Female Serial Killers: Building a Profile

Dagmar-Overbye

In describing a new profile of the archetypal female serial killer published by Penn State, Sarah Kaplan writes for the The Washington Post, “[She’s a] young, middle-class woman, a married Christian of average intelligence and upbringing. She works as a nurse, or nanny, or Sunday School teacher — anything that involves being around people more helpless than herself.” These women, in order to qualify for the study, must have killed at least three people with a “cooling off period” of a week or more following each murder.

The Penn State profile reports that female serial killers tend to fit the description above, but the truth is that our sample size of data on female murderers is very small. The Penn State researchers, in compiling “every recorded instance of a female serial killer” were only able to derive their conclusions using the actions of 64 women who lived (and killed) between 1821 and 2008. That’s 64 women, around the world, in 187 years!

The Penn State report says 40% of the women had been diagnosed with and/or treated for mental illness of some kind, and the most popular motive for their killing sprees was financial gain. Poison was the most popular method used by the killers (which the reports calls FSKs). Most shockingly, in ALL cases, the FSK had at least one target who was a child, an elderly person, or an otherwise incapacitated or weakened individual. Most women killed people they knew, a pattern which defies the behavior of male serial killers, who tend to kill strangers.

The lives of male serial killers are often marked by social isolation. Based on the limited data available to us, we can conclude reasonably that most female serial killers are caretakers and ingrained members of their surrounding communities. While our society celebrates the male “lone wolf,” encouraging him to avoid the “ball and chain” of partnership and remain a bachelor as long as possible, we also honor the martyred woman: the devoted wife, church member, mother, teacher or social worker. It seems both social profiles of gendered success do not negate the serial killer profile.

A 1995 study conducted by affiliates of the NYPD found that the motives of male murders tend to involve humiliation, manipulation, or sexual stimulation. Female murderers tend to be motivated by financial gain or power. One of the researchers was quoted making the generalization, “men kill for sex, and women kill for resources.”

Are we less likely to define female murderers as “monsters,” then? What makes a human killer into a societal “monster,” if not the very act of murdering another person? Does this mean we are less fascinated by, terrified by, and less challenged by murderers who seem to have a good, or reasonable, motive for killing?


The Washington Post article does pause to describe Aileen Carol Wuornos, perhaps the most famous female serial killer in American history. During her trial for the murderer of six men, Wuornos said, “I robbed them, and I killed them as cold as ice, and I would do it again, and I know I would kill another person because I’ve hated humans for a long time.” Wuornos herself defines herself as not-human, or at least quasi-human in saying this, which is actually a common theme in the legal confessions of serial killers, who often set themselves apart from society. Most serial killers are aware that their behavior is not considered “normal,” which recalls the following quote from John Gardner’s Grendel, in which the titular character realizes he is not human but something else entirely:

“My sudden awareness of my foolishness made me calm. I looked up through the treetops, ludicrously hopeful. I think I was half prepared, in my dark, demented state, to see God, bearded and grey as geometry, scowling down at me, shaking his bloodless finger. ‘Why can’t I have someone to talk to?’ I said. The stars said nothing, but I pretended to ignore the rudeness.”

For a more exhaustive list of female murderers which defines “serial killers” differently than Penn State, check out The Unknown History of Misandry. I’ll be using their database to inform my FSK Friday posts, which start next week. I’m excited to profile and describe a new female serial killer from history on a weekly basis! Let’s figure out what made them tick.

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