Female serial killers may be relatively rare, but they do exist – and these four were every bit as savage, cruel and ruthless as their male counterparts.
Shooting to death a string of men in Florida between 1989 and 1990 didn’t merely make Aileen Wuornos notorious. She became darkly mythologised, described in some quarters as a 'cult hero' and 'feminism’s first serial killer'. Pop songs, artworks and even an opera have all helped enshrine her as an avenging angel of furious female defiance in the face of patriarchal male violence.
It’s certainly true that Wuornos was brutalised throughout her life. The daughter of a schizophrenic, convicted sex offender father, the young Wuornos was sexually abused by her grandfather and his friend, and eventually thrown out of the family home as a teenager. She was forced to scrape together a living through sex work, was arrested for numerous crimes including armed robbery, and eventually killed her first victim in 1989. This initial murder was allegedly done in self defence when he assaulted her, but it paved the way for a series of killings she carried out with ruthless aplomb. As her biographer Sue Russell put it, 'she gunned down complete strangers, shooting them multiple times, sometimes in the back as they tried to flee. Her victims fought for their lives as desperately as any female murder victim.'
Scoring highly on the Psychopathy Checklist, Wuornos herself admitted that she was a stone-cold killer. 'I have hate crawling through my system… I’m one who seriously hates human life and would kill again.' Her troubled, tragic, lethal life ended with her execution in 2002.
Described at her trial as a 'selfish and manipulative serial killer', Joanna Dennehy shocked the nation with her sudden, unfathomable killing spree which left three men dead and two others wounded. A mother of two, Dennehy had long been a volatile and volcanic personality, known to neighbours for attacking her partner in the street and going on booze and drug binges. 'Jo had a reputation for being a drunk and a fighter and would cause trouble in the town centre,' an acquaintance later said.
Eventually estranged from her family, the deranged Dennehy began her rampage in March 2013, luring a friend called Lukasz Slaboszewski to a house in Peterborough where she stabbed him to death. She would later kill the landlord of that house, Kevin Lee, as well as her housemate John Chapman. After dispatching her third victim, Dennehy called a friend/accomplice, Gary Stretch, to sing the lyrics of the Britney Spears song, 'Oops, I did it again'.
Stretch, who had somehow fallen under Dennehy’s spell, enabled her to continue her bloodthirsty quest by driving her to Hereford, where she randomly got out the car to stab two dog walkers – complete strangers who had the bad luck to capture her attention. Both men survived, and one of them gave a chilling insight into Dennehy’s mental state. 'She didn't seem to be enjoying herself. She just seemed like she was going about business.'
Dennehy was given a whole life sentence, meaning she will die behind bars. Gary Stretch was jailed for life with a minimum of 19 years for attempted murder.
It was back in 2008 that Mexico City came to terms with a horrifying reality: that the prolific murderer of dozens of elderly women – a spectral figure who had been dubbed Mataviejitas or 'The Old Lady Killer' in the press – was a woman herself. Sentenced to 759 years in prison, Juana Barraza had actually been apprehended a few years earlier, after she’d been spotted leaving the home of her last victim – a pensioner named Ana Maria de los Reyes whom Barraza had throttled with a stethoscope.
The killings had been taking place for years, elderly women being found strangled with scarves, stockings and wires. Though eyewitnesses had reported seeing a woman hanging around the crime scenes before the bodies were found, police simply assumed the killer was a man wearing women’s clothing as a clever disguise.
In fact, Barraza was a strong, strapping woman who’d made her name as a masked wrestler called The Lady of Silence. During her trial, it transpired that she’d had a rough upbringing, raised by an alcoholic mother who had pimped her to men when she was still a child. It was later theorised that Barraza’s savage animosity towards old ladies stemmed from an in-built rage towards her own mother. Whatever her true motivations, Barraza’s crimes have made her one of the most enigmatic and disturbing serial killers of all time.
Italian serial killer Leonarda Cianciulli has fallen into obscurity, yet the facts of her case are almost flamboyantly gruesome. Born in 1893, she was troubled from an early age – she twice tried to commit suicide, served time for fraud in the 1920s, and had 17 pregnancies, with most of her children dying young. She eventually settled in the town of Correggio where she opened a shop. Outwardly entirely normal, she was apparently disturbed to the point of mania by the deaths of so many of her children.
By 1939, she came to believe human sacrifice was necessary to protect the life of her eldest son, who had joined the army. Her first victim was a local woman, Faustina Setti, whom she drugged before killing with an axe. She then cut the corpse up and dissolved most of the flesh in industrial amounts of caustic soda, keeping the blood to use as an ingredient in 'crunchy tea cakes' which she served to friends and neighbours.
Her second victim, Francesca Soavi, was killed and disposed of in an identical fashion, while the flesh of third victim Virginia Cacioppo was melted down with a bottle of cologne to make what Cianciulli described as 'some most acceptable creamy soap' which she graciously gifted to friends. 'The cakes, too, were better,' Cianciulli mused. 'That woman was really sweet.'
The police eventually twigged what was happening, and Cianciulli was locked away in an asylum, where she would eventually die from natural causes in 1970.