There’s something about female serial killers that captures the public’s imagination. We picture Arsenic and Old Lace-type scenarios, where wealthy women poison their husbands in order to inherit their astronomical fortunes.
There’s a sense of glamour to them, even though their crimes are at least as horrific as those their male counterparts commit.
Unfortunately, this is real life, and all sorts of women kill for all sorts of reasons.
But in the early 21st century, these stereotypes still held strong, and this was the climate in which Aileen Wuornos committed her crimes.
She shot seven men while hitchhiking between 1989 and 1990, when she was caught. The media frenzy around her touted her as the “first female serial killer”, but history shows that that is untrue; there are plenty of female serial killers on record before Aileen Wuornos, and even a few big cases featuring female killers that were coming to light at around the same time.
So why is Aileen different?
At the time that Aileen Wuornos was killing, there were other female killers all over the world. However, most fell into two accepted categories for female killers at the time: poisoners – a la Arsenic and Old Lace – or women who killed alongside their husbands or partners.
However, Aileen falls into neither of these categories, instead employing methods and brutality that make her more similar to her male counterparts.
It is this difference in modus operandi that makes her one of the most notable female serial killers of the 21st century.
The poisoner archetype, which has been around for hundreds of years, was especially prevalent among nurses and other caregivers, such as those who ran nursing homes. After all, they were trusted implicitly by patients whose deaths were expected, and occasionally had access to deadly medications that could be used to carry out their devious crimes.
Female serial killers of the 21st century continue to use these methods, but there are a few examples that were operating before, during, and after Wuornos’ killing spree.
Genene Jones is a perfect example; between 1971 and 1984, she is suspected to have killed 46 infants and children in various hospitals by injecting them with a paralyzing agent, all so she could stage a medical emergency and have a chance at being a hero and saving a child’s life.
Or Amy Archer Gilligan, who married at least five nursing home residents. In order to inherit their fortunes – she would go on to run a nursing home in Windsor, Connecticut and persuade elderly ladies to write her into their wills, shortly before poisoning them with arsenic or strychnine. She is suspected of killing 48 victims and died while in custody in 1962.
Dorothea Puente also ran a boarding house for the homeless and the elderly – she would steal her tenant’s benefits cheques and murder them when they found out. Between 1982 and 1988, she had poisoned 15 victims. When she was caught, they found nine bodies in her back garden.
And then there’s the Death Row Granny – Velma Barfield, a South Carolina native who poisoned her fiancée, several people she cared for, and even her own mother between 1971 and 1978. She earned a kindly reputation while on death row because of her sweet voice and love of crochet. But that wouldn’t save her from being executed by lethal injection in 1984.
Partners in Crime
The other archetype of female killers that was prevalent around this time period was women who were assisted by their husbands or boyfriends in their crimes. Some would gain sympathy, while others are regarded as equal to their partners – some were even regarded as more evil.
Like Myra Hindley, who helped her boyfriend, Ian Brady, abduct and murder five children in Manchester, England throughout the 1960s. Hindley’s mugshot is now a symbol of universal evil, despite some theories that she was manipulated by Brady.
The pair was caught in 1965 and both were sentenced to life in prison. Hindley died behind bars in 2002, still the most reviled woman in England to some.
A similar case with a vastly different outcome is that of Karla Homolka; she became entangled with rapist Paul Bernardo in 1990 and assisted him on his escalation into a serial killer.
She lured a total of three young girls into Bernardo’s clutches – including her younger sister, Tammy. She struck a plea deal in exchange for her testimony and was sentenced to two 12-year prison terms for the murders. She was released under a series of conditions in 2005. Though some are uncomfortable with her being released into the community, she isn’t subject to near the revulsion that Myra Hindley was, or even other female serial killers of the 21st century.
Aileen Wuornos – A Different Breed of Killer
Aileen Wuornos was born on February 29, 1956 in Rochester, Michigan. By all accounts, her childhood was especially horrifying; her father hanged himself in prison in 1969 while serving a sentence for child molestation, and she and her brother Keith were abandoned with their grandparents by their mother.
If that weren’t enough, her grandmother was said to have been an alcoholic, and her grandfather was violent and controlling. She would later state that she had been sexually abused by her grandfather and had engaged in an incestuous relationship with her brother.
As a result of these relationships, she became pregnant at 14. Her son later on, was given up for adoption. Her grandmother kicked her out of the house shortly after this, and she spent time living in the woods before hitting the road.
Much of her adult life was spent hitchhiking and engaging in sex work to survive. She was arrested multiple times during the late 60s and early 70s for assault, disorderly conduct, and other charges.
She then encountered a small window of peace when she settled in Florida and met wealthy yachtsman Lewis Fell. They got married in 1976, but the relationship didn’t last. Fell annulled the union nine weeks later when Wuornos was arrested for yet another altercation, and filed a restraining order against her, claiming that she’d beaten him with his own cane.
In 1986, she met 24-year-old Tyria Moore in Daytona, Florida and embark on a relationship that lasted until her capture in 1990. Three years later, she committed her first murder.
On December 13, 1989, the body of 51-year-old Richard Mallory was discovered in a junkyard. As the weeks went on, the bodies of five more men were discovered scattered around Florida – there was a serial killer operating in the area. The victims were Richard Mallory, age 51, David Spears, age 43, Charles Carskaddon, age 40, Peter Siems, age 65, Troy Burress, age 50, Charles Humphreys, age 56, and Walter Jeno Antonio, age 62.
Wuornos would be picked up by the men while hitchhiking and proceed to shoot them multiple times with a .22 caliber revolver. Her motives for these murders are unclear. In her initial testimony, she claimed that all of them had either sexually assaulted her or attempted to, and she had killed them in self defense.
She would later recant these claims for all the men but Richard Mallory and say that the other murders had been robberies that she hadn’t wanted to leave witnesses to. She would later double back to the self-defense story in interviews, and her motives remain unclear to this day.
Police would eventually connected Wuornos to the murder of Peter Siems – whose body has never been found – through a palmprint that they discovered inside of his crashed car. She was then arrested in a biker bar called The Last Resort on January 9, 1991.
Police tracked Tyria Moore to Scranton, Pennsylvania the next day, and it was her testimony that cracked the case. To avoid being charged as an accessory to Wuornos’ murders, Moore struck a deal with police, and elicited a confession from Aileen over the phone on January 16, 1991.
Wuornos took full responsibility for the murders but testified that she had been raped and tortured by Richard Mallory and killed him in self defense – Mallory had previously served a long prison sentence for sexual assault, but this information was not made evident during trial.
Despite her claims, she was found guilty of the first-degree murder of Richard Mallory on January 27, 1992 and sentenced to death. In the subsequent months, she had pleaded guilty to the other five murders and received the death penalty for each – she was never charged for the murder of Peter Siems but admitted to his murder out of court.
At her sentencing, psychiatrists for the defense states that she was mentally unstable and diagnosed her with borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder – this did not provide any leniency on her sentencing, however.
Questions about Wuornos’ mental health persisted right up until her execution and even beyond – many believe that her father’s schizophrenia diagnosis pointed to a possible diagnosis for Aileen as well, considering that many of her statements during testimony and interviews suggested that she was likely disconnected from reality. When she was assessed using the Psychopathy Checklist, she scored a 32/40 – typically, a score above 30 is consistent with a diagnosis of psychopathy.
Aileen Wuornos was executed by lethal injection on October 9, 2002 at Florida State Prison. She was 46. After the execution, her remains were cremated and buried in her hometown. She was the tenth woman in the United States to be executed since the 1976 Supreme Court decision to reinstate capital punishment.
The Making of A legend
The media frenzy surrounding Aileen Wuornos’ crimes came from a very simple oddity – she was one of the only high profile serial killers of the era that was also a woman. The BTK killings had recently stopped, and the world was still reeling from the apprehension of such killers as Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy.
Further, the Milwaukee Cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer would be caught in the same year as Wuornos, so serial killers were high in the public consciousness.
In this veritable boy’s club of monsters, Aileen stands out – despite being just as brutal as her male counterparts, she happens to be a woman, and that made her interesting. So even though there had been many female killers before her and there would be many after, she was the first woman to whom the “serial killer” moniker had been properly applied.
British documentarian Nick Broomfield was so fascinated with Aileen that he produced two films about her: Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1993) and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003). A fictionalized version of her story entitled Monster (2003) was directed by Patty Jenkins and presented a more dramatic, emotional view of Aileen’s story. Charlize Theron starred as the famed serial killer, and her performance earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress.
Fade to Black
Aileen Wuornos has retained her place in the pantheon of serial killers, alongside Bundy, Dahmer, Gacy, and others that have made their way into pop culture immortality. Despite the fact that her title of “America’s First Female Serial Killer” is, in fact, a misnomer, her unusual way of killing and subsequent media spotlight have cemented her as one of the most notorious female serial killers of the 21st century.