When asked to name a famous serial killer, the majority of the names that come to mind are male. Most immediately think of those with terrifying nicknames, like ‘Jack the Ripper’ or ‘The Zodiac Killer’, or the ones that are most talked about, such as Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer.
However, about one in six U.S. based serial killers are female. So why is so much of the attention on the male killers?
To be frank, it’s because females are better at serial killing.
While it’s true that there are fewer documented cases of female serial killers, it’s believed that there may just be a lack of information due to the difficulty of identifying female serial killers – as they typically tend to be “quiet killers,” targeting those close to them. In fact, most women who commit serial homicides do so in a far less showy manner than the men in their position. This adds to their “careers” as killers, which, on average, typically lasts twice as long as a man’s.
Consider “Jolly” Jane Toppan, a young nurse who lived in Massachusetts during the second half of the 19th century. She killed at least 31 people, many of whom were in her care, with the use of poison. It’s been reported that she enjoyed watching them die, and would even lay down by their side as they were experiencing their last moments on Earth. Toppan’s way of killing fits the patterns identified by researchers in a 2015 paper, as typical of female serial killers.
Marissa Harrison, the lead author of the 2015 paper that examined female serial killers in America and associate psychology professor at Penn State Harrisburg, has suggested that the difference between male and female serial killers can be explained through evolutionary psychology [the controversial field that argues that human brains were hardwired by the way our ancestors lived in the prehistoric era]. Utilizing media reports going back to 1856, researchers compared 55 male and 55 female serial killers in the United States on everything from the age of their victims to their educational levels. It’s important to note that media reports may be biased towards more sensationalistic murders, and that documented serial killings are rare. Even rarer are the ones perpetrated by women, causing Harrelson to believe that there are probably more female serial killers than there have been recorded or caught.
Just as society tends to underestimate women, it also tends to be dismissive of female serial killers, giving them silly nicknames like ‘Jolly Jane’ or ‘The Giggling Grandma.’
Peter Vronsky, author of Female Serial Killers: How and Why Women Become Monsters, explains: “Women are traditionally perceived in society as nurturing caregivers – as mothers and life-givers. The notion of women as predatory-life takers is one that often we have difficulty envisioning.” However, women are just as likely to engage in horrible acts of violence and murder as men. It’s just that their motivations differ significantly from their male counterparts.
Researchers have found that male serial killers tend to “hunt” their victims, who are often strangers to them. They usually follow their victims, often going from town to town, waiting for the perfect moment to attack – like a predator hunting for their prey. They will often butcher their victims, much like hunted game, and keep trophies from their escapades.
Female serial killers tend to “gather” their victims around them, typically targeting people they may already know, often for financial gain. Research has shown that 72% of female serial killers killed at least one person in their care, with nearly half of those killings being children. Additionally, it was determined that 39% of female serial killers worked in health care.
Harrison also saw evidence of evolutionary influences in what drives women to kill.
First, it should be noted that no type of upbringing, no matter how bleak, guarantees that someone will grow up to be a serial killer. With that being said, research has found that certain factors are consistent across serial killers’ childhoods, regardless of their gender. These factors include physical and emotional abuse, social isolation, instability and general family dysfunction. Vronsky adds that serial killers tend to fantasize about taking revenge in their youths, and once a serial killer reaches adulthood, those fantasies become motives. Vronsky concludes that “female serial killers kill for the same primary motive that males do: control”
A 1995 study on the psychology and psychodynamics of serial killers, found that male serial killings are characterized by a desire for domination, control, humiliation and sadistic sexual violence. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to kill for money or power. Harrison believes this to be because women kill for resources, which was their primary drive in the ancestral environment; however, Vronsky believes that any profits women get from killing are more symbolic than anything else.
Vronsky states, that whatever profits are gained “are often so disproportionally minor [compared] to the effort and risk of committing murder that it becomes evident that the property or money gained is satisfying a pathological need, rather than a material need.” To Vronsky, this is how female serial killers express control, by killing their victims and seizing their properties. He provides further evidence of this motive by alluded to one appropriately period-specific theory.
The Victorian era saw a ‘surge’ of female serial killers in the US and Britain, with many of them targeting their children, husbands and other family members. “This was an era when women had very little control over their lives and very few resources if they found themselves in a bad marriage or domestic situation,” stated Vronsky. “[Due to this] some desperate women would ‘free themselves’ by poisoning their husbands and even their children.”
Regardless if you adhere to the evolutionary psychology theory or the psychology theory regarding control for why females commit serial homicides, there is no dispute of the incomprehensible darkness that lies within all of humanity. And while female serial killers may be rarer, they are just as terrifying as their male counterparts. In the next few posts, I’ll be providing information on some of the most notorious female serial killers – many have killed their husbands, children, including their own, relatives and even entire families. Some killed for monetary gain, and others for sexual thrills. Many, when put in positions of authority, or in the position of being caregivers, abused their positions horribly, and murdered hundreds of the most vulnerable people.
In every case, the horror these female serial killers give us is the same – it’s not just about the murders, it’s about the terrifying realization of just how wrong the human mind can turn.
- Bonn, PhD, Scott. The Unique Motives of Female Serial Killers. Psychology Today. 2019.
- Coughlin, Sara. Here’s Why There Are So Few Female Serial Killers. Refinery29. 2018.
- Harrison, Marissa, Murphy, Erin, Ho, Lavina, Bowers, Thomas and Flaherty, Claire. (2015) Female serial killers in the United States: means, motives and makings. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology,26:3, 383-406, DOI: 1080/14789949.2015.1007516
- Harrison, Marisssa, Hughes, Susan, and Gott, Adam Jordan. Sex differences in serial Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 2019; DOI: 10.1037/ebs0000157
- Geberth MS, Vernon J. Psychopathic Sexual Sadists. Practical Homicide Investigation
LAW and Order, Vol. 43, No. 4, April 1995
- Kaplan, Sarah. The surprising but curiously logical differences between male and female serial killers. The Washington Post. 2015.
- Kozlowska, Hanna. If male serial killers “hunt” their victims, what do female serial killers do? Quartz. 2019.
- Penn State. Psychology may help explain why male and female serial killers differ. Science Daily. 2019.