When Looks Kill: Female Serial Killers
This entry is brought to you courtesy of our month-long homage to Women’s History Month, “The Female Power Project.”
Along with not being fit to be a president or football player, there is a long-standing stereotype that a woman could not possibly be a serial killer. There is a notion that women, the delicate flowers, could never muster the rage or aggression needed to commit a steak of violence (seriously, with what woman put up with from men?). In fact, there are many women who have transgressed this stereotype, even if their stories don’t always merit the interest of Hollywood blockbusters. While the psychology of a serial killer obviously goes deeper than gender binaries, some of the more interesting female serial killers straddle the line: they lure men with their ‘feminine wiles’ then commit acts of brutality typically ascribed to the ‘rougher’ sex. Inside the good ole U.S. of A., Belle Gunness, Sandra Bridewell, and Aileen Wuornos are examples of women who have put a new spin on the phrase “if looks could kill.”
In her own way, Belle Gunness typified the early American notion that anyone could succeed, by making money that is. In the late 1800s, Gunness emigrated from Norway to America, ending up in, of all places, Indiana. There she married farmer Albert Sorenson in 1884, shortly after which their home and store mysteriously burned to the ground. After collecting insurance money on the double arson, Sorenson bit the dust bowl from heart failure on, coincidentally, the day his two insurance policies overlapped. Even though she was now rolling in insurance money, the mourning widow quickly moved on to the security of a new husband, Peter Gunness. He also met a sudden, poorly documented death- as did his and Gunness’ newborn daughter, and his daughter from a previous marriage.
Touting the deaths of her two previous paramours, Gunness was still able to lure suitors through an old fashioned personal ad in the newspaper. Scores of men visited her farmhouse bearing gifts of flowers and, more importantly, cash. All of them mysteriously disappeared. By the time around 40 potentials had vanished, the authorities started suspecting Gunness of foul play. Before they could more thoroughly investigate, however, her farmhouse abruptly burned down in 1908. There were over 40 skeletons exhumed from their shallow graves, dug by Gunness’ farmhand, but Gunness herself was not among them. After the apparent arson that exposed her many crimes, Gunness was never found.
Nicknamed “The Black Widow,” Sandra Bridewell doesn’t fit into the category of a serial killer, but she was certainly a woman who used her femininity to her advantage. While her mugshot depicts a defeated-looking middle-aged woman, Bridewell was known to be impossibly seductive. In particular, acquaintances recall her damsel-in-distress routine that attracted a series of wealthy men into her life. Her first husband was a dentist who hung himself when he was unable to keep up with Bridewell’s lavish tastes. Her second husband withered away from cancer as she poured money into home remodeling. One of Bridewell’s few female friends also met an untimely fate through an alleged suicide that coincided with the woman’s attempt to distant herself from the increasingly needy widow.
At 41, Bridewell got her clutches on 29 year-old Alan Rehrig, who married her under the pretense she was not only 36, but also pregnant with his child. After the wedding and a faked miscarriage, Rehrig became uneasy with his wife’s expensive tastes. His attempt at a separation, though, ended with his mysterious death by gunshot outside a shared storage facility. Bridewell was cautious to spare many expenses on the funeral except, of course, on her mink coat mourning attire. With her gold-digger reputation in hot pursuit, Bridewell began a series of moves from town to town, wealthy bachelor to wealthy bachelor. When her looks began to fade, she turned from seducing men to suckering people with a lie about being a missionary out to save orphans. The authorities only caught up with Bridewell after the son of the 77 year-old woman she was a caretaking began digging into the unrestrained boarder’s gossip-riddled past and roused the charge for a police sting.
While she is now frequently known as “the ugly Charlize Theron,” Aileen Wuornos was originally known for being the first woman to fit the FBI profile for a serial killer (in 2002, it took them that long?). Though Hollywood took its usual liberties in the movie “Monster,” Wuornos’ life certainly lacked romanticism. Her grandmother raised Wuornos after her mother abandoned her and her father, a convicted child molester, either hung himself or was strangled in prison. After a troubled childhood and dropping out of high school, Wuornos’ path toward becoming a roadside prostitute still remains unclear, as does her motivation for double tasking on the job. Between 1989 and 1990, she claimed responsibility for shooting six middle-aged men who picked her up while she was hitchhiking.
Towards the beginning of her trail, Wuornos claimed she killed the men in self-defense after they attempted to or did sexually assault her. Later on, she withdrew the accusations in an attempt to make peace with God before her execution. Also during this time, she walked out of an interview she requested, refused a final meal, and confessed to suffering physical abuse as a child and having sex with her brother at a very young age. Even so, several psychiatrists demanded that Wuornos understood her actions, their consequences, and was ready for death. Before her lethal injection in 2002, Wuornos’ final words were: “I’d just like to say I’m sailing with the rock, and I’ll be back like Independence Day, with Jesus June 6. Like the movie, big mother ship and all, I’ll be back.”
Women are the fairer sex? That’s just what they want you to believe.