Serial murder has as many definitions as there are experts on the subject. For the purpose of this article, serial murder is defined as more than one murder (planned or opportunistic) that establishes a pattern, with the intent of killing more people for personal gain of some kind. The murders take place over various periods of time with cooling off periods, when the perpetrator does not kill. Learn about infamous Female Serial Killers!
England’s first female serial killer, Mary Ann Cotton, was murdering people at least twenty years before the first male serial killer in England, Jack the Ripper, came on the scene in the late 1880s. This does not mean that they were the firsts, but that they were the firsts on record. Whatever the reason or the cause, serial killer behavior is present all over the world; but it is peculiar to western culture, and exists in these nations at overwhelmingly abundant and increasing numbers. Black female serial killers and female serial killers of other minority populations are rare, even in countries under western influence.
Female serial killers statistics state that women are four times more likely to use poison than any other method, especially when the murders are committed without accomplices. They are more passive than men, and this may be attributed to their gender roles more so than to their sex. Women prefer white collar crimes, and usually commit them alone; but most crimes committed by women are connected to a masculine significant other, either a man or another woman.
Most famous female serial killers in history, including Mary Ann Cotton, have been poisoners. Women appear to disable their victims or prey on the weak or the infirmed. They are also more likely to kill people they know, but if paired with an aggressive, masculine personality, they will participate in and commit much more daring and violent murders, and kill total strangers.
Traditionally, a list of female serial killers can be typed in specific categories. These categories are based on the types of studies conducted by experts. Some base the differences on the killer’s psychological profile, some according to motive, and some according the number of people killed. There are at least twenty types of female serial killers. The examples listed below are each defined on their own terms. The years listed indicate the time that the murders took place.
Angels of Mercy – caregivers or medical personnel of some kind who typically kill children, the sick, and the elderly for various reasons
- Christine Falling (1980-82, US, at least 5 dead) This babysitter claimed that voices told her to smother or bludgeon the babies left in her charge. Her motives are unknown as she gained nothing other than personal gratification for her crimes.
- Kathleen Anne Atkinson (1991-95, UK, 4 dead) This nurse worked in an intensive care unit and came under scrutiny when four of her patients, two elderly and two young adults, succumbed to injuries from which they were expected to fully recover. Upon investigation, Nurse Atkinson’s past revealed similar deaths to patients in her care. Her motive is unknown.
- Marie Noe (1949-68, US, 8 dead) This mother of ten was featured in Life magazine in 1963 as the most bereaved mother in the country. Her children’s deaths were attributed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) until she came forward in 1991 and confessed to smothering all eight with their pillows. At 72, she received probation for her unspeakable crimes.
Black Widows – kill loved ones for various reasons, especially husbands
- Blanche Taylor Moore (1968-86, in US 4 dead) Though this poisoner acquired some money during her murderous years, her motive appears to be one of convenience. She dispatched her husbands and boyfriends shortly after replacing them with new love interests.
- Margie Velma Barfield (1969-78, US, 7 dead) Barfield took financial advantage of her relatives while they were alive and killed them to cover her tracks. She has the honor of being the first woman to be executed by lethal injection in the US.
Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy – kill in order to gain sympathy and attention from the death of their victims
- Marybeth Tinney (1972-85, US, 9 dead) killed eight of her biological children and one of her adopted children by smothering them. She couldn’t resist the attention she received when her children became ill and died, one after the other, soon after they were born.
- Bobby Sue Terrell (1984-86, US, 12 dead) Though she was a caregiver in a facility for the elderly, Terrell’s motive for murder was a connection to the dead and their relatives in the tragedy. She strangled and poisoned her victims with insulin, while pretending to provide the best care possible for them.
Partners in Crime – Women who kill with a more aggressive, masculine partner, both men and women
- Gwendolyn Graham and Cathy Wood (1987, US, 5 dead) These lesbian lovers and co – workers smothered patients to enhance their lovemaking shortly after each murder. Graham was the masculine aggressor of the duo.
- Myra Hindley and Ian Brady (1963-65, UK, 5 dead) Hindley and Bradley kidnapped, raped, strangled, and cut the throats of five small boys and girls, but not before audio taping their cries for help and pleas for mercy.
- Debra Denise Brown and Alton Coleman (1984, US, 8 dead) This couple killed men, women, and children, but particularly targeted young girls to rape and murder. They stand out because they are black offenders, a rarity, indeed, even for the United States.
- Belle Gunness (1884-1908, US, 40+ dead) Born in Norway, Gunness immigrated to the US in search of the American Dream. She pursued it by successfully poisoning her suitors and subsequent children for the insurance money. She even advertised for husbands by luring them with the promise of a good life with a wealthy widow. She disappeared in 1908, after her murder farm was burned to the ground.
- Juana Barraza (2002-06, Mexico, at least 11 dead) A former professional wrestler, Barraza targeted elderly women for revenge against her abusive mother, and for profit. She strangled and bludgeoned her victims before robbing them. She avoided detection for years because authorities believed the perpetrator to be a man. She was detained after leaving the scene of her last crime.
Most notorious female serial killers are the ones who stand out because of the number of people they killed, the types of people they killed, or the manner is which they killed them. Though traditionally passive poisoners or obedient accomplices, they may be escalating, if not in numbers of kills, then in the manner in which they kill.
Florida female serial killer, Aileen Wuornos, is unique in her method of operation and weapon of choice. In one year, she lured seven men to isolated places and killed them with a hand gun. This demonstrates more aggression than in any other female serial killer, and tops the annual average of most male serial killers. She may or may not be the next step in the evolution of American female serial killers, but she surely represents a woman’s potential to be as violent and remorseless as a man.
All of the women mentioned in this article could easily be considered for a list of top ten female serial killers. Female serial killers in America represent approximately 15% of the serial killer total population. They outnumber their counterparts all over the world by as much as 5 to 1.