Words by Cheish Merryweather and Anna McCully Stewart
When we hear the words ‘serial killer’ quite often the first names that come to mind are Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Richard Ramirez – mostly male. However, 15% of all known serial killers are female, a much smaller percentage but not small enough to convince anyone that women are not just as capable of carrying out the same sinister crimes.
Unlike male serial killers, who are often motivated by power or lust, female serial killers are often driven by financial gain. Their victims tend to be those who are emotionally and physically closest to them; particularly husbands or family members and they are motivated by an overall improvement to their own lifestyle.
These following female serial killers all acted alone and have the highest victim counts known – and they were just as cruel and calculating as their male counterparts.
10. Aileen Wuornos: 7 victims
American serial killer Aileen Carol Wuornos was convicted of the murders of seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990. She claimed that her victims, who she had met when she was working as a prostitute, had either raped or attempted to rape her and the murders were in self-defense.
From a young age, her grandfather abused her and she would often engage in sexual activities with her classmates in exchange for cigarettes. By the time she was a teenager her life was one of self-destruction.
During her older teenage years, she began supporting herself by drifting and working as a prostitute. This is when her killing spree had begun, she later told investigators, “I robbed them, and I killed them as cold as ice, and I would do it again, and I know I would kill another person because I’ve hated humans for a long time.”
Wuornos would hangout at a local biker bar, an alcoholic she would become violent and often start throwing her fists around. It was around this time she met Tyria Moore and although the relationship was volatile she was always honest with Moore – even confessing to the murders.
In 1991, her killing spree came to an end when she was finally caught after fingerprints were found in a victim’s car. Moore managed to convince Wuornos to confess to the murders and eventually she was convicted then executed by lethal injection on October 9, 2002.
9. Nannie Doss: 11 victims
Born in 1905, Nannie Doss – otherwise known as the ‘Giggling Granny’ and the ‘Jolly Black Widow’ – was an American serial killer single-handedly responsible for the deaths of nearly her entire family. Doss used lonely-hearts columns to trap her victims but she also turned on her own sister, children and grandchildren.
Doss’ second husband got drunk in celebration of Japan surrendering to the Allied forces and assaulted her; as revenge, Doss poisoned his whiskey, leaving him to die painfully. What followed was a series of ‘whirlwind romances’ with men Doss met through lonely hearts columns, three husbands in total who all died in the same way: arsenic poisoning. Her third husband’s mother and her own mother and sister all died as well after staying in the same house as Doss.
Doss’s murderous rampage only came to an end when her fifth husband’s doctor, suspicious at his patient’s sudden death, ordered an autopsy on the body. He was found to be stuffed full of enough arsenic to kill a horse. When questioned about the murder of her husbands, she responded simply that she was “searching for the perfect mate, the real romance of life” – none of them had measured up to her standards. Spared of the death penalty because of her gender, Doss died of leukemia in prison in 1965.
8. Dorothea Puente: 9 – 13 victims
Dorothea Puente became known as the Boarding House Killer as she killed her elderly tenants, many who were mentally ill or disabled, and cashed in their Social Security checks. She then buried the bodies in the yard at her Sacramento, California home. Her evil crimes made her around $5,000 a month.
Suspicion was aroused when neighbors noticed Puente had hired a local homeless alcoholic, known only as ‘Chief’, who she made her personal handyman. They noticed Chief was doing a lot of digging for no reason in the garden – then not long after he had been he completely disappeared.
On November 11th, 1988, police inquired after the disappearance of one of Puente’s tenants, a man named Alberto Montoya, who suffered from schizophrenia. At the boarding house, they discovered disturbed soil on the property, when they looked further they uncovered the first body.
John Cabrera, the Sacramento Police Department’s lead homicide detective, said that when he walked through the home during the investigation he knew there had been a death. He told the Sacramento Bee, “I pulled the carpet and saw there were stains. I knew right away it was body fluid.” Seven bodies were eventually found, and Puente was charged with a total of nine murders, convicted of three and sentenced to two life sentences. Seven bodies in total were found buried at the property.
Prosecution argued that Puente deserved the death penalty. They told the court, “These people were human beings, they had a right to live-they did not have a lot of possessions-no houses-no cars-only their social security checks and their lives. She took it all… Death is the only appropriate penalty.”
Although the jurors bought into her little old lady act and declared, “Executing Puente would be like executing mine or your Grandma.” Puente was charged with a total of nine murders, convicted of three and sentenced to two life sentences.
7. Mary Ann Cotton: 21 victims
Mary Ann Cotton, known as Britain’s first serial killer, began a 20-year poisoning spree in 1873 and her victims included her own mother, several of her children and stepchildren, three husbands, a lover and a friend. Staggeringly nobody connected the dots so her crimes went undetected for two decades, claiming the lives of 21 victims.
Her murder spree came to and end when she began living with Charles Edward, the son of her fourth husband, but she planned to marry another suitor. When a parish official asked if she would remarry, she replied, ““It might be so but the boy is in the way. Perhaps it won’t matter as I won’t be troubled long.” Police investigated and her long poisoning spree was uncovered.
She was hanged at Durham Jail, when the trapdoor opened the drop was not enough to break her neck so the hangman leant over and pushed her shoulders down to strangle her. She took several minutes to die.
6. Jane Toppan: 31 victims
Born in 1857, Jane “The Nightmare Nurse” Toppan lived in poverty after her mother died and she was left to live alone with her alcoholic father. She began working as a nurse in 1885 and was often unsupervised, leaving her to do whatever she pleased. Toppan started to use the patients she watched over as her own scientific experiments – she would double their doses of morphine and this proved fatal on many occasions.
Nobody knew of her crimes, her work colleagues would call her “Jolly Jane” because of her lively and (seemingly) kind personality. The real Jane Toppan would fake the medical charts and use drugs to bring her victims in and out of consciousness. Often when she killed them, she would climb into bed beside them as this provided her with a sexual thrill.
31 patients died from her sick games until she was eventually caught when a victim’s family member became concerned so many healthy people were dying. A few months later Toppan was arrested and her trial took place in 1902. In court she pleaded insanity and was sent to live out the rest of her years in an asylum. She died there aged 84-years-old in 1938.
5. Belle Gunness: 40+ victims
Born in Norway before emigrating to America in 1881, Belle Gunness was 6-foot and weighed 200 lbs. She used her physical strength to carry out a series of murders and then dispose of the bodies, killing at least 40 people before disappearing mysteriously. Her first murder seems to have been of her husband, fellow Norwegian immigrant Mads Albert Sorensen, who died of ‘heart failure’ – with symptoms suspiciously similar to poisoning in 1884.
Gunness supported herself and her surviving children by advertising herself as a ‘comely widow’ seeking a companion in the Victorian equivalent of lonely hearts’ columns. Rich suitors would come to visit and disappear mysteriously once Gunness had deposited their money into her bank account. Her step-daughter Jennie disappeared at a similar time, supposedly sent away to finishing school but never seen alive again.
One night, the farm burned to the ground, with the bodies of Gunness’s three children and a decapitated woman found among the rubble. Ray Lamphere, the farm hand, was arrested and charged with murder and arson. However, the fact that the decapitated woman found in the rubble was quite clearly too short and thin to be Gunness herself raised further questions.
When the farm was searched, body parts of around twelve victims were discovered under the hog pen, with many more in the fields around the farm, including the corpse of her step-daughter Jennie. When questioned, Lamphere finally confessed to helping Gunness bury the bodies of her suitors, who would be given poisoned coffee and then dissected, before being fed to her hogs.
Although officially declared dead in 1908, given Lamphere’s confession it seems obvious that Gunness did not die in the fire but instead succeeded in skipping town and making a new life for herself. Several unconfirmed sightings of her were later reported in the Chicago area. To this day, the whereabouts of the rest of her life – and death – are unknown. Clearly, she did not want to be found.
4. Juana Barraza: 42 – 48 victims
Juana Barraza was a former wrestler turned serial killer who was named “The Little Old Lady Killer” by the media. In 2008, she was sentenced to 759 years in jail for killing 16 elderly women in Mexico City although her actual victim count is believed to be between 42-48 people.
During the trial, it was heard that she would cruise the streets searching for little old ladies to become her next victim. She would gain their trust by carrying shopping into their homes then would strangle them with anything from phone cables to pairs of tights. She would then steal money of any items she could resell.
Her arrest came after a lodger returned home just as Barraza was leaving the house where she had left the body of an 82-year-old landlady behind. After hearing her sentencing she told the judge, “May God forgive you and not forget me.”
3. Miyuki Ishikawa: 103 – 169 victims
In 1948, two police officers in the Waseda district of Tokyo discovered the remains of five infants and an autopsy sadly showed these deaths were no accident. Following on investigation, Miyuki Ishikawa was arrested and it was believed she had caused the deaths of more than 100 infants.
Ishikawa worked as a midwife at the Kotobuki maternity hospital before she eventually became the director. Abortion wasn’t illegal in Japan, but many couples were giving their infants to the hospital due to financial struggles. Ishikawa decided it was best just to have the infants killed and it is believed she is responsible for the deaths of between 103 and 169 infants.
While the other staff at the hospital knew what was really going on they chose to turn a blind eye to the real horror happening at the hospital. False death certificates were made and the parents of the infants were asked for large sums of money – told it would be cheaper to pay this one sum than raising a child.
During trial, Ishikawa argued that the deaths of the infants were really caused by the parents who let them behind. She was sentenced to just eight years in prison and managed to appeal so her sentence was halved.
2. Amelia Dyer: 200-400+ victims
The exact number of Amelia Dyer’s victims is unknown; it is thought, however, that over her career as a ‘baby farmer’ – a common enough profession in Victorian England – she was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of infants.
Born in Bristol, Dyer trained as a nurse where she learned from a midwife of the existence of ‘baby farmers’ – people who opened their homes to young women pregnant out of wedlock who then promised to find adoptive homes for their babies – for a fee. The infants would then be starved to death or smothered.
She told her own children, curious what happened to the babies in their household, that she was an ‘angel-maker’, ‘sending little children to Jesus’. She was only caught when, in 1896, the body of a baby was discovered, wrapped in parcel paper that still bore her address. When police raided her house, they discovered the overwhelming stench of rotting flesh, as well as children’s clothes, letters from worried mothers and vaccination papers.
The local river was drained and this resulted in the discovery of more than 50 infant bodies, not all of them, necessarily, Dyer’s victims: she told police that “you’ll know all mine by the tape around their necks”. She is now known as one of the most prolific female murderers in history.
1. Elizabeth Bathory: 650+ victims
Countess Elizabeth Bathory was a Hungarian contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Unlike Elizabeth I, however, Bathory used her status to command a team of servants, including an elderly washerwoman, her children’s wet nurse and their governess, who, in between running her vast household and caring for her children, brought local peasant girls to her castle and killed them.
The victims would be lured to her castle using the possibility of employment, and then tortured and killed in the most horrific ways. Witness accounts describe the Countess biting pieces of flesh from the girls’ faces and bodies, mutilating their genitals and sticking needles under their fingernails and cutting fingers off; some girls were soaked in water and left outside in the snow to freeze.
One of the most enduring rumours about the Countess is that she murdered her victims in order to be able to bathe in their virginal blood to retain eternal youth. This image has led some to speculate that she was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The Countess’s crimes went largely unnoticed until she began shifting her murderous ambitions further up the social ladder. Unsatisfied with peasant girls, Bathory sent her accomplices to kidnap the daughters of local nobles, who eventually found themselves unable to ignore her activities.
When, in 1610, the local authorities raided her castle, they found the grounds strewn with dead and dying girls, burned, beaten and stabbed. Servants in the castle testified that she had killed at least 200 girls, a figure which has been disputed, sometimes set as low as dozens, and others as high as 600 (earning her the Guinness World Records title of ‘Most Prolific Female Serial Killer’). Bathory died under house arrest a few years later, taking the truth about her crimes with her to the grave; regardless of the exact number of victims who died at her hands, she has been remembered in history as one of the greatest monsters of all time.