Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Black Widows: Veiled in Their Own Web of Darkness

Violence in Dulcet Tones

The gentler sex.

The softer sex.

The weaker sex.

While most of the violent crime committed since the beginning of time rightfully belongs to men, women have not been the wilting flowers promoted so heartily by Victorian adorers and (right or wrong) often evident in today's society. Before we get into detail about the fascinating phenomenon of the Black Widow, it is worth a brief overview of womens escalating role in the world of violent crime, particularly in the United States.

Since 1970, there has been an increasing and alarming rise 138 percent of violent crimes committed by women. Still, while the equivalent percentage compared to male violence is small (15 percent to 85 percent) the fact that the numbers have elevated so drastically points to something changing in society.

Sociologists try to explain it, so do criminologists, theologists, politicians and world historians, but the resulting message is clear, and that message is that females are not alien to committing violent acts. In recent years, women have committed some of the most heinous crimes. Darlie Routier killed her two sons for reasons blamed on personal economics. Diane Downs killed one of her three children (she tried to kill all of them) in order to win back a lover who didn't want kids. Susan Smith drowned her boys in a neighborhood lake because her boyfriend did not want the responsibility of raising some other mans children. Karla Homolka and husband Paul Bernardo sexually assaulted, tortured and killed several young women for thrills.

There are now 130 women on death row in prisons across America. Both Betty Lou Beets and Christina Riggs were put to death in 2000: Beets by lethal injection in February for her husbands murder, and Riggs by lethal injection in May for killing two offspring.

Throughout history, violent women and women with violent intent have starkly emerged from many countries, carving their niches in myths and legends.  The creation of these stories suggests that men began to notice lethality in feminine charm centuries back.

Delilah snipped Samson's locks to make a weakling out of a superman. Agrippina, Emperor Nero's mother, taught sonny boy the attributes of ruling Rome with an unforgiving heart. Salome stripped for the head of John the Baptist. And there were other men whose fortunes were adversely affected when beguiled by perfume and puckered lips, from Marc Antony to William Tell to John Dillinger.

American history tells of many femme fatales, of witches in Salem, Massachusetts; lady pirates on the seven seas; bandit empresses in old New York. Basheba Spooner was hanged for killing a Minuteman during the American Revolution. Madame Lalaurie was suspected of torturing tens of Negro slaves in ante-bellum New Orleans. The federal government in 1865 executed Mary Eugenia Surratt for her role in the plot to assassinate President Lincoln. Belle Starr held up stagecoaches and tortured cowpokes in the Wild West. Martha Place killed a stepdaughter in the 1880s and made history by becoming the first woman to fry in the electric chair. During the Depression years of the 1930s, Bonnie Parker robbed banks and blew away policemen willy-nilly until Texas Rangers blasted her and boyfriend Clyde Barrow to hell in Louisiana. Bonnie Heady died by gas in 1953 for slaughtering a child.

Beginning with colonial Miss Spooner, American courts have sentenced to death 539 women.

Current Statistics

The Bureau of Justice's Statistics Division released a report at the end of 1999 citing an estimated 2.1 million known violent female offenders yearly in the United States. That being the bad news, the flip side is that within the rising violence, the volume of murders committed by females has actually declined. "The rate...has been falling since 1980," reads the report, "and in 1998 stood at its lowest level since 1976 40 percent lower."

Despite the positive shift, however, there is small cause for joy.

An adjoining "Special Report" details the results found by the Bureau of Justice. The report, compiled by Bureau statisticians Lawrence A. Greenfeld and Tracy L. Snell, highlights specifics. Among these are:

  • An estimated 28 percent of violent female offenders are juveniles.
  • Three out of four victims of violent female offenders were women.
  • An estimated four in 10 women committing violence were perceived by the victim as being under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs at the time of the crime.
  • In 1998, there were more than two million arrests of women accounting for about 22 percent of all arrests that year.
  • Since 1980, the number of female defendants convicted of felonies in state courts has grown at more than two times the rate of increase in male defendants.
  • Nearly six in 10 women serving time in state prisons had experienced physical or sexual abuse in the past (and) just under a quarter reported prior abuse by a family member.
  • In the case of more than 60 percent of the 60,000 murders committed by women between 1976 and 1997, the murderer and the victim had known each other intimately as a lover or family member.

Keep these facts in mind as we now move ahead to further examine and define how and why the Black Widow and other female serial killers fit into the scene of the crime.

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