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The First-Ever Psychopath Trial Was for a Woman in 1884

A sensational murder trial in St. Petersburg, Russia, popularized "psychopathy."

Key points

  • An enduring misconception about psychopathy is that only males can be psychopaths.
  • The first time the word "psychopath" was used in court was for a female.
  • Testimony at the 1884 trial of Ekaterina Semenova is credited with bringing the term "psychopathy" into lay usage.

One of the most enduring misconceptions about psychopathy is that only males can be psychopaths. However, the first time the word "psychopath" was used in court was for a female. In a court case from 1884, in St. Petersburg, Russia, Ekaterina Semenova, the “first all-Russian psychopath,” was implicated in the murder of 13-year-old Sarra Bekker, who worked at a pawnshop. The Oxford English Dictionary credits testimony at this trial for popularizing the term "psychopathy" in lay usage.1

The Mironovich Case

In 1884, the term "psychopath" was new to medical science in Russia. For the rest of the world, the concept was still in the embryonic stage. The murder case, known as the “Mironovich case,” was one of the most intriguing and scandalous investigations and trials of its day. A worldwide sensation, the high-profile trial attracted distinguished medical experts, extensive newspaper coverage, and intense public interest.2

With no signs of forced entry, Sarra Bekker's legs were spread apart, a rag was stuffed into her mouth, and she had wounds to her head; the prosecutor’s presumed motive for the crime was rape. Suspicion fell on the pawnshop’s owner, Bekker’s boss, Ivan Mironovich. He was taken into custody as the principal suspect. A month later, Semenova came forward and confessed to police that she had committed the murder. She was stealing jewelry for her lover, Mikhail Bezak, a married policeman. But, after the murder, he distanced himself from Semenova, discontinuing the relationship. Out of revenge, she confessed to the murder and implicated Bezak in its planning. Her confession was suspect, and she was remanded for psychiatric evaluations. Bezak was arrested in possession of some of the stolen items.

Who Was Ekaterina Semenova?

A woman with a criminal past, Ekaterina Semenova had previously committed at least five thefts and orchestrated criminal frauds. She was considered “ruthless in relation to everyone…she even robbed her good acquaintances....”3 She showed no remorse, no regret, and no shame, and she exhibited a characteristically hysterical nature. Semenova was said to be emotionally cold, exhibited an intractable character, and was promiscuous. She had been detained four times by the police for various offenses, each time being spared prison. She was deceptive in her relationships and dealings with others. Semenova befriended Bekker and gained her confidence before strangling her and smashing her head with a kettlebell—a heavy weight with a handle. In short, Semenova’s behavior and personal history match current-day psychopathic characteristics.

 "Ivan M. Balinsky" by A. Balinsky/CC BY-SA 4.0
Prof. Ivan Balinsky—pioneering Russian psychiatrist
Source: "Ivan M. Balinsky" by A. Balinsky/CC BY-SA 4.0

Pioneering Russian Psychiatrist Professor Ivan Balinsky

Notwithstanding all of this, at the trial, the prosecutor promoted his theory of alleged rape and murder committed by Mironovich. Semenova recanted her confession and changed her story to simply stealing from the shop and giving some of the goods to Bezak to fence in Finland. The prosecutor presented testimony from Professor Ivan M. Balinsky, a pioneer of Russian psychiatry. In explaining his diagnosis that Semenova was a psychopath, Balinsky provided an overview of psychopathy that is still pertinent today:

“[Psychopaths] are capable of rational behavior, they can distinguish good from evil, but lack any moral comprehension. They think only about themselves, unconcerned about those around them except as they might be used to achieve their own aims. Other than the personal 'I,' the psychopath holds nothing sacred and is completely indifferent to the consequences of his actions.”4

Testimony of this type might have sealed Semenova’s fate, except, in his professorial demeanor, Balinsky suggested that it might be wrong to “brand such people…with the name 'criminal.' Have pity and compassion for them.”5

Ultimate Case Outcome

Based on this and the prosecutor’s zeal to convict Mironovich, Semenova was acquitted on the basis of insanity and soon released from custody. Mironovich was convicted of the murder and sentenced to seven years of hard labor. Bezak was sentenced to exile in Siberia.

As always with psychopaths, there is much confusion and chaos that surrounds them. “One person is set against another, and suspicion is rife, but the cause is never rooted out.”6 This was certainly true in this case. Ultimately, Mironovich sought a separate retrial where only he appeared as a defendant. He was acquitted. Accordingly, no one was ever convicted for the murder of Sarra Bekker. The psychopath was spared of all crimes including murder. I call this the “Houdini effect” because the female psychopath is a master escape artist.7 And, once free, she continues on her path of destruction.


1. Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, 2011, "Psychopath."

2. "The acquittal at St. Petersburg." The Pall Mall Gazette. London. January 21, 1885.

3. Karantsev, S.M. Jury Trial in Russia: High Profile Criminal Trials 1864-1917. Lenizdat, 1991. 29.

4. McReynolds, Louise. Murder Most Russian. (Cornell University Press, 2013). 49.

5. McReynolds, 49.

6. Symington. Neville. "The Response Aroused by the Psychopath" in Meloy, J. Reid. The Mark of Cain. (Hillsdale: The Analytic Press, 2001) 290.

7. Rule, Winifred. "The Female Psychopath: A Master Escape Artist." August, 4, 2021. in Surviving the Female Psychopath.….

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