We tend to see men as more likely serial killers, and, according to The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, only 16 percent are female. However, there is a long history of women serial killers, though they are more likely to murder for material gain than for pleasure, and their methods are generally more covert.
As the following examples reveal, not only is the female of the species just as deadly, but they are also often far more intelligent and creative in their dreadful endeavors.
1. Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed (1560-1614)
The “Blood Countess” was a noblewoman in the Kingdom of Hungary who married the Count Nadasdy and managed his estates while he was at war and after his death in 1604. Despite a reputation for helping destitute women, a local Lutheran priest implicated her in the disappearance of local girls in 1609, and decades of murder were revealed. Alongside four collaborators, Báthory had lured peasant girls and lesser ladies with a promise of work or etiquette lessons. On arrival, they were beaten, burned, frozen, and starved to death. The Countess was sentenced to solitary confinement, though she only lived 5 years in walled-up rooms in her home, Csetje Castle. Stories spread that she’d bathed in her victims’ blood to maintain her beauty, though historians argue she was killed by courtly conspiracy.
2. Lavinia Fisher (1792–1820)
Lavinia Fisher and her husband John were highwaymen gang members in Charleston, South Carolina, where they ran the Six Mile Wayfarer House. They welcomed travellers before questioning, drugging, and robbing them. Depending on the account, they stabbed the men to death or dropped them into pits beneath collapsing beds. Eventually, a vigilante gang spurred local authorities to act, and the couple were hanged for robbery. As the USA’s first female serial killer, Lavinia was said to have crushed men’s heads with her legs and shouted at her execution, “If you have a message you want to send to hell, give it to me, and I’ll carry it!”
3. Amelia Dyer (1837-1896)
Amelia Dyer was born in England in 1838 and trained as a nurse before becoming a ‘baby farmer’ wet-nurse for abandoned infants. By allowing her charges to die of starvation, Dyer was able to boost her income, but the high number of deaths led to charges and time served for neglect. She soon returned to baby farming, though her crimes were soon unearthed in the form of several hundred infants’ remains. The “Reading Baby Farmer” is thus one of history’s most prolific serial killers, though Dyer was tried and hanged in 1896 for only one proven murder.
4. Maria Swanenburg (1839-1915)
Maria Swanenburg was a Dutch mother of seven known as “Good Mee” for the care she provided to the sick in her poor neighborhood. However, between 1880 and 1883, she was responsible for an outbreak of arsenic poisoning. Authorities eventually caught “Good Mee” being anything but good while attempting to poison the Frankhuizen family. She had apparently started by poisoning her own parents before attempting to kill at least 102 people for their inheritances and insurance. Swanenburg was jailed for life in 1885 for the resulting deaths of 27 people and suffering of 45 who survived with health complications.
5. Jane Toppan (1857–1938)
Toppan was a Boston nurse who tested opiates on and killed patients before being dismissed for recklessness. As a private nurse, she killed her landlords, foster sister, and elderly patient Alden Davis, whose wife and daughters she also poisoned. Toppan then courted and poisoned her late sister’s husband and killed his sister. In 1901, her crimes were revealed when the Davises ordered toxicology reports, and she confessed to thirty-one murders – describing the thrill of holding people as they died. She’d hoped “to kill more people – helpless people – than any other man or woman who ever lived.” Toppan was found not guilty due to insanity, and “Jolly Jane” died in Taunton Insane Hospital.
6. Belle Gunness (1859–Unknown)
6-foot tall Belle Gunness left Norway for the USA, where she married and opened a Chicago confectionary with Mads Sorenson. Together, they collected insurance from two children’s deaths and from the shop when it burned down. After Mads died, Belle used his insurance to buy a farm in LaPorte, Indiana, and marry Peter Gunness, who also soon died. She then lured suitors with newspaper ads, though each man disappeared, leaving their valuables behind. After threats from her former farmhand, her home went up in flames with her children inside in 1908. The farmhand confessed to helping Gunness escape and burying her victims, of which around 40 were found in her pig sty. Neither Belle, nor the 250,000 dollars she withdrew the week before the fire, were ever found.
7. Dagmar Overbye (1887-1929)
Dagmar Overbye was a caretaker for children born out of wedlock in Copenhagen. From 1913 to 1920, she strangled, drowned, or burned around twenty-five charges. Overbye’s crimes were discovered when she took on Karoline Aagesen’s daughter in 1920, and Aagesen asked Overbye to return the child. Police searched the caretaker’s Vesterbro district apartment and discovered the girl’s bones in the heater, along with other children’s remains. The “Vesterbro Baby Burner” was sentenced to death but given life in prison, though her gruesome actions lead to significant Danish childcare legislation.
8. Leonarda Cianciulli (1894-1970)
Cianciulli was a housewife, fortune teller, and shop-keeper in Correggio, Italy who hoped to use human sacrifice to protect her son in the army. She told three middle-aged neighbors of opportunities – the first, Faustina Setti, of a suitor and latter two, Francesca Soavi and Virginia Cacioppo, of jobs. Each sent postcards to friends and family before Cianciulli murdered them. She tossed the flesh into a septic tank and used their blood for teacakes, though the third’s “sweetness” prompted her to make soap from her flesh. Cianciulli confessed when Cacioppo’s sister-in-law called authorities, and, in 1946, the “Soap-Maker of Correggio” was sentenced to thirty years in prison, where she died.
9. Miyuki Ishikawa (1897-Unknown)
As the director of Tokyo’s Kotobuki Maternity Hospital in the 1940s, Ishikawa cared for infants whose parents could not afford them. Her solution was to let them die from neglect. With the help of her husband and a doctor who falsified death certificates, Ishikawa was responsible for the death of around one hundred children and attempted to charge parents for the service. When officers stumbled upon remains in 1948, the Ishikawas were arrested but sentenced to only 2 to 4 years of prison each. Later, the “Demon Midwife’s” crimes led to legalization of abortion for economic reasons in Japan.
10. Nannie Doss (1905–1965)
Known as the “Lonely Hearts Killer” for finding men on lonely hearts club pages, Nancy Hazel married her first husband, Charley Braggs, in 1921, though they parted ways after the death of two children. Nannie then wed Robert Harrelson in 1929, but, in 1945, she put rat poison in his whiskey after he raped her. Her next three husbands – Arlie Lanning of North Carolina, Richard L. Morton of Kansas, and Samuel Doss of Oklahoma – perished under similar circumstances. In 1954, Nannie was arrested for Doss’ murder and confessed to killing her four husbands, two children, two sisters, mother, grandson, and mother-in-law. She’d been “searching for the perfect mate” but never found him and died in prison.
11. Aileen Wuornos (1956–2002)
Aileen Wuornos’ mother left her and her brother with their grandparents, but her grandfather molested her and sired a child with her when she was 14. She dropped out of school, was kicked out of her home, and fell into a spiral of crime that led to Florida. There, she fell in love and moved in with Tyria Moore, supporting them both through sex-work. In 1989, she was raped by Richard Mallory, whom she shot to death. In the next year, Wuornos killed six other men including a retired U.S. Air Force Major. After being caught in a victim’s car, she claimed self-defense but later admitted guilt to get off Death Row. She was executed in 2002, with her actions inspiring the acclaimed film Monster.
12. Juana Barraza (1957)
Juana Barraza’s father sold sex with his daughter for beer when she was a child. Yet, it was her resentment for her mother that lead to the strangling or bludgeoning of eleven (although some estimate the number to be as high as forty-nine) elderly women. Although she had a career as professional wrestler La Dama del Silencio (The Silent Lady), Barraza murdered the women to help society. Police initially believed the murderer to be a transvestite, but Barraza was caught fleeing a victim’s house in 2006 after posing as a welfare official to gain the woman’s trust. Evidence linked her to at least 10 murders, and the “La Mataviejitas” or “Old Lady Killer” was sentenced to 759 years in prison.
13. Dorothea Puente (1929-2011)
Puente purchased the now-infamous 16-bedroom care home in Sacramento in 1968 and began handling residents’ mail and money. Before that, she’d gone through several marriages and charges for forging checks, operating a brothel, vagrancy, and fraud. Her first murder was likely housemate Ruth Monroe, who overdosed in 1982. After serving 3 years for theft, she befriended and lived with Everson Gillmouth – until his remains turned up in a box Puente had built for storage. When a tenant went missing in 1988, police inquired and discovered seven bodies in the yard. Although Puente claimed they’d all died naturally, the “Death House Landlady” likely dosed each with sleeping pills before suffocating and burying them in the yard. Puente herself died in prison at the age of 82.
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