Women serial killers are rarer than men, but often more deadly
In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ll focus on female serial killers and mass murders in American history.
First, we have to dispel the biggest myth — that there are no female serial killers. No less of an expert on serial killers than Roy Hazelwood said this back in 1998. Clearly, this is bullshit. Any kid who grew up in the US remembers a catchy little ditty about Lizzie Borden and her axe.
Perhaps it’s hard to recognize that women can be serial killers because of an unconscious bias on the part of the media and law enforcement. The popular stereotype of a serial killer is someone who kills strangers, usually women, and tortures and mutilates them to gratify some sadistic appetite for control or sex. Their work is usually wet and bloody, the stuff of Hollywood slasher flicks.
But none of those characteristics are necessary to fit the FBI’s definition of serial murder: “the unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.”
While the methods of female serial killers are very different than those of males, they are no less gruesome — or deadly.
Who are female serial killers?
Female serial killers typically prey on people they know, such as family members or patients in their care. Their weapon of choice is poison, followed by smothering. They kill primarily for two reasons: financial gain (most commonly) or for the sadistic thrill of taking a life. Theirs is the stuff of the Gothic novel and the Greek tragedy: domestic, quiet, and intimate.
Because the work of female serial killers is so subtle, the deaths are often categorized as accidents, illness, or other natural causes. Therefore, female serial killers are able to evade capture twice as long as males, remaining free to kill and kill again. So despite being rarer — only 15–17 percent of serial murders are committed by women — their body counts tend to be higher and their “careers” longer.
Why do males and females kill differently?
Penn State psychology professor Marissa Harrison, the lead author on a 2014 study on female serial killers (full article is behind a paywall) interprets this difference as reflecting ancestral tendencies: “Female serial killers gather and male serial killers hunt.”
I submit that it’s not so much about hunting vs. gathering, but about power. Most serial killers prey on those who have less power than they do. Unlike most males, most females experience their power over those they care for, such as family members, children, the elderly and sick. It is from those populations that female killers find their prey.
There are exceptions, of course. Aileen Wournos killed “like a man,” targeting strangers to shoot and rob. And “Angel of Death” Charles Cullen, perhaps the most prolific serial killer in US history, was a nurse who murdered helpless elderly patients at the hospitals where he worked.
There are a few female serial killers throughout history that have captured the spotlight: “Jolly Jane” Toppan, Nannie Doss, Belle Gunness, Countess Bathory. This month I’ll be profiling (pardon the pun) three lesser-known, but still deadly, female serial killers.