They are small, fragile, hourglass-shaped and known to adorn red or pink – with a tendency to destroy their mate when their perceived usefulness is over.
The similarities between female killers and the black widow spider are marked, and quite shocking to say the least. And, since the number of violent crimes committed by women has nearly tripled since the 1970s (although whether this is a function of increased reporting is unclear), the possible differences between male and female killers have become even more evident.
Calculated, calm and subtle: these words have been used to sum up women who kill. In contrast, many male killers have been described as brutal, zealous and sometimes crude. These are the differences at their very simplest. Below, examine in detail the chilling distinctions that have been identified between men and women who kill.
1. Stranger danger
Terrifyingly, women tend to murder people they have a close, and often intimate, relationship with. The victims of male murderers tend to be unknown to the perpetrator.
Spouse, daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, patients – all of these individuals are at risk from these murderous maidens. The motivations for these crimes may vary — which we will subsequently explore in more detail — but can range from personal gain to revenge.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Diana Downs who shot her three children. She succeeded in killing one and rendered the other two physically disabled. The motivation behind this vicious attack on her own offspring was the desire to win back a partner who didn’t want children.
Unsurprisingly, the victims of black widows tend to be their spouse, or more often than you’d like to imagine, spouses. Mary Ann Cotton has been dubbed a trailblazer for spousal homicide. Arsenic was her poison of choice, and she used it to eliminate a suspected twenty one people — including three husbands and eleven of her own children — over a period of approximately twenty years.
2. The motivation
Three-quarters of women kill for some type of profit or personal gain. Whether this manifests as lucrative life insurance policies, pensions, valuable assets or even love, only very rarely (at least statistically) do females kill in a fit of rage. Male killers are often sexually motivated — in fact, this is the case for at least half the murders committed by men.
An often depicted cliche is that of the recently widowed murderess, the woman who weeps at her late spouse’s funeral. She is beautiful, vulnerable and appears entirely innocent. She is preparing to draw in her next prey.
Mary Ann Cotton herself was motivated by financial gain. As was Judy Buenoano who reaped in $240,000 of insurance money after the untimely deaths of two husbands, a fiancée and her own son. Lydia Trueblood poisoned her four husbands, her brother and her daughter to get her hands on their life insurance money. The list, unfortunately, goes on.
3. The weapon of choice
Physical strength and the motivation for murder are likely the main reason behind women’s choice of more subtle and undetectable methods of homicides. Men tend to batter, strangle, shoot and stab whereas women favour methods such as poison. Up to eighty percent of female serial killers have used poison at one stage or another.
Crocodile tears at the funerals of loved ones who have died suddenly are only believable when the cause of death appears wholly unsuspicious. This takes a dangerous cocktail of cunning planning and careful execution.
One infamous serial killer, Tillie Klimek, used a deadly (and slightly bizarre) combination of arsenic and psychic predictions to divert suspicion away from her. She openly pretended to be able to predict the deaths of her husbands when in fact, she was simply scheduling their deaths. This diversion, as well as the subtle signs of arsenic poisoning meant that it wasn’t until ten years (and at least four lovers) after her first murder, that she was finally brought to justice.
4. The length of time
The activities of some female serial killers have gone undetected for as long as three decades. On average the length of a female killing spree is between six and eight years. In contrast, the longevity of male killers’ sprees tend to cap at several months, and in extreme cases up to four years. The aforementioned subtlety of the crime committed by females is probably the primary reason for this.
Between 1977 and 1990, Diana Lumbrera systematically suffocated each of her six children one at a time before they reached the age of five. On each occasion, she would rush the already dead child into the emergency room in a panic, claiming that they had suddenly stopped breathing. When the hospital staff were unable to resuscitate the child, she would blame them for their death. After the death of her sixth child, the doctors began to realise that something untoward was happening and they alerted authorities. Shockingly, during their investigation, police discovered that life insurance had been taken out for each child by Lumbrera shortly before they died. She is currently serving three life sentences for these horrific crimes.
Your turn: Do you have any more stories of female serial killers to share? Tell us in the comments — we’d be intrigued to hear them…