Female murderers have long been morbidly fascinating figures. However, when killers commit crimes over a longer, sustained and more calculated period, it can cause a public sensation and widespread social panic.
Many people will recognise the names of modern female serial killers, such as Myra Hindley, but the history books are filled with accounts of countless other fearsome female killers.
From murderers who have been compared to Vlad the Impaler to a woman who made her victims into soap, here are some of the most notorious female serial killers in history.
1. ‘The Blood Countess’, Elizabeth Báthory (1560-1614)
Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed was a Hungarian noblewoman and reputed serial killer of hundreds of young women in the 16th and 17th centuries. There had been earlier accounts of peasant women being murdered, but it was not until 1609 that rumours that she had killed noblewomen attracted attention.
In 1610, King Matthias investigated the claims. Over 300 witnesses and survivors testified. The stories of Báthory’s murders were further verified by physical evidence of mutilated, dying or dead victims at the time of her arrest. Even though servants around her were executed for being involved, Báthory was imprisoned, rather than executed. Since her death, Báthory has become a prominent figure in folklore, literature and music, and has been labelled by Guinness World Records as the most prolific female murderer in history.
2. Giulia Tofana (1620-1659)
Though not a direct killer herself, Giulia Tofana provided poison that killed hundreds of men in 17th-century Italy. Born in Palermo in 1620, when she was young her mother was executed for killing her father with poison. Growing up, she spent a lot of time in apothecaries, and it was there that she apparently perfected her own brand of poison: Aqua Tofana, a slow-acting poison with no colour or taste, with effects that could easily be mistaken for other illnesses.
Tofana sold the poison to women who were trapped in abusive marriages as a way of allowing them to kill their husbands. Her business boomed, and she eventually relocated to Rome and hired her daughter and three assistants to help her. She was eventually reported by a widow. However, so many people believed that her actions were charitable that she was briefly granted sanctuary in a church before being forcibly removed by the police. Tofana, her daughter and her three assistants were all executed in 1659.
3. Mary Ann Cotton (1832-1873)
Mary Ann Cotton is thought to be Britain’s first female serial killer. She is suspected of having murdered around 21 people using arsenic as a way of claiming life insurance payments. Over the course of her life, she moved around England and ‘lost’ 21 people close to her, including three husbands, a lover, a friend, her mother and 11 children, all of who died suddenly of stomach fevers.
Unsurprisingly, Cotton became the focus of rumour. She was eventually arrested after a suspicious doctor tested the remains of one of her victims and discovered arsenic. Cotton was tried in 1873 and protested her innocence. In spite of the likely scale of her crimes, she was only convicted of one killing, her stepson Charles Edward Cotton. She was hanged in 1873.
4. Amelia Dyer (1836-1896)
Amelia Dyer is credited as being one of the most prolific murderers in British history, having killed more than 400 infants. Trained as a nurse but widowed in 1869, Dyer turned to baby farming to support her family. Instead, Dyer began starving the babies she took in, or drugging them with an opiate known as ‘Mother’s Friend’.
After some time she began to make her killings more efficient, strangling the babies with white cord and throwing their remains in the River Thames. Her horrific deeds were eventually discovered when the remains of a baby were recovered from the water. She was hanged in 1896.
5. Leonarda Cianciulli (1894-1970)
Born in Avellino, Italy, Leonarda Cianciulli married a registry office clerk in 1917 and fell pregnant 17 times during her marriage. Of the 14 who were born alive, only 4 survived beyond a young age. Leonarda became obsessed with their safety and was convinced that she had to sacrifice other people to save them. Over the course of a year from 1939-1940 in Correggio, Italy, she killed three women with an axe, dismembered their bodies and used caustic soda to disintegrate them.
She was finally captured and put on trial in 1946. In her court testimony, she talked about turning the women’s remains into soap and cakes which she gave to neighbours and friends. This earned her the nickname ‘the soap-maker of Correggio’. She was sentenced to 30 years in prison and 3 in a criminal asylum. She died in 1970.
6. Delfina and Maria de Jesus Gonzalez (1912-1990)
Known as ‘Las Poquianchis’, sisters Delfina and Maria de Jesus Gonzalez were from the Mexican state of Guanajuato, 200 miles north of Mexico City. Until the mid-1960s, the sisters ran ‘Rancho El Ángel’, called the ‘bordello from hell’ in San Francisco del Rincón. There, they would recruit sex workers through advertisements for a housekeeper. They then force-fed the girls cocaine or heroin. The sisters would murder the sex workers as soon as they became too ill, lost their looks or stopped pleasing the customers.
The women were eventually arrested. Police searched the sisters’ property and found the bodies of 11 men, 80 women and several foetuses, though they are suspected of having murdered many more. In 1964, the sisters were each sentenced to 40 years in prison.
7. Myra Hindley (1942-2002)
Myra Hindley met Ian Brady in 1961 in Manchester, England, and soon became his girlfriend. The mastermind behind their crimes, Brady soon hatched plans of rape and murder. In 1963, Hindley and Brady claimed their first child victims: Pauline Reade, John Kilbride, Keith Bennett and Lesley Ann Downey. Hindley played a key part in luring the children to them, and also participated in the murders and recordings of the killings.
In 1965, Hindley’s 17-year-old brother in law contacted the police and stated that he had witnessed Brady killing 17-year-old Edward Evans with an axe, and that he had heard Brady mentioning that there were multiple bodies buried on Saddleworth Moor. In 1966, the couple were brought to trial and found guilty of multiple counts of murder. Hindley died behind bars in 2002.
8. Aileen Wuornos (1956-2002)
Aileen Carol Wuornos was born in 1956 in Michigan. She had a difficult childhood plagued by parental abuse and rape, and she gave birth to her first child aged 14. She was kicked out of her home aged 15, turning to prostitution to support herself.
After years of run-ins with the law, between the years of 1989-1990, Wuornos shot dead and robbed seven of her male clients. She later claimed that her clients had either raped or attempted to rape her and that all of the murders were committed in self-defence.
Wuornos was eventually tried, convicted for multiple murders and sentenced to death. After various appeals, she later retracted her claim that she had been acting in self-defence because she stated she wanted to increase her chances of execution.
She was executed on 9 October 2002. The biographical film Monster detailing Wuornos’ life was released a year later. Charlize Theron won an Oscar for her performance.