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|
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.)
Mary Jane JacksonA 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.
Ellen EtheridgeDuring 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|
Della SorensonBetween 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 and a six-year-old victim.|