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Five Myths About Female Serial Killers

What we think about women and violence is not necessarily what is so.

I have a special interest in women who kill, especially the ones who take the time to carefully plan out their murders. This, of course, applies to all female serial killers. One of the questions I am often asked about this group is how many there have been. We don’t know for sure; according to Mike Aamodt, an impressive serial killer statistician out of Radford University, there have been 514 female serial killers since 1910. Of course, we only know about the ones who are caught. Given the sneaky ways most female serial killers operate, I’m sure this is an underestimate.

Even so, 500+ is not a small number. However, because female serial killers tend to fly under the radar, most of us don’t know a lot about them. And what we do know is often wrong. Here are the five most common myths I hear about female serial killers – and the reality of women who kill and kill and kill again. And yet, while we’ve all heard of Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, few of us know anything about Kristen Gilbert and Marybeth Tinning.

Myth #1: She doesn’t exist. It’s understandable that the average person isn’t up to speed on female serial killers. However, those who should know better often don’t. However, as late as 1998, for example, a well-known FBI profiler stated, “There are no female serial killers.” He was wrong.

Reality: The vast majority of murders in the United States are committed by men, and that includes serial murders.; approximately 17 percent of all serial homicides in the U.S. are committed by women. Interestingly, only 10 percent of total murders in the U.S. are committed by women indicating that, compared to men, women represent a larger percentage of serial murders than of any other kind of homicide in the U.S. So, statistically speaking, there are more women in the “serial killer” group than there are in the “killed someone in a bar fight” group or “I beat my spouse to death” cohort. Given the fact that female serial killers tend to get away with their crimes longer, and to kill more victims, suggests that this is a group that deserves some much-needed attention – and detection.

Myth #2: She’s a reluctant sidekick to a violent, predatory male. While this is changing, murderous women in the media have often been portrayed as the manipulated victim of a dominant male. When it’s a serial killing male-female duo, the woman tends to be portrayed as the gullible innocent who, but for the devious influence of a Machiavellian male, would have lived a law-abiding life.

Reality: It’s true that some female members of a deadly duo were coerced into a pathological relationship by an abusive spouse. However, that is just the tip of a very complicated iceberg. First of all, like their male counterparts, most female serial killers prefer to go it alone. Second, even for those who pair up, the dynamics between the two vary. Even though Karla Homolka portrayed herself as a battered spouse enslaved to a depraved killer, crack’s in Karla’s image of innocence had appeared long before she met Paul. In high school, she bullied others, broke rules, and showed little empathy for others. Perhaps she would have simply continued along as a callous and self-centered young adult if she had never encountered Paul Bernardo. But all was not as it seemed before then.

Last but not least, while it is relatively rare for a female partner in a male-female killing team to lead the charge, it does happen. In 2013, in 19-year-old Miranda Barbour suggested to her new husband that they kill someone together, assuring him that she had gotten away with murder before. He agreed. They used a Craigslist ad to meet and lure a 42-year-old man named Troy LaFerrara with the prospect of a sexual encounter. Miranda was clearly the leader; she drove to the mall to pick up their first victim, she stabbed him, and she was the one who picked out subsequent targets.

Myth #3: She’s either a barbarous bombshell or a frumpy-looking freak. When it comes to female serial killers, I often hear one of two sentiments; one, that she must be so unappealing that she was unable to function in society and, therefore, her motivation is to take revenge on a society that rejected her. Or, two, that she is such a gorgeous femme fatale that the men she murdered were helpless in the face of her beauty and sexual wiles.

Reality: Actually, most female serial killers are pretty average-looking. Rarely are they so gorgeous that men are putty in their hands. And rarely are they hideous looking. In fact, most of the time she is the kind of girl a mother would like if her son brought her home. She is young, middle-class, usually a Christian, and she works in with vulnerable people in traditionally feminine professions like nursing, teaching and care-giving. She may even be a Sunday School teacher.

Myth #4: She’s just a copycat of a male serial killer. Given the vested interest male and female serial killers have in taking lives, you’d think they’d have a lot in common. In reality, just about the only thing they share is the number of people they’ve killed.

Reality: Male and female serial killers have a lot more differences than similarities. They have different motives; many male serial murders involve a desire for domination, control, and sexual violence while females are more likely to kill for power or money. Most male serial killer victims are strangers, while female serial killers almost always kill someone they know (friend, family member or acquaintance). As such, women tend to kill in familiar places such as the home, a hospital, or a child care setting; unlike their male counterparts, they gather their victims around them while male serial killers tend to go out and hunt their victims. Because of these differences, they are able to avoid capture, on average, for at least twice as long as male serial killers.

Myth #5: She’s an out-of-control man-hater bent on revenge. When the general public thinks of female serial killers, they typically think of Aileen Wuornos, a highway prostitute who, in the late 1980s, shot and killed 7 men whom she alleged either raped or attempted to rape her. While she later acknowledged some of her rape claims were false, there is no question that she had a horrendous history of sexual abuse; her father killed himself in prison while serving time for child molestation and both her grandfather and brother allegedly molested her. The publicity around this case led to the common perception that female serial killers murder men.

Reality: Female serial killers are equally as likely to murder women and children as they are to kill me. In. In the United States, more than half of female serial killers have had at least one female victim and more than 30% of them had murdered at least one child. And, while revenge is occasionally a motive for female serial killers, it is a much rarer motive than cold, hard cash.

Most of us think of women as nurturing, empathetic and peaceful. When it comes to murder, that stereotype has plenty of truth. We are much less likely to stab, shoot, strangle, bludgeon – even poison – our fellow human beings. However, the thing about stereotypes, as we all know, is that they are at best only partial truths. Even a positive stereotype paints a picture of a person as far less complex that she is. And, when it comes to female serial killers, it may keep us from seeing the danger that’s right in front of us.


If you are interested in forensic psychology, please check out Dr. Johnston's true crime youtube channel, forensic radio show and website.

Aamodt, M.G. (2013, February 2013). Serial killer statistics. Retrieved from http://maamodt.asp.radford/edu/serial kille rinformation center.htm

Harrison, M.A., Murphy, E.A., Ho, L.Y., Bowers, T.G., & Flaherty. C.C. (2015). Female serial killers in the United States: means, motives, and makings. The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, 26(3), 383-406.

White, J. and Lester, D. (December 2011). A Study of Female Serial Killers. The American Journal of Forensic Psychology, 30(1):25-29.

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