I apologise in advance, I got so into the reading behind this post that I didn’t write down where my quotes and stats came from! Also, I’m switching a bit between female killers and female serial killers here but will try to make it clear. That said, at least statistics wise, the numbers for one off kills and for serial killers do tend to correlate.
Whilst Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Female of The Species declares us to be more deadly than the male, we, as a culture, don’t expect female killers, let alone female serial killers. It is telling that Christopher Berry-Dee’s book Talking With Serial Killers has the byline “The most evil men in the world tell their own stories” despite it containing a chapter dedicated solely to Aileen Wuornas and including one on Douglas Clark & Carol Bundy. Allegedly, a member of the FBI said that there were no female serial killers as recently as 1998.
Knowing they do exist, lets get a feel for that statistics around female killers and female serial killers. Between 2010 and 2012 in Australia, there were 49 homicides, 85% carried out by men and 15% by women (abc.net.au). Internationally, the Radford University/FGCU Serial Killer Database echoes these stats, with 11.4% of serial killers as women. Christopher Berry-Dee noted 12 female serial killers in England’s past and present, some of whom acted alone and others who worked with a (usually male) accomplice. Whilst I’m focusing more on women who kill alone, the former is interesting because its thought that many of them wouldn’t have committed murder if they hadn’t met the more dominant male partner in crime. For some of these duos, Berry-Dee regards the female as more of a tool in the male killers toolbox, for example used to lure in victims.
Unlike most male killers, female killers don’t tend to have a criminal record, the same being true of female serial killers. The average male serial killer starts killing aged 27.5 whereas female serial killers start at an average age of 31. Another key difference between male and female killers is that victim wise, women are much more likely to know their victims, killing husbands, partners and ex partners.
“Women are typically viewed as nurturers but when they commit violent crimes this takes away that identity or public perception, so they may look more terrible and monstrous than men.”
– Deborah Denno
Women who kill are seen as outrageous and unnatural anyway, but those women who kill children are seen by society as somehow more heinous than women who kill adults, likely because killing a child goes against the stereotype of nurturing mother. However, female killers are people you’d trust, they are mothers, sisters and daughters.
“Female serial killers act like chameleons who blend in with their intended victims and seem to be the last person anyone would suspect.”
– Deborah Schurman-Kauflin, The New Predator–Women Who Kill: Profiles of Female Serial Killers
In part, this trust allows female serial killers to kill, something that is easily seen when we look at different types of female serial killers. Black widows are almost exclusively female, killing their husband, lover or relative for financial gain and almost 90% of known black widows used poison. Another archetypal serial killer that is almost always female is the lethal caretaker, often being paid to kill a patient, or profiting directly in some other way. Lethal caretakers may also kill or hurt others in order to be admired for curing them or to get sympathy for the death of a loved one. A similar crime with a different motive is the angel of death who kill for the feeling of power and control and who are normally women. Thus, the gender role cast on women by society, allows potential female serial killers access to a pool of vulnerable victims, such as the ill, the elderly, and babies and young children.
The same gender that allows access to victims, may also allow female serial killers to get away with killing. They are likely to operate for longer as they slip under the radar. This is in part because compared to their male counterparts, they are less likely to have a criminal record, they tend to kill people emotionally and geographically closer to them and they tend to use quieter methods such as poison, drugs and smothering. On average, a female serial killer can have a career spanning 8-11 years whereas the average for male serial killers is 2 years. This discrepancy is almost certainly, in part, due to the idea that women don’t kill and certainly don’t kill multiple people.
“Very few people believe that a female could hold the vicious capacity to commit serial murder, despite confessions from the offenders themselves.”
– Deborah Schurman-Kauflin
As well as probably reducing the rate of women as suspects in murders, this almost certainly reduces the chance of being convicted for the crime if and when it goes to court.
Women’s motives and methods also contribute to the female’s serial killers lengthy killing career. Women tend to use quieter methods such as poison, drugs and smothering to murder. Female serial killers don’t tend to stalk or torture their victims and there is an overall practicality that tends to come with the female killer. Their motivations are more practical and so are their techniques. Additionally, there is rarely a sexual aspect to the crime. On the whole, female serial killers also show less mobility than males, tending to kill near their home or workplace.
General motives for murder include revenge, jealousy, thrill, love, gain, conviction or hate and concealing another crime. Whilst these are all likely motives for men who kill, women mostly kill for gain (eg money, insurance payment, assets or personal advantage) and love (such as assisted suicide, getting someone away from a situation deemed worse than death or a mother who is going to kill herself and believes her children can’t cope without her).
In addition to the regular motives for murder, women also kill because of abuse. In these cases, murder is often depicted as a final straw and a way out of a tough situation and as such, prison is cast as a way of refinding themselves, self worth and getting back on track. However, you cannot assume that all women who kill have been abused and I wonder if some women claim abuse as a way of making their kill seem more justified in the eyes of the law.
As an aside, my friend Jen wrote an interesting essay on a case where a woman retaliated against domestic abuse and how society and the legal system dealt with it.
“Most reasonable people simply cannot imagine why a woman, being the mother figure, could harbour such evil desires, the overwhelming, sickening need, or indeed perverse inclination to destroy human life, especially in abhorrent cases as multiple child torturing kills.”
– Christopher Berry-Dee
If convicted, once in prison, men who kill may well find themselves inundated with letters from women and may even end up married. Women on the other hand, find they have “forsaken their assigned gender role and have been ostracized by their loved ones and shunned by the general community”. They are cast as wicked women and find themselves abandoned. Where sympathy is elicited for male killers, female killers cannot be comprehended are often cast as vain, as manipulated (by a man) or abused, possibly because it is far easier to imagine these options than it is to imagine or accept the idea of a sadistic woman.
Resources I’ve used