Society. These books contain the output of predominantly female authors in a variety of forms, including poetry, fiction, instructional guides (domestic and professional), personal letters, recipe books, memoirs, pamphlets and leaflets, biographies and autobiographies, personal papers, children's literature, commentaries on fashion, diaries, and religious tracts.

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  • Women's Periodicals

    In collaboration with the British Library, Gale has digitised a range of nineteenth and twentieth century magazines and journals created both by and for women, which shed light on a range of aspects of women's lives, from work to leisure. These periodicals provide a full and invaluable source for the study of the social and political history of women and their place in society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They cover every aspect of the surge of emancipationist activities between the passing of the Married Women's Property Act in 1870 and the gaining of full, universal suffrage in 1928, and also cover women's activism beyond suffrage – including anarchism, pacifism, reproductive rights and abolitionism.

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  • Rare Titles from the American Antiquarian Society, 1820-1922

    Containing over one million pages of women-authored works from the American Antiquarian Society, the pre-eminent collector of pre-20th century Americana, covering over a century of female writing. This unique corpus of female-authored literature centres on the American female experience in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The database not only provides women's perspective of history but is an essential resource for researchers wanting to undertake in-depth analysis into women's authorship enabling researchers to track the development of female language, literature, and ideas.

    Curated by the American Antiquarian Society the monographs were selected from across the library's collections, including a diversity of fiction genres and non-fiction subjects, but primarily because they were authored or edited by women in an attempt to provide users with a canon of women's literature. This artificial collection has been kept deliberately broad and includes fiction, poetry, instructional guides on domestics and etiquette, personal letters, recipe books, memoirs, histories, pamphlets and leaflets, biographies and autobiographies, personal papers, children's literature, commentaries on fashion, diaries, legal accounts, oration, political ephemera, and religious tracts. This incredibly wide scope supports a variety of research enabling users to answer questions about women's cultural contributions as well as to provide insight into women's day-to-day lives. The individuals within range from famous figures to complete unknowns allowing scholars to make new connections as well as rediscovering lost or ignored works from the past.

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  • HM Prison Holloway Records from the London Metropolitan Archives, London, United Kingdom

    Holloway Prison was built by the Corporation of London as the City House of Correction for men and women. It was opened in 1852. The prison was taken over by the government in 1877. It became female only in 1903 and was well known for the imprisonment of suffragettes. Notable persons imprisoned at Holloway include several well-known suffragettes such as Emmeline Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst and Ethel Smyth; Fascist and Naz-sympathiser Dian Mitford, rebels associated with the Easter Rebellion, Maud Gonne MacBride, Kathleen Clarke and Countess Markievicz and murderers Edith Thompson, Amelia Sach and Annie Walters who were executed at the prison.

    Records relating to Holloway Prison include administrative, medical, staff records, records of the chaplain, records relating to prisoners' employment. Prisoners' records include registers of prisoners and some files on individual prisoners. Related documentation includes photographs of the prison and staff, and printed material.


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  • HM Prison Holloway Records from The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom

    As the largest women's prison in western Europe until 2016 Holloway housed several notable inmates including suffragettes, fascists, and revolutionaries. Suffragettes imprisoned there include Emmeline Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst and Emily Davison among many others. Diana Mitford and Norah Elam were both detained as Nazi sympathisers. Maud Gonne MacBride, Kathleen Clarke and Countess Markievicz were incarcerated for their involvement in the Easter Rebellion of 1916.

    The collection includes records from the Home Office, Treasury Board and Prison Commission papers revealing the running of the prison as well as Licences for the inmates detailing what crimes these women were committing as well as what types of sentences they received. The documents provide insight into the female experience of the justice system as well as how they were treated compared to men. These records can also shine a light on the lives of working class women, who in the nineteenth and early twentieth century are often only recorded via government institutions. Holloway Prison is also unique because it often trialled new reform methods instigated by female philanthropic organizations.


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