Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Women Who Kill: Part One

Bad Girls

Most data about violent crime and criminal types has centered on males, and that's attributed to the idea that males are more aggressive, violent, and criminally versatile than females. However, it may also have something to do with the fact that most of the researchers and criminologists have been male. Traditionally, it's been more difficult for men to admit to violence in women than to dissect the methods and motives of their own gender. As British philanthropist Lord Astor put it, "Everyone starts out totally dependent on a woman. The idea that she could turn out to be your enemy is terribly frightening."

Portrait of Countess Bathory (Dennis Bathory-Kitsz)
Portrait of Countess
Bathory (Dennis
Bathory-Kitsz)

Yet fear and bias should have no place in research. From a review of the literature, it's clear that we have a long way to go to understand violence in females. "Violence is still universally considered to be the province of the male," says crime researcher Patricia Pearson. "Violence is masculine. Men are the cause of it, and women and children the ones who suffer. The sole explanation offered up by criminologists for violence committed by women is that it is involuntary."

Women are often viewed as "soft" and vulnerable: They're not really equipped for violence and usually end up being accomplices. One male writer even thought it was too cruel to allow a (beautiful) woman who'd killed 20 people in agonizing ways to choke to death on a hangman's noose. Would he have said the same for a male? That's doubtful. While it's true that male murderers far outnumber women, it's also true that all of our conclusions about violence are based on those who have been caught. Who's to say how many female killers and violent offenders there really are?

While researchers repeat one another in pointing out how even in violence, women are still the gentler sex, there are times when a female shows more spunk. Instead of poison, she may grab an ax, even a gun. Instead of killing a customer who failed to pay for drugs, she might bear and kill children one at a time. (In fact, women outnumber men in the deaths of children and come equal to them in killing siblings and parents.)

Some females are just as cold-blooded as males, but female psychopathy is an understudied subject. The feeble attempts to assess a female psychopath — psychopaths being the most criminally versatile and most likely to repeat an offense among all violent offenders base conclusions on samples far too small to make any assertions. It's clear that many interpretations about female violence are framed by social projections about what women are supposed to be like, rather than on what they really are like, and there's little acknowledgment of how changing social conditions affect personality. During the 1970s, however, after women were "liberated," there was a surge in violent crime by women. They may not go on a rampage killing, but the lower visibility of their crimes does not discount the lethality of their motives or their viciousness.

Even so, it's clear that the motives for women show a range as diverse as that of males:

  • monetary gain
  • ridding themselves of a burden
  • revenge
  • dislike
  • pressure from a gang
  • seeking power
  • following orders
  • delusions
  • pleasure
  • self-defense
  • acting out from a history of abuse
  • sexual compulsion
  • team chemistry
  • psychopathy
  • misplaced mercy
  • depravity
  • rivalry

Book cover: Serial Murderers and Their Victims
Book cover: Serial
Murderers and Their
Victims

Of the 62 female serial killers in Eric Hickey's study for Serial Murderers and Their Victims, they accounted for between 400 and 600 victims. Some were nurses, some black widows, others were part of a team, and a few were predators. Three-fourths of them began their careers since the 1950s. The average age in the group was 30, and the longest period of killing without apprehension was 34 years. Some were grandmothers. In more recent years, females have turned increasingly toward strangers as victims, but they generally choose easy targets among vulnerable populations. They don't mutilate corpses, which is common to a certain type of male serial killer.

While people are appalled by women who kill their own children, it's more common than we think. Maternal instinct is sometimes no match for deadened emotions or personal ambition. Similarly, people are shocked when a woman who has professed love for her husband poisons his food or hires someone to kill him, but a woman is just as capable as a man of these crimes. Perhaps we don't recognize them as quickly, allowing women to get away with serial crimes for longer periods, because we don't want to. Yet Hickey's analysis showed that women were involved in serial crimes in some way 38 percent of the time.

In this first part of a series on women and crime, we focus on a few of the more notorious murderers, both historical and contemporary. While there are many more violent women than we can cover, these women represent a range of killers, from greedy to delusional to outright psychopathic. They didn't kill as part of a team but on their own and for their own reasons — not something a man thought up. Let's look first at one of the most prolific murderers — including both male and female populations — in the history of our culture.

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