Female Serial Killers Aren’t a Type

Serial killers have fascinated the public for a very long time. Rumor and speculation and myth inflate and conflate the details. Even the definition of a serial killer is up for debate. But one thing is certain, there is no template that produces serial killers of any specific gender, race, or nationality. A short review of history shows that even female serial killers aren’t a type. 

The Definition

The FBI defined serial murder as: The unlawful killing of two or more victims by the same offender(s), in separate events.

This differs from a spree murder because there is a “cooling-off” period. A cooling-off period is a period of days between murders. A spree killing does not have a cooling-off period. The time period also differentiates serial murder and mass murder. 

How Many Serial Killers?

The FBI estimates that approximately one percent of all murders in the United States are serial killings. That would amount to twenty-five to fifty serial killers operating in any year. That’s only in the United States. I haven’t found an estimate for how many exist worldwide. 

The History of Serial Killing

It’s likely that serial killing has been around as long as mankind has been. And the first serial killer may have been a stone age one. See The First Female Serial Killer below. 

The 1886 textbook, Psychopathia Sexualis, by Dr. Kraft-Ebing is the earliest known study of serial killing.

What Makes a Serial Killer?

Many professionals have attempted to discern why serial killers become killers. Some have declared that they’ve found the cause. Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit written by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker is one such book. However, today most experts agree that the sample they studied was all male and statistically too small.  

Sasha Reid, a doctoral candidate in developmental psychology at the University of Toronto, is in the middle of a much larger study. However, her study focuses on a specific serial killer victimology. So while it may prove useful, it won’t address all serial killers. 

What makes a serial killer is difficult to pin down. Human development is continuous from birth to death. Things like genetics, upbringing, choices, influences, environment, and many other things shape our personalities, our morals, and our tendencies. Development of each individual is so varied and so codependent and commingled that we may never know why or what makes a serial killer. 

The Difference Between Male and Female Serial Killers

Current research claims that male serial killers are hunters and female serial killers are gatherers. This is a pattern the researchers see over the data they’ve studied. And they’ve studied a lot of data covering thousands of years. However, in my rather unscientific and relatively brief study of female serial killers, I see many outliers. 

There is a difference in the way the media portrays male and female serial killers. Male serial killers are named the BTK Killer, Jack the Ripper, or the Mad Butcher. While women serial killers are called the Giggling Grandma, the Bandit Queen, and Jolly Jane.

The First Female Serial Killer

We don’t know who was the very first female serial killer. That information is lost to history. However, while she may not have been the first, Elizabeth Báthory (1560–1614) was a Hungarian noble woman declared by the Guinness World Records to be the most prolific female murderer.

Image of Elizabeth Báthory from Female Serial Killers Aren't a Type: Real-life Villains series, lynettemburrows.com

Báthory and four collaborators were accused of killing more than 600 young women between 1585 and 1609. A mythology developed stating that she either drank the blood or her victims or bathed in it. Investigators documented that they found many of her victims and eye witnesses testified against her. You can read about more about her on Wikipedia or the Guinness World Records or the History site.

How Many Female Serial Killers?

Many. Some sources say that less than one in six serial killers are female. Since some or many serial killers may go undetected, it’s possible that this estimate is inaccurate.

Mug shot of Aileen Wuornos, serial killer--from Female Serial Killers Aren't a Type: Real-life Villains series @ lynettemburrows.com
Aileen Wuornos
Public Domain Image taken by Florida Department of Corrections

Here’s a list of American female serial killers. Research in non-western countries is not as available. But there have been female serial killers in Great Britain, Russia, Madagascar, Japan, Canada, Norway, and many more. Beside gender, the commonalities are few. There is a serial killer for every race and skin color. Some women were in their twenties, thirties, and some in their fifties and beyond. Though juvenile serial killers like Mary Bell are, by all accounts, rare.

Who Are the Victims of Female Serial Killers?

Victims included children, men, senior citizens, patients, husbands, family members, and strangers. The number of victims ranges from two to more than 600. 

Methods of Killing

Poisoning is fairly common among female serial killers. But there are killers who used guns, knives, axes, arson, strangulation, and bashing in people’s heads. Elizabeth Báthory, among others, used mutilation and torture.

In Conclusion

This is the second installment of my real-life female villains discussion. If you missed it, read Real-Life Villain or Scapegoat.

If you wish to satisfy your curiosity or to write believable female serial killers, read a lot. Pay attention to the source of the information. Trial records, diaries, written confessions, and eye witnesses can, and do, disagree. The more you read, the more you’ll see that while we can make generalizations, female serial killers aren’t a type. Each female serial killer is an individual with unique reasons and choices. It’s a fascinating, if morbid, area of study.

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