In 1991, Jeffrey Dahmer went on trial for multiple counts of homicide. He had callously murdered at least seventeen boys and young men in the four years preceding his capture. Each of Dahmer’s victims had been sexually attacked, brutally tortured, and killed. Many of the bodies of his victims had been savagely mutilated and used for his sexual pleasure long after they had succumbed to a horrible death. Dahmer’s pathological and unspeakable, self-proclaimed purpose had been to create “sex zombies” who would be forever at his command.
Thirty years earlier, between 1962 and 1964, Albert Henry DeSalvo, who came to be known in the press as the Boston Strangler, murdered at least thirteen women who ranged in age from nineteen to eighty-five years. Eleven of his victims had been sexually assaulted; most died by strangulation, and their bodies had been desecrated and placed in bizarre positions after they were slain. By his own admission, DeSalvo was a man who knew no limits to his compulsive drive to rape for the two years during which he terrorized the Boston area.
The Clown Killer, John Wayne Gacy, murdered thirty-three young males between 1972 and 1978. After luring the victims to his home, Gacy would ply them with alcohol and drugs, and eventually, use handcuffs to subdue them. He would then attack them sexually. Following their torture and death, Gacy would bury the bodies of his victims on his own property. After concealing twenty-nine bodies in the crawl space beneath his home and underneath his cement driveway, Gacy found that he had run out of space. He solved the problem by throwing the bodies of his last four victims into the Des Plaines River.
The list of infamous serial killers who have roamed the United States in the past few decades is frightening. Men with monikers like the Night Stalker, the Trailside Killer, the I-5 Killer, and the Son of Sam have become recognizable to even casual readers of the true crime genre. These men represent the classic serial killer, who has become ironically symbolic of the chaotic and merciless violence that is a dark partner of our modern society. Their crimes are indescribable in their brutality and seemingly senseless in their purpose. Their actions are those of a relentless sexual predator who is driven to mindless and inconceivable horror. In the past few decades, the crimes of these predators have become the focus of a large part of American society, often because they represent the most feared and inscrutable of criminals who can be conjured up in our collective imagination.
Popular literature, the entertainment industry, and the media have combined to perpetuate a prosaic understanding of the serial killer that is both incomplete and misleading. To the casual observer, the serial killer is known only as a male sexual predator who relentlessly stalks his prey in a series of compulsive acts that must inevitably end in murder. Woven into this simplified myth is the image of a Caucasian male, sometimes of high intelligence, usually in his twenties or thirties, whose crimes are driven by bizarre and inexplicable fantasies of sexual domination and vengeance. In this sense, men like Dahmer, Gacy, and DeSalvo fit the stereotype nicely. They are the essence of the public understanding of a serial killer. They are the prototypes—men whose exploits have been repetitively used to formulate the popular image of the serial sexual predator. However, they represent merely a surface understanding of the real nature of serial killing. They tell only a part of the long and complex story that encompasses many different types of perpetrators who are driven to commit this heinous crime.
Serial killers are not a phenomenon unique to the late twentieth century, nor are they exclusive to America. These criminals are not limited to sexual predators. Rather, the crime of serial murder encompasses a broad range of violent activities, from the infamous exploits of the gunslinger of the old West to the unspeakable crimes of the Nazi leadership, who perpetrated the Holocaust earlier in this century, to the contemporary Mafia hit man. The history of most industrialized nations is replete with serial murders committed by terrorists, outlaws, pirates, and even members of royalty, who were each driven to kill in a compulsive fashion. Their motives were sometimes complex and, in other cases, straightforward. These killers included criminals of high intelligence and individuals who suffered from debilitating and uncontrollable psychological disorders. They were often common men who were able to wreak their aggression on others by ruse or manipulation. In some cases, they were brutally direct, while in others, they were patient beyond reason.
Regardless of their means or motives and despite their social position or secret compulsions, they were men who senselessly brutalized others in a relentless drive toward the ultimate form of violence. However, despite what we think we know and understand about the serial killer, much remains hidden within the horror of the crime and the secret activities of its perpetrator. Much has also been shunted away from the public eye by cultural bias and myth.
One of the myths that has been perpetuated by the press and popular media is that serial murders are invariably and exclusively committed by men. This myth is particularly rampant in the entertainment industry, which produces a seemingly limitless litany of male serial murderer movies, which vary widely in their adherence to truth and reality. In fact, the genuine history of this crime is replete with dozens of female serial killers who were far more lethal—and often, far more successful in their determination to kill—than their male counterparts. Whereas the male serial killer is most often driven to repetitive acts of sexual homicide, the typical female serial killer is a much more complex criminal, whose motivations are often wide-ranging and anything but simple. In fact, as this book will show, the female serial killer typically remains undetected for a significantly longer period of time than the average male serial murderer. She is a quiet killer, who is often painstakingly methodical and eminently lethal in her actions.
Incredibly, despite her morbid ability to succeed at murder, the female serial killer has been virtually ignored in the press and media. So overlooked is this subtle criminal that it has been frequently written that America has experienced only a single female serial killer in its history—Aileen Wuornos. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Although the incidents of serial murder perpetrated by women are far less frequent than those of her male counterpart, we were able to identify nearly one hundred female serial murderers who claimed their victims since 1900. Well over half these women committed their crimes on American soil. Not only is the number of female serial killers shocking to the casual reader, the motives and methods of this perpetrator are even more incredible than those of the male serial killer. In surveying the case histories of this type of criminal, we were able to identify seven distinct categories of female serial killers, excluding those cases in which the perpetrator was not convincingly identified or the crime was never solved.
Whereas the majority of male serial killers are obvious sexual predators, the woman who murders a number of individuals over time rarely commits a sexual homicide. Her motives are far more diverse and, sometimes, quite subtle. Like her male counterpart, the female serial killer usually plans her crimes with great care and carries them out in a meticulous manner. In fact, as this book will show, she is frequently far more successful at evading capture for a much longer period of time than the average male serial murderer.
Judging by the limited information about female serial murderers that has been made public in this country, the very concept of such a criminal seems to have been turned aside by a strong cultural bias that denies her existence. Whereas the male serial killer has been regularly lionized by his outrageous exploits, the female serial killer is typically ignored, viewed as an anomaly, or given far less serious attention than her crimes warrant. Even when this murderer is an active member of a serial-killing team, she is typically overshadowed in her actions by the male partner with whom she operates. However, when her crimes are carefully examined it becomes immediately obvious that, in both her callousness and her methods, this perpetrator is on a par with any male serial killer. Ironically, counterbalancing her blatant criminal activity is the apparent cultural predisposition to dismiss her genuine criminal potential simply because she is a woman. In view of this social bias, it is no wonder that she is often able to go on killing for many years before she is finally apprehended.
Whereas names such as Dahmer, Gacy, DeSalvo, and Ted Bundy are instantly recognized for their heinous exploits, few Americans have heard of Genene Jones, Bobbie Sue Terrell, or Jane Toppan. However, Jones, Terrell, and Toppan each murdered more than 10 individuals throughout their years of crime, and cumulatively, they may have been responsible for as many as 128 deaths. Clearly, these three women were killers whose stature in crime was equal or beyond that of Dahmer, Gacy, DeSalvo, and Bundy. However, to most Americans, these women bear unfamiliar names and their crimes have been largely ignored or forgotten. As this book will clearly show, even these three murderers were not nearly as lethal as a dozen or more other female serial killers who were active since the turn of the century.
There is no question that the crime of serial murder is unsettling, whether it is committed by a man or a woman. It is arguably the most horrific of violent acts that can be perpetrated against another human being. However, this is not a crime that is solely perpetrated by a male sexual predator. The female serial killer is an equally pernicious threat to our society and she is often a far more compelling and difficult adversary for law enforcement officials. The case histories of these killers clearly demonstrate that the female serial killer has been active in many countries and for many decades; they also show that this perpetrator has staked a morbid and undeniable claim as a criminal of capability equal to that of her more familiar, male counterpart.
The history of the exploits of the female serial killer also brings into sharp focus another aspect of this crime—its perpetrator has always been much more than an anomaly in the science of criminology. She has always been a societal threat that is no less significant than a male serial killer. Although the male serial killer has become the ultimate nemesis of law enforcement and a criminal whose exploits have been grimly transformed into a staple of the press and popular media, the female serial murderer has always been among us. She has already taken her place in the history of criminology, although her impact remains generally unrecognized. It is now time to tear the shroud away from this quiet killer and expose her crimes to the light of understanding.