Even if you aren’t interested in the subject of true crime, it’s likely that you still know the names and crimes of at least a few of history’s most notorious and prolific serial killers. When most people discuss the subject of serial killers, names like Dahmer, Bundy and Gein instantly spring to mind. However, it’s less likely that the name of any female serial killers will enter into the discussion. While it’s true that female serial killers are less common, statistics have shown that as many as 1 in 6 of all serial killings are perpetrated by a woman. Many of the crimes by these women may appear to be less grisly or violent than the work of their male ‘counterparts’, but that doesn’t make them any less shocking or disturbing. Typically targeting family members (usually husbands and children) and killing for personal or financial gain, many of the female serial killers on this list committed acts much more despicable than any male serial killer. Take a look below for our list of 10 of the most famous female serial killers.
1. Jane Toppan
Poison is often stereotyped as a ‘woman’s weapon’. Although statistically poison has proven to be a ‘gender-neutral’ weapon used indiscriminately by male and female murderers, its capacity to kill others while avoiding physical confrontation means it is often associated with the fairer sex (this idea may have been popularised by Shakespeare; poison is used in six of his plays but in only one is it wielded by a male character).
One of the most notorious female poisoners was Jane Toppan, a nurse who killed more than 30 people in America between 1885 and 1901. While studying at Cambridge Hospital in Massachusetts as a trainee nurse in 1885, Toppan began experimenting on patients in her care by injecting them with morphine and atropine to see what effect the drugs would have on their body. Toppan’s hospital career ended in 1889 when she was fired for frequently prescribing opiates to patients, but she had already managed to claim many victims during this period. Going on to work as a private nurse, Toppan continued her poisoning spree and is thought to be responsible for the suspicious deaths of several of her landlords.
In 1901, Toppan moved in with the Davis family to look after the elderly patriarch of the family. She poisoned the father Alden Davis as well as his wife and two of their daughters before moving back to her hometown in Boston. The surviving members of the Alden family suspected foul play and ordered a toxicology report on the body of the youngest daughter. Poisoning was found to be the cause of death and Toppan was promptly arrested. During her trial in 1902, Toppan admitted to killing 31 people and she claimed to derive a sexual thrill from the act of murder (something quite unusual for a female serial killer as most kill for power or material gain). She was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was sent to the Taunton Insane Asylum. She died there in 1938 at the age of 81.
2. Kristen Gilbert
The ‘Angel of Death’ is a recurring type of behaviour often found in female serial killers. Like Jane Toppan, these types of killers use their position and authority as caregivers or medical practitioners to secretly kill patients. However, unlike the erratic behaviour of Toppan, many Angels of Death hide behind their trusted position of authority to evade suspicion. Arguably the most famous of these killers is Kristen Gilbert, who was actually innocently given the nickname ‘Angel of Death’ by her co-workers when she worked as a nurse in a Veterans hospital in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Working at the hospital between 1989 and 1996, other co-workers noticed the high frequency of death by cardiac arrest which typically happened on the ward where Gilbert was working. However, no one acted on these suspicions and didn’t think she could really be capable of killing patients (hence the jokey nickname) until it was noted that epinephrine kept going missing on the ward and Kristen seemed to be the reason behind it.
An investigation was launched in 1996 and during the time that Kristen was suspended from work the death rate on her ward dropped significantly. After an outburst of erratic behaviour (she was sent to a psychiatric ward after a drug overdose and then called in a bomb threat at the hospital), Gilbert was finally arrested. In 1998 she was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of five patients and the attempted murder of two others, all by epinephrine injection. Investigators found that during her working history around 350 deaths occurred during her shifts (a number which was significantly high for a nurse) but only these five deaths could be directly attributed to her actions.
3. Nannie Doss
Another type of female serial killer is the ‘Black Widow’, a woman who moves from one marriage to the next by killing her husbands. Nannie Doss was an American serial killer who murdered 11 people over a 30 year period. Nannie was raised by a tyrannical father and her first marriage at age 16 was to a similarly overbearing man. Nannie gave birth to 4 daughters but when two of the girls suspiciously died from food poisoning in 1927 her husband left because he was frightened of his wife’s actions.
Nannie met another man two years later and the couple were married for 16 years. However, after this husband raped her, Nannie poisoned him in 1945 and moved away (during this marriage, two of Nannie’s grandchildren also died while in her care and she pocketed the life insurance payment for one of the children). Nannie killed three more lovers over a 10 year period and was finally arrested in 1953 when a doctor performed an autopsy on her fifth husband and found a huge amount of arsenic in his system. Nannie pleaded guilty to the murder of four of her husbands and several of her family members and she was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1955. She died of leukaemia in a prison hospital 10 years later.
4. Elfriede Blauensteiner
Another ‘Black Widow’ killer was Elfriede Blauensteiner who confessed to killing five people in Austria when she was arrested in 1996. She later recanted her original confession and was only charged with the death of one man in 1997 and two others in another trial in 2001, but it is thought that Blauensteiner (who later plead her innocence) primarily killed for financial gain. With the help of her former lawyer, Blauensteiner falsified the wills of three of her elderly lovers so she could receive the inheritance. Taking advantage of the frail state of her victims, Blauensteiner used poison or high doses of medication to kill the men. Imprisoned for life at the age of 65, Blauensteiner died of a brain tumour in 2003.
5. Martha Needle
Another female serial killer who targeted members of her own family was Martha Needle. Born in South Australia in 1863, Martha grew up in a violent household and displayed traits of unstable behaviour from an early age. She married Henry Needle in 1882 and gave birth to three children, Mabel, May and Elsie. In 1885, Mabel died after a short period of unexpected illness. Henry died in similarly mysterious circumstances in 1889, and Elsie and May both died the following year. Martha collected significant life insurance payments from the death of each family member.
In 1891, Martha had an affair with Otto Juncken, a man she was subletting her house to. Martha poisoned Otto’s disapproving older brother Louis in 1894 and then attempted to kill another Juncken brother, Herman, when he was visiting to put his deceased sibling affairs in order. Herman felt violently ill after eating lunch at Martha’s house and sought out a doctor who confirmed that he had nearly died from arsenic poisoning. Liaising with police, Herman went back to Martha’s house where he was served food and drink. Herman alerted detectives who burst in the room and wrestled a teacup from Martha which contained enough arsenic in it to kill five people. Martha pleaded innocence but she was tried and convicted of the murder of her children, her first husband and Louis Juncken. She was executed in 1894.
6. Magdalena Solis
Magdalena Solís was a Mexican prostitute who became part of a bizarre scam which escalated into a heinous cult which practised ritual sacrifice. In 1962, two petty sibling criminals Santos and Cayetano Hernández convinced the 50-something inhabitants of a small Mexican village that they were priests of an Incan god. The brothers coerced the villagers into committing sexual acts with the promise that they would be rewarded with ancient treasure, but over time the townspeople became suspicious when they didn’t receive their promised rewards. Worrying that they would be uncovered as frauds, the brothers hired Magdalena Solís and her pimp to pose as two reincarnated Incan deities. Solís ordered the villagers to partake in orgies and drink chicken blood from goblets during bizarre ceremonies and then she ordered the death of any villagers who disobeyed.
The violence escalated and it wasn’t long before the whole village was terrified into submission. A young boy stumbled upon the village and immediately alerted the police. When the investigating officer didn’t return from the village the police dispatched more units and they discovered that the first officer had been hacked into pieces and his heart had been cut out. The subsequent investigation revealed that Solís had demanded blood sacrifices during which she and her accomplices drank the victim’s blood. Eight people were killed over a six week period and Solís was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
7. Dorothea Puente
Named the ‘death house landlady’, Dorothea Puente targeted elderly and mentally impaired residents of the boarding house she owned in California during the 1980s. Born in 1929, Puente had a spotty criminal career as a forger and a fraudster until she began renting an apartment in a building she owned in 1981. Between 1982 and 1989, Puerte accepted tenants who were typically overlooked by social services. Puerte served three years in jail during this period when she was convicted of drugging and stealing from one of her tenants, but she aroused further suspicion when neighbours noticed odd behaviour around the premises.
Police investigated in 1988 when a schizophrenic tenant of Puente’s boarding house went missing and they discovered freshly dug soil at the rear of the property. Seven bodies were excavated and prosecutors at the subsequent trial of Puente argued that she had most likely drugged her tenants with sleeping pills and smothered them. She then hired convicts to bury the bodies. Puente was also found guilty of murdering her husband years earlier and fraudulently collecting his pension after his death (the man’s decomposed body was found in stuffed in a box on a river bank in 1986, but it couldn’t be identified at the time), and she was sentenced to life imprisonment. Puente died of natural causes in 2011 at the age of 82.
8. Juana Barraza
Juana Barraza was born into poverty in a small rural town near Mexico City. Barraza suffered a tragic childhood (her mother sold her for three beers to a man who raped Barraza repeatedly when she was in his ‘care’) before becoming a fairly successful professional wrestler as an adult. At some point during the late 90s, Barraza turned to a life of crime and began targeting elderly women for their money and possessions. Barraza posed as a social worker or nurse to gain the trust of her victims before she bludgeoned them to death and robbed their houses. As the death count continued to rise, Mexican authorities denied the existence of a serial killer despite media pressure.
However, when they finally did realize the murders were the work of the same person, they assumed the killer was a man, possibly a transvestite, because witnesses who saw Barraza leaving a victim’s property described her as having a stocky, masculine frame. Eventually, forensic evidence proved Barraza had murdered 10 people and she was put on trial in 2008. Police suspected Barraza had killed more than 40 victims, but they could only link her to 16 murders. She is currently serving a 759 year sentence in prison.
9. Delphine LaLaurie
One of the most sadistic female killers in history, Delphine LaLaurie was a rich socialite from Louisiana who tortured and killed her slaves. When a fire broke out in her three-story New Orleans’ mansion in 1834, a group of concerned passers-by broke into the basement when LaLaurie refused to hand over the keys to let people check that there was no one trapped in the slave quarters of the burning building. Inside they found seven slaves suffering from mutilated wounds and flayed skin and they were manacled and chained in positions which stretched and disfigured their limbs.
Rumours of this torture quickly circulated and it wasn’t long before an enraged mob descended on the LaLaurie residence. The mansion was ransacked and looted but LaLaurie managed to escape. The surviving slaves were taken to the local jail by the sheriff’s office (who arranged ‘public viewings’ so people could see the extent of their torture) and bodies were found buried in the mansion’s gardens. LaLaurie fled to Paris where she remained until her death in 1844.
In the third season of horror tv show American Horror Story, Coven, Delphine LaLaurie plays an important part.
10. Aileen Wuornos
Aileen Wuornos gained a reputation as one of the most notorious female killers in modern history primarily because she only targeted men. Convicted of killing seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990, Wuornos originally claimed she only killed in self-defence. Working as a prostitute, Wuornos shot and killed each of her victims after she said that they attempted to rape her. However, during her trial Wuornos was found to be mentally unstable and suffering from borderline personality disorder. Over the course of the trial (and her subsequent time on death row) Wuornos constantly changed her story about the events of the killings.
Wuornos is uncharacteristic of most female serial killers for several reasons. She only killed men, she operated outdoors (most female killers operate in the home), she used a gun and she only targeted strangers. As a result, Wuornos was the subject of intense media speculation. She spent almost 10 years on death row appealing her sentence before she was finally executed by lethal injection in 2002.