When you think of serial killers throughout history, the names that come to mind are ones like Jack the Ripper 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 Erzsebet Bathory, 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 cliches 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.
Before reading this book I could name maybe half a dozen famous female serial killers from Britain and North America off the top of my head, after reading it I can now add a few from North Africa and Easter Europe. There must be more I haven’t heard of.
Although the book is subtitled ‘throughout history’, the majority are from the 19th and 20th centuries, with a few from the early modern/late medieval periods, and almost all are European and North American, because not enough records exist of the phenomena to accurately document earlier, or African, Asian or Australian (presumably – although I bet one or two of the few thousand convict women sent to Aus were serial killer who never got caught) women serial killers.
The writing is engaging, and entertaining without glamourising or sensationalising the crimes or criminals, and the illustrations are fantastic. Like many books on the subject of serial killers it is very ‘Western’ focused. The author tries to explore the cultural and psychological reasons behind the women’s murders, although I felt this was an area that she could have gone into more depth in; Tori isn’t a psychologist though so it’s probably out of her area of specialism.
I found out about this book from Tori Telfer’s podcast, ‘Criminal Broads’, which I recommend, if you’re into true crime and serial killers. Be warned, the music on the first dozen episodes is horrendously high-pitched and unpleasant if you have sensory issues like I do.