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Inspired by author Tori Telfer’s Jezebel column “Lady Killers,” this thrilling and entertaining compendium investigates female serial killers and their crimes through the ages.
When you think of serial killers throughout history, the names that come to mind are ones like Jack the Ripper, John Wayne Gacy, and Ted Bundy. But what about Tillie Klimek, Moulay Hassan, Kate Bender? The narrative we’re comfortable with is the one where women are the victims of violent crime, not the perpetrators. In fact, serial killers are thought to be so universally, overwhelmingly male that in 1998, FBI profiler Roy Hazelwood infamously declared in a homicide conference, “There are no female serial killers.”
Lady Killers, based on the popular online series that appeared on Jezebel and The Hairpin, disputes that claim and offers fourteen gruesome examples as evidence. Though largely forgotten by history, female serial killers such as Erzsébet Báthory, Nannie Doss, Mary Ann Cotton, and Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova rival their male counterparts in cunning, cruelty, and appetite for destruction.
Each chapter explores the crimes and history of a different subject, and then proceeds to unpack her legacy and her portrayal in the media, as well as the stereotypes and sexist clichés that inevitably surround her. The first book to examine female serial killers through a feminist lens with a witty and dryly humorous tone, Lady Killers dismisses easy explanations (she was hormonal, she did it for love, a man made her do it) and tired tropes (she was a femme fatale, a black widow, a witch), delving into the complex reality of female aggression and predation. Featuring 14 illustrations from Dame Darcy, Lady Killers is a bloodcurdling, insightful, and irresistible journey into the heart of darkness.
"This hatred of what is human; still more, of what is animal; still more, of what is material; this horror of the senses, of reason itself; this fear of happiness and beauty; this longing away from all appearance, change, becoming, death, desire, longing itself—all this implies (let us dare to comprehend it!) a will to the Nothing, a horror of life, an insurrection against the most fundamental presuppositions of life; nevertheless, it is and remains a will!"
—NIETZSCHE, A Genealogy of Morals
"Let no one think me a weak one."
The Elusive Population
When we think about serial killers, we think about men. Well, "man," actually—some vicious, twisted sociopath, working alone. He probably has a dreadful nickname, given to him by the media with loving precision: the Ripper, the Vampire Rapist, the Son of Sam, the Shadow Killer, the Berlin Butcher. His nickname is his brand, a nightmare name for a nightmare man whose victims are, more often than not, innocent women.
It's true: men spill most of the blood in history books. And serial killers, specifically, are overwhelmingly male. During the past hundred years, less than 10 percent of serial murderers were women—or so we think. (The records are far from immaculate. In 2007, an exhaustively researched book listed 140 known female serial killers. A blog for the men's rights movement lists almost 1,000. We do know that the number, whatever it is, has increased in the US since the 1970s.) Society tends to sink into "collective amnesia" about female violence, so much so that when Aileen Wuornos was charged with seven violent murders in 1992, the press pronounced her "America's first female serial killer" and continued to do so for decades following.
Aileen wasn't America's first female serial killer—not by a long shot. But female serial killers are master masqueraders: they walk among us looking for all the world like our wives, mothers, and grandmothers. Even after they've been apprehended and punished, most of them eventually sink back into the mists of history in a way that male killers do not. Historians are still wondering who Jack the Ripper was, but almost never concern themselves with his creepy countrywoman, Mary Ann Cotton, who claimed three or four times as many victims, most of them children.
It's not that society doesn't recognize the existence of evil in women, because women have been portrayed as conniving and malevolent and the bringers of the apocalypse since Eve ate the apple. But we seem to prefer evil women ensconced in our fiction. They might lead men onto the rocks (the Sirens), frame them for murder (Gone Girl), or suck out their breath in a poem ("La Belle Dame sans Merci"); it's when they enter real life and start slaying real people that our imaginations balk. We can't imagine that they did it, you know, on purpose. Typically, women are seen as solely capable of reactive homicide—murder done in self-defense, a burst of passion, an imbalance of hormones, a wave of hysteria—and not instrumental homicide, which can be plotted, calculated, and performed in cold blood.
Thus the infamous 1998 quote from Roy Hazelwood of the FBI: "There are no female serial killers."
What happens when people are confronted with a female serial killer? When ideas of the "weaker sex" break down and we're staring into the unnerving eyes of a woman with dried blood under her fingernails? First, we'll probably check to see if she's hot or not. (A 2015 study took pains to determine which of the sixty-four female serial killers they profiled were of "above-average attractiveness.") This helps their crimes go down easier—a spoonful of sugar, etc. Today, we remember the killer Erzsébet Báthory as a sexy vampire who bathed in virgin blood, which isn't at all true, but it makes her less human, more myth—and in turn excuses us from asking uncomfortable questions like: if men are supposed to be the aggressors, why do Erzsébets exist? In general, people take pains to link female serial killers to lust at every possible turn, even if their crimes have nothing to do with it. A clickbaity 1890 essay titled "Truth About Female Criminals" lays it out well, caps lock and all: "Native or foreign, young or old, handsome or hideous, she plants herself confidently upon the vantage-ground of SEX."
If the woman in question isn't hot? Burn her at the stake! And give her a silly nickname while you're at it, like Giggling Grandma, Hell's Belle, or Arsenic Annie. In 2015, an elderly Russian woman was caught on camera carrying a pot alleged to contain the head of her best friend, and the media promptly christened her Grannyball Lecter. These are not names calculated to keep us up at night; they're punch lines to the great overarching joke that is female aggression. (There goes Arsenic Annie. She's never fully dressed without a restraining order!)
Like nicknames, archetypes can be useful organizational tools, but they, too, often end up suppressing more nuanced ideas of evil and darkness in femininity. For example, the image of woman as nurturer is lovely, conjuring up shades of Mother Earth herself, but Mother Earth is also a merciless destroyer whose wrath obliterates guilty and innocent alike. That side of her, however, is rarely invoked when talking about women. Or what about the archetype of the mannish, violent female? That one really confuses the critics. Due to the "myth of female passivity," a woman who doesn't internalize her anger is often seen not just as masculine but as, almost literally, a man. It's seemingly the only way to understand her. When seventeenth-century Paris was suffering from a spate of female poisoners, one journalist mused, "One must not suppose them like others, and they are sooner compared to the most evil men."
Listen, I do understand that it's easier to swallow serial killing when it's diminished by a nickname or sweetened by sex or organized by archetype. People have endless tricks up their sleeves for softening the violence of the female: dehumanizing female serial killers by comparing them to monsters, vampires, witches, and animals; eroticizing them until they feel safe (Bad Girls Do It!: An Encyclopedia of Female Murderers, "Hot Female Murderers That You'd Probably Go Home With"); even shrieking the tired Kipling quote, "The female of the species is deadlier than the male!" and then walking away, satisfied that the situation has been sufficiently analyzed. I get it. Murder is scary; who wants to claim it? Who wants to understand it? But at the end of the day, I believe there's something to be gained from acknowledging female aggression, even when it's sick and twisted. Otherwise, we're living in denial. And just for the record, this denial is exactly why so many charming grandmothers managed to kill for decades without being suspected of a thing.
If there's one word I would use to describe the women in this book (other than "yikes"), it would be "hustle." Time and again I found myself gasping in grudging admiration at the number of jobs these ladies worked, the number of husbands they conned, the number of times they fooled the authorities. I disagree with their stoic and deranged belief that the best way to rid themselves of their problems and to move forward in the world was to murder. But I acknowledge their sick drive to improve their circumstances. (This is not really applicable to the ultrarich killers, like Erzsébet, who were basically just flailing about in the darkness, choking on their own power.) Nietzsche touched on this drive back in 1887, when he wrote, "Man will desire oblivion rather than not desire at all."
We could ask ourselves, "Why do women kill?" But I think we might as well ask, "Why does anyone kill?" And that's a subject for a longer and more sobering book than this one. People kill for all sorts of reasons: anger, greed, malignant narcissism, petty irritation. Murder is such a horrible conundrum, because it's so unnatural (snuffing out a human life—it's like playing God), and yet it's still so predictable. From the beginning of time, we've been sleeping, eating, having sex, and murdering each other (sometimes in that order, female praying mantises!). It's Humanity 101. You'll see a lot of pearl clutching in the historical records presented in this book, and I find that kind of amusing. Oh, we're surprised that people are "still" killing each other? We're shocked that women, too, are both the inheritors and the performers of all this horror?
In the introduction to War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy brings up the case of Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova, a Russian serial killer from the 1700s who appears in this book. "On studying letters, diaries, and traditions [of Darya's time], I did not find the horrors of such savagery to a greater extent than I find them now, or at any other period," he writes. "In those days also people loved, envied, sought truth and virtue, and were carried away by passion."
While every woman in this book was molded by her era, it's a fallacy to think their crimes, "the horrors of such savagery," happened in some primordial sociocultural soup that we, in our flawless present, have evolved out of. Sure, one day I fully expect we'll live in a utopian pod culture where all the stories of our past transgressions as a human race will be gloriously burned down, like the library of Alexandria, and we'll brainwash ourselves into believing in our own perfection. But until then, we have to face the facts: there are, indeed, female serial killers.
These lady killers were clever, bad tempered, conniving, seductive, reckless, self-serving, delusional, and willing to do whatever it took to claw their way into what they saw as a better life. They were ruthless and inflexible. They were lost and confused. They were psychopaths and child slayers. But they were not wolves. They were not vampires. They were not men. Time and again, the record shows: they were horrifyingly, quintessentially, inescapably human.
THE BLOOD COUNTESS
There's something so seductive about the word "murderess." It's mostly that serpentine double s at the end that gives the term its poisonous charm. And then there are the stories: Lilith, Lady Macbeth, Medusa, Medea. We can't get enough of them. They make great literary antagonists, but it's even more electrifying—for the morbidly curious, at least—when they turn out to be real.
One of the earliest female serial killers in history was the type of girl to really put the double s into murderess—a woman who has been memorialized, sexualized, and vampirized since records of her trial were discovered in the 1720s. She was the grande dame of serial killers; the OG female sadomasochist; the woman who inspired not one, not two, but eight black metal band names; the dreadful Hungarian countess herself: Erzsébet Báthory.
Today, Erzsébet is a symbol of the demented, sadistic decadence of the aristocracy—or else she's an example of just how dangerous it is to be a powerful woman, depending on which academic paper you're reading. We don't quite have everything we need to charge her with her crimes. There are rumors of an incriminating diary lost somewhere in Hungary, and there are scholars who want to clear her name. With so many vanished centuries between her life and ours, we may never get definitive, forensic proof of her guilt.
And yet she certainly seemed to find herself around a lot of blood.
A Girl and Her Castle
Erzsébet Báthory was given the trappings of an enviable life. She was born on August 7, 1560, into one of the most powerful clans in Central Europe, and she had the ridiculous wealth and impeccable scholastic pedigree to prove it. Her Protestant parents spared no expense when it came to giving their precocious daughter a classical education. She spoke not only Hungarian and Slovak—the language many of her servants would have spoken—but Greek, Latin, and German, too.
But all was not well in the world of little Erzsébet. Rumors abound that she suffered from terrible epileptic seizures as a child. Also, her parents happened to be cousins. Like many formidable clans back then, the Báthory family had a penchant for inbreeding, which, historically, has led to more than one noble with a weak constitution and a propensity toward madness.
Legend has it that Erzsébet witnessed some terrible things during her childhood, like the ghastly sight of a man getting sewn into the stomach of a horse. His crime? Theft. As the story goes, little Erzsébet cackled at the sight of the peasant's head sticking out of the horse's body. Many of the folkloric anecdotes about her childhood are attempts to explain her later crimes, but regardless of the particulars, Erzsébet probably did see a good deal of violence as a child. In those days, it was more than acceptable to beat your servants—according to Hungarian law, peasants were the "property" of the nobles—and it's also likely that Erzsébet would have attended the occasional public execution.
Now, she wasn't just smart and freakishly unbothered by violence. Erzsébet was also really, really pretty. A portrait from 1585 depicts a haunted, delicate beauty with a high white forehead—women of the time plucked their hairline so as to look more aristocratic, a la Queen Elizabeth I—staring out of the frame with huge, mournful eyes.
When she was ten, Erzsébet became engaged to fifteen-year-old Count Ferenc Nádasdy, the son of another powerful Hungarian family. As was common back then, Erzsébet moved to the Nádasdy palace during the engagement and began learning to run her in-laws' massive estates. Rumor says she had an affair with a peasant boy during this time, became pregnant, and was forced to give the child away in a very hush-hush manner, while her fiancé castrated the unfortunate lad and threw him to a pack of wild dogs. Whether or not this is true, Erzsébet would eventually develop a reputation as a woman with a ravenous libido, and young Nádasdy would soon become famous for his mad and creative violence.
Erzsébet, at fourteen, married her intense fiancé on May 8, 1574, in front of forty-five hundred guests. The lavish celebration raged on for three days, and Nádasdy topped off the event by giving his bride the craggiest, loneliest castle in Hungary, called Castle Csejthe, as a home of her own. It was done up in the Gothic architectural style and perched on top of a foreboding hill. Nádasdy had no idea of the crimes Erzsébet would later commit in Csejthe's dark, isolated halls.
The Nádasdy-Báthorys were now an incredibly wealthy couple with plenty of social cachet, but they barely saw each other. It took ten years for them to have their first child, which was unusual for married couples at the time. If Erzsébet were infertile, that would have been considered an acceptable reason for Nádasdy to divorce her. But it wasn't biology that kept them childless for so long. It was battle. Three years into their marriage, Nádasdy left for the Hungarian border to fight off the Ottomans, while Erzsébet moved between their many castles to oversee their lands and keep their numerous household accounts in order. Her letters to him are polite and respectful, with only the occasional flash of the strong-willed personality she was keeping at bay, like when she reprimanded him for waltzing off to Transylvania without informing her.
The Ottomans invaded in a more serious way in 1591—the start of what has been called the Long War—and Nádasdy went off again to a fiercer and bloodier conflict. The man loved war. He was great at war. This time around, he earned the nickname Black Knight of Hungary because of his reputation for ever-more-inhuman cruelty. He made sure to learn all the best Turkish punishments from his enemies before he killed them, and if he was feeling sporty, he might even play catch with their severed heads. Then he'd return to his wife, riding high off the bloodlust, the screams of his enemies still ricocheting deep inside his brain.
The Long War was draining Hungary's wealth so steadily that the ruling Hapsburg family found themselves short on cash, but Erzsébet never felt the pinch of wartime because Nádasdy was sending her a steady stream of Ottoman treasures. The Nádasdy-Báthorys grew so rich, in fact, that they ended up loaning money to the Hapsburgs so Hungary could continue to fight. Now the king himself was in their debt. The two of them must have felt invincible.
While Erzsébet and Nádasdy didn't see much of each other in those days, they carved out time to bond over a very specific mutual interest: torturing young servant girls.
Nádasdy, of course, was more than familiar with violence. You don't get to be the Black Knight of Hungary without skewering a few enemies on your way to the top! And Erzsébet already had her fair share of experience with punishment, given that she was in charge of hundreds of peasants on a daily basis. The couple witnessed and even encouraged cruelty in each other, resulting in a long-distance relationship characterized by bloody reciprocity: a little less "staring longingly at the same moon" and a little more "stabbing people at the same time."
Nádasdy taught his bride how to roll up a piece of oiled paper, place it between the toes of a disobedient servant, and then set the paper on fire—a fun game he called star kicking. He also reportedly bought Erzsébet a sort of clawed glove that she used to slash her servants' flesh. Once, he allegedly covered a young girl with honey and forced her to stand outside so she would be incessantly stung by insects. In short, the Black Knight was a fount of inspiration for an impressionable young sociopath like Erzsébet.
Nádasdy wasn't Erzsébet's only sparring partner, either. In 1601, a mysterious woman named Anna Darvolya joined their household as Erzsébet's companion. Locals described her as a "wild beast in female form," and she was rumored to be a witch. Once she arrived at the castle, Erzsébet's personality started to change. "The Lady became more cruel," her servants said. If Nádasdy taught Erzsébet to torture, Darvolya taught Erzsébet to kill.
"No Butcher Under Heaven Was More Cruel"
Now and then, servant girls died at the Nádasdy-Báthory household, but it was nothing worth raising a royal eyebrow over. In the eyes of the ruling classes, these young peasants were utterly disposable. After an antifeudalist uprising was squelched in 1514, a new Hungarian legal code called the Tripartitum reduced the rights of peasants and serfs to almost nothing, while protecting the nobles who abused them.
Erzsébet wasn't just sheltered by the law; she was above the law. By this point, the king of Hungary had been forced to borrow money from the Báthory-Nádasdys so many times that Erzsébet was basically untouchable. (At the time of Nádasdy's death, the king owed him almost eighteen thousand gulden, a practically unpayable debt.) Tucked away in her craggy castle on a hill, Erzsébet could do whatever she wanted.
This isn't to say nobody noticed anything unpleasant happening to Erzsébet's servants. Local pastors grew suspicious when Erzsébet kept asking them to perform funeral rites for servant girls who'd died of "cholera" or "unknown and mysterious causes." At one point, she asked them to bless an oversize coffin, but the pastors balked when they heard a rumor that it contained three dead bodies. The speculations grew so outrageous that one of the pastors dared to pull Countess Báthory aside after a sermon and call her a murderer to her face. "Your Grace should not have so acted because it offends the Lord, and we will be punished if we do not complain to and criticize Your Grace," he said. "And in order to confirm that my words are true, we need only exhume the body [of the latest dead girl], and you will find that the marks identify the way in which death occurred."
The countess hissed that she had relatives who wouldn't tolerate these shameful accusations, and the pastor responded, "If Your Grace has relatives, then I also have a relative: the Lord God. . . . Let us dig up the bodies, and then we will see what you have done." Erzsébet stormed out of the church, and eventually Nádasdy managed to appease the pastor. But Nádasdy couldn't cover for Erzsébet forever.
The Black Knight died of illness in 1604, when Erzsébet was forty-four years old. Again, servants noticed a change in her. She was growing more and more violent, insatiably so. Maybe it was stress: she was now managing extensive properties without the quick income from the spoils of the Long War. Maybe she was recoiling in horror at the aging process: legend has it she was incredibly vain. Or maybe some sort of latent psychosis, from that infamous Báthory inbreeding, began to rear its head. Either way, what had started as a shared hobby with Nádasdy and Darvolya quickly turned into a full-blown obsession, and Erzsébet became fanatical about torturing and killing young girls. She reaped them from the towns surrounding her various castles—nubile peasant children with strong, expendable bodies—and when she was finished with them, she flung them back over the castle walls to be eaten by wolves.
As before, Erzsébet didn't work alone. Along with Anna Darvolya, she gathered a gruesome torture squad: her children's nurse, Ilona Jó; an old friend of Ilona Jó's, who went by Dorka; a washerwoman named Katalin; and a disfigured young boy known as Ficzkó. Darvolya, Dorka, and Ilona Jó were the cruelest of the bunch and took pride in their macabre creativity. Ficzkó helped, but he was awfully young. Katalin was the most softhearted; she'd try to sneak food to the broken-down girls, and once she herself was beaten when she refused to participate in the torture.
It usually started with a servant girl's mistake. Maybe the girl would miss a stitch, causing the countess to turn on her with a snarl. Erzsébet would begin by slapping, kicking, or punching the servant, but eventually she'd dig deeper, producing some imaginative punishment to satisfy her craving for blood. Those who made sewing mistakes were tortured with needles, while a girl who stole a coin was branded with that same coin. Erzsébet played mind games, pricking the girls' fingers with pins and saying:, "If it hurts the whore, then she can pull it out." Then, when the girls pulled out the pins, Erzsébet would cut off their fingers. She'd often strip her servants naked before she beat them, and once bit a chunk out of a girl's face when she herself was too sick to get out of bed.
If the torture stopped there, it was a pretty good day for the servant girls, but Erzsébet was rarely satisfied with pinpricks and severed fingers. No matter which castle the countess was staying at, she had a specific torture chamber to play around in, and the brutalities that occurred in them were absolutely appalling. The torture squad would burn the girls with irons or beat them "until their bodies burst." Once, Erzsébet put her fingers inside a girl's mouth and tore her face apart. There were also reports of pincers used to rip out the girls' flesh, and rumors of forced cannibalism. "What outrageous cruelty! No butcher under heaven was, in my opinion, more cruel," wrote the horrified Csejthe pastor to a friend after learning what happened deep inside Erzsébet's dungeons. Some members of the torture squad had specialties: Dorka liked to cut the girls' fingers with shears. Darvolya liked to give them five hundred lashes. And Erzsébet liked it all.
"Anywhere she went," confessed Ilona Jó, "she looked immediately for a place where [we] could torture the girls." A townsman heard from several servant girls that "their mistress could neither eat nor drink if she had not previously seen one of the virgins from amongst her maids killed in a bloody way." Without death, it seemed, Erzsébet felt incomplete.
Let's stop here for a moment. Is this all seeming a little too gory to be true? A beautiful countess ripping apart young faces? Murdering virgins? Feeding their flesh to each other? After a certain point, the cataloguing of Erzsébet's crimes begins to feel farcical. Thanks to the graphic nature of the trial transcripts, the Báthory legend ballooned to ludicrous proportions in the centuries after Erzsébet's death, and many of the rumors that sprang up involved a potent mix of sex, narcissism, and blood.
One of the most enduring rumors claims that the countess bathed in the fresh blood of her victims to preserve her beauty forever and ever. The story goes like this: When a servant girl ruined some aspect of Erzsébet's toilette, Erzsébet slapped the girl so hard that peasant blood spattered across her noble face. After washing off the blood, Erzsébet noticed that her skin looked younger than it had before—perfectly smooth, with that elusive, almost translucent quality she thought she'd never achieve again. She thus became maniacal about soaking in tubs of virginal blood during top-secret 4:00 a.m. baths.
Unfortunately for the vampire obsessives among us, this is almost certainly not true. None of the servants who testified against Erzsébet mention anything about the countess bathing in blood. In fact, what they do mention is that so much blood was spilled during torture sessions that you could scoop it off the floor, meaning Erzsébet didn't seem too concerned with saving—much less bathing in—the precious blood that poured from her victims. It turns out the first mention of her blood baths appeared over a century after her death, in a 1729 book called Tragica Historia that was written by a Jesuit scholar after he discovered the Báthory trial transcripts.
- On Sale
- Oct 10, 2017
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Hachette Book Group