Throughout history, some women have committed horrific crimes, ones that shock society to its very core. From the murders of their own innocent children, to chillingly cold-blooded serial crimes, these women have truly given in to the very worst aspects of themselves – and of human nature. Here is our list of top ten deadliest female murderers:
10. Diane Downs – Victims: 1
The subject of true crime author Anne Rule’s best selling book, Small Sacrifices, Diane Downs, chose a romantic relationship over her own children. When her lover, Lew, made it clear that a life with children was not in his master plan, she began to create a twisted scheme in which she would destroy her offspring, who had become only obstacles to her own happiness. Her plot to kill her children was a desperate, last-ditch attempt to hold on to a man who wanted out.
Her children from a prior marriage, Christie, Cheryl, and Danny, were the “small sacrifices” in this terrible crime. On a macabre night drive, she tried to end the lives of her own children. Stopping the car along a deserted stretch of road, she killed Cheryl, her second child, aged 7, in cold blood. Christie and Danny were also shot. Her oldest daughter, Christie, who was eight, survived the attack, and so did 3-year old Danny Downs. However, her little son was paralyzed from the waist down after being shot at near point-blank range. Christie was also left with serious injuries, such as paralysis on one side of her body, and speech difficulties…but she was so very courageous.
In court, she found the words to explain to the judge and jury exactly what her mother had done. The bravery of this young girl, who wished to seek justice for her dead sister, was moving, and terribly sad. Anne Rule wrote about the pain and dignity of this little girl with great skill and compassion.
Diane Downs continues to proclaim her innocence. This former letter carrier for the State of Oregon now spends her days in prison – where she has been known to exchange lurid and sexually flirtatious letters with another tawdry inmate – serial rapist and killer Randy Woodfield – (the I-5 Killer).
9. Susan Smith – Victims: 2
Susan Smith’s psyche was a witches’ brew of personality disorders, which culminated in the deaths of her two very young sons, Michael and Alex. Much like Diane Downs, this woman believed that ridding herself of her offspring would heal a relationship that had ended badly. However, her beliefs were rooted in delusion, because her lover, Tom, had made it clear that he was done with the relationship, once and for all.
This woman drove to the edge of a South Carolina lake, got out, and then put the car in drive. After releasing the brake, she stood silently and watched the vehicle, where her babies slept peacefully in the backseat, sink into the depths. Then, she phoned the police, in “hysterics”, blaming the crime on a “black man”.
Childhood sexual abuse and incest were perhaps the catalyst for Smith’s many narcissistic illusions and dreams. She claimed to have had a sexual relationship with her own stepfather, and her mother turned on her when she made her experiences with him public. Her mother’s inability to understand the abuse and the pain the situation caused her own daughter may well have been a source of rage for the young woman.
As she grew into adulthood, Susan Smith displayed a growing desire for sexual attention, as well as a need for ideal love and a grandiose, glamorous life. All these were classic signs of narcissistic personality disorder.
In time, the police put two and two together, separating the lies Susan Smith told from the cold, hard facts about the gruesome crime she committed with such icy ruthlessness. Eventually, she broke down under intense questioning from police and admitted to her acts, letting police know the exact location of the bodies. Inside the sunken vehicle, a “Dear John” letter from her ex-lover floated among the debris. Her poor children had died for nothing at all…
Sentenced to 30 years behind bars, Susan has continued her sexual indiscretions with two prison guards, one of whom gave her a sexually transmitted disease.
8. Karla Homolka – Victims: 3
This blonde Canadian woman will always be known as a traitor to her own gender. Her desire to please her partner, notorious “Scarborough Rapist” and serial killer Paul Bernardo, led her to assist him in the kidnapping, rape, and murder of three young women, one of whom was her own sister (who died accidentally after being drugged by Karla). She showed no mercy for the young girls who endured imprisonment in her own home – even as they begged for her help. To one, she gave a teddy bear – scant comfort indeed.
After her arrest, Karla cut a sweet deal with the authorities in order to get a lighter sentence. She gave them information about Paul’s crimes that assisted the prosecution in convicting him. Her husband claimed she committed all the murders herself.
While in custody, she was permitted to attend University, where she earned a degree. Such educational opportunities were denied forever to her lovely, bright young victims, whose futures were destroyed so cruelly. Many people were disgusted and outraged that a woman who had participated in such heinous crimes should be able to walk free after a comparatively short sentence. Karla claimed that she was terrorized by her own husband, and had no choice but to play along…or die. But videotapes unearthed later seemed to paint a much different picture.
Today, Karla still plays the victim, putting the responsibility for her terrible crimes upon her husband. However, psychologists argue about her real motivations. Some feel she was traumatized by the events of her ill-starred marriage; others are certain there was (and is) darkness and psychopathy under the façade. One interesting fact is that Karla, after the death of her own sister, complained in a letter to a friend that her wedding to Paul might need to be postponed because of the tragedy.
7. Beverly Allitt – Victims: 4
Dubbed the “Angel of Death”, this serial killer is of English birth. Beverly Allitt was a registered nurse who abused her position in order to feed her dark desires. Innocent children were the targets of Allitt’s heinous acts, which included injecting potassium chloride or insulin into their small bodies, in order to cause cardiac arrest.
Like many serial killers, this woman’s need to murder escalated rapidly. In short order, she attacked 13 children in her ward, killing four of them. These attacks all occurred over a period of two weeks. The children she preyed on ranged in age from only seven weeks old to five years in age.
Psychiatrists who examined Allitt after her arrest concluded that she suffered from a strange mental health disorder known as Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy, which caused her to hurt and kill children in order to get attention from others. As a girl, Allitt had derived much pleasure from dressing up as an injured person, which would include fake “casts” etc. Later, she would injure herself and seek out constant attention from medical professionals.
Today, Allit serves out 13 life sentences at Rampton Maximum Security Hospital, where the criminally insane are housed. The families of the children who were entrusted to her care have threatened her with death, should she ever walk free again.
6. Andrea Yates – Victims: 5
Sometimes, severe mental illness can play a role in crimes. Personality disorders such as narcissism are often present, but, there can be much more serious illnesses, such as schizophrenia, that cause the sufferer to hear voices and follow the instructions they give. In the case of Andrea Yates, who killed her five children by drowning them in a bathtub, there were many red flags of serious mental illness. Of all the women on the list, she seems the most likely to be clinically insane.
Andrea Yates was not diagnosed as schizophrenic, but she had serious mental health illnesses including psychotic breaks, suicide attempts, and severe postpartum depressions. Having so many children in quick succession was enough to plunge this fragile woman into the abyss. Her husband, Rusty, a minister, wanted many children with his wife. He would later blame Andrea’s psychiatrists for the tragedy, saying they did not make him aware of the gravity of her condition.
However, Rusty did know that Andrea was not well. Usually, he would make sure someone was with Andrea to help her cope with the demands of her children. Tragically, on the day she decided to end her children’s lives, she was briefly alone. Rusty wanted to give her some independent time with the kids, so she would not become too accustomed to having help all of the time. In the space of this short hour, Andrea methodically drowned her five children, one after the other. After her crime, she called 911 to report her act to the authorities.
For some time, Andrea had pondered the act she was about to commit. According to interviews with her, after the crime, she wanted to kill her children because they were not “righteous”. She felt her own sins were stopping her children from developing into good Christians. In her mind, ending their lives so cruelly seemed to be the best decision.
5. Aileen Wuornos – Victims: 8
A dreadful childhood marked by abandonment and incest warped the young soul of Aileen Wuornos, who stored up more rage against society, and men, with every passing year. Early sexual experiences marked the girl, who became pregnant at the age of 13 (the child was given up for adoption). Wuornos’ teen years remained turbulent and hardscrabble, and, by age 15, she was thrown out of her grandfather’s home.
Displaying all the signs of antisocial personality disorder, Aileen broke the law, robbed stores with weapons, and even married a 70 year-old man, whom she physically abused. Arrests and drunken conduct marred and then ended her unlikely relationship, as her elderly husband brought in the law to keep her away. In time, she found a lesbian lover named Tyria, and she worked as a prostitute to earn a living for both of them.
Working the highways, selling her body, was a dangerous career choice. To her dying day, Aileen swore that she was brutally raped by her first victim. She claimed that killing him was an act of self-defense. However, her other victims were different. She killed eight men altogether, seven of them in the state of Florida. The got so much more than they bargained for (or deserved) when they slowed down and pulled over to pick up Wuornos for sex.
Wuornos was the subject of the 2003 film, Monster, in which classic Hollywood beauty Charlize Theron underwent a startling physical transformation in order to mimic her character’s weathered, tough image.
Wuornos never lost the rage that fueled her terrible crimes. Before her execution, she lashed out one last time, blaming the media, her lawyers, and society for her fate.
4. Rosemary West – Victims: 10 (possibly more)
The notorious counterpart of Fred West, Rosemary (also known as Rose) was incredibly dangerous, and the very epitome of soulless evil. Fred and Rosemary took advantage of young people who were naïve and trusting – by picking them up off the street and bringing them into their home, promising food, lodging and compassion. The fate that awaited these unlucky girls and young women was truly the stuff of nightmares.
Rosemary, a mother of eight children, was a prostitute and a depraved sexual sadist who thrived on inflicting pain. Along with her equally twisted husband, she committed ten murders, including the killing of their own child, a daughter named Heather. Rosemary was also convicted in the murder of her stepdaughter (common-law) Charmaine.
Both Rose and Fred were the products of abuse and violent, dysfunctional childhoods – neither had consciences. Days of torture and rape led to murders – all conducted in the “house of horrors” at 25 Cromwell Street.
Many other victims may also have suffered and been killed to feed the insatiable appetites of this couple, since Fred West intimated that as many as 20 more missing girls might have been killed at their hands. Many unsolved murders and cold cases in this area of Britain (Gloucester) may have been the work of Rosemary West and/or her partner in crime.
3. Countess Elizabeth Bathory – Multiple Victims
Known as The Blood Countess, this vain, capricious woman enjoyed bathing in the blood of her young female victims. She thought the application of blood would keep her youthful and improve her complexion.
Abusing her power and position was something the Countess truly enjoyed. There was marked sadism in her killings, and an undeniable sexual element in her crimes. The Countess sometimes forced young women to lick the blood of other victims off of her nude body.
Her love of blood has made her notorious as a sort of “real life” vampire. It was rumored that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was based in part on the life of this predator, whose reign of terror occured in the Kingdom of Hungary (today’s Slovakia).
Bathory lured the prettiest girls of her village to her dungeons, promising them work in her castle. After depleting the village of young women, she moved on to those of higher birth. Her husband, Ferenc Nádasdy, was said to be complicit in her many crimes. He gave her the Castle she used to bleed and torture her victims as a wedding gift.
2. Jane Toppan – Victims: 31
Another nurse who preyed on the ill and infirm, this heavyset, disturbed woman was the product of a troubled childhood. The daughter of an insane father, Jane was raised in rough and tumble Boston orphanages after he gave up on caring for her. Poverty and a series of foster parents did not soothe the roiling tensions building in this young woman. As she grew to adulthood, she studied nursing, and her professors noted her unhealthy fascination with autopsy photographs. Nonetheless, she graduated and began to care for patients, who found her pleasant and nicknamed her “Jolly Jane”.
This nurse found intense sexual pleasure could be derived from drugging patients and bringing them to the brink of death. She would attempt to bring them close to death, revive them, and then poison them anew. Often, she got into their hospital beds with them, most likely to molest them sexually as they clung to life, barely conscious.
Classified as a lust killer, Toppan began her reign of cruel experiments and killings in 1885, and they went on until she was eventually apprehended and convicted of 11 killings. While in custody, she revealed that she had caused the deaths of 31 people. Toppan gloried in her crimes, wanting to go down in history as the person who “killed more people — helpless people — than any other man or woman who ever lived.”
“Jolly Jane” was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and lived out her post-conviction life in Taunton Insane Asylum.
1. Belle Sorenson Gunness – Victims: Est. 42
This prolific serial murderer killed for pleasure and for greed. Her desire for worldly goods led her to kill an estimated 42 victims. Born in Norway, she moved to the USA, where she married a businessman in Chicago.
Some historians believe Belle killed her two daughters by poisoning them to collect insurance money. Belle may also have burned down the family business to collect money from her insurance company. Her children’s deaths were listed as being caused by bouts of colitis, but the symptoms of this disorder are very similar to those caused by poisoning.
Later, her husband also died under strange circumstances, and once again Belle was there to collect money from his death, which may have been caused by the “medicines” Belle administered to treat his illness.
Known as “The Black Widow”, Gunness went on to buy a farm with the proceeds of his death, and his family blamed her for his early demise.
Belle soon formed a modus operandi that netted big dollars. She would lure middle- aged men to her with personal ads and love letters, and then they too would die in a series of “accidents”. She was able to attract new suitors with amazing success. She married over and over again, taking advantage of lonely men who had no idea what lurked beneath the surface charm of this cold-blooded killer.
In the end, it was rumored that 42 bodies lay buried on her property, and she had amassed more than a quarter of a million dollars in blood money. In an ironic twist of fate, someone exacted revenge on this cruel woman, whose body was found beheaded and burned. This is still controversy regarding her charred bodily remains: some argue that the body is not really Belle Sorenson Gunness.