When we think of notorious serial killers, we tend to think of men. Ted Bundy, Jack the Ripper, Jeffrey Dahmer and Harold Shipman are some of the most notorious – and they’re all men. Of course, women do kill. But female serial killers are far less frequent than their male counterparts, despite at times being more dangerous. Hickey (2010) actually found that 1 in 6 serial killers is female – which generally mirrors homicide trends. For the purpose of this article, the term serial killer (which is heavily contested) uses Hough and McCorkle’s (2016) definition:
“either two or more, three or more, or even four or more people killed over at least one month with a cooling off period between each of the murders”.
Recently, the case of Lucy Letby, who was a nurse at Countess of Chester hospital has made the headlines. Letby was arrested on suspicion of the murder of 8 babies in her care between March 2015 and July 2016. If she is convicted, she will become Britain’s most prolific child killer. Currently, that title belongs to Moors Murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.
Criminologists have, for decades, looked at gender differences in offending, whilst still primarily focusing on men – because they offend more. Feminist Criminologists argue that Criminology is inherently ‘malestream’ (O’Brien, 1981) – meaning that it has a male bias, and there is very little research on female criminality in comparison. So, because of this, there is a lot less data regarding female serial killers, compared to the amount collated on males.
Between 1970-2000, it is estimated there have been at least 26 female serial killers in the USA – where such offenders seem to be more prevalent. Because of a lack of profiling, data and general knowledge about female offenders by authorities and law enforcement, they tend to be detected less often. According to Hickey (1997), on average, male serial killers murder for 4.2 years before detection, whilst female serial killers manage 8.4 years.
Criminologists are becoming increasingly interested in why women are rarely ever serial killers. Some argue that biological differences between men and women are the cause, whilst others suggest differences in socialisation and upbringing. The FBI conducted research to explore whether upbringing and background varied between male and female serial killers. They found that, actually, both male and female serial killers had experienced similar levels of extreme emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse. Because of such experiences, they tended to become introverted and invent a fantasy life, causing them to become isolated.
Whilst the backgrounds of female and male serial killers are similar, the typical methods they use do vary. According to Schurman-Kauflin (2000), male serial killers tend to use overt methods on their victims, such as bludgeoning, strangling and stabbing. Women use more covert methods, which don’t require the use of physical force – like poisoning or suffocating. These findings are certainly consistent when looking at methods of female serial killers in the UK. Female serial killers tend to work in healthcare or care-based industries, because the role provides easy access to victims who often cannot resist against them. This was the case with Nurse Beverley Allitt, who murdered 4 children, attempted to murder 3 and caused GBH to 6 others. In many of the cases, she had attempted (and succeeded in at least one case) to administer Insulin and poison the children.
In some cases, female serial killers may have Munchausen syndrome (or Munchausen syndrome by proxy), which causes someone to falsify illness in themselves or others, for attention and recognition if they save them. This was also the case for Martha Woods, an American serial killer who killed 7 children. Female serial killers are far more likely than men to prey upon the elderly, infirm, children or otherwise vulnerable people. In 1988, Dorothea Puente was convicted of poisoning 9 elderly people in her care, for material gain.
Many people are less likely to believe a woman could kill others, especially when vulnerable, because doing so flouts gender expectations of women being compassionate, caring and motherly. So when a woman kills her child, she is seen as doubly deviant – not just guilty of murder, but guilty of disregarding norms and expectations of women set by society. In many other cases, also, the sanity of the female serial killer is questioned. Farrell et al. (2011) found that in 44% of cases, female serial killers are presented as being mentally unwell, and therefore treated with a degree of sympathy – something that isn’t always the case with men. Harrison (2016) found that around 40% of their sample did, indeed, suffer some form of mental illness. In other cases, where a male and female acted as a duo, the female may be assumed to be acting out of coercion, when this isn’t the case.
Harrison & Murphy et al. (2015), found many other patterns among their sample of female serial killers. Most:
- had some form of higher education
- showed a pattern of substance abuse,
- were white and middle class
- were average/above-average attractiveness
- knew their victims (92%)
- were serial monogamists (married more than twice)
Such disbelief that women can kill in such a brutal manner can manifest in courts as leniency. In 1999, American serial killer Marie Noe managed to escape jail after admitting to killing her 8 children, with many suggesting the fact she was a frail 72 year old woman being the reason she was spared a custodial sentence. Had she been a man, things may well have been different. This is what is referred to by Criminologists as the “Chivalry thesis”, which completely disregards the double deviance theory mentioned above. The premise is that men, either as judges or in the jury, may look upon a female defendant with more sympathy, compassion and leniency, because of a “chivalrous” desire to protect them. This can be demonstrated by the fact women tend to get shorter sentences than men, and are more likely to get a community sentence, or caution.
So, on the whole, female serial killers employ different tactics, are less likely to be detected and when detected, have different outcomes to their male counterparts in the justice system. This is a similar story across the justice system, with the chivalry thesis being applied to various offences. If Criminologists are to better predict and profile a female serial killer, however, there must be far more research on the matter – as currently much of it is male-centred.
Farrell, A., Keppel, R. and Titterington, V. (2011). Lethal Ladies. Homicide Studies, 15(3), pp.228-252.
Harrison, M., Murphy, E., Ho, L., Bowers, T., & Flaherty, C. (2015). Female serial killers in the United States: means, motives, and makings. The Journal Of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 26(3), 383-406. doi: 10.1080/14789949.2015.1007516
Harrison, M. (2016). Studying Female Serial Killers. Eye On Psi Chi Magazine, 20(4), 10-13. doi: 10.24839/1092-0803.eye20.4.10
Hickey, E. (1997). Serial murderers and their victims (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Hickey, E. W. (2010). Serial murderers and their victims. (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.
Hough, R.M. & McCorkle, K.D. (2016). American Homicide. SAGE publications. (p.73).
O’Brien, M. (1981). The politics of reproduction. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Schurman-Kauflin, D. (2000). The new predator, women who kill. New York: Algora Pub.