Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Lady Killers

By Kathleen Rice Adams

The Wild West could be a dangerous place. If outlaws, gunfights, animal encounters, and Indian attacks didn’t do a body in, disease or accident very well might. For an unlucky few, danger emerged from an unexpected source: women with an axe to grind … repeatedly.

Belle Gunness and her children
Lizzie Borden may have been the most infamous of America’s female killers, but she certainly wasn’t the only woman to dispose of inconvenient family, friends, or strangers. She wasn’t even the most prolific American murderess. That honor probably goes to Belle Gunness, a Norwegian immigrant suspected of killing more than forty people — including two husbands and several suitors — in Illinois and Indiana at the turn of the 20th Century. When authorities began investigating disappearances, Gunness herself disappeared … after setting up a hired hand to take the fall for arson that burned her farmhouse to the ground with her three young children and the headless body of an unidentifiable woman inside.

The shocking crime of serial murder seems even more chilling when the perpetrator is a woman. Cultural and biological factors encourage women to eschew physical aggression. Most women fight with words or, sometimes, by manipulating male proxies. Consequently, females seldom go on the kind of violent binges that characterize male serial killers. In fact, only about 15 percent of serial murderers in history have been women.

According to Canadian author, filmmaker, and investigative historian Peter Vronsky, who holds a PhD in criminal justice, when men kill, they employ force and weapons. Restraint of the victim often provides part of the thrill: Many male serial killers derive sexual gratification from the act of taking a life. Women, on the other hand, prefer victims who are helpless or unsuspecting: 45 percent of convicted female serial killers used poison to dispose of spouses, children, the elderly, or the infirm. Instead of a sexual high, their primary motivation was money or revenge.

The eight female serial killers below were active during the nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries in the American West. (Another half-dozen cropped up east of the Mississippi during the same period.)

Delphine LaLaurie

Delphine LaLaurie
The volatile wife of a wealthy physician, LaLaurie tortured and killed slaves who displeased her. An 1834 fire at her New Orleans mansion revealed her depravity when a dozen maimed and starving men and women, along with a number of eviscerated corpses, were discovered in cages or chained to the walls in the attic. One woman had been skinned alive; another woman’s lips were sewn shut, and a man’s sexual organs had been removed. LaLaurie fled to avoid prosecution and reportedly died in Paris in December 1842. Years later, during renovations to the estate, contractors discovered even more slaves had been buried alive in the yard.

Mary Jane Jackson

A New Orleans prostitute with a violent temper, Jackson was a relative anomaly among female serial killers: Described as a “husky,” universally feared woman, she physically overpowered her adult-male victims. Nicknamed Bricktop because of her flaming-red hair, between 1856 and 1861 Jackson beat to death one man and stabbed to death three others because they called her names, objected to her foul language, or argued with her. Sentenced to ten years in prison for the 1861 stabbing death of a jailer-cum-live-in-lover who attempted to thrash her, 25-year-old Jackson disappeared nine months later when the newly appointed military governor of New Orleans emptied the prisons by issuing blanket pardons.

Kate Bender

Kate Bender
A member of the notorious Bloody Benders of Labette County, Kansas, beautiful 22-year-old Kate claimed to be a psychic. In 1872 and1873, she enthralled male guests over dinner at the family’s inn while men posing as her father and brother sneaked up behind the victims and bashed in their skulls with a sledgehammer or slit their throats. Among the four Bender family members, only Kate and her mother were related, though Kate may have been married to the man posing as her brother. When a traveling doctor disappeared after visiting the Benders’ waystation in 1872, his brother began an investigation that turned up 11 bodies buried on the property. The Benders, who robbed their victims, disappeared without a trace. A persistent rumor claims vigilantes dispensed final justice somewhere on the Kansas prairie.

Ellen Etheridge

During the first year after her 1912 marriage to a millionaire farmer, 22-year-old Etheridge poisoned four of his eight children. She attempted to kill a fifth child by forcing him to drink lye, but the 13-year-old boy escaped and ran for help. A minister’s daughter, Etheridge confessed to the killings and the attempted murder, laying the blame on what she saw as her husband’s betrayal: He had married her not for love, but to provide an unpaid servant for his offspring, upon whom he lavished both his affection and his money. In 1913, a Bosque County, Texas, jury sentenced her to life in prison. She died in her sixties at the Goree State Farm for Women in Huntsville, Texas.

Linda Burfield Hazzard

Linda Burfield Hazzard
The first doctor in the U.S. to earn a medical degree as a “fasting specialist,” Hazzard was so committed to proving her theories about weight loss and health that she starved at least 15 patients to death. In 1912, she was convicted of manslaughter in the case of an Olalla, Washington, woman whose will she forged in order to steal the victim’s possessions. Hazzard served four years of a two- to twenty-year prison sentence before being paroled in late 1915. She died of self-starvation in 1938.


Lyda Southard

Lyda Southard
A serial “black widow,” Lyda Southard married seven men in five states over the course of eight years. Between 1915 and 1920, four of her husbands, a brother-in-law, and Southard’s three-year-old daughter — all recently covered by life insurance policies at Southard’s suggestion — died only months after the nuptials, apparently of ptomaine poisoning, typhoid fever, influenza, or diphtheria. Southard was convicted of second-degree murder in the poisoning death of her first husband, earning her a ten-years-to-life sentence in the Old Idaho State Penitentiary. She escaped with the warden’s assistance in 1931, only to be recaptured and returned to serve another eleven years before receiving parole. After changing her name and divorcing three times, she died of a heart attack in 1958 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Della Sorenson

Between 1918 and 1924, Sorenson killed eight family members to satisfy a twisted desire for revenge. Upon her arrest after an attempt to poison her second husband failed, she told authorities her niece and infant nephew, her first husband, her mother-in-law, two toddlers, and her own two daughters “bothered me, so I killed them.” She poisoned all of the children in the presence of their parents by feeding them cookies and candy laced with poison. A Dannebrog, Nebraska, jury declared the 28-year-old insane and committed her to the state mental asylum. She died there in 1941.

Bertha Gifford

Bertha Gifford and a six-year-old victim.
At the turn of the 20th Century, Gifford was known as an angel of mercy in Catawissa, Missouri. Not until 1928 did authorities discover the nurse's deadly ruse: The twenty to twenty-five sick friends and family members she took into her home and cared for between 1909 and 1928 all died of arsenic poisoning. Gifford was declared insane and committed to the Missouri State Hospital, where she died in 1951.


  1. As always...I love your posts. Thanks for sharing this one...I've done likewise. :)

  2. I didn't realize there were so many bad girls hanging around. Fascinating post, Kathleen.

  3. Good post. Wow, a lot of bad girls back then.

  4. Ah, yes: the fair sex! Thanks for this!

  5. Wow! Watch out for the ladies... Nurse Ratchet move over!

  6. UGH. Kathleen! You have outdone yourself, sister! LOL I had no idea there were so many crazy women out there--especially "back in the day"--But I guess we have no claim to craziness now that we're in modern times--it's always been there. I cannot understand anyone who would kill children, especially their own! Thanks so much for this great post--as always, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  7. Yikes! Fascinatingly horrible! LaLaurie was a main character on American Horror Story this past season. I had no idea she was real. Ghastly!!

  8. Grizzly post, Tex, but I loved it. I think the thing that creeps me out the most is the majority of these women escaped, so it makes me wonder if officials found the same incidents happening where they eventually lived. I mean, that LaLaurie gal was a nutcase supreme. I can't imagine she just settled in Paris and baked eclairs.

  9. Lorrie, LaLaurie's ghost reportedly haunts the grounds of her former mansion. Those who've encountered the apparition say the ghost is no more pleasant than the woman was in life. I think I'll avoid that tour. ;-)

    Tom, D'Ann, Andrea, Nel, and Alisa: Never underestimate the "fairer sex" -- or at least avoid turning your back on some members! :-D

    Ging, thank you so much for sharing, sweetie! HUGS!!!!

    Cheryl, I'm with you! I have trouble understanding how a woman could kill her own children, but these ladies clearly had faulty wiring. (Not that there aren't some little darlings out there who deserve a good attitude adjustment, but when I run across those, it's usually the parents I want to throttle, not the kids.) Thanks for stopping by amid your crazy schedule! :-)

  10. Kirsten, I wonder about that, too. Maybe someone chained LaLaurie to a wall or caged her in the attic of her home in France?

    Gunness perplexes me, as well. The woman's body found in the ashes of her house was intended to make everyone believe Gunness had died in the fire -- but the body wasn't hers. Where did she go, and why did the killing stop? In addition to the children who died in the fire, at least three other children who lived with Gunness died under suspicious circumstances. All of the relatives were insured shortly before their deaths. Suitors and hired hands who died or disappeared after contact with Gunness are believed to have been killed in order to shut them up. She was a piece of work.

    And then there's Southard. Did she reform in prison? For the last sixteen years of her life, she divorced her husbands instead of killing them. (All three of the husbands she divorced were shocked to discover her history, BTW. Invariably, they described her as "a devoted, loving wife.")

  11. Yeah, I can't imagine Gunness just stopped killing, either. And I bet if someone could track her down they'd find a slew of victims.

    I also found Southard interesting that she divorced her last three husbands. What a shock for them to find out her past. I bet there was a fair bit of running the finger under the collar as they contemplated how close they came to a satin lined box.

  12. Interesting post. Scary to know Lizzie B. wasn't the only killerific woman. Interesting how so many were determined to be insane instead of just evil. I suppose the male courts figured women just had to be crazy.

  13. DANG, Kathleen, these were some of the weirdest, meanest,craziest women I've ever heard of. What a nightmare they created. It's one thing to be a murderer, but, sheesh, theses women seemed to take delight in making their victims suffer. Most of all, women who murdered their own children deserve a special place in Hell. Once again, you've written a unique and interesting post.

  14. As it turns out, a mother killing her children isn't that far-fetched. A couple of decades--or less--ago, here in Texas, a wonderful mother and wife methodically killed all five of her children in the house.
    She drowned them in the bathtub. She began with the oldest--I think he was nine, and somehow managed to drown him in the bathtub. You might wonder how she accomplished this, since she was a small, pale woman. But children are trusting, and she did kill him first. That was so he wouldn't try to stop her with the younger ones.
    She didn't try to hide the fact. She said it was God's will...something crazy, and she's in a mental institution today. Her story was once again in the paper just recently.
    Somehow drowning sounds less gross than using a knife or an ax or some other thing.
    And there are others right here in Texas.
    So sad, and all these women you told about...weren't they all sick!
    Once again, you have enthralled us with your stories!!

  15. Marie-Nicole, I think you may be right about male courts, at least in some cases. Several of the female serial killers east of the Mississippi were hanged, but the ladies in the West got off much easier. Odd.

    Sarah, I'm constantly amazed how cruel people in general can be, and it seems when women go to the dark side, they're the worst of the lot. I guess some women suppress rage for so long that when they finally snap, they do a bang-up job of it.

    Celia, I remember that woman! Andrea Yates, right? That was such a bizarre case. I always suspected her husband, Rusty Yates, played a large role in her mental collapse. Speaking of pieces of work, that man was a prime example. He KNEW she was suffering an extreme case of post-partum depression after the birth of her last child, and he told her, essentially, "buck up." And then he divorced her during the trial and married someone else right away. I've always wondered whether he didn't plan things to happen just the way they did. If nothing else, he took no steps to prevent disaster. How he evaded charges is beyond me.

  16. I had heard of some of these women, but you added to the knowledge. Although scary, it shouldn't be surprising... Doris

  17. WOW. Lots of story seeds in here, Kathleen. Great stuff today!

  18. Scary stuff, Kathleen. Scarier still is that it still goes on today.

  19. Wow. Thanks for sharing these interesting stories.

  20. This proves women can be every bit as monstrous as men in extreme cases. Thanks for sharing, Kathleen, and I agree with your assessment of Rusty Yates. From what I recall, he kept Andrea completely under his thumb, just using her as a baby maker. No wonder she broke. It's too bad she didn't kill him instead of her children.

    Hmm, I guess that sounded kind of blood thirsty. Good thing I take my vengeful urges out on fictional characters. :)

  21. Doris: Surprising? Maybe not. Scary? Definitely! According to period reports, these women seemed as normal as anyone else -- but they weren't. Scary and sad.

    Tanya, I had the same thought. Can you imagine getting inside the head of a character based on any of these women? Now that would be a challenge!

    Caroline, that's the really sad thing. As much as we know about mental illness these days, we still can't predict or prevent these kinds of events. :-(

    Anna Kathryn, you're most welcome! :-)

    Lyn, I remember being incredibly angry about the Yates debacle, mostly because Rusty Yates took such apparent glee in testosterone-fueled rants about the value of women as nothing more than brood mares. I don't recall him expressing any kind of grief over the loss of his children -- just high-handed condemnation of Andres's "weakness." He never received so much as a slap on the wrist, and I never did figure out why he wasn't at least looked at as a contributing factor. Everything time he opened his mouth in public, what came out sounded chillingly misogynistic and sociopathic.

    Hm. Maybe it's a good thing both of us can take out our vengeful urges on fictional characters! :-D HUGS!!!!

  22. Well, this is what hurrying to type a response will do for you. Y'all please read around the abundant typos in the preceding comment. **looking sheepish**

  23. I've been reading about serial killers. I find it ironic that rape is really about exerting power and, for men, serial killing is usually about sex. In both cases, the perpetrators are compensating for some form of impotence. Maybe that is also the case for women.

    Historically, women are often in a position of impotence -- especially in the 18th and 19th centuries. An unmarried woman is the property of her father. A married woman is the property of her husband. If she lives long enough, she might have daughters-in-law to order about, but until then, she will (potentially of course) be at the beck and call of husband, mother-in-law (or if she's a spinster, mother and father), as well as caring for children, household and environs.

    All responsibility and no control make Jane a crazy woman.

    I was also thinking of the woman who escaped to France. She might have found victims there too but got better at hiding them. Les miserable might have been even more miserable when she arrived in Paris.

  24. Ellen Etheridge was my paternal great aunt. She did not die in prison. She was released and lived the rest of her life in Oregon with her sister (my grandmother)

    1. Whoa. Really? I'm glad you said something! I hope she found peace. Just imagine the moment when she realized her marriage was a sham. That must have been awful. I'm sure it broke something inside her. :-(


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