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Famous Women Mass Murderers in Recent History

I have a fascination with women as mass murderers.

Women who commit multiple murders are an uncommon factor in history, so the list is shorter compared to that of the male gender. And women don’t factor within serial murder listings much at all – most who plot and plan serial murders do so from within their own family or acquaintance circles. It is also believed that women who kill mainly use things like poison to do so.

My list does not include the poisoners, the victorian baby farm murderers, or the nurses or careworkers who have serially killed also. Nor does it include those involved in what is sometimes termed ‘right to die’ or ‘mercy’ killing.

I also won’t get into the arguments sitting around quite a few mothers who have been convicted of killing their babies with questions around SIDs (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) and expert witnesses. But, I have included one of those women as my final selection below – mainly due to the fact that the story also brings up the question around sociopathic traits having a genetic preposition, a topic which forms one of the main themes behind my own current fictional work in progress.

Here are ten that I find powerful in the background that sits behind each of these murderous women. Let me know if I’ve missed anyone out.

1-1Yates-family-photoAndrea Yates

Andrea Yates killed – one by one – by drowning them in the family bathtub, all five of her children – in less than an hour. Andrea rang 911 herself, and also rang her own husband and told him to come home.

Andrea was said to be suffering from severe postpartum depression and psychosis. Her case placed the M’Naghten Rules, a legal test for sanity in the U.S. under close public scrutiny. Her 2002 conviction of capital murder and sentence to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 40 years, was later overturned on appeal. In 2006 a Texas Jury found Yates was not guilty by reason of insanity.

Having suffered from depression since the birth of her fourth son, Andrea had sought out help on multiple occasions, via psychiatrists and medically. There were several bouts of hospitalisation. After the birth of her fifth child in 2000, Andrea stopped taking medication, and started reading the Bible feverishly. Against instructions from her current psychiatrist, her husband left for work on June 20, 2001, expecting his mother to arrive to help look after his wife and children in one hour’s time. In that hour, Andrea killed her children.

Andrea is now resident at a low security mental hospital in Kerrville, Texas.

Jennifer-San-Marco200Jennifer San Marco

San Marco had a history of mental problems and strange behaviours before she killed a former neighbour on Jan 30, 2006, and passed through a heavily guarded security station into a mail processing plant and distribution centre in Goleta, California. There, using a pistol, the 44 year old shot and killed five people on location, with a sixth dying two days later in hospital. San Marco took her own life at the scene, and left no suicide note.

However, there is speculation towards her mental problems that apparently led to her retirement from the Post Office after six years of employment. After that she moved to New Mexico, where she had attempted to start a publication, was found mumbling to herself, staring at people and once showed up at a local service station unclothed. She had worked at the mail distribution centre only two years before going there to kill.

220px-WuornosAileen Wuornos

Profane outbursts, belligerence during court, boasts of having 250,000 johns, and many myths surround Aileen Wuornos. Not helped by the fact that she gave shockingly detailed confessions at the request of her lesbian ex-lover, and during her trial was legally adopted by Arlene Pralle, who claimed she received instructions from God to do so.

Aileen Wuornos was convicted for killing seven men in Florida in 1989 and 1990. Working as a prostitute, she claimed that all the men raped or attempted to rape her. Most men had been shot multiple times. Witnesses reported seeing Aileen driving the victim’s cars, and her fingerprints were found on many of their belongings in pawnshops, leading detectives to her.

Before this, Aileen’s history included assault, domestic assault, disturbing the peace, and armed robbery. Through her prison term there were accusations of abuse from the prison matrons, and strange media interviews given.

The movie “Monster” was based on her life,with actress Charlize Theron winning an oscar for her portrayal.

Aileen Wuornos was executed in 2002.


alton coleman and debra brownDebra Brown with Alton Coleman

In 1984 Alton Coleman left prison after a robbery charge, took up with Debra Denise Brown, and went on a two month killing spree through six American states before authorities were finally able to capture them. At the end of the rampage of murder, rape and kidnapping, eight people had been slain – four of them children.

Brown’s mother continues to believe that before meeting Coleman she was a ‘good girl’. But after the lovers were finally caught, it was obvious that she was just as vicious and murderous as her ex-con boyfriend.

In 2002 Alton Coleman was executed at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility. Debra Brown continues to serve life at Ohio after having her own death sentence commuted to life imprisonment in 1991. She was convicted for murder, attempted murder and child molesting.


amy-bishop2Amy Bishop, The Deadly Professor

On February 12, 2010, neurobiologist Amy Bishop pulled a gun in her biology department meeting at the University o Alabama, and killed (allegedly) three people, wounded three others. There remain questions about another murder in her past – that of her own brother who was shot and killed in 1986 (deemed an accident at the time).

Bishop is also suspected of sending a Harvard colleague a pipe bomb in 1994. The previous crimes weren’t discovered until the 2010 shooting, with the investigations afterwards revealing these two earlier incidents, a pancake house assault, and some wild, murderous unpublished novels.

Despite all of this, at a ‘Rate my Professor‘ website, students at the university appear to have regarded Amy quite highly. Other reports at the time suggested lots of evidence towards her volatility. It is suggested she began her killing spree as a reaction towards the university not granting her tenure.

In an Alabama court appearance in September this year, Amy Bishop pleaded ‘Insanity’. Her capital murder trial begins on March 19th, 2012.


220px-ErzsébetBáthoryElizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess

Countess Elizabeth Bathory de Ecsed is not from recent history. But she’s cited as the most famous female serial killer in history.

Also known as The Blood Countess, and The Bloody Lady of Cachtice, it is unknown how many victims really existed. Elizabeth, with four colloborators, was accused of torturing and killing hundreds of girls – one witness attributed 650 victims, but the conviction sat at only 80 – although Elizabeth was never tried or convicted in the true sense. She did end up imprisoned in Csejte Castle now in Slovakia in 1610, and died four years later.

Later writings about the case have led to legendary accounts of the Countess bathing in the blood of virgins in order to keep her younger, and subsequently to comparisons with Vladd III the Impaler, thought to be the original inspiration for the Count Dracula story.


220px-Belle_Gunness_with_childrenBelle Gunness, Black Widow

Belle Gunness was a physically strong woman and around 5’8” tall. She killed most of her suitors and boyfriends, and her two daughters, Myrtle and Lucy. She may also have killed both of her husbands from previous partnerships, and all of her rumoured children to them. Her apparent motives involved collecting life insurance, cash and other valuables, and eliminating witnesses to her crimes.

Reports estimate that she killed between 25 and 40 people over several decades, making the Black Widow one of the most prolific in recent history.

Although her life was shrouded in lies, Belle’s origins are normally placed in Selbu, Sor-Trondelag, Norway and with a normal childhood. Her changes in behaviour have been attributed to an assault when pregnant at an early age –  which led to a miscarriage. After this she took service for three years on a wealthy farm, to earn enough money to immigrate to America. In 1881 she moved to America, and by 1884 had married her first husband.

Bu 1907, as a widow, Gunness advertised for suitors in the matrimonial columns of the Chicago daily. Several middle-aged men responded and most visited her farm, but never left. Many had last been seen obtaining large amounts of cash at local banks before disappearing.

A new farm worker raised the alarm when finding himself surrounded by fire. He jumped out of the farmhouse, where later four bodies were found underneath a piano. Investigations started towards who these bodies belonged to. Three of the bodies belonged to Belle Gunness’ own children, but the fourth – a headless corpse of a woman, was later identified as not belonging to the missing Belle Gunness. The headless corpse belonged to a woman around 5’2” in height, and although there was a story towards her origins from another farm worker involved – she was never properly identified, and later buried alongside Belle’s first husband’s grave.

A slighted farm worker , Ray Lamphere – who is thought to have been in love with Gunness, and provided some help in body disposal, became involved in allegations of arson and murder himself. During this investigation – originally into the fire – dozens of bodies were unearthed from Gunness’s pigpen, and mostly identified.

Lamphere was later convicted of arson but acquitted of murder. At a later deathbed confession he stated that he had never murdered anybody, but had helped Belle Gunness to dispose of many bodies.

Gunness’ true fate is unknown. She became the stuff of urban myth, with sightings of her reported up to as late as 1931. La Porte residents were divided in believing she’d either faked her own death, or was killed by Lamphere. Attempts to identify the headless body remain to this day, with problems in obtaining a comparison DNA sample of when Belle Gunness was alive, hampering the final identification of the body.


myrahindleyMyra Hindley and Ian Brady, The Moors Murders

Between 1963 and 1965, Myra Hindley and Ian Brady carried out the murders and sexual assaults of five children aged from 10 to 17, burying them on The Moors around Greater Manchester, England. The fourth victim’s body has never been found, with the third only found in 1987, twenty years after the pair’s trials.

The police were only aware of three murders at the time of the trial, with later confessions by Brady while in prison clarifying the remaining two – although he couldn’t locate the last body.

The pair were initially arrested after a call from Hindley’s 17 year old brother-in-law, David Smith, who witnessed one of the attacks. David had previous criminal convictions himself, and witnessed one of the killings. Initially he had been asked to help in the disposal of the body, but after telling his wife, was prompted to call the police.

The trial was held over April 1966, and Brady was sentenced to three life imprisonments while Hindley was sentenced to two. The nation and world was shocked during the trial as a 16 minute tape was played. This had been recorded by the pair for their own personal entertainment, and the jury heard the last screams and pleas of 10 year old Lesley Ann Downey as she neared death at their hands.

Through the next twenty years of imprisonment, Hindley would make several appeals against her life sentence, claiming she was a reformed person. She died in 2002 in prison, aged 60, the longest serving and most reviled woman prisoner in Britain’s history.

Brady was declared criminally insane in 1985, and has requested to never be released. In 1999 he went on a hunger-strike and was then drip-fed to stop any suicide attempts.

A professor of forensic psychiatry at Cardiff University at the time of the trials, declared that the murders – reported worldwide as ‘The Moors Murders’ – were as a result of a “concatenation of circumstances”, which brought together a “young woman with a tough personality, taught to hand out and receive violence from an early age” and a “sexually sadistic psychopath”.

The Svengali explanation of an impressionable working class girl being drawn in by a psychopath, still is accepted in some circles, but Myra Hindley’s sullen defiance during the trial, and later admittance towards other victims, along with the fact that she never showed any true remorse, points to something darker.


FredandRoseWestRosemary West

Rosemary Pauline “Rose” West was the wife to Fred West. The couple were convicted of torturing and killing at least 10 young women from 1973 to 1978. Before that, Rose West murdered the daughter of Fred’s first wife, and buried the body in her previous home in Gloucester. Most of the bodies were buried under their house in Cromwell Street, Gloucester – where the murders took place.

Rosemary West and Fred West were convicted in 1973 of sexual assault when one of their victims managed to escape. Their pattern was to pick up girls from bus stops, and take them home to imprison them for several days before killing them.

Rosemary, the product of an abusive childhood, also worked as a prostitute over this time – with visits from her own father who had abused her in her childhood. Rosemary was mother to eight children over those years, five fathered by Fred West, and three by clients she’d met through prostitution. Not only were Rosemary’s daughters abused possibly by their own father, but it is speculated that the grandfather could also have abused them.

The couple tortured and abused lodgers, babysitters, children and their own children, along with complete strangers. Some were subjected to long deaths with breathing tubes stuck through their masked faces as they were kept as sexual playthings. The bodies were buried either in the couple’s cellar or under the patio outside.

In August 1992 Fred West was arrested after being accused of raping his 13 year old daughter and Rosemary was arrested for child cruelty. The daughter refused to testify, so the case against them collapsed the next year. However, the case brought the couple attention, and all of the children in the house were placed into foster care. The disappearance of one daughter Heather was what triggered the investigation resulting in their imprisonment. Heather West’s body was found in Cromwell Street, after being killed by Fred in 1987, aged 16.

While awaiting trial, Fred West committed suicide. Before this he confessed to being involved in at least another 20 killings, so the true death-toll may never be known. Rosemary West was convicted of 10 murders in 1995, and sentenced to life imprisonment, originally for 25 years. This was changed to a whole life tariff in 1997, only the second instance of one in modern times (with Myra Hindley) of a woman being sentenced to die in prison. Rose West continues to maintain her own innocence, although has stated she will not appeal.

Many families of girls who disappeared in the same area over that time have pleaded with Rosemary to put their minds at rest, but the woman remains adamant that she, too, was only a victim of Fred’s tyranny and pure evilness. However, witness testimony during her trial point perhaps to something else.

The Cromwell Street house that most of the murders took place in has since been torn down, and is now a public walkway. The media in Britain has occasionally reported of Rosemary West’s confinement. It appears that as a whole lifer, Rosemary’s later years have been reasonably luxurious, and she is treated very well in prison.

Folbigg_KKathleen Folbigg

Kathleen is one of only a few Australian female murderers I could have selected. I find her case interesting because of the traumatic background she came from herself. She and I also share some striking similarities in age, and childhood backgrounds, so in some way I feel some empathy towards her.

Between 1991 and 1999, it appeared that Kathleen and her husband were incredibly unlucky people. They had suffered from the early babyhood deaths of four children – an eight month old, a ten month old, a 19 month old and a 19 day old baby. It wasn’t until her husband found her diary, which detailed all the deaths, that Kathleen’s crimes were found out.

Folbigg was only 18 months old when her natural father murdered her mother, forcing the child into foster care. According to allegations made by a witness to that murder, Kathleen’s father apologised to her mother for having to kill her as he did this, but he’d had to do it because otherwise she would have killed their daughter – Kathleen.

Apparently the foster mother was abusive, and used Kathleen as a slave. The girl was not told of her birth mother’s murder until 1984, and made to think she had actually been adopted by them. Kathleen Marlbourough (the foster surname) left school in 1982 at the age of 15, and married Craig Folbigg when 20. Within a year, Kathleen was pregnant with their first child.

The first three deaths were either put down to SIDS (Cot death) or epilepsy and respiratory problems brought on by a cold. The fourth child who came home was monitored closely for breathing for some time after birth. It wasn’t until 19 months later that another cold struck, and Laura died. The coroner considered Laura too old for SIDs , recorded the cause of death as “undetermined” and ordered the investigation.

Kathleen had left her husband after Laura’s death, but moved out without taking all her possessions. Craig discovered her diaries and took them to the police. Kathleen had been keeping diaries all her life, but normally threw them away. The ones Craig discovered showed a woman with mixed emotions – wanting to be a mother to show that she could do it just like other women, but also feeling frustrated and feeling abandoned when all attention went onto a baby.

Out of control of her depression, and feeling unsupported by her husband, the diaries also hint at her ability to “crack” and “help” any sickly babies to their fate. After the death of their first three children, a diary entry notes from Kathleen that “Obviously I am my father’s daughter.”

Despite the prosecution having no evidence against her that was not circumstantial, and no consensus on the cause of death for any of the children, Kathleen was convicted of murder for three, manslaughter for the fourth child. Originally sentenced to 40 years jail, but on appeal this has been reduced to 30 years. Folbigg maintains her own innocence, and claims all four died of natural causes.

Following the trial, Melbourne University Associate Professor Anne Buist, an expert in post-birth psychiatric disorders, told reporters that genetic predisposition, along with the loss of her mother at a young age, could have led Kathleen Folbigg to murder her children. “We know her father killed her mother, so we know there is potentially a genetic issue there,” she said. Source: Folbigg

Credits: For the above post, I used information gleaned from multiple sources, but the majority can be found on Wikipedia, and the True Crime writings on Notorious Murderers at

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Hunter Emkay writes psychological thrillers set in our contemporary domestic world. Hunter Emkay grew up and moved between small town surburbia to corporate geekiness – and back. Maybe all that surburban excitement has led to a little too much murder on her mind.