The 6 Archetypes of Female Serial Killers from Elizabeth Bathory to Aileen Wuornos

My crime novels to date have followed the fortunes of Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg, a seasoned detective sergeant attached to the Serial Crimes Unit at Scotland Yard, and his pursuit of some truly heinous criminals: mass murderers and serial killers whose violent rampages have shocked the country. Almost exclusively, these felons have been male, they have run up dozens of victims, and their motives have been so twisted that in many cases they’ve defied understanding. However, in my new novel, Strangers, we change the scenery a little.

Lucy Clayburn is a brand new character; a feisty young female detective in the Greater Manchester Police. She’s ambitious to do well, but is inexperienced, and doesn’t fully enjoy the confidence of her superiors. At the same time, she comes up against a particularly deadly opponent. ‘Jill the Ripper’ is a female serial killer, who seduces random male victims, and then purely for her own gratification, murders and mutilates them.

It had occurred to me that so often in crime fiction the narrative reflects the usual tragedy of real life in that an opportunist male predator hunts down innocent females. But in opting with Strangers to turn this cliché around, I was looking to focus on one of those lesser-known but nonetheless very real monsters that inhabit our world: the female serial killer.

We’ve always known that women are just as capable of committing multiple murder as men. A brief thumbnail sketch of several chilling examples will show just how truly deadly they can be.

In criminal history mass murderesses have tended to fall into several distinct categories.

Elizabeth Bathory
Elizabeth Bathory

1. History’s She-Wolves: The First Female Serial Killers

First of all, there were those who committed their crimes simply because they could. Those of such disturbed personality that they felt fee to strike viciously at their foes (both real and imagined) in the certainty their positions of power and privilege would protect them from consequence. These are history’s She-Wolves. Check out the following four:

Catalina de los Ríos y Lisperguer

Chilean baroness of the 17th century who embodied all that was wrong with colonial rule. Notorious for her flaming red hair but also for the horrific cruelty she showed to her servants and serfs, at least 40 of whom she literally whipped to death. Put on trial in 1665, she cheated justice by dying from ill health before judgement could be passed.

Mary Tudor

Known as ‘Bloody Mary’, England’s most hated queen, ruled 1553-1558, during which time she attacked her Protestant subjects with unrelenting savagery. A Catholic zealot, she burned 300 at the stake on charges of heresy, allegedly watching the executions while enjoying her favourite meal of roast chicken. She died from natural causes, having achieved nothing except to give her religion a bad name.

Elizabeth Bathory

The ultimate female serial killer, ‘Countess Dracula’ was a powerful Hungarian aristocrat, who became infamous for luring young peasant girls to her castle at Csejte, sexually murdering them and then bathing in their blood to retain her youth. Accused of killing at least 80 this way, she was eventually walled into her chambers at Csejte, where she died in 1614.  

Magdalena Solis

Former prostitute turned charismatic cult-leader, who in 1963, in Monterrey, Mexico, treated the local peasant population to drugs-fuelled orgies, which also saw the lynching of non-believers, human-sacrifices and, on Solis’s part at least, blood-drinking with gusto. Eventually convicted of two murders, though believed responsible for at least 45, she was sentenced to 50 years imprisonment.

Nannie Doss
Nannie Doss

2. Black-Widows: Female Serial Killers Who Murder for Money

Probably the best known female serial killers are those we refer to as Black Widows. Not all mass murderers kill because they are insane; some have twisted but at least understandable motives, such as financial gain. Many female criminals have sought wealth by befriending, or becoming the carers and/or lovers of men with more money than sense, and later have disposed of them like rubbish. Here are four:

Vera Renczi

Famously beautiful, insatiable man-hunter of Bucharest, Romania, who in the early years of the 20th century moved hungrily from one partner to the next, apparently determined to be ‘the last woman in each guy’s life’, and often making good on this. Allegedly, 32 corpses were found in zinc coffins in her cellar, but she confessed to poisoning 35. Unsubstantiated tales claim that she died in jail.

Judy Buenoano

‘Butter wouldn’t melt’ housewife type, who, despite her outward appearance seemingly couldn’t wait to feed arsenic to the men in her life. Between 1971 and 1980, in various US states, she murdered a husband, a son, a fiancé and at least two boyfriends, but maybe more. She went to Florida’s electric chair in 1998, the first female killer to ride the lightning since 1957.

Nannie Doss

Educationally subnormal farm-girl who, despite being pretty dim, managed to get away with 11 poisoning-murders between 1927 and 1954. As her victims included four of her husbands, two of her children, her two sisters, her mother, a grandson and a mother-in-law, one might have expected suspicion to fall on her sooner. She died from natural causes in the Oklahoma State Pen in 1965.

Tillie Klimek

Polish resident of Chicago, who in the years after World War One earned a reputation for having second sight, as whenever she foretold a husband’s or neighbour’s death, it happened right on schedule. In reality she was poisoning them with arsenic. She accounted for a total of around 14, but grievously injured many others. She died behind bars in 1936.

Amelia Dyer
Amelia Dyer

3. Baby Farmers: Female Serial Killers who Adopt then Abandon

Perhaps the most reviled of all female mass murderesses are the Baby Farmers. These women were basically foster-mothers for hire, and would take into their care unwanted infants, either for payment from impoverished parents or from the state because the children had been abandoned. Many of those poor mites would clearly have been safer out on the street. The following four cases clearly illustrate the utter depths of these women’s cruelty:

Dagmar Overbye

A Danish murderess, who, between 1913 and 1920 killed at least nine of the babies in her care, but maybe as many as 25. The methods caused as much horror as the numbers, Oberbye strangling her helpless charges, drowning them or burning them to death in a masonry stove. She herself was treated more mercifully, her death sentence commuted to life in prison in 1921.

Amelia Dyer

Well-educated, well brought-up Victorian woman who, in appearance at least, was the ideal middle class lady. She trained as a nurse, but seeing a gap in the market, set up a foster-care and adoption agency in Reading, England, proceeding to murder maybe as many as 400 of the children put into her care. Convicted in 1895 of just one such crime, she was hanged the following year.

Felícitas Sánchez Aguillón

Midwife and abortionist who eventually turned to murder. Her childhood habit of poisoning dogs perhaps ought to have set alarm bells ringing at an early stage, but Mexico City in the 1930s was a tough place, and there were many foundlings in need of care. Sanchez didn’t give it, instead preferring to poison and strangle about 50 of them. She committed suicide in custody in 1941.

Enriqueta Martí: A sex-worker and professional procuress of children for criminal purposes. In 1912 in Barcelona, a city beset with poverty and known as the pornography capital of Europe, she kidnapped, trafficked, prostituted and murdered uncountable numbers of street-children. An enraged Spanish public demanded the garrotte, but they were cheated in 1913 when a mob killed her in the prison yard.

Beverley Allitt
Beverley Allitt

4. Angels of Death: Female Serial Killers who Kill Rather than Cure

Medical murderesses are among the most frightening serial killers on Earth because there are few figures in society we trust more than nurses. The perversity of those medical personnel who abuse this position in order to murder their patients, especially as so often it is done seemingly for fun, is so horrific that it’s barely comprehensible. They must be mad, we say. Who knows, but here are four Angels of Death:

Gesche Gottfried

A popular woman-about-town in the German city of Bremen, her charitable work between 1813 and 1827 – caring for friends and relatives who were mysteriously and often fatally sick – gained her the nickname ‘Angel of Bremen’, until evidence emerged that she was slowly killing them all with rat-poison. At least 15 died, followed by Gottfried, whose reign of terror ended on the guillotine.

Beverley Allitt

British state-enrolled nurse who over a period of 59 days in 1991, took advantage of her position at the Grantham and Kesteven Hospital, to murder four child patients, either by overdosing them with insulin or by injecting air bubbles into their bloodstream. She clearly wasn’t an expert, as she attacked nine others too but failed to kill any of them. She was jailed for a minimum of 30 years.

Genene Jones

A Texas pediatric nurse, who in the late 1970s and early 1980s is thought to have killed scores of children in her care by administering drugs like digoxin and heparin. Arrested in 1985, she was finally charged and convicted of one murder, but her true tally may be as high as 46. She received a 99-year prison sentence, lenient for Texas, and is due for parole in 2018 due to prison overcrowding.

Jane Toppan

Many medical murderesses are believed to be suffering Munchausen syndrome by proxy. Massachusetts private nurse Jane Toppan clearly wasn’t; she killed to achieve a sexual thrill. Between 1885 and 1901, she poisoned at least 33 of her patients (including several friends and relatives), climbing in bed with some of them to orgasm as they died. She herself died in a lunatic asylum in 1938.

Suzan and Michael Carson
Suzan and Michael Carson

5. Willing Accomplices: Female Serial Killers Who Went Along for the Ride

Many females have been convicted of multiple murder because, while they were not the instigators of the crimes, they were more than happy to assist their brutal male partners. An old argument often rages here. Would these foolish, besotted women have ever murdered anyone if they hadn’t met the vicious men in their lives? Ultimately, it makes no difference. They participated as Willing Accomplices. Here are four:

Catherine Birnie

A dysfunctional, love-struck resident of Perth, Australia, who in company with her lifelong sex-offender of a husband, David, spent the early 1980s abducting innocent young women and taking them home, where the duo raped, beat and strangled them. Four died, and in 1986 the Birnies received full-life sentences, the husband committing suicide in 2005, the wife preferring to linger on alone.

Raya and Sakina

Key members of a murder gang operating in Alexandria, Egypt, in the first two decades of the 20th century. Along with their two husbands, they would target women wearing gold or jewellery, the wives luring them away, the husbands robbing and killing them. Unknown numbers were slain, but all the gang were finally captured and hanged in 1921.

Suzanne Carson

The California hippie dream turned sour in 1980, when oddball Suzan Barnes, having hooked up with anarchist and counterculture freak Michael Carson, went on a killing spree, eliminating so-called ‘witches’. Three innocent people died, two men and one woman, shot, stabbed or bludgeoned. On arrest in 1983, the Carsons were unable to give any coherent explanation for their violence. They both drew full life prison terms.

Debra Brown

A pathetic individual with no record of violence until she met psychopath Alton Coleman, who in 1984 led her on a pointless crime-wave across six Midwest states, beating, robbing, raping and murdering random folk they encountered on the road or in homes they had broken into. Eight people died, including several children. Coleman was executed by lethal injection in 2002, but Brown’s death sentence was commuted to life.

Aileen Wuornos
Aileen Wuornos

6. Predator Sadists: Female Serial Killers Who Turn the Tables

Lastly, we have that rarest type of female serial killer, the lone offender who trawls the benighted streets or invades private houses, where she tortures and kills her victims purely to satisfy her own unnatural desires. Normally, these terrifying assailants are male, but females have been known to do it too. Here are four archetypical Predatory Sadists:

Juana Barraza

A part-time wrestler who terrorised the OAP population of Mexico City between the late 1990s and 2013, by posing as a health-worker to talk her way into the homes of elderly women, whom she then beat and/or throttled to death. Finally arrested in 2013 with at least 25 victims to her name, but maybe as many as 49, she was sentenced to 759 years imprisonment.

Rose West

Not so much Fred West’s accomplice as his eager partner-in-crime, West turned part of her home in Gloucester, England, into a torture chamber, and during the 1970s and 80s brutalised and murdered at least 10 young women whom her husband had brought home for that purpose. The victims included her own daughter and a stepdaughter. Fred committed suiciade, but Rose is now serving a full-life prison sentence.

Aileen Wuornos

High profile case of a wandering prostitute who worked the Florida backroads and between 1989 and 1990 shot dead seven men after allowing them to pick her up. After a lifetime of abuse, she was clearly deranged, but evidence suggested her explanations that she had killed these men in self-defence or after rape were lies. She died by lethal injection in 2002, amid a media storm.

Irina Gaidmachuk

Another slayer of the elderly, and a violent alcoholic, whose constant quest for funds took her to the homes of frail old ladies all across Sverdlovsk Oblast, in Russia, between 2002 and 2010. Having conned her way inside, she axed or hammered 17 of them to death before ransacking their houses. Considering that this was Russia, she later received the jaw-droppingly light sentence of only 20 years.

Deadlier than the male? Well, though this list barely scratches the surface, and the comprehensive rogues’ gallery of female serial killers is vastly, vastly larger, the rollcall of male mass murderers is larger still – by many times. But as females are often held to have the caring role in society, to be the mothers and nurturers, it still seems shocking that even this relative handful could be responsible for offences like these.

Perhaps not deadlier than the male in numerical terms, but on a one-to-one basis, as bad as many, if not worse. You certainly wouldn’t have turned your back on any of these ladies.

Strangers by Paul Finch is available now. For more fresh perspectives on infamous true crime cases, pick up the latest issue of Real Crime or subscribe and save 25% on the cover price.