The Human Equation

Serial killers, self-reliance, and everything in between

Female Mass Murderers

What if James Holes was a woman?

This article is not about the Aurora shooting except that it got me wondering about why I never hear about female mass murderers. Other than two particularly nasty workplace shootings by women—Amy Bishop and Jennifer San Marco—I couldn't recall a single incident of a woman mowing down multiple strangers in a single event. Have there been any female mass murderers?  Would this crime have been different if James had been Jessica or June?  

Yes, there have been. And, yes, it might have been different.

Guilty But Insane

On January 20, 2006, Jennifer San Marco shot her former neighbor, Beverly Graham, in the head and then drove to her former place of employment, where she proceeded to shoot six employees before killing herself. While she left behind no suicide note, San Marco had a history of serious mental problems which had led to her retirement from a postal job six years previously. People who knew her described bizarre behavior (showing up at a service station naked, mumbling to herself as if she were two people arguing) leading up to the mass murder.

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On October 30, 1985, twenty-something Sylvia Seecrest walked into the Springfield Mall (outside Philadelphia) with a semiautomatic rifle and randomly began firing. She aimed at shoppers who failed to move fast enough and randomly shot inside several stores, ultimately killing 2 and wounding 8. She was stopped after a 24-year-old graduate student grabbed her arm and told her he was going to turn her in. She obediently sat in a chair while he went to find a security guard. Many of those who worked at the mall already knew Sylvia for her bizarre behavior (harassing customers, scaring them with bizarre monologues, complaining the colors of the clothing were too bright and making her angry) and her history of severe mental illness (she had been diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 15 and hospitalized twelve times in the previous ten years).

Then, there's 51-year-old Priscilla Joyce Ford, who, on a Thanksgiving Day afternoon in 1980, decided to run as many people over as possible with her Lincoln 1974 Lincoln Continental. Her five block massacre left seven dead and twenty two seriously injured. Upon arrest, Ms. Ford claimed to be Adam (of Adam and Eve fame) as well as a prophet. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, numerous people testified about her mental instability prior to the massacre although she was convicted and sentenced to death.

These three examples of female mass murderers share a commonality; in nearly every instance, whether they killed relatives, friends, or co-workers, they had a history of mental illness. Of course, there are also male mass murderers who are responding to command hallucinations or delusions of persecution. However, there is one type pf mass murderer who seems to be exclusively male—the "pseudocommando" mass murderer. Unlike the psychotic killer, the pseudocommando's motive is revenge.

The "Pseudocommando" Mass Murderer

The term "pseudocommando" was first used to describe the type of mass murderer who carefully and methodically plans his actions and who kills indiscriminately in public. This is not a person who "snaps;" he comes prepared with a powerful arsenal of weapons, typically has no escape planned, and is pursing a highly personal and well-thought-out agenda of "payback."

According to research, these revenge mass murderers tend to have been bullied or socially excluded as children. As adults, they tend to be highly sensitive to any slight or rejection and to spend time dwelling on past humiliations. Given the right circumstances, these obsessive thoughts turn into violent revenge fantasies to protect a fragile—sometimes overly inflated—ego. In fact, it is when the perpetrator is feeling most powerless that he is likely to justify acting on his fantasies and begin the transition from obsessive thought to devastating action. The meticulous plans he make not only distract him from a reality that he finds increasingly intolerable, they give him a false sense of power and omnipotence.

The Bottom Line

Like female murderers in general, female mass murderers are more likely to kill people they know—children, coworkers, husbands. When they do kill strangers, the actions are likely to be fueled by a longstanding—and relatively obvious—severe mental illness. They aren't, however, likely to show up at a movie theater dressed in army gear and seeking revenge.

Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D, is the author of Complete Idiot's Guide to Psychology.

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