Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Black Widows: Veiled in Their Own Web of Darkness

Curious Killers

In his book, Serial Murderers and their Victims, author Eric Hickey probably best describes females who murder as "quiet killers." His study of these women throughout the 19th and 20th centuries has led him to believe and his peers agree with him that, unlike their bombastic and zealously motivated male counterparts, female serial killers are much more subtle. They are sly, deliberate and careful in plotting their murders and performing them. Scenes of bloody rampages are rare, replaced by such modus operandi as poisoned foodstuff and staged domestic accidents.

There are a variety of female serial killer types, the most notorious and shifty being the aptly termed Black Widows, whose nickname recalls the toxic spiders who destroy their mates when their usefulness is over. These are the women who wear the Betty Crocker apron and the June Cleaver façade of wife and mother to hide their murderous instinct.

Three-quarters of the time, they kill strictly for profit. They live off life insurance policies, pensions, and other assets gained from "sudden" deaths of close relations husbands, children, grandchildren, stepchildren, sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers.

Judias Buenoano (Police)

Judias Buenoano, who at this writing sits on death row in Texas, masqueraded under various pseudonyms for years while she went about killing a couple of husbands, a fiancée and a son for their loot.

Diana Lumbrera, between 1977 and 1990, smothered her six children to death, one at a time, including a three-month-old daughter. Eventually, Texas doctors got wise, realizing they were not dealing with an unfortunate mother with a streak of bad luck. Lydia Trueblood of Pocatello, Idaho, poisoned an offspring, five husbands and an in-law earlier in the 20th Century. During the 1960s and 1970s, Germany's Maria Velten poisoned two husbands, a lover, an aunt and even her father.

A study done by Christiana Evripidou of the University of Virginia finds, however, that the traditional targets of the Black Widow may be changing. "An increase in strangers as victims has occurred in recent years," says she.

Black Widows are a category of female multiple murderers.  Whether they should be called serial killers is open to debate.  Generally, female multiple murderers do not kill for the same sexual motives associated with male serial killers.  If one accepts a frequently proposed definition that requires sexual motivation and a murderous quest for power over another individual as the definition of the term serial killer, then this is not the appropriate term for most female multiple murderers, including Black Widows. The goal here is not to debate terminology, but to present this unusual class of female criminal in its larger framework of females who commit murder more than once.

We have already touched on some of the infamous names in the history of female killers. It is convenient, but confusing to label these women serial killers. There is a major difference between the Countess Elizabeth Bathory who openly bathed in the blood of a hundred virgins to retain her youth (it didnt work) and a Genene Jones who asphyxiated perhaps as many as forty youngsters while posing as a caring nurse in a children's hospital. 

 According to Brian Lane's and Wilfred Gregg's Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, the majority of serial killings is perpetrated by males and includes certain traits: Their killings are repetitive, often growing in frequency until the perpetrator is arrested or dies. They tend to kill face to face, one on one. There is usually no relationship between victim and murderer. Motives are, for the most part, fuzzy. Murders generally display a gluttonous violence, a brutality, and a bloodbath.

Marked differences between the male and female serial killers are quite distinct.

  • While males regularly stalk strangers, females largely tend to slay those close to them intimately, family members and people dependent upon their role as caregiver.
  • Whereas males tend to be physical they shoot, stab, batter and strangle women most often elect the more undetectable, non-aggressive way, poison. (The Electronic Journal of Sociology, published by the University of Guelph, Ontario, estimates that 80 percent of female serialists have employed poison by itself or with other means.)
  • When men kill repetitively, their motive is half the time sexually driven. Females kill with an aim for profit (75 percent), for control (13 percent) or for revenge (12 percent).
  • The longevity of a male's killing spree ranges from several months to, at the extremity, four years. Recorded lengths of like female activities are, on the average, from six to eight years. Some have gone undetected for three decades.

Despite their differences, there are three common denominators in both female and male genders. One, they have an ability to portray a surface normality when it is necessary for planning and survival purposes. Two, they may be psychopaths, but psychopaths are not insane. Three, as psychopaths they lack a conscience.

In separate television interviews over the past year, two experts shared their views on the impact of serial killings in society, citing these three traits.

John Douglas, former FBI profiler, told ABC-TV that the serial killer's greatest defense is that he/she is virtually unrecognizable by sight. "The general public thinks (they look) like Hannibal Lecter," he said. "They actually look like you and I, like the postman, the delivery man who comes to your door." As well, these people are not insane, he added. "They certainly do know the difference between right and wrong."

Adding to that latter conception is Harold Schecter, co-author of The A-Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, who remarked, "Serial killers are psychopathic personalities...lacking in certain basic human emotions, including remorse. Other human beings are just objects they use for their own gratification."

Eric Hickey in 1991 divided female serial killers into two distinct groups, Black Widows (who, simply put, marry for one purpose: to kill their husband for financial gain) and Angels of Death (mercy killers, who murder someone in their care e.g., baby, mother, grandmother for power and, perhaps, attention). But, throughout the 1990s, as the scope of female killers widened, as the sense of assorted psychoses deepened and the focus on who was killing whom for what reason sharpened, Hickey's successors elongated his original list to include an array of other types. By 1998, when authors Michael D. and C.L. Kelleher published Murder Most Rare, the assortment of female serial categories had lengthened significantly. The Kellehers' book divides the universe of female multiple murderers into nine categories:

  1. Black Widows,
  2. Angels of Death,
  3.  Sexual Predators,
  4. Revenge Killers,
  5. Profit Killers,
  6. Team Killers,
  7. Killers Whose Sanity is in Question,
  8. Killers Whose Motives Defy Explanation, and
  9. Unsolved Crimes.

We have already tapped into Black Widows and will do so more in greater depth to come. To set the foundation, we will start off by addressing the other categories.

An Angel of Death sets herself up as God, preying on those who in her estimation are already marked for natural death the sick in hospitals or an aged relative whose daily support has been left in her hands. Her weapons are either chemical, such as a lethal injection of potassium, or suffocation with a pillow, both means hard to trace. A classic example of an Angel of Death comes to us from Grantham, England. In 1991, 23-year-old nurse Beverly Allitt killed at least four children and injected twenty-plus others with potassium or insulin with an intent to kill. She was convicted by a Magistrate's Court in 1993 and is now serving thirteen life sentences.

Sexual Predators are, as their name indicates, driven by sexual fantasy. Aileen Carol Wuornos, one of the very few women who fit this category, murdered at least seven men between 1989 and 1990. After having sex with them, for pay, she pumped bullets into each client, driving off with their cars and personal effects. In 1992, she was sentenced to death. There is some reason to debate whether sexual fantasy had any part in Wuornos motivations. There is evidence to suggest that revenge, hatred of men, and petty theft were stronger motivations.  Wuornos homosexuality seems to dilute the notion that she killed men as part of some sexually-motivated fantasy.

Revenge Killers are typically obsession-driven; hate or love or jealousy are the most common factors. They are as rare as sexual predators but, when pushed, they strike with a vengeance. While many female killers are usually much younger the average age is mid-20s to early 30s Martha Wise of Ohio committed her crimes at the age of forty. A spinster when she found her true love, she was overjoyed. But, her family objected to her choice, as did her minister. (Her beau, Walter Johns, was a much younger man.) In revenge, she fed three of the more vocal family members a deadly dose of cyanide and torched the church. When apprehended and her crimes became public knowledge, the press dubbed her "Lady Borgia of America" after the infamous Italian noblewoman whose actions she emulated. Wise told the judge that the devil made her do it, but the State of Ohio, being unable to catch the devil, threw the total blame on her and locked her away for life.

Profit Killers kill strictly for monetary gain; they hire out as (to be direct) "hit women". Whereas the equally greedy Black Widows choose their own victims (friends and relatives) and contrive their own killings, female profit killers commit murders for others usually, jealous wives who want their cheating or abusive mate six feet under. Because they are "silent witnesses," their careers may go on for years. Take Russia's quiet professional, Madame Alexe Popova. Her first murder taking place in 1879, this hit-woman poisoned some three hundred men other women's husbands and boyfriends until she was caught and executed by a firing squad in 1909.

Team Killers come in assorted shapes and sizes, and comprise two-thirds of the entire female serial killer rank and file. There are three types of female team killer groups. The most predominant is the "male/female" duo, consisting of one woman and one man; in most cases, they are nothing but thrill-seeking lovers. The second most common genus is the "female/female" bonding, made up of two or more women usually two engaged in a murder pact. Finally, there is the "killing family" of three or more people joined together on a death-dealing joyride.

It was stated earlier that a female serial killer generally avoids bloody havoc; that is, that her crime is of a "quiet" nature involving poisons and suffocation. That is true when she acts alone. However, that rule of thumb does not always hold up when she is in a partnership with someone else, especially a male who tends to do the thinking and the rough stuff for her.

When 24-year-old Cynthia Coffman sided with James Gregory Marlow in 1986, the pair's modus operandi was robbing, then strangling, their victims. They were eventually sentenced to death for the murder of four women. Forty years earlier, buxom Martha Beck and her pipsqueak lover, Ray Fernandez, shot, drowned and garroted at least a dozen innocent women (probably as many as twenty) before the two killers were executed at Sing Sing in 1951.

Female/female teams tend to follow the more familiar pattern of murder-through-subtlety. Lesbian lovers Gwendolyn Graham and Catherine May Wood, both nurses, suffocated five elderly patients at a Grand Rapids, Michigan, nursing home in 1987. Throughout the 1980s, Maria Gruber, Irene Leidolf, Stepanija Mayer and Waltrand Wagner together or separately lethally injected more than two hundred patients under their care at Leinz General Hospital in Vienna, Austria.

Charles Manson mugshot

Of family teams, one particular person, usually a male who sets himself up as the guru or thinker for the group, guides them all. These teams act impulsively with few set patterns. None more savagely illustrates this arrangement than the Manson "family," which ritualistically killed Hollywood actress Sharon Tate and some nineteen others in a headline spree in the 1960s. The Mansons also brutally killed a series of people in Northern California including some of their own members who tried to betray them between October, 1968, and November, 1970. Commanding the family was Charles Manson, a hypnotic-eyed felon whom his followers referred to as "Jesus Christ". Among the sixteen known members of his migratory brood were ten "apostle" females: Susan Denise Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel, Mary Theresa Brunner, Lynette Fromme, Sandra Good, Ruth Ann Moorhouse, Catherine Gilles, Nancy Pitman and Catherine Share.

The last three classifications of female serial killers are not as tightly defined.

Leading these categories are those very few women who have managed to escape execution through a Question of Sanity. Jeanne Weber, for instance, evaded the hangman's rope in 1908 after being apprehended on suspicion of strangling her children. Convincing a jury she was bonkers, she was institutionalized. No one will ever know. She hanged herself in her cell in 1910.

Marie Hilley (Anniston Star)

The second of this genre is that small number of women who are undoubtedly guilty of their crimes, but remain unlabeled merely because their Motives Defy Explanation. Audrey Marie Hilley is the most famous case. Having killed three family members, she might have been slotted in the Black Widow category had her motives been more crystallized. But, there seems to have been no intention of monetary profit or of anything tangible to gain. All the evidence could prove is that this normal Alabama housewife and mother suddenly, at age forty-two, went on a killing spree that lasted four years. She poisoned her victims, but she nor her accusers could ever decipher a reason.

Trailing the long list of female serial killers are certain incidences of Unsolved Crimes suspected of having been committed by women but without a firm suspect or motive. Among these are the murders at Maryland's Prince George's County Hospital between 1984 and 1985. Someone injected potassium into the IV tubes of seventeen intensive care patients, killing them instantly. When the law eventually cornered a suspect (a woman), the DA's office believed she was not guilty and set her free.

Cold-blooded killers all, these heartless women. But, none better portray the female killer than the Black Widow, to whose attention we now turn. Throughout her long and devilish reign, she has managed to be the stuff of legend and song and even, in a very macabre way, romance.  

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