Most Infamous Female Killers
It feels weird, in a way, to deal with female serial killers. The type of crime spree that inspires mass murder usually feels like the work of a deranged man, and a majority of the most notorious serial killers of the 20th century have been male: Ted Bundy, Zodiac, John Wayne Gacy. Statistically speaking, serial killers are usually white men in their 20s or 30s who come from lower- or middle-class backgrounds. Yet there are outliers, and it’s impossible to ignore the fact that more than a few women have defied those stats and gone on horrific killing streaks. Their crimes bring with them an added level of shock: surely, people think, a woman couldn’t have done this. But they did, and they have, and they will. These are the most infamous female serial killers:
- Lavinia Fisher: Lavinia Fisher has the dubious distinction of being the first female serial killer in the United States, or at least the first one to grip to the public consciousness and earn the title. Now-a-days, however, there has been information disclosed from research into the case that she may not have killed anyone and maybe have been just a petty robber. Her killings were so long ago, though — she was born c. 1792 and died in 1820 — that records about her youth and origin are lost. She and her husband owned and operated a hotel in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 19th century, and they gained notoriety when men started disappearing. (Rumors about their methods have grown with time, tossing in details like trap doors and elaborate murders, but the most likely truth is that she would poison male guests, her husband would return later in the night to finish them off, and they’d keep whatever cash or goods the guest had.) She and her husband were hanged, though reports were that she jumped from the gallows in a technical suicide rather than let the executioner kill her. An appropriately gruesome end.
- Aileen Wuornos: It would be impossible to talk about female serial killers without discussing Aileen Wuornos (pictured above), a Florida-based killer and prostitute who murdered seven johns in 1989-1990 and whose actions were later chronicled in documentaries and feature films. She had a phenomenally rotten childhood: she was allegedly beaten and raped, and she conceived at 13 after a stranger assaulted her, and she subsequently gave birth and had the baby placed up for adoption. She started turning tricks at 15, when she was kicked out of her house. Her tragic life pretty much spiraled after that. After small crimes and arrests, she kept working the roads as a prostitute, killing her first john, 51-year-old Richard Mallory, in November 1989 in what she would later claim was self-defense. She killed several more men, and she was eventually caught after getting in a minor accident while driving one of her victim’s cars. She was executed in October 2002.
- Belle Gunness: Belle Gunness was a strong and brutal woman who tallied more than 40 victims in her day. Born in Norway in 1859, she emigrated to the U.S. and married and settled in Chicago. Her husband and some of her children died under sad and mysterious circumstances, and when she began dating again, her suitors — wealthy men drawn in by her charms — started disappearing. She had a hired hand named Ray Lamphere who did some dirty work for her, though she eventually turned him out and even managed to turn authorities onto him as a possible threat. Despite her habit of killing men, she managed to have the final laugh. In April 1908, her home went up in flames, and investigators found the bodies of her children next to a headless corpse under the wreckage. However, the dimensions of the headless body didn’t match Gunness’ actual figure, and she was declared missing. Authorities started digging up her land and turning up plenty of corpses.
- Jane Toppan: In 1901-02, after she was in custody, Jane Toppan confessed to dozens of murders. She was extremely dangerous and more than a little unhinged: she would spend the rest of her life at Taunton State Hospital, dying in 1938 at the age of 81. Toppan grew up in an orphanage and then as a servant. Her killing spree started in 1885, when she was training to be a nurse. She took to experimenting with patients, using different combinations of medicines and chemicals to tweak their nervous systems and slide them between life and death. She also later admitted to being aroused by the process of killing. Toppan got away with her deeds for a while, especially when she entered private practice, after which she started racking up more victims by killing her landlords and later her foster sister. After killing an elderly man named Alden Davis and two of his daughters, the Davis family requested a toxicology investigation, which turned up traces of the poison Toppan had used. She was
- eventually charged with multiple murders, but she was found not guilty and declared insane.
- Velma Barfield: Velma Barfield has another claim to infamy besides being a serial killer: she was the first woman to be executed in the U.S. after the death penalty was reinstituted in 1977. She was put to death for the murder of Stuart Taylor, her boyfriend; she’d been using his checking account to forge checks and buy prescription pills, and she poisoned his beer to knock him off, though she played at nursing him back to health for a few days. She was caught when an autopsy turned up traces of arsenic. She also confessed to killing her mother in the same manner. All told, she killed five people, but she spent so much time on death row that she found religion and became a devout Christian. Weird but true.
- Amelia Dyer: In addition to having what is possibly the creepiest photo on Wikipedia, Amelia Dyer’s also infamous for killing hundreds of victims. That’s right, hundreds. The truly gruesome part is that her victims were infants. Dyer, born in England in 1838, earned her money in the baby farming system, taking in children whose mothers couldn’t afford to feed or raise them and nursing them in exchange for a fee. Babies were killed through neglect and starvation, though many were murdered more quickly in order to allow for greater turnover and higher profits. Dyer was trafficking in pure evil. She even dodged the bullet once after investigators started checking out the number of deaths on her watch; she only did time for neglect. She was eventually found out by police, and though she was only convicted of one murder, it was clear from the pattern of disappearances and the evidence in her home that she’d been doing this for years.
- Nannie Doss: Nannie Doss was a lethal wife: all told, she murdered four husbands and a boatload of other relatives, including her sisters, two of her kids, and her own mother. She killed her second husband by poisoning his whiskey the day after he raped her. After her third husband died, his house mysteriously burned down, and the insurance money went to Doss. Her fourth marriage was a two-fer: she murdered her mother when the elderly woman came to live with her, and then she killed her husband a few months later. It wasn’t until her fifth and final husband died that Doss was caught. After he was briefly hospitalized for a digestive tract issue, Doss poisoned him to collect the life insurance. The man’s sudden death after being released tipped the doctors off to foul play, and sure enough, they found arsenic in the man’s body. Doss confessed to the raft of murders but, because she was a woman, wasn’t put to death. She died in prison in 1965, at age 59.
- Bertha Gifford: Bertha Gifford’s story is another one built on poison and infidelity. Born around 1876, Gifford lived in Misssouri and garnered a reputation for her desire to care for sick friends and family, many of whom subsequently died. Enough of them died before their time to arouse suspicion, and Gifford was eventually arrested for murder. An exhumation of several bodies led to the discovery of arsenic in the corpses, and Gifford’s game was over. Like all serial killers, regardless of gender, Gifford was deliberate and wide-ranging, and she murdered almost two dozen people. She was found not guilty thanks to an insanity plea, and she spent the rest of her life in a mental hospital.
- Jeanne Weber: Although she only lived to 36 — and she died by her own hand in prison — Jeanne Weber was a notorious killer at the turn of the 20th century. She started her killing spree by murdering her sister’s children, killing an 18-month-old girl and her 2-year-old sister in rapid succession. Doctors declared the deaths accidental. She was also to play on her gender and the public’s willingness to forgive a distraught woman for heinous crimes: although she was found trying to choke her nephew, she was acquitted when the defense said she was grief-stricken over the death of her own child. (A death she actually caused.) She was eventually charged with murder and sentenced to imprisonment in an asylum in 1908. Two years later, she hanged herself in her cell. No one was ever able to diagnose the mix of hate and insanity that had plagued her.
- Dorothea Puente: The cold and calculating manner with which Sacramento’s Dorothea Puente dispatched her victims is enough to turn anyone’s stomach. After several marriages, Puente started committing fraud in the 1960s by dating older men and cashing their benefit checks. She did time for the deed, but it didn’t dissuade her at all. In the 1980s, Puente ran a boarding house for the elderly and collected their mail, after which she would cash the checks of her tenants and pay them out in a smaller stipend. Tenants started dying and disappearing, as well; in fall 1985, Puente had a handyman dump a box she said was filled with junk near a river; when a fisherman reported the curious item, cops opened it up and found the remains of an old man. Another missing tenant led police to investigate Puente’s facility. The short version: she’d been killing tenants and burying them out back. Puente was sentenced to life in prison, and she always maintained that her tenants had died of natural causes. (Despite the fact that there’s nothing natural about burying them in a yard.) She died in March 2011 at age 82.