There are far fewer women than men known to be prolific serial killers. That could be because male serial killers are startlingly more common… or alternatively, because female serial killers are much better at not getting caught. And there are less Netflix true crime documentaries about them.
They say poison is a woman’s weapon and some of these female serial killers certainly fit the bill with their chosen methods of murder.
7. Jane Toppan: The Murderous Nurse
Jane Toppan, aka Jolly Jane, was a female American serial killer from late 1800s Massachusetts.
Born in 1854, Jane became one of America’s most murderous nurses, fulfilling her fetishized desire to kill using drugs or poison. That’s right, Jane Toppan killed because she was driven by lustful desires. Reportedly she would get into bed with her victims and cradle them as they died. In other words, Jolly Jane Toppan got her jollies off to murder.
Toppan systematically targeted wealthy families, slowly killing their members while maintaining their trust. The murderous nurse even killed her own foster sister in 1899 and in a desperate attempt to win over her now-widowed husband, Ormael Bigham, poisoned and murdered the housekeeper in a bid to convince him he needed her. When this failed to work, she also poisoned Bigham and nursed him back to health. Luckily, Bigham didn’t fall for Toppan’s charms, instead casting her out of his home.
From there she continued her killing sprees, her number of victims ranging somewhere between 31 and 100 people.
Jane Toppan’s arrest and trial: confessions and insanity
Slowly, justice was catching up with Jolly Jane Toppan. After she killed the entire family of Alden Davis, who were generally in pretty good health, suspicion toward Jane grew. They exhumed the body of one of the daughters and found she died of morphine and atropine poisoning.
In 1901 authorities arrested Jane Toppan who then confessed to the murders at trial in 1902. Found not guilty by reason of insanity, she was committed to a hospital for treatment of her mental illness. She stayed there until her death in 1938. As one the most prolific women serial killers in history, Jane Toppan simply “had a lot of fun seeing people die.”
6. Belle Gunness & La Porte Murder Farm
Belle Gunness’ crimes were only revealed after her death, making her one of the most successful female serial killers in history.
Norwegian Belle Gunness emigrated to the United States sometime after 1881, when she was a young woman of around 22. She soon became completely obsessed with the idea of making as much money as possible… even if it meant murder.
3 years later, Belle Gunness married Mads Sorenson and they opened a business together, that didn’t perform as desired. Mysteriously within a year, the place burned to the ground and they received an insurance payout. Even more strangely, just 2 years later Gunness and Sorenson’s newly purchased house also burnt down… and once again they received an insurance payout.
Maybe Belle Gunness was just unlucky, but there are only so many fires that can follow someone before things start to look a bit suspicious. So, when she started to look for another way to add to her fortune, she needed to come up with a new method.
Gunness quickly realized another way to receive insurance payouts – the death of a loved one with a life insurance policy. Tragically her two young children were her first known victims. At the time the children were identified as dying of acute colitis, an illness with symptoms startlingly close to poisoning.
In what is either the world’s biggest coincidence or a serial killer’s next move, her husband died two years later, on the exact and only day two life insurances overlapped. Simply, Belle Gunness was either the unluckiest woman it the world… or a killer hiding in plain sight.
The La Porte murder farm
From there, in 1900, Gunness bought a farm on the outskirts of La Porte. A farm that later earned the lovely nickname “La Porte Murder Farm.” On April 1st 1902 she married Peter Gunness, thereby earning her official female serial killer name ‘Belle Gunness’.
Peter’s infant daughter survived exactly one week with Belle. Peter himself died less than a year after their marriage; allegedly from a sausage grinder falling on his head. Once again, Belle Gunness collected the life insurance.
At this point, you’d think someone would realize how the Grim Reaper seemed to follow Gunness around like her own personal PA.
After Peter’s death, Belle started to place Lonely Hearts papers in ads. Apparently, she had many interested admirers visit her farm, but strangely enough… no one ever saw them leave.
In 1906, Gunness’ young ward also died mysteriously, the latest in a long line of people who disappeared under Belle Gunness’ watchful eyes.
What happened to Belle Gunness?
Two years later in 1908, La Porte Murder Farm burned to the ground, with bodies found inside believed to be Belle and her surviving children. However, Belle Gunness was approximately 5”9 and it was later discovered the body found in the fire was only 5”3.
Whether Belle Gunness survived has never been answered definitively. Her handyman gave a deathbed confession that he helped Belle escape and sightings of her were reported for the next 20 years. Despite leaving a trail of bodies in her wake, her own fate is still unknown.
5. Guilia Tofana: Italy’s Notorious Female Poisoner
One of the most famous cases of killing via poison, was the use of Aqua Tofana in 17th century Italy by the Tofana family.
Largely working in and around Naples, Giulia Tofana and her daughter Giorlama Spera helped women free themselves from abusive or undesirable spouses. A noble goal until you realize the way they did so was by poisoning the individual.
Whether Giulia Tofana created Aqua Tofana poison herself is unclear. Some historical sources suggest it can be traced back further to trials in Sicily in 1632 and 1633; where a woman, Francesca la Sarda and a man, Teofania di Adamo were executed for its use. However, it is also extremely likely that Guilia Tofana was in fact Teofania’s daughter, and carried on its use in his stead.
What is Aqua Tofana?
A clear and odorless poison, Aqua Tofana was easily slipped into food and drink. Once administered, it was virtually undetectable but led to a slow and agonizing death.
Like every good businesswoman, Giulia Tofana saw how to take advantage of the Aqua Tofana poison, selling it to women across Italy. But the records regarding the exact extent of Giulia Tofana’s crimes are vague. While it appears she didn’t personally administer the poison, her actions undoubtedly place her among history’s most notorious female serial murderers.
In 1659, Giulia Tofana and her daughter were arrested and executed for their suspected connection to the Aqua Tofana poison. The poison itself had become so legendary, however, that their exploits live on to this day.
4. Catherine Monvoisin & The Affair of the Poisons
Catherine Monvoisin, most commonly known as La Voisin, which literally translates to “The Poisoner”, was France’s famous commissioned poisoner and, by extension, one of history’s fully sanctioned female serial killers.
A central figure in the famous 17th-century Affair of the Poisons, La Voisin’s primary career was actually as a prominent fortune teller. As she developed her enigmatic image, La Voisin quickly established a network of fortune tellers throughout France while also serving as a clandestine abortionist for the French elite and nobility.
La Voisin’s mystic practices quickly gained her a reputation among the French elite, leading her to delve further into witchcraft. As she became more famous and wealthier, Monvoisin began to peddle spells, love potions, and aphrodisiacs… the lustful beginnings that would turn her from witch to notorious female serial killer.
It’s just one step from potion to poison.
Soon she was more well known, albeit secretly, for her poisoning prowess. La Voisin developed a new network, this time of professional poisoners across Early Modern France. They catered to a wide range of clientele from the most royal of Nobles downward. La Voisin also reportedly took part herself, killing anyone from infants to nobles.
What was the Affair of the Poisons?
The Affair of the Poisons was arguably one of the biggest serial murder scandals in French history, and sat directly in the middle of it all was Catherine Monvoisin.
After another imprisoned poisoner, Marie Bosse incriminated her, they arrested La Voisin in 1699. It transpired one of La Voisin’s most famous victims in the Affair of the Poisons was none other than King Louis XIV. Of course, King Louis luckily survived (it certainly would have changed history if he died). But the arrest of the woman who sold his mistress love potions soon started the King down a path where all fingers pointed to Catherine Monvoisin as the poisoning mastermind.
The downfall and execution of Le Voisin
Her crimes were extensive. During her illustrious career, she took the life of an estimated 1,500 infants and countless nobles and elites across France. More and more of her associates and other poisoners, perhaps in the hopes of saving their own skin, came forward telling tales of her mass poisonings.
However, the evidence was damming and La Voisin was named the perpetrator of the Affair of the Poisons. A total of 300 people were arrested and 36 were executed for their crimes – La Voisin among them. As was typical of those found to perform witchcraft in France at that time, she was burned to death in 1680, ending the Affair of the Poisons and the prolific female serial killer’s murderous rampage.
3. Locusta of Gaul: Rome’s Imperial Female Serial Killer
Way back in the 1st century AD, when Emperor Nero ruled Ancient Rome, the realm’s official poisoner was a woman by the name of Locusta. As one of the first known female serial killers in her position as a poisoner, Locusta played a notable role in Nero’s reign.
Locusta’s name first appears in text around the year 54 A.D., serving as a poisoner to the Empress Agrippina the Younger. She is suspected of having a hand in some of the most notorious murders that occurred in Ancient Rome. Two of Locusta’s biggest targets were allegedly Emperor Claudius, Agrippina’s own husband, and her son Britannicus, at the wishes of her other son; the then-young Nero.
When Nero then took the throne, Locusta was rewarded handsomely. She was given large country estates and students to teach her poisoning methods to. She was a fully sanctioned female serial killer at the behest of the emperor himself.
Unfortunately, everything we know of Locusta is based on the workings of contemporary male historians like Cornelius Tacitus, who never met her (and therefore must be taken with a pinch of salt). But it seems almost certain there was definitely a woman by that name who was indeed Emperor Nero’s chief poisoner.
However, her days were numbered by Nero’s own suicide. His successor, Galba, recognized both Locusta’s skills… and the danger of them. Not long after his death, she was subsequently executed for her crimes as Imperial Poisoner.
2: Rose West & Britain’s House of Horrors
Britain’s most notorious female serial killer undoubtedly is Rose West alongside her murderous husband, Fred West. The happy couple became infamous in 1994 when police found human remains in their home. Soon Rose West was convicted for the sexual assault and murder of at least 10 girls, with Fred confessing to over 30 murders.
Over night, Rose West became known as one of Britain’s most prolific and disturbing female serial killers.
Rose’s own life was no picnic. Sexually abused by her father; she then met Fred West when she was just 15 and him a predatory 27. A year later she gave birth to their daughter Heather Ann. Fred already had a daughter, Anna Marie, and step-daughter Charmaine with ex-wife Catherine West. The two girls lived with Rose West during Fred’s 6-month imprisonment for car tire theft when Rose was 17. It was then that she committed her first murder, killing Charmaine a few days before Fred was paroled.
When Fred was released, Rose immediately told him that she had killed his stepdaughter. Rather than get angry, he simply confessed his own murders to her and then buried Charmaine West in their back garden.
When his ex, Catherine ‘Rena’ West came to discover what happened to her daughter, the sadistic pair killed her too, sexually assaulting her before they strangled her and dismembered her body.
Fred and Rose West’s disturbing relationship
Rose West had by now become a prostitute and forced Anna Marie into it alongside her at just 13 years old. From there, Rose and Fred West sexually assaulted their children’s nanny, Caroline Owens, subjecting her to horrifying acts and abuse. She escaped the two by agreeing to continue as their nanny and was taken to the police by her mother. Unfortunately, Owens decided she couldn’t face the police trial and testimony, and the Wests walked free.
They were able to continue their rampage of abuse, sexual assault, and murder for another 21 years. This was despite their children frequently turning up in local hospitals with injuries that could only be caused by abuse. Somehow, no one anywhere along the line reported these and the West’s were able to continue their rampant abuse.
In 1992 the couple were once again arrested. Fred, for raping his own daughter, and Rose West for general child cruelty. Although once again the case against them collapsed, it triggered the investigation that finally led to their arrest. Someone, finally noticed that their daughter Heather hadn’t been seen since 1987. They later found her body, along with other human remains in 1994, under the patio of Fred and Rose West’s house.
Incredibly after their arrest Rose West claimed she knew nothing and it was all her husband’s doing. This is despite the 10 young female bodies uncovered at their home, the undoubted victims of the pair.
Fred West hanged himself in his jail cell before he could ever face justice for his crimes. Rose West, one of history’s worst female serial killers, pled not guilty and continues to proclaim as such to this day. That’s despite the mountain of undeniable evidence of her depraved actions.
Where is Rose West now
Luckily, the justice system wasn’t fooled. Rosemary West received life in prison, with no possibility of parole. The second time ever this has occurred in the UK; the first was to fellow female serial killer, Myra Hindley.
1. Elizabeth Bathory: Blood Countess
Elizabeth Bathory is the most notorious female serial killer who ever lived. Born in the Kingdom of Hungary in 1560, Elizabeth Bathory soon earned herself the moniker Blood Countess for her murder of countless young women, and alleged predilection for bathing in their blood.
Setting up an etiquette school for girls in her castle home, Blood Countess Bathory would bring in the local poor village girls. But after they set foot through her castle gates, many, tragically were never seen again.
Unfortunately, the loss of a few peasant girls wasn’t enough to cause alarm or even a search party. And so Bathory was able to continue her exploits for years, taking in and torturing young women.
Alongside her accomplices, allegedly three servant girls and an elderly woman, Elizabeth Bathory would torture these girls horribly. In keeping with her nickname, blood countess Bathory would pierce their lips and fingernails with needles, burn and beat her victims.
But soon, the blood of peasant village girls was not enough. Arguably Elizabeth Bathory’s biggest mistake was then turning her attention to the daughters of noble families.
The nobility of course, in turn, had far more power and resources to actually question what on earth was happening when one by one, their own daughters failed to return from Elizabeth Bathory’s castle home.
Upon scouring the castle grounds, they found the bodies of countless young women that Elizabeth Bathory had used as her playthings. Inevitably, Bathory and her accomplices were arrested, but given she was of a highly prominent noble family, Bathory never stood trial for her crimes. Her accomplices did and were, of course, executed in her stead for the murder of a predicted 80 – 300 girls.
Elizabeth Bathory herself lived out the rest of her life in solitary confinement in her own castle home until she died in 1614.
Modern historians question the legitimacy of some of the claims surrounding Bathory, like her bathing in blood. However, it seems unquestionable that Elizabeth Bathory certainly was one of history’s worst woman serial killers.