In books, movies, and even in real life, serial killers are usually men. It’s a fact of life that men are overwhelmingly more likely to choose this horrifying life path. But there are always exceptions that prove the rule. History has brought us a smaller, but not insignificant number of female serial killers as well. And no matter their gender, their crimes are just as brutal and horrifying as any you’ve seen in fiction.
1. Aileen Wuornos
Aileen Wuornos is one of the first female serial killers who burst into the public consciousness. She was born in 1956 and had an extremely tumultuous and horrifying childhood. Her mother abandoned her to her grandparents’ care when she was very young, and she later accused her grandfather of sexual assault. She then got pregnant at the age of 14 after she was raped. The child was put up for adoption shortly before she was thrown out of her home at 15. She started working as a prostitute shortly afterwards.
Between 1989 and 1990, Wuornos killed seven men in Florida. She shot them at point blank range and was later captured in one of her victims’ cars after a minor traffic accident. Wuornos claimed that she killed the men in self-defense after they raped her while she was working as a prostitute. But her claims didn’t help her. She was sentenced to death for her crimes and was killed by lethal injection on October 2, 2002. In 2003, a movie starring Charlize Theron was made about her life.
2. Juana Barraza
Barraza was a Mexican professional wrestler and one of the more prolific female serial killers in the world. She was born in 1957 in a rural area north of Mexico City. Her mother was an alcoholic and frequently sold her young daughter for beer. Barraza eventually became pregnant and in total gave birth to four children. She worked as a professional wrestler under the name of La Dama del Silencio (The Lady of Silence).
Barraza was one of the many female serial killers who are put in the ‘care giving’ category. She gained the trust of elderly women over the age of 60 before strangling and bludgeoning them to death. She then took their possessions. Before her capture, investigators described Barraza as having a brilliant mind. She was very careful to avoid capture and when she was apprehended, showed no remorse for her crimes. She also associated her victims with her mother, and believed she was doing the world a favor by killing them. It is estimated that she killed between 24 and 49 women, but the exact numbers aren’t known.
Barraza was caught in 2006 and found guilty of 16 counts of murder and aggravated burglary. She was sentenced to 759 years in prison and remains there to this day.
3. Jane Toppan
Jane Toppan was born in 1857 as Honora Kelley and was one of the earliest female serial killers. Unfortunately, there aren’t many records of her early life. Her parents were Irish immigrants and her mother died when she was young. Her father was an alcoholic and very abusive and eventually gave his children up to an orphanage. Honora was eventually placed into the home of Mrs. Ann C. Toppan of Lowell, Massachusetts as an indentured servant. She was never formally adopted but took on their name.
As an adult, Toppan worked as a nurse and was extremely popular amongst her patients for her friendly demeanor. She later confessed to killing 31 patients who were sick and vulnerable, starting in 1885. Toppan killed her victims using a combination of medicines and climbed into bed with them afterwards. She later admitted that she was aroused by killing them and wished only that she’d killed more people.
Toppan was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to the Taunton Insane Hospital where she died in 1938.
4. Myra Hindley
Myra Hindley is one of the most brutal female serial killers on record. She was born in 1942 in the United Kingdom. She grew up with her grandmother and in 1961 met Ian Brady, a recently released inmate who worked in a store. Hindley quickly fell in love with him and gave herself over to his control.
To test her allegiance, Brady started making murderous plans. The pair planned and carried out the rape and torture of 5 children between 1963 and 1965. They were arrested after Hindley’s 17-year-old brother in law was forced to watch Brady killed one of his victims with an axe. David Smith remained silent during the event out of fear but went to the police as soon as he could. Brady and Hindley were arrested and charged in 1966 with the murders of Edward Evans, Lesley Ann Downey, and John Kilbride. It is also believed that they were responsible for the deaths of Pauline Reade and Keith Bennett.
Brady was found guilty on all three counts and Hindley for the murders of Lesley Ann Downey and Edward Evans. She was also found guilty of harboring Brady knowing about the third death. They were both jailed for life. In 1970, Hindley began a campaign to regain her freedom. She confessed to all five murders and her applications for parole were denied. She died in jail in 2002 of respiratory failure.
5. Amelia Dyer
Amelia Dyer is probably one of history’s most prolific serial killers in history, male or female. It’s suspected that she killed over 400 infants, which makes her one of the most brutal female serial killers on this list. Dyer was born in 1837 in Victorian Britain. Widowed in 1869, she turned to baby farming to survive. This was the practice of adopting unwanted infants in exchange for money. She supported herself this way for more than 20 years.
Dyer initially cared for the adopted children, but some of them died in her care anyway. Because of the deaths, she was charged with negligence and 6 months hard labor. After her release, she began directly murdering the children she adopted. She was caught when the bagged corpse of an infant was discovered in the Thames. Dyer was tried and found guilty of the murder of the infant found in the Thames, but there is little doubt that others died at her hand, probably by strangling.
Dyer was found guilty of the murder and hanged on the 10th of June, 1896.
6. Dorothea Puente
Dorothea Puente was born Dorothea Helen Gray in 1929 in Redlands California. She was one of many female serial killers who preyed on the elderly and vulnerable. Puente was in and out of trouble with the law throughout her life. She was arrested several times for forging checks and running a brothel. She married four times and took over a 16-bedroom home at 2100 F Street in Sacramento after her third marriage to Roberto Puente.
The home on F Street was turned into a boarding house. The tenants were elderly and mentally disabled people who had nowhere else to go. Puente took her tenant’s monthly mail, including their pensions, and paid them a small amount, taking the rest as expenses. But then tenants started to disappear, and the boxed body of an elderly man washed up on a riverbank. The resulting police inquiry turned up seven bodies buried on the property. After some investigating, police found that Puente had been using tranquillizers to kill her tenants so she could cash their checks. She collected at least 60 social security checks from the deceased during her time in the boarding house.
Puente was charged with nine murders and was given the nickname of the ‘Death House Landlady’. Her case hit the headlines, making her one of America’s most infamous female serial killers. She was convicted of three of the murders and given two life sentences. Puente died in prison of natural causes in 2011.
7. Miyuki Ishikawa
Miyuki Ishikawa was a Japanese midwife who was born in 1897. She was born in Kunitomi in Japan and is one of the most mercenary female serial killers in history. She worked as a midwife in Kotobuki maternity hospital during the 1940s. While she was there, she saw many poor parents with new infants and no help from the government or charities.
Ishikawa’s solution was to neglect the infants, many of which died because of her actions. It’s estimated that her actions killed at least 103 infants, though the actual number is thought to be higher. She and her husband also solicited money from the grieving parents for her services, saying it was less than the price of raising a child. A doctor at the hospital, Dr. Shiro Nakayama, also helped falsify the death certificates.
Ishikawa and her husband were arrested in 1948. Unfortunately, her neglect was viewed as a crime of omission, that is a failure to act, rather than murder. She was sentenced to 8 years in prison, but with appeals had the sentence reduced to 4 years. Her husband and doctor accomplice also received 4-year sentences. Because of Ishikawa, the admission and examination process for midwives was changed. The government also legalized abortion for economic reasons a year later.
8. Beverley Allitt
Beverley Allitt was one of Britain’s most notorious female serial killers. She worked in the children’s ward at Grantham and Kesteven Hospital in Lincolnshire England as a State Enrolled Nurse. Over a 59-day period between February and April in 1991, Allitt attacked 13 children. She killed 4, attempted to kill 3 more, and caused grievous bodily harm to 6 of her victims. Most of the victims were under a year old, some of them just weeks old.
Unfortunately, police were unable to establish how her attacks were carried out. She administered large doses of insulin to two of her victims. Another was found with a large air bubble in their body. Medical staff on the ward became suspicious after the fourth death and called the police in. Allitt was found to be the only one who had access to all the victims. She was charged with 4 murder counts, 11 of attempted murder, and 11 of causing grievous bodily harm. On the 28th of May in 1993, she was found guilty and sentenced to 13 life sentences. She is currently serving them at Rampton Secure Hospital in Nottinghamshire.
Allitt is one of the more baffling female serial cases. Her motives were never understood or explained. However, there is some suggestion that she suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy. This is a mental disorder that causes sufferers to create or cause illnesses in others to attract attention to themselves.
9. Belle Gunness
Belle Gunness was born in Norway in 1859 but emigrated to the US in 1883. She was one of the most mysterious female serial killers in the US. Most of the people around Gunness died in mysterious circumstances, leaving behind insurance payments that she took advantage of. Her first husband, Mads Albert Sorenson, died of heart failure on the day his two-life insurances overlapped. Despite an investigation, nothing suspicious turned up regarding his death. During their marriage, the couple had 2 children who were supposedly poisoned in infancy, also for an insurance payout.
More deaths followed. Gunness married again and her infant daughter died. Her husband died shortly after of a skull fracture, his death ruled accidental. Gunness’s adopted daughter’s body was later found on her property. Gunness then began meeting wealthy men through the classifieds. Each of her suitors brought cash to her farm and then disappeared. The remains of 40 victims were found on her property, but the actual death toll is unknown. And this most vicious of female serial killers was never punished for her crimes either.
In 1908 there was a fire at the farm. The house burned down and one of the bodies found in the ashes was thought to be Gunness. Inexplicably, it was missing its head. It was later revealed by an accomplice that the body didn’t belong to Gunness. According to the story, she’d planned it, withdrawn all her money, and skipped town. She was never heard from again. It’s still unknown if she really did die at the farm or went on to make a new life somewhere else.
10. Rosemary West
Rosemary West is one of the most brutal female serial killers in the history of the UK. She was born in 1953 in Devon, England to a difficult family with a history of mental illness. Rosemary met and married Fred West in 1972. It was truly a match made in hell. Together, the couple was responsible for the dismemberment and murder of at least 10 young women between 1973 and 1979.
Shortly after their marriage, Fred was sent to jail leaving Rosemary pregnant and with Fred’s two young children from a previous relationship. The eldest child, Charmaine, disappeared at this time. When Fred was released, he moved the body and removed the fingers and toes. And when the child’s mother came looking for her, she was strangled and dismembered.
Fred and Rosemary married and had another daughter. Rose worked as a prostitute while Fred took out his violent impulses on underage girls, including his daughter. The cellar of their home at 25 Cromwell Street became a torture chamber. The couple raped and tortured the nanny, 17-year-old Caroline Owens. She escaped but the courts believed the Wests when they said Owens had consented. The couple went on to kidnap, torture, rape, murder and dismember 8 girls, all under the age of 18. Their bodies were buried in the cellar. They also murdered their daughter in 1987 after she tried to tell report their crimes.
A police investigation and search in 1992 lead to the arrest of the couple. On December 13th, 1994, Fred West was charged with 12 counts of murder and hung himself in his cell. Rosemary was found guilty and sentenced to life without parole. She remains in prison to this day, one of the most horrific female serial killers who has ever lived.
A Horrific Truth
Female serial killers aren’t as common as males. But they do still exist and have been terrorizing the world for centuries.