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How and Why Women Become Serial Killers

In her new book "Lady Killers," author Tori Telfer examines how gender norms shaped the treatment of female serial killers and explores the circumstances that drove some of history's most notorious women to murder.

Suzannah Weiss

Suzannah Weiss

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

In 2014, writer Tori Telfer stumbled across the name of 16th-century Hungarian countess Erzsébet Báthory, who—legend had it—killed virgins and bathed in their blood to stay young. After falling down a dark, twisted Wikipedia rabbit hole, Telfer got the idea for her column, "Lady Killers," which debuted at The Hairpin and moved to Jezebel. It's also the name of her first book, which examines the history and folklore behind famous female serial killers.

Humanizing one of the world’s most dehumanized populations, Lady Killers reveals that Báthory was a product of inbreeding, witnessed traumatizing violence during childhood, got engaged at 10, learned to torture and kill from her husband Nádasdy and companion Darvolya, and probably never bathed in blood. This myth has persisted, Telfer argues, because it’s easier to imagine a vain woman than a purely sadistic one.

Lady Killers examines how gender norms shaped the rumors around female serial killers like Lizzie Halliday, who was mocked for her looks growing up and became separated from her 12-year-old son after fleeing a violent husband, and Mary Ann Cotton, who lived in poverty and lost four or five infants. Throughout each chapter, readers begin to feel bad for these criminals—until Telfer reminds you how they dealt with their hardships.

Broadly spoke with the author about the many ways female serial killers are misunderstood. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Kate Bender and Alice Kyteler, illustrated by Dame Darcy

BROADLY: Your book talks about how female serial killers are often overlooked. Why do you think that is? What do they reveal that we don’t we want to admit?
TORI TELFER: Female serial killers have bursts of publicity when they’re apprehended, but people tend to forget about them after they’re locked away. I suspect this is because it’s too much work to rearrange our conceptions of "female" to include "can be a serial killer." Their crimes reveal that women aren’t always the "gentler sex"—and that’s unpleasant or downright scary for people to admit.

How do people’s reactions to male and female serial killers differ?
If you look at serial killer lore, male killers are actually the ones that terrify people much more. In fact, female serial killers tend to kill for longer than male ones because no one suspects them of being killers. In my book, I argue that certain, especially nonthreatening-seeming female killers—like Nannie Doss, the "giggling grandma" who blamed her 1950s husband-killings on a search for love gone wrong—don’t scare people because they operate under this guise of, well, normality.

You know how Ted Bundy didn’t initially strike people as a suspect because he looked so "normal" with those suave, ruggedly handsome young lawyer vibes? We have an idea of what a killer has to look like (say, a wild-eyed Charles Manson type with messy hair and some sort of awful tattoo). Women literally don’t "look" scary to people because they don’t look like killers; socially, we are not trained to see women as threats (and, of course, statistics largely back that up). So they get away with it.

Did you notice any theme or pattern in the ways or reasons women kill?
A lot of the stereotypes about female serial killers hold up under scrutiny: Women tend to use poison, they tend to kill people they know (as opposed to male serial killers, who often go after strangers), and they don’t use excessive violence or "overkill" (mutilating the body, etc.). However, there are a few terrifying women in my book that go against the grain, so to speak.

Are there any in particular who you think are misunderstood?
All of them, I think! Not misunderstood as in, "Hey, she was actually a pretty good egg!" but misunderstood as in, "She was a complicated human being, led to kill by a nuanced combination of nature and nurture—and yet she was reduced to a salacious headline, or a jokey archetype."

Who was your personal favorite murderer to research?
I had a lot of fun researching Lizzie Halliday, because a) she was quite unpredictable, a real wild card of a serial killer, and b) turn-of-the-century America was so out of control. The headlines were splashy, the science was sketchy, and the rumor-mongering was deranged. For example, a few brave souls theorized that Lizzie was Jack the Ripper.

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What was the biggest surprise you came across in your research for this book?
This is gruesome, but I found very detailed descriptions of the execution of Anna Marie Hahn, the first woman in Ohio to ever get the death sentence. A number of journalists were allowed to witness it, so we know the sound the electric chair made (one compared it to a "fourth of July sparkler") and the fact that her thumbs turned upward as she died. Reading such vivid details about the death of a killer put me in a position of intense ambivalence, because I was furious at her, but I also felt sorry for her. I was scared for her because she was so scared, but I also couldn’t help thinking of the terror her victims felt. But then, of course, there was the cold-hearted writer part of my brain that was like, "These details are great."

Did you find any of them sympathetic or relatable?
A lot of my readers have told me that they feel quite a bit of sympathy and emotion for the Angel Makers of Nagyrév, a group of Hungarian women who poisoned their abusive husbands, belligerent parents and in-laws, and other people who were making their lives miserable. These women were extremely desperate and had very few options in life. They were, in a word, trapped. Unlike some of the other women in the book, they didn’t operate out of any sort of crazed bloodlust. They were just trying to hack out some sort of freedom for themselves. All in all a totally tragic scenario, from every angle.