Female Serial Killers: What Makes Them So Unique?

Male serial killers are instantly recognizable and understood, but why aren’t female serial killers?

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Sara Belen Worsham, Reporter

Serial killers are undoubtedly the most famous variety of criminal, with the most unique of them all being the female serial killer, whose motivations and weapons of choice vary from case to case.

Dating back hundreds of years, female serial killers have been revered, mocked, or even ignored altogether. Why is the idea of a female who kills without regret or empathy scare us so much?

“By committing a crime,” said Rachel Monroe, author of the novel Savage Appetites, “women are not only violating the criminal code, but they are also violating a gender code because we have this idea that women are nice, women are passive, women are nonviolent.”

Many examples throughout history show us that the reality is drastically different.

For instance, Nannie Doss, nicknamed the “Giggling Nannie” due to her cheerful grin, managed to discreetly kill 11 people over two decades, beginning in the 1920s. With the use of arsenic, Nannie Doss disposed of four husbands, her mother and mother-in-law, her two sisters, two of her children, one of her nephews and a grandson. One might wonder, how could she have possibly murdered all of those people and not have gotten caught until 1954?

Rachel Monroe uses an example to illustrate one possible answer to this question.

“When you have ‘The Grandma Killer’ or something that it is reinforcing the shock and horror of the idea that a woman could be both a grandma and a killer. Our space for what women can be is so narrow and constrained.”

This theory lines up with the common notion that women are often underestimated and seem non-threatening, as it is in their very nature to be caregivers and nurturers.

An example of someone using this assumption to their advantage was Jane Toppan, a nurse who worked in Massachusetts in the late 1800s, nicknamed “the Angel of Death” due to her having killed at least 30 of her patients. A man in that sort of role would have been an instant suspect for the patient deaths, but no one suspected Nurse Jane Toppan.

In most cases, female serial killers’ victims tend to be family members or close friends, while male serial killers tend to target complete strangers, people they have no connection with.

Is this because female serial killers are more callous, and do not actually love the people around them?

“Men have been more allowed to have a public life, while women have been so domestically confined,” Monroe said. “So if you have murder in your heart, you have to murder who you are around.”

Ultimately, Monroe said female serial killers are so few and far between that each one is unique in both motives and methods. She believes there is one main reason that female serial killers seem so bizarre.

“It’s just difficult to accept that women can be cruel or petty or selfish or manipulative,” she said.