The most infamous murderers throughout history – in real life, literature, and film – have tended to be men. When you hear the phrase ‘serial killer’, the first image that pops into your mind is more likely to be a man – Ted Bundy, Charles Manson, Hannibal Lecter, Patrick Bateman – than a woman.
Likely this is because, in our society, violence and aggression are character traits more associated with masculinity than femininity: to some, the idea of a woman committing acts of murder and cruelty might seem somehow even more horrifying than a man carrying out the same deeds.
But, as the following demonstrates, whether working independently or with a male accomplice, women throughout history have been capable of the most chillingly terrible acts.
10. Nannie Doss, America, 1905 – 1965
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. Like Raymond Martinez Fernandez and Martha Jule Beck, Doss used lonely-hearts columns to lure her victims into her web – but also turned on her own sister, children and grandchildren.
Her first victims seem to have been two of the four daughters she bore to her first husband, who died mysteriously of convulsions while their father was at work. Her first husband quickly fled with their eldest daughter, Melvina, and Doss moved onto her second husband, a man she met through a lonely hearts column, to whom she stayed married for sixteen years. In this time her daughter Melvina – reconciled with her murderous mother – gave birth twice. The eldest child died, mysteriously, in his grandmother’s care – but not before Doss had taken out a life insurance policy on him. The second died shortly after birth, and though doctors could not find a cause, Melvina claimed that she had seen Doss stick a hat-pin into her grandchild’s skull.
In their sixteenth year of marriage, Doss’s second husband got drunk in celebration of Japan surrendering to the Allied forces and raped her; as revenge, she 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. Nannie Doss was arrested, having killed four husbands, her sister, mother, and her own children and grandchildren. 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, still dreaming of finding her Prince Charming.
9. Diane O’Dell, America, b. 1953
Diane O’Dell, also known as the ‘Babies in Boxes Murderer’, was responsible for the death of three of her own children when they were just infants. A quiet and withdrawn woman who never stayed in one place with her family for very long, O’Dell was known mainly as a doting and affectionate mother to her eight children.
That is, until 2003, when an abandoned storage unit in Arizona revealed a grisly secret. O’Dell had rented the unit a decade earlier and eventually stopped paying rent on it; when the owner cleared it of its contents, he discovered the mummified bodies of three babies, wrapped in blankets and stuffed into bin bags. Police found that the babies had been born out of wedlock in the early 80s, their illegitimacy presumably the reason why O’Dell killed them soon after birth. When questioned, she claimed that they were ‘fine’ when she went to bed, and dead when she woke up; coroners, however, found that they had all been suffocated, one with a towel still stuffed down its tiny throat.
O’Dell eventually confessed that there had been a third illegitimate child born when she was 16 which she had also killed. The body had been found in a suitcase in the back of an abandoned car in 1989, which had eventually been traced to O’Dell; at the time she had claimed it was stillborn, and all charges were dropped. Most gruesome of all, police found that O’Dell had traveled with the bodies of her three babies in her possession for a decade, before finally abandoning them in the Arizona storage unit. It is unknown why she carried the bodies round with her for so long, nor why she so abruptly abandoned them; perhaps she learned from her experiences with her first murdered child that to attempt to dispose of the bodies was to risk discovery. O’Dell is currently serving a life sentence.
8. Martha Jule Beck, America, 1920 – 1951
Martha Jule Beck was one half of a serial killer team, along with her boyfriend Raymond Martinez Fernandez, who became known in the press at the time as the ‘Lonely Hearts Killers’. Beck was born into an abusive family and suffered from a glandular problem which made her overweight. This attracted bullies, making her a quiet and withdrawn teenager with few friends. When she left the school she trained as a nurse, graduating top in her class; however, her appearance made it difficult for her to find work. Instead, she was forced to take a job in a funeral parlor, helping prepare the female corpses for burial; spending so much time around dead bodies may have paved the way for her later crimes.
Over the next few years, Beck fell pregnant twice, first by a soldier – who tried to kill himself when he learned about the pregnancy – and then by a bus driver, who reluctantly married her before divorcing her six months later. Left alone with two children, Beck became obsessed with romantic magazines, books, and films, finally placing an ad in a lonely hearts column in 1947, hoping to find her Prince Charming. What she got instead was a single reply, from Raymond Martinez Fernandez, who made a habit out of robbing women he met through lonely hearts columns. Fernandez came to visit her in Florida, where Beck fell head-over-heels in love with him; he quickly left when he realized she didn’t have any money for him to steal.
She followed Fernandez to New York, even abandoning her children at the Salvation Army at his insistence. They embarked on a series of robberies of lonely, widowed women met through lonely hearts ads, until, in 1949, they committed the three murders for which they would eventually be executed.
Their first victim was the 66-year-old Janet Fay, who Fernandez seduced through letters and who eventually came to stay in his New York apartment. Beck saw the two in bed together and flew into a rage, smashing the older woman’s head in with a hammer. They fled to Michigan to avoid suspicion, where their next victim was waiting, the 41-year-old Delphine Downing. Once again, Beck grew enraged when she realized Fernandez and Downing were sleeping together. She choked Downing’s 2-year-old daughter to death and then shot Downing in the head.
The pair attempted to hide the bodies in Downing’s basement before going out to the cinema; when they got back, however, the police had already been alerted by suspicious neighbors. The two were arrested and given the death sentence for their three murders. To the end, Beck maintained that Fernandez had been her one true love; her last words before her execution were, “My story is a love story, but only those tortured with love can understand what I mean”.
7. Amelia Dyer, England, 1837 – 1896
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 into a prosperous enough family 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. When Dyer’s first husband died shortly after the birth of their daughter in 1869, she found herself strapped for cash – and knew exactly how to make some money. At first Dyer would take in women over the course of their pregnancies, then neglect their babies until they died; ten years into her career, after serving a prison sentence for infant neglect (a suspicious doctor reported her for the number of deaths in her care), she decided to cut out the middleman and began simply strangling the infants she offered to ‘adopt’ with white tape, burying their bodies or dumping them in the river.
She told her own children, curious as to the fates of the many 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.
An operation to dredge the river resulted in the discovery of over 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”. For Dyer was far from the only ‘baby farmer’ in Victorian Britain, where extreme poverty meant babies were often left to die in the streets and the discovery of abandoned infants’ bodies was not even considered newsworthy. Nevertheless, she has gone down in history as one of the most prolific female murderers, with her victim count often placed as high as 400: one historian has even suggested that Amelia Dyer was the mysterious Jack the Ripper, killing prostitutes through botched abortions.
6. Belle Gunness, America, 1859 – ?
Born in Norway before emigrating to America in 1881, Belle Gunness was a tall and imposing woman, standing at 6-foot and weighing 200 lbs. She used this 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, on the only day where the two life insurance policies Gunness had out on her husband overlapped.
Two of their children also died in infancy, presumably poisoned by their mother for the insurance money. Belle remarried one Peter Gunness shortly thereafter, who died quickly after his infant daughter. Gunness then continued to live alone as a wealthy widow on her farm, with only her children from previous marriages and a farmhand she hired named Ray Lamphere.
Gunness supported herself and her 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 farmhand, 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 much 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. Gunness killed around 42 people in total, including the headless woman found in the remains of the fire. Lamphere admitted to luring the unidentified woman to the farm so that Gunness could fake her own death after killing her own three children.
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.
5. Katherine Knight, Australia, b.1955
Katherine Knight is one of Australia’s most notorious criminals and the first Australian woman to be sentenced to life imprisonment. Born the daughter of an abattoir worker, Knight was prone to rages as a teenager, assaulting her classmates and teachers at school. Upon leaving education at 16, Knight secured her dream job at a slaughterhouse; she would later claim that her ‘proudest moment’ was receiving her own set of knives.
She met abattoir co-worker David Stanford Kellett in 1973 and the pair were quickly married; however, the marriage wasn’t a happy one. Knight tried to strangle her husband on their wedding night after he was only able to have sex with her three times. When Kellett left her following the birth of their first daughter, Knight placed the baby on railroad tracks shortly before the train was due to arrive; only a fast-thinking passer-by prevented her death.
After the breakdown of her first marriage, Knight took up with several different men, but it was her last relationship, with a man named John Price, which proved fatal. They had a tempestuous, off-and-on five-year relationship, culminating in violent fights during which Knight stabbed Price. Finally, in 2000, Price broke off their relationship and took out a restraining order against Knight, telling work colleagues that if he didn’t come in the next day, it would be because Knight had killed him. And that’s exactly what she did.
On the 29th of February, Knight went to Price’s house while he was at work, where she sent his children from a previous marriage away for a sleepover. When Price came home, Knight seduced him wearing newly-bought black lingerie, after which he fell asleep. The next day, Price didn’t turn up for work and, when police, alerted by concerned neighbors, arrived at his home, they discovered a bloodbath straight out of Silence of the Lambs. Knight had stabbed Price 37 times and then, several hours after he died, put the skills learned over several years working in an abattoir to use in skinning him and hanging his skin from a meat-hook in the doorway of the house.
She then decapitated his body and made a stew out of his flesh, which she laid out on the table with homemade place settings for each of Price’s children. Police discovered Price’s head in a – still-warm – saucepan on the hob. His body had been positioned on the living room sofa, legs carefully crossed. Knight was later sentenced to life in prison, a sentence which she appealed in 2006; the NSW Court of Criminal Appeal rejected her appeal, the judge commenting that her crime was “beyond contemplation in a civilized society”.
4. Karla Homolka, Canada, b.1970
Karla Homolka is another female serial killer who, at first, was thought to be manipulated into her crimes by her boyfriend – and later, husband – Paul Bernardo. Homolka was 17-years-old when she met the 23-year-old Bernardo in 1987; two months later they were engaged – and within three years they had claimed their first victim.
In 1990, Homolka decided to give her sister Tammy to her fiancé as a ‘Christmas present’. Two days before Christmas, Homolka drugged her sister with tranquilizers stolen from her job as a veterinary assistant; Bernardo and Homolka then took turns raping the unconscious girl, filming each other in the act. The unconscious Tammy then choked to death on her own vomit. The pair were questioned about their involvement in Tammy’s death, but eventually, it was ruled not suspicious. They went on to abduct, rape and murder two more teenage girls.
The pair would trick a young girl into getting into a car with them, bring her back to their house and film themselves raping and abusing her over a period of several days, before killing her and dumping her body. On both occasions, the pair would go over to Homolka’s family home for dinner just after killing their victims. Bernardo’s violence was not restricted to the victims the pair abducted, and he often beat and attacked Homolka. Finally, in 1993, after a particularly vicious assault, Homolka moved in with relatives; there, she confessed to her uncle and aunt that her husband was a murderer and rapist – carefully concealing her own role in the crimes.
Throughout the trial, Homolka was seen as a victim of Bernardo’s, a beaten wife who was just complying with her evil husband. She was offered a plea bargain, meaning if she testified against her husband she would receive a manslaughter sentence and be sent to prison for only 12 years. Shortly after she accepted this, however, Bernardo’s lawyer revealed that he had been concealing the existence of several videotapes which the pair had made of their murders. The tapes show Homolka to be a willing participant in their crimes, sexually assaulting their murder victims as well as female prostitutes and other rape victims; if they had been discovered before Homolka had been offered the plea bargain, she would have been charged with murder along with Bernardo. Bernado also claimed that he wished to release their victims, and it was Homolka who insisted they die.
While Bernardo remains in prison, Homolka was released in 2005; reports indicate she gave birth to a son in 2007 and currently lives in Quebec.
3. Rose West, England, b. 1953
Rose West was born into an abusive family and was repeatedly raped by her father from a young age, continuing even after she became a mother herself. She met Fred West at a caravan park when she was around 16-years-old. By this point, he had already murdered two of his ex-partners and before long the pair had moved in together, with Rose working as a prostitute at her husband’s insistence, and often while he watched. She regularly fell pregnant by both her husband and her customers, giving birth to eight children in total, as well as looking after Fred’s daughter and stepdaughter from previous marriages.
In 1973 the pair were fined for the indecent assault of beauty queen Caroline Roberts, who was abducted and raped before escaping their house. Soon the couple realized that if they wished to continue their crimes, their victims should not be allowed to live to tell the tale. Their usual tactic was to offer a woman on the street a lift home, take her back to their house and murder her, before burying her body in their cellar or back garden. Rose West’s gender was crucial in allowing the pair to commit their crimes; women traveling alone at night were more likely to accept a lift from a couple than from a single male driver.
The pair killed eight women this way before suspicion was aroused by the absence of their 16-year old daughter, Heather, from the family home; the other West children were overheard at school discussing how they would ‘end up under the patio like Heather’ if they didn’t put up with their father’s sexual abuse.
When police searched the West home they found the remains of ten women and girls – including those of Heather West and Charmaine, Fred’s step-daughter. Although Fred initially confessed to all the murders, protesting his wife’s innocence, before hanging himself in his cell, it quickly became apparent that Rose played a far more active role in their crimes. Fred’s daughter from a previous marriage, Anne-Marie, testified in court that both her step-mother and her father had been sexually abusing her since the age of eight; Charmaine was found to have been killed in 1971, at a time when Fred was in prison with Rose alone acting as her carer.
Rose was eventually charged with ten murders and imprisoned for life, where she remains, making her – after the death of Myra Hindley in 2002 – the only female prisoner serving a ‘whole life’ tariff.
2. Myra Hindley, England, 1942 – 2002
Ian Brady and Myra Hindley – the ‘Moors murderers’ – committed some of the most notorious crimes of the last century in England. Born into an unhappy working-class family in Manchester, Hindley was described by schoolmates as ‘lacking empathy’ for anyone, fascinated by gruesome sights such as dead bodies and mutilated animals. When, in 1961, she met Brady – who read Nietzsche, Mein Kampf and books on Nazi atrocities – at the chemical plant where they both worked, Hindley thought she’d found a kindred spirit.
Later, when Brady revealed his obsession with committing the ‘perfect murder’, Hindley was quick to comply. Hindley’s gender was crucial in enabling the pair to carry out their murders, as Brady himself was well aware: he compared her to a chameleon, “adopting whatever camouflage will suit and voicing whatever she believes the individual wishes to hear”.
Their first victim, in 1963, was Pauline Reade, a 16-year old school friend of Hindley’s sister. Hindley later claimed that she only lured the girl to Saddleworth Moor, waiting in her van while Brady raped and killed the girl before the pair buried her. They went on to kill and bury two 12-year old boys on the Moor, John Kilbride, and Keith Bennett. Their fourth victim was the ten-year-old Lesley Ann Downey, abducted from a fairground and murdered in the pair’s house. Although once again, Hindley would later claim she was absent while the girl was killed, a thirteen-minute audio tape Brady made of the murder records Hindley harshly rebuking her for her cries.
Brady would also later allege that Hindley, in fact, carried out their fourth murder, and would delight in carrying the cord she used to strangle their victim in public, playing with it. As well as the tape Brady made of their fourth victim’s death, the pair would pose for photographs proudly on top of the graves of their victims.
Nonetheless, for decades after their arrest – Hindley’s brother-in-law, present at their fifth and final murder of the 17-year old Edward Evans, finally alerted the police – Hindley refused to admit her guilt. Without Hindley’s testimony, Lesley Ann Downey’s mother was forced to listen to the recording of her daughter’s last minutes to confirm that it was, indeed, her child’s voice. Throughout her trial, Hindley appeared nonchalant and uncaring, only confessing over two decades later, in 1987.
One of the few times the police witnessed any emotion from her throughout her trial and imprisonment was when she learned of the death of her dog, Puppet. With the death penalty abolished in England while Brady and Hindley were in custody, Hindley lived out the rest of her life in prison, dying of pneumonia in 2002.
1. Elizabeth Bathory, Hungary, 1560 – 1614
Countess Elizabeth Bathory was a Hungarian contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I of England, and like the English queen enjoyed education and freedom unimaginable for a common woman of her time. Unlike Elizabeth I, however, Bathory used her liberty 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 rumors 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.