Female Serial Killers: Why do Women Murder?

It is time to see women as fully human—which includes the dark side of humanity. ~ Cathy Young

It’s no surprise that the majority of violent crimes committed are done by men. Women are definitely the minority in offender status and the majority in the victim category. But that doesn’t mean that women are incapable of committing some incredibly heinous acts of violence. 

From 1902 to 1908, Belle Gunness brutally murdered what is believed to be over forty people. Many were lured to her murder farm with the promise of love and prosperity. But the only one prospering was Belle. 

In 2013, Joanna Christine Dennehy went on a stabbing spree in Cambridgeshire, England. Killing three men and attempting to kill two more. What was her motive? She refuses to say.

Gesche Gottfried poisoned fifteen people in Germany between 1813 and 1827. Her victims were her parents, two husbands, a fiancé, and her children. Gesche was sentenced to death by decapitation and was the last person publicly executed in Bremen, Germany.

All three of these female killers had different modus operandi. But they all had one thing in common… murder. 

Male Murderers, Female Murderers

Penn State at Harrisburg published a study in Science Daily attempting to explain the differences between male and female serial killers. Researchers found that male serial killers are “hunters” and female serial killers are “gatherers.” Meaning that the male serial killer tends to murder strangers and women serial killers murder familiar people around them. 

Of course, there are exceptions to that theory. Just look at Gerald “Bobby” Hand. He was convicted of murdering his fourth wife and suspect in murdering wives one and two (three left before he got the plastic bag around her head). 

And then there’s Aileen Wuornos, who shot and killed seven men. Aileen was a sex-worker and these men were strangers to her, just clients. 

Associate Professor of Psychology at Penn State, Marissa Harrison, states, “Historically, men hunted animals as prey and women gathered nearby resources, like grains and plants, for food.” She continues, “As an evolutionary psychologist, I wondered if something leftover from these old roles could be affecting how male and female serial killers choose their victims.”

For the study, researchers used data on 55 female and 55 male serial killers from the U.S. After analyzing the data, they found male serial killers were almost six times as likely to kill a stranger, while female serial killers were nearly twice as likely to kill a person they already knew. 

They also discovered that 65.4% of male serial killers stalk their victims, compared to 3.6% of female serial killers. Their sample revealed that there “were two female serial killers who engaged in stalking-like behavior during their crimes; interestingly, reports indicate that men were also involved in those crimes,” said Harrison.

Gender seems to influence methods of murder, as well. 

It is thought that the biggest motivation for male serial killers is sexual compulsion. There is almost always a sexual element to their acts. But with female serial killers, there tends to be a form of “justification” for what they’re doing. Sometimes for women, it’s related to money, other times it could be revenge. 

Women were known as poison aficionados for years. It was a low profile and covert way of murdering. Easy to mask as other ailments or maladies. And less messy! 

One review on female serial murders stated that women are rarely motivated by sexual or sadistic reasons. But that psychopathic traits and a history of abuse are pretty consistent in their profile.

What male and female serial killers do have in common is that most serial killers kill simply because they want to.

Are gender roles inescapable? Even in murder?

Studies have now defended the “hunter” and “gatherer” gender roles in serial killers. Does society inadvertently propagate the stereotypes? It would seem so.  

Just look at the names that are given to serial killers. The monikers tend to have some gender bias to them. Names like Jolly Jane, Tiger Woman, or the Giggling Granny describe the ruthless women killers in history. 

Harrison continues by pointing out, “men were more likely to be given nicknames that suggest the brutality of their crimes, like the Kansas City Slasher.” Or more recently, BTK: bind, torture, kill. 

Harrison makes it clear that their findings don’t necessarily mean that any one person is born to commit crimes. But that evolutionary psychology may help explain the differences between male and female serial killers. Which would lead to better methods of profiling.

Girl Power

Maybe the first step to understanding the serial killer is not to exclude anyone because of their gender from the possibility pool. Sure, there are some methods and motives that have proven to be favorites of men, and others that women are more fond of. But overall, humans in general can be pretty awful. 

Cathy Young makes a thoughtful point in her article, The Surprising Truth About Women and Violence, in regard to the feminist’s initiative. Young states:

This woman-as-victim bias is at odds with the feminist emphasis on equality of the sexes. If we want our culture to recognize women’s capacity for leadership and competition, it is hypocritical to deny or downplay women’s capacity for aggression and even evil.

Perhaps for some, accepting that not all women are natural-born life-givers, but that there are those who prefer taking lives, is a bitter pill of strychnine to swallow. 

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