Tag Archives: feminism

FSK Fridays: Hannah Hanson Kinney

This is the first iteration of my new weekly series, Female Serial Killers Fridays! I’m doing this for a few reasons: because I want a regular posting schedule, because targeted research excites me, and because I believe not covering the stories of female serial killers is detrimental to society. If we don’t attempt to fully realize human nature (and woman-nature), especially the monstrous bits, we won’t ever be able to understand ourselves.

I’m starting with Hannah Hanson Kinney, because she found her victims while living in Boston (where I live now!), and because in my initial research, she popped up in a Bryn Mawr College study on women, sin, crime and guilt. (That’s where I got my Bachelors degree!) Also, Ms. Kinney does not currently have a Wikipedia page, so I will attempt to find enough sources to create one for her.

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This is not a photo of Hannah, but instead of a nameless Boston woman from the time Hannah was her age (mid-1800s). There are no available photos of Hannah herself.

Hannah Hanson Kinney was born Hannah Hanson in Lisbon, Maine around 1805. In 1842, Kinney’s first husband, Ward Witham, published a book entitled “The Life of Ms. Kinney for Twenty Years.” Kinney met Witham when she was seventeen years old, and they were married in 1822. Witham mentions what he calls his wife’s “first misconduct” during the first few months of their marriage, when she was accused of stealing “some articles,” which Witham calls “trifling indeed”. On the accusations his ex-wife faced, having poisoned the two men she married after Witham, he says only “that Ms. Kinney was guilty of administering poison to Mr. Freeman or to Mr. Kinney, the public have as good opportunity of judging as myself.” He confirms that Kinney was tried “for her life” and ultimately acquitted of both charges.

So what exactly did Hannah do?

In 1835, Hannah married her cousin, Reverend Enoch W. Freeman, and a year after they were married (to the day!), Freeman died suddenly. The same year, Freeman’s father, and Hannah’s father in law, died suddenly. Following this, Hannah moved back to Boston and married George Kinney. George Kinney died in 1840, reportedly dying “in agony” after drinking a cup of herbal tea. Arsenic was found in his stomach contents during an autopsy.

When Hannah was tried for the murder of George T. Kinney in 1840, her defense attorney argued a complete lack of motive. (Her trial’s entire record is available here.) As we know from The Washington Post’s study on female serial killers, women generally tend to kill for financial gain or social status. George Kinney had lost control of his hosiery business years before his death, and in Hannah Hanson Kinney’s murder trial, it was mentioned on record that Hannah Kinney had been supporting her husband and their three children financially since G. Kinney’s business had fallen apart. The courts ultimately sided with the two possible narratives offered by Hannah’s defense attorney: that George had poisoned himself, humiliated by his failure as a businessman, or that he had been given the arsenic by a misguided doctor.

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Boston in 1880

Hilariously, a servant in the Kinney household found a piece of paper in the kitchen with the word “poison” written on it in Hannah’s handwriting, as if she had simply written “kill George” on a to-do list and left it lying on a counter. Another funny detail: several times during the trial, different attorneys brought up the possibility that the “dirty water” in Boston had actually killed George.

Hannah’s defense attorney said in his closing statement, “if that woman is a murderer, she is a moral monster such as the world never saw!” Whether or not Hannah was a human monster was never fully determined, but public opinion following her trial reached a consensus that she had killed three men, two of them being her husbands, and that she had simply gotten away with it because she was a woman, and therefore less believable as ruthless or coldblooded.

Hannah’s published memoirs are available here, through Bryn Mawr College’s archives. The book’s preface reads, “it would seem that my nature requires rest, tranquility of mind, the comforts of a fireside in a beloved sister’s family (for indeed I have no home of my own).”

Female Serial Killers: Building a Profile

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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.

Don’t Call it a Comeback: The Resilience of Women in Horror

This post makes double sense, because I’m returning to my monster blog after a long hiatus!09-unbreakable-kimmy-schmidt-cult-bunker.w1440.h957.2x The Netflix original series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” premiered this week. I haven’t given it a try yet, because the trailer felt pretty manic to me, but the plot is intriguing. Kimmy Schmidt (Ellie Kemper, of The Office and Blowjob Girl fame) plays a young woman who was kidnapped by cult members and held in a bunker for fifteen years. Although it’s obviously not a horror comedy, I really wish that it was.

Here’s the thing about damsels in distress: A study led by the Center for Surgical Trials and Outcomes Research at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that women who had suffered traumatic injuries were 14% less likely to die post-surgery than men with equivalent wounds. These women also experienced fewer complications after their operations.

A protagonist’s ability to absorb stimuli and respond in an interesting way is tantamount to any story, so it’s confusing that so many horror films star female characters who aren’t capable of doing much. I’ll venture to say that male audiences became accustomed to watching the female form in duress throughout the development of horror. Contemporary projects have allowed us to pile on the gore, spraying the blood of innocents all over female protagonists while giving them something interesting to do in response. To me, there’s nothing more interesting and iconic than the determined face of a woman who’s been driven to the brink, whether by monsters or a slasher-murderer or some kind of ghost or demon, her eyes still steely with rage. Let’s see some examples!

youre-next-sharni-vinson-2Thank you, universe, for giving us 2011’s You’re Next, a horror movie that succeeds mainly because the writers tweak a single element in the story: the central character, Erin, is a sweet, unassuming, polite and loving girlfriend dating a guy who is clearly a loser with self esteem issues, but she’s also the only character who leaps into action when the house she’s staying in is attacked by masked murderers. There is a reason for her brutality, which is afforded to us in the second half of the movie, and the explanation is acceptable, although I would have preferred a character who just rocks at killing her way out of a dangerous situation.

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Lady-Directed Horror Films

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Ida Lupino, a classic film-era ingenue, directed one of my favorite tense thriller films, “The Hitch-hiker” in 1953. Though it wasn’t her directorial debut, her work in the genre resonates into contemporary horror film-making. While some of the most exciting horror projects directed by women have utilizied issues of femininity and feeling powerless and oppressed as fearful elements, Lupino’s “The Hitch-hiker” is a crime thriller orbiting around the decisions and interactions of men. Richard Koszarski wrote in Oxford University Press, “[Lupino’s] films [as a director] display the obsessions and consistencies of a true auteur. What is most interesting about her films are not her stories of unwed motherhood or the tribulation of career women, but the way in which she uses male actors: particularly in “The Bigamist” and “The Hitchhiker”, Lupino was able to reduce the male to the same sort of dangerous, irrational force that women represented in most male-directed examples of Hollywood film noir.”

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