Pop culture has had a long and storied fascination with women who kill. The very notion that a member of the “fairer sex” is capable of committing some of the most terrifying and brutal crimes one can imagine holds a peculiar kind of interest; more so than a run of the mill murder mystery.
It begs the question: why? Perhaps it could be explained as the result of simple stereotyping: the famous Madonna / whore complex. Women are traditionally seen as one or the other. But willfully duplicitous, blood-hungry female killers are aberrations that don’t fit into either narrative. Besides, their supposed docility makes it difficult for most to believe that women have the capacity to be just as dangerous as men, if not more so. The feminine façade provides good cover for plenty of women to commit murder and do as they please.
That being said, here are some of history’s most infamous lady-killers.
1. Lizzie Borden
Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
This macabre nursery rhyme bears the namesake of the first American woman who became notorious for allegedly killing her father and stepmother in 1892 – by wielding an axe and hacking them to death.
The case of Lizzie Borden represents one of the original media-driven frenzies, with the nation’s newspapers and their collective readership eagerly following the case. It shook the staid town of Fall River in Massachusetts to its very core, and while Lizzie was eventually acquitted, she would never be able to escape the pall of death that followed her since.
On a stiflingly hot day in August, the bodies of Andrew and Abby Borden were found in pools of blood, their faces barely recognizable, and an ax unceremoniously thrown near the crime scene. No one could stomach the gruesome sight, or understand how anyone could commit such a heinous crime. Law enforcement’s eyes eventually settled upon Lizzie, as she seemed to be the only one around at the time of the murders.
The ensuing trial held the country transfixed in a heady spell, as details began to emerge regarding the family’s odd habits and their financial straits, despite their ability to present a parade of relative wealth to the outside world. Moreover, the relationship between the Borden sisters and their stepmother, Abby, was cold and distant, and they always suspected her of marrying into the family for money. Lizzie and her sister were very protective of one another and their properties, which led to the belief that perhaps the murder was in some ways premeditated and driven by greed. Other investigators felt that something else was amiss…upon the police’s arrival to the house, rotten mutton was found on the stove. Most probably due to the intense heat, and the family’s apparent attempt to save money by not always purchasing the most prime cuts of meat. Hard to believe, but some thought that perhaps Lizzie went mad as a result of eating the putrid stew, which caused the family’s underlying, bubbling resentment to burst forth in an outrageous act of violence. Others still believed that the axe murders may have been instigated by the parents’ discovery of Lizzie’s lesbian affair with their maid.
Rumors and different conspiracy theories continued to be churned out during the trial, but Lizzie was eventually acquitted of the murders in 1893. Even though she lived her later years as a complete outcast, and most believed her to be guilty, the case was never solved. She died in 1927, and her story has continued to haunt the American public for well over a century.
2. Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker
The friendship between teens Juliet and Pauline was an intense and deeply felt affair that caused considerable consternation on the part of their parents—particularly Pauline’s mother, whom the pair ganged up on and beat to death with a brick in 1954. The murder astonished not just New Zealanders, but the entire world, as the media ran wild trying to understand how two young girls could do something so heinous.
The girls were outcasts long before they met. Juliet was born into an affluent but distant and troubled family. At the age of five she was hospitalized with a chronic and debilitating bone marrow infection, which caused her to have few friends due to her inability to take part in physical activities, or meet other youngsters her age. Pauline had a similarly difficult and rather closed-off life, and her stern upbringing made the nervous and gawky girl run further into her dream world of writing and art.
Pauline and Juliet met at Christchurch Girls’ High School during one of the many church-organized outings, and while both teenagers seemed to be worlds apart on first glace – Juliet rather striking, with a sophisticated English background, and Pauline rather shy and introverted – they formed a deep friendship quickly.
The passionate girls became inseparable, and fed each other’s imaginations by creating an intricate fantasy world that only they shared. They also gave themselves alternative identities, going by the names of Gina and Deborah, and planned to travel to America to become rich and famous Hollywood actresses. Even though both their families were rather happy that the girls found each other at first, their increasingly bizarre bond soon disturbed them.
When the fragile Juliet fell ill with tuberculosis, the families saw it as an opportunity for the girls to spend some time apart. However, that was not the case, and as soon as she was discharged from the hospital, the girls resumed their all-consuming friendship, unable to part ways with one another. Pauline’s parents were deeply upset, and suspected something deeper was amiss in the girls’ friendship. They took their daughter to a psychiatrist, who conveyed to them his concern that they shared a romantic relationship. This was heavily frowned upon in conservative 1950s New Zealand, and Pauline’s parents became obsessed with separating the girls.
At around the same time, Juliet discovered that her mother was having a torrid affair, and her parents were in the midst of a disastrous separation. As the Hulmes began divorce proceedings, they decided that Juliet would leave New Zealand with her father. Pauline and Juliet panicked, but strung on to the hope that Pauline would be able to come along. Of course, both their parents categorically refused the idea.
It is at around this time, in 1954, that the girls began to plan the murder of Pauline’s mother. They took her out to tea in a nearby kiosk, then set out to walk in Victoria Park, during which the key weapon was brought out, and they used it to beat the woman ‘til the last breath escaped her, covered in blood.
Their subsequent conviction led to media frenzy, as people wondered what it was about their relationship that it could have driven them to kill with such eagerness and fitful rage. After their relatively short stint in juvenile prison, they changed their names, and allegedly never met again. Juliet Hulme became Ann Perry, the famed mystery novelist, and has largely evaded speaking about her past. The former Pauline went on to live a fairly quiet life as a teacher, avoiding all past references to her previous identity and notorious crime.
3. Nannie Doss: The Giggling Nanny
The first serial killer to make it on this list, Nannie Doss was a truly horrifying woman who enjoyed murdering people…a bit too much, if such a thing is possible. She has gained infamy for her sweet demeanor and insistent giggling, which conveyed a deeply sick mind at work.
Born in 1905 Alabama, Nannie suffered a traumatic head injury at the age of seven, which many felt to be the root cause of her deemed insanity. At the time though, her family sensed that it caused Nannie to be somewhat “dimmer” than her classmates, and it was just as well. She was an intensely dreamy teen who loved reading romance novels, leading her to marry at the age of 16. While it was an unhappy marriage, and ended rather soon, it resulted in four daughters. Two of whom would tragically die of food poisoning…at least, that’s what people thought at the time.
Nannie went on to marry four other men, each time leaving a dead husband behind. Throughout the years, the body count continued to climb, and she was later suspected of killing her daughter’s newborn baby, sadly enough. In the span of thirty years, Nannie murdered four husbands, her mother, one of her mother-in-laws, two sisters, two children, a grandson and nephew. Her preferred weapon was arsenic, which she stirred into a number of concoctions, including coffee, moonshine, prunes, and so on. The fact that so many of those close to her died before anyone began to suspect her seems like the premise of a terrible sitcom, but indeed she evaded detection for quite some time.
When she was finally arrested, things somehow became even weirder. Nannie seemed to enjoy the spotlight, smiling often, giggling, and being terribly upbeat in the courtroom. Thus, the moniker, “The Giggling Nanny.” Some pointed to the head injury she suffered as a child as being the source of her particular brand of lunacy, but Nannie had a more bizarre, although fairly compelling way of explaining her murderous streak. She chalked it up to those romance novels and magazines she devoured as a kid: “I was searching for the perfect mate, the real romance of life.” Yikes!
4. Jolly Jane
One of the first serial killers in American history, Jolly Jane – nee Honora Kelley – had a difficult go at things early on in life. Her father was widely believed to have gone completely mad, sewing his own eyes shut while working as a tailor. And her mother died of tuberculosis when Honora was still a young girl. As her father continued his descent into insanity, she and her sister were committed to the Boston Female Asylum, since no one was able to care for them.
In 1864, Honora left the institution to work as an indentured servant in the home of Ann C. Toppan in Lowell, Massachusetts. Over time, her name was changed to Jane Kelley, in tribute to the family that saved her.
Not much is known about this period in her life, but it seems like a rather idyllic time. Jane began studies to become a nurse in Cambridge Hospital, which led her on a path to unfathomable darkness.
Jane began to experiment on her patients, giving them large doses of morphine and sedatives, and closely examined what it did to their nervous systems. She would watch with open glee, and in particularly depraved instances, drug the patients, then climb into bed with them, performing sexual acts as they slept. She seemed to gain a sexual thrill by being so close to death, and it became an obsession of hers in the coming years.
The true murdering spree began in 1895, when she killed her landlords, foster sister, and a few others using strychnine. Jane would move on to kill entire families, and an alleged thirty-three people before she was eventually caught in 1901.
She escaped prison and the death penalty, as the jury deemed her to be insane. In a kind of poetic justice, was sent to spend the rest of her days in an insane asylum. Jolly Jane never really showed any remorse for her actions, and finally passed away at the age of eighty in 1938 – perhaps living longer than most known serial killers.
A Beautiful Disguise
The soft and gentle mystique of femininity in some ways provides the best cover for murderous impulses run amok. These examples, while extensively documented in history books, also ultimately reveal the ways in which lady- killers are completely inscrutable and remain mysterious. Their motives are obscured by a heavy curtain of dread and unease…will we ever know what lies beneath?