Tag Archives: serial killer

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.


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.


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


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.

Sociopaths on Film: The Monster as Performance


It’s difficult to describe how I felt seeing the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, first on the Twitter account of an actor-friend, and immediately afterwards on the Washington Post’s website. How much could a man in his 40s mean to me as an individual, considering we had never met? Well, he meant a lot.

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Derf Backderf’s Jeffrey Dahmer


I discovered Derf Backderf in the Harvard Bookstore, in the graphic novel and comix section. To be honest, I was looking for the new, female Captain Marvel and the Banshee Squad. What I found was probably a lot better.

“My Friend Dahmer” was suddenly in my hands, and I was sitting in the corner on a footstool, hoping no one would come around the corner and accuse me of stealing a read. Bookshop staff police their customers, making sure they’re just previewing and not fully reading books they haven’t bought. Maybe it’s the panic of working in a dying industry that makes them jittery, like they’re swiping at townspeople for help as the executioner drags them up to the gallows.

Anyway, I read the whole damn thing in one sitting, feeling like I had found something brand new but also wonderfully familiar. Derf’s style, his characters’ rounded limbs and bugged out eyes, look a lot like Joe Sacco’s Palestinian rockstars. They move around the page with unsettling fluidity, like their skeletons are soft. The effect here works – Backderf’s Dahmer is more rigid looking than his other characters, drawn using rounded lines but with an unchanging face hidden by sunglasses and often partially shadowed. He holds his shoulders high to protect his ears; you almost feel the tension in your own muscles as you read. We don’t see Dahmer’s eyes or watch him emote often in the book, but admittedly Derf did not either.

Dahmer’s dark humor is obvious to anyone who’s read “Trashed” or “Punk Rock and Trailer Parks,” but admittedly I hadn’t. He dismisses who Jeffrey Dahmer eventually became in order to tell a necessary part of the story. “When someone hears the word ‘Dahmer,’ they think heads in the refrigerator, necrophilia, cannibalism — no thanks. My story is about none of those things. It’s the story before the story,” Backderf told USA Today.


Derf’s graphic novel is the story of a teenager no one attempted to understand, a boy too old for the sympathy of social workers or guidance counselors, alone in his half-hearted attempts to fight his compulsions. The book suggests Dahmer was afraid of what he wanted to do, and on one occasion he even shooes away a dog he’s led into the woods to kill, skin, and presumably dissolve in acid. He sits on a log and considers what he was just about to do, kill a creature “big enough to feel fear.” Derf allows Dahmer this moment of quiet reflection, or maybe even disgust at himself, but he admits at the end of the page that “this was the last time Dahmer showed mercy.”

Dahmer as a human monster is intriguing for several reasons. First, he began as a child, according to Derf, placing road-kill in jars and dissolving the flesh off their bones with acid he procured from his father. Later on, he becomes interested in ending animals’ lives, just to “see what they look like inside.” The first scene in which Dahmer kills a living creature feels childlike and only hints at something beyond innocent curiosity. Blood doesn’t excite or bother him, but it disturbs the boy he’s with.


Second, Dahmer is interesting because of his sexuality. Derf alludes several times to Dahmer’s burgeoning desires, beginning the book with an unexplained panel in which Jeff Dahmer watches a sweaty, jogging man run alongside his school bus. His jaw tenses, and we see Dahmer’s tight jeans for a moment before moving on. We learn later that Dahmer’s first attempt at attacking a human being was aimed at this very jogger, who didn’t happen to run by Dahmer’s house that day. We understand his interest first as homosexual, then violent. This is an interesting choice of Derf’s, to present the reader with the reality of Dahmer being a gay teenager in the 70s. To Derf, he was a strange kid first, then gay, and then, years later, a murderer, cannibal and necrophiliac.


The only information I had ever read about Jeffrey Dahmer, before Derf’s book, came from his surprisingly detailed Wikipedia page, a Google image search for “Dahmer crime scene” which I would not recommend, and a post on Reddit including photos of Dahmer’s yearbook inscriptions to friends. According to Derf’s book, these were probably not what any of us would consider

“friends,” but instead people who allowed Dahmer to occasionally exist near them.


Derf’s graphic novel, for better or worse, outlines the author’s true account of being a tenuous acquaintance of Jeffrey Dahmer, not yet the man who would inject chemicals into the skulls of young gay men he had lured back to his apartment, but an acne-d, “tortured” teenager who had no discernible interests or enjoyments in life, at least none he could share with others.

What does empathizing with an actual human monster do? Is there a difference between writing fiction about a fictional serial killer which allows him depth and trying to salvage something remotely stomach-able from the twisted mess inside Jeffrey Dahmer? There are certainly panels in Derf’s book that pull at, if not the heartstrings of the reader, at something deep and dark inside the gut. Dahmer’s parents scream at each other, eventually splitting up and leaving him alone in his childhood home, both of them desperate to escape each other. We see Dahmer return home from school to his mother convulsing on the living room couch, having taken too much of her medication and seizing. We realize in horror, as Derf once did, that the crazed performances Dahmer had used in the halls and in class to finally find himself friends were just emotionless impressions of his mother’s seizures.

We see him alone in bed at night, thinking about men’s bodies as the booze wears off. We see a teenage alcoholic, completely alone.


As with most sympathetic monster stories, what we don’t see is a list of Dahmer’s eventual victims, innocent guys hard on their luck or looking for sex when gay relationships were still largely taboo. Dahmer’s victims were eventually the focus of a cultural movement in their neighborhood; people began asking why Dahmer was on the loose for so long. If he had been kidnapping and killing pretty white children instead of gay teenagers, would he have been found more quickly?

The thing is, Derf didn’t see Dahmer’s victims either. He presents us with the scenes he shared with Dahmer, sometimes tickling us with the ominous end to the story we all know, and it feels like steel wool scratching into our skin.

“My Friend Dahmer” prickles the reader, and it hums deep underneath its plot. It does not tell us whether human monsters are born or bred, and it does not forgive or condemn a teen boy who hadn’t yet become an American horror story.