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8 Sensational Female Murderers from History

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When someone tells you that female murderers are rare, keep in mind that means “relatively” rare, as in less common than male murderers. It also means that women who are found to be killers can become quite famous for it, as the media sensationalizes their crimes. A hundred years later, these cases may be mostly forgotten, but the stories are still there for those who want to learn about them. Be warned that these tales are disturbing.

1. Marie Manning

Marie de Roux Manning was born in Switzerland in 1821 and immigrated to England as a domestic servant in 1846. She became involved with Patrick O'Connor, a wealthy Irishman, and Frederick Manning, a railroad worker and suspected thief. Both proposed to Marie. She considered which would make a better husband: O’Connor was 50 years old, but also a customs agent with investments. Manning was Marie’s age, and told her he would soon inherit wealth. Marie married Manning, but retained a “friendship” with O’Connor, which was most likely sexual. It wasn’t long before she figured out that Manning’s expected inheritance was fictional. The couple invited O’Connor to dinner on August 8, 1849. O’Connor showed up with a friend, which disappointed the couple and thwarted their plans. Marie invited him back the next evening, but asked O’Connor to come alone, hinting at intimacy. During his visit on the 9th, Marie shot him in the back of the head, which did not kill him, so Frederick finished him off with a crowbar. The couple buried their victim under the kitchen floor tiles, where they had dug a hole ahead of time, and added quicklime to speed decomposition. Over the next two days, Marie cleaned out what valuables, cash, and stock certificates she could find at O’Connor’s home.

But O’Connor had mentioned his plans to friends. After they came to inquire about O'Connor's whereabouts, Marie panicked. She sent Frederick to try to sell their furniture so they could flee. While he was gone, she did just that, leaving her husband behind. She went to Edinburgh, Scotland, while Frederick went to Jersey. The police soon uncovered O’Connor’s remains. Marie was arrested when she tried to sell some of O’Connor’s stock certificates, and Frederick Manning was turned in by an acquaintance. Both blamed the other during the trial, but both were found guilty and sentenced to death.

The scandalous crime (which was termed the “Bermondsey Horror”) drew much interest. Between 30,000 and 50,000 people attended the double hanging on November 13th, 1849. Charles Dickens was there, and wrote about the execution and his disgust at the festive nature of the crowd. Some excerpts:

"I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger Lane this morning" "I believe that the a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the crowd collected at that execution this morning." "When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgement, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world."

Dickens’ writing on the matter was in part responsible (along with those of other influential Englishmen) for the abolition of public hangings in England by 1868.

2. Constance Kent

Four-year-old Francis "Saville" Kent went missing from his home in Road, Wiltshire, England, on the night of June 29, 1860. His body was later found in an outhouse, his throat slashed. At first, the child's nursemaid Elizabeth Gough was suspected of the murder, but then his sixteen-year-old half-sister Constance Kent was arrested. She did not go to trial, however, and was released. The family moved away and Constance was sent to school in France.

Five years later, Constance Kent confessed to the murder during confession with a priest. She turned herself in to law enforcement and pled guilty to the murder. Her original death sentence was commuted to life in prison due to her age at the time of the crime. But was she really guilty or covering up for someone? There was speculation that the father, Samuel Kent, had killed the child for some reason to do with his known tendency to adultery. Others looked to Constance’s brother, William Saville-Kent, as the perpetrator, and some thought the two teenagers committed murder together out of jealousy over their stepmother (who was once their governess) and her children. Constance Kent was released from prison after 20 years in 1885, and lived to be 100. The dramatic murder investigation was covered extensively in British newspapers, and the news inspired stories by both Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as other writers. It also provoked Parliament to take up the question of whether priests can refuse to answer questions about sacramental confessions.

3. Belle Gunness

Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth was born in Norway and came to the US in 1881. Later known as Belle Gunness, she married Mads Albert Sorenson in 1884. The couple produced four children, two of whom died in infancy, but were fortunately covered by life insurance. During the marriage, both a home and a business burned down and insurance was paid out. Sorenson died on July 30, 1900, coincidentally the one day that two of his life insurance policies overlapped.

Belle married Peter Gunness in 1902. He already had two daughters, one an infant who died while under his new wife's care. Gunness himself died in December of 1902 when a heavy machine fell on him. Gunness' death was investigated, but Belle was not charged -possibly because she was pregnant. Soon after, her adopted daughter Jennie Olsen, who was questioned over remarks she had made about Peter Gunness' death, disappeared completely. Gunness began corresponding with men through a lonely hearts club. She invited suitors to visit her and bring money. John Moe, Ole B. Budsburg, and Andrew Helgelien were among the many men who came to visit Gunness and brought money to help the poor widow with her mortgage, and were never seen again. She became suspicious that her hired hand, Ray Lamphere, would rat her out, so Gunness fired him and reported that he threatened her.

In 1908, the Gunness home burned down. Four bodies were found under the piano: three of Gunness' children and the headless body of a woman whose measurements did not match Gunness. However, dentures found in the ashes were hers, and the coroner pronounced Belle Gunness to be dead. As the property was cleared, depressions in the ground raised suspicions. Digging revealed the body of Jennie Olsen. The bodies of six suitors and two children were also found. Many other possible victims were reported to the police by concerned relatives. The hired man Ray Lamphere was convicted of arson and died in prison, but not before he revealed details of his days with Gunness. He had told a minister how Belle would kill her victims with strychnine or a meat cleaver, then dismember their bodies before Lamphere buried them. The fate of Gunness has never been positively determined. She had withdrawn her money from the bank before the fire. The identity of the headless woman has also never been determined.

4. Dagmar Overbye

Dagmar Overbye ran a foundling center in Copenhagen from 1916 to 1920. It was supposedly a place where unmarried mothers could take their infants to be adopted, although they had to pay a fee for the infant to be accepted. The unsavory business of hiding the scandals of others was something few talked about, and Overbye operated under the radar for several years. It is unclear how well records of the babies she took in were kept, if at all. The parents who paid Overbye to take care of matters rarely even spoke of it, much less went back to check on their babies. One woman finally did.

Karoline Aagesen placed her newborn daughter with Overbye in 1920 and immediately regretted her decision. Aagesen went back to retrieve her child the next day, but Overbye told her the baby had already been adopted, by a couple whose address she couldn’t recall. Aagesen went to the police, who investigated Overbye and the “adoption agency” she ran out of her apartment. They found baby clothes and charred bones in the stove. Overbye was arrested and confessed to killing either 16 or 20 babies (reports vary). However, from the evidence found, she was convicted of only nine murders. The babies had been strangled, drowned, or burned, and some bodies were found in her loft and buried underground in addition to the evidence from the stove. More parents came forward after Overbye’s arrest, and estimates of the number of infants she may have killed range from 29 to 180. It is believed that the first child Overbye killed was her own, born a few years before she opened her baby business. She was sentenced to death in 1921, which was commuted to life, and she died in prison in 1929.

5. Jane Toppan

Boston nurse Jane Toppan admitted to first eleven murders, then later to 31. Despite recklessness with drugs, unusually high patient deaths, and charges of theft, she managed to find employment over and over again in Massachusetts between 1885 and 1901. In 1901, Toppan moved in with the Davis family after the death of their elderly mother she had been caring for. Within a short time, the father and two daughters were dead. She also killed her foster sister, before an investigation—which found the victims to be poisoned—led to her arrest. Toppan was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and was held in a mental institution for the rest of her life. Toppan was said to have been proud of the killings.

6. Mary Ann Cotton

Mary Ann Cotton had three husbands and twelve children who died of ambiguous gastric illnesses between 1852 and 1872. The third of her four husbands survived, and her 13th and last child was born as she awaited trial. Several stepchildren and lovers also died of the same symptoms, but Cotton avoided suspicion by constantly moving to different towns around England.

The first sign of trouble for Cotton came in 1872 when she predicted the death of her 10-year-old stepson Charles Edward Cotton to an official who was asked to find the boy employment, even though the child appeared healthy. The official happened to also be the parish coroner. When Charles Edward died suddenly a few days later, Cotton's first errand was to collect on his life insurance. Told that she needed a death certificate, Cotton went to the child's doctor, who refused to sign because the coroner had alerted police about the conversation he'd had with Cotton. Besides, the doctor had seen the child only the day before and noticed no illness. An examination of the body found evidence of arsenic. Two other bodies from the family were exhumed and were also found to contain arsenic. Mary Ann Cotton was found guilty of the death of her stepson and was promptly hanged. Her widely-publicized story was made into a nursery rhyme.

Mary Ann Cotton,
She's dead and she's rotten
She lies in her bed,
With her eyes wide open
Sing, sing, oh, what can I sing,
Mary Ann Cotton is tied up with string
Where, where? Up in the air
Sellin' black puddens a penny a pair.

7. Amelia Dyer

Amelia Dyer was a trained nurse from Bristol, England, who turned to “baby farming” for a living after the 1869 death of her husband when she was 32. Like Dagmar Overbye, she “took care” of infants born to unmarried women, with the added service of taking in and hiding the mother in the later stages of pregnancy -for a fee. Baby farms flourished in Victorian times. Some would care for children and get them adopted out, others would neglect babies or dose them with opium to make their care easier, leading to many deaths. Dyer accelerated this process by murdering infants, usually by strangling them with a ribbon around their necks. She operated a baby farm for ten years before a doctor, suspicious of the number of dead babies he certified, contacted police. Dyer was arrested, convicted only of neglect, and sentenced to six months labor. After her sentence was completed, Dyer spent some time in a mental asylum, and eventually went back to baby farming. This time around, she dispensed with obtaining death certificates from doctors and buried the infants herself. Dyer moved from town to town, changing her name when parents or officials became suspicious.

In March of 1896, a bargeman retrieved a package from the Thames containing a tiny female corpse. Police traced the packaging to Dyer under an assumed name. When police raided her home, they found no human remains, but the smell of decomposition was in the air. They did find evidence of her business: baby clothes, telegrams, advertisements, and letters from mothers. Six more infant bodies were found when the river was dredged. Dyer was charged with one murder, that of Doris Marmon, after the baby’s mother, Evelina Marmon, identified the remains. Dyer pled guilty, but offered a defense of insanity. A jury sentenced her to death, and Dyer was hanged on June 10, 1896. Although convicted of only one murder, Amelia Dyer is suspected of up to 400 infant deaths over a period of 27 years.

8. Tillie Klimek

Chicago resident Tillie Klimek was a psychic. She began predicting the deaths of neighborhood dogs in 1911 with startling accuracy. In 1914 she predicted the death of her husband of 29 years, John Mitkiewitz. Astonishingly, Mitkiewitz died three weeks later! Klimek collected his life insurance money and went to a matchmaker. Her second husband John Ruskowski died only three months later, just as Klimek predicted. The same thing happened to husband number three, Joe Guszkowski. Husband number four, Frank Kupczyk lasted four years. Klimek also foresaw the death of a neighbor woman who raised suspicions about Klimek's husbands. Klimek predicted the deaths of three children belonging to a family she had trouble with as well -and sure enough, the children all died. Husband Kupczyk died in 1920.

The widow was remarried to Anton Klimek, husband number five, in 1921. Soon after a new life insurance policy went into effect, family members visited the Klimek home and found Anton sick in bed. When his stomach was pumped, the food Klimek has eaten was found to contain arsenic. Tillie was arrested and confessed to the attempted murder of Anton Klimek. She was sentenced to life imprisonment, and the deaths of her other suspected victims were not investigated. Her sentence carried the stipulation that Klimek was never to be allowed to cook for other prison inmates.

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10 Hush-Hush Facts About L.A. Confidential
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On this day 20 years ago, a rising star director, a writer who thought he’d never get the gig, and a remarkable cast got together to make a film about the corrupt underbelly of 1950s Los Angeles, and the men and women who littered its landscape. This was L.A. Confidential, a film so complex that its creator (legendary crime writer James Ellroy) thought it was “unadaptable.” In the end, it was one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1990s, a film noir classic that made its leading actors into even bigger stars, and which remains an instantly watchable masterpiece to this day. Here are 10 facts about how it got made.

1. THE SCRIPTING PROCESS WAS TOUGH.

Writer-director Curtis Hanson had been a longtime James Ellroy fan when he finally read L.A. Confidential, and the characters in that particular Ellroy novel really spoke to him, so he began working on a script. Meanwhile, Brian Helgeland—originally contracted to write an unproduced Viking film for Warner Bros.—was also a huge Ellroy fan, and lobbied hard for the studio to give him the scripting job. When he learned that Hanson already had it, the two met, and bonded over their mutual admiration of Ellroy’s prose. Their passion for the material was clear, but it took two years to get the script done, with a number of obstacles.

"He would turn down other jobs; I would be doing drafts for free,” Helgeland said. “Whenever there was a day when I didn't want to get up anymore, Curtis tipped the bed and rolled me out on the floor."

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY INTENDED AS A MINISERIES.

When executive producer David Wolper first read Ellroy’s novel, he saw the dense, complex story as the perfect fodder for a television miniseries, and was promptly turned down by all the major networks at the time.

3. JAMES ELLROY DIDN’T THINK THE BOOK COULD BE ADAPTED.

Though Wolper was intrigued by the idea of telling the story onscreen, Ellroy and his agent laughed at the thought. The author felt his massive book would never fit on any screen.

“It was big, it was bad, it was bereft of sympathetic characters,” Ellroy said. “It was unconstrainable, uncontainable, and unadaptable.”

4. CURTIS HANSON SOLD THE FILM WITH CLASSIC LOS ANGELES IMAGES.

To get the film made, Hanson had to convince New Regency Pictures head Arnon Milchan that it was worth producing. To do this, he essentially put together a collage of classic Los Angeles imagery, from memorable locations to movie stars, including the famous image of Robert Mitchum leaving jail after his arrest for using marijuana.

"Now you've seen the image of L.A. that was sold to get everybody to come here. Let's peel back the image and see where our characters live,” Hanson said.

Milchan was sold.

5. KEVIN SPACEY WAS ON HANSON’S WISH LIST FOR YEARS.

Though the other stars of the film were largely discoveries of the moment, Kevin Spacey was apparently someone Hanson wanted to work with for years. Spacey described Hanson as a director “who’d been trying for years and years and years to get me cast in films he made, and the studio always rejected me.” After Spacey won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects, Hanson called the actor and said, “I think I’ve got the role, and I think they’re not gonna say no this time.”

6. SPACEY’S CHARACTER IS BASED ON DEAN MARTIN.

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Though he cast relative unknowns in Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, Hanson wanted an American movie star for the role of Jack Vincennes, and decided on Kevin Spacey. In an effort to convince Spacey to take the role, Hanson invited him to dine at L.A.’s famous Formosa Cafe (where scenes in the film are actually set). While at the cafe, Spacey asked a vital question:

“If it was really 1952, and you were really making this movie, who would you cast as Jack Vincennes?” Hanson said “Dean Martin.”

At that point, Spacey looked up at the gallery of movie star photos which line the cafe, and realized Martin’s photo was right above him.

“To this day, I don’t know whether he sat us in that booth on purpose, but there was Dino looking down at me,” Spacey said.

After his meeting with Hanson, Spacey watched Martin’s performances in Some Came Running (1958) and Rio Bravo (1959), and realized that both films featured characters who mask vulnerability with a layer of cool. That was the genesis of Jack Vincennes.

7. HANSON CHOSE MUCH OF THE MUSIC BEFORE FILMING.

To help set the tone for his period drama, Hanson began selecting music of the early 1950s even before filming began, so he could play it on set as the actors went to work. Among his most interesting choices: When Jack Vincennes sits in a bar, staring at the money he’s just been bribed with, Dean Martin’s “Powder Your Face With Sunshine (Smile! Smile! Smile!)” plays, a reference to both the character’s melancholy, and to Spacey and Hanson’s decision to base the character on Martin.

8. THE CINEMATOGRAPHY WAS INSPIRED BY ROBERT FRANK PHOTOGRAPHS.

To emphasize realism and period accuracy, cinematographer Dante Spinotti thought less about the moving image, and more about still photographs. In particular, he used photographer Robert Frank’s 1958 collection "The Americans" as a tool, and relied less on artificial light and more on environmental light sources like desk lamps.

"I tried to compose shots as if I were using a still camera,” Spinotti said. “I was constantly asking myself, 'Where would I be if I were holding a Leica?' This is one reason I suggested shooting in the Super 35 widescreen format; I wanted to use spherical lenses, which for me have a look and feel similar to still-photo work.”

9. THE FINAL STORY TWIST IS NOT IN THE BOOK.

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[SPOILER ALERT] In the film, Jack Vincennes, Ed Exley, and Bud White are all chasing a mysterious crime lord known as “Rollo Tomasi,” who turns out to be their own LAPD colleague, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Though Vincennes, Exley, and White are all native to Ellroy’s novel, the Tomasi name is entirely an invention of the film.

10. ELLROY APPROVED OF THE MOVIE.

To adapt L.A. Confidential for the screen, Hanson and Helgeland condensed Ellroy’s original novel, boiling the story down to a three-person narrative and ditching other subplots so they could get to the heart of the three cops at the center of the movie. Ellroy, in the end, was pleased with their choices.

“They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme, which is that everything in Los Angeles during this era of boosterism and yahooism was two-sided and two-faced and put out for cosmetic purposes,” Ellroy said. “The script is very much about the [characters'] evolution as men and their lives of duress. Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny. I've long held that hard-boiled crime fiction is the history of bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority. They stated that case plain.”

Additional Sources:
Inside the Actors Studio: Kevin Spacey (2000)

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The Time a Wrestling Fan Tried to Shoot Bobby Heenan in the Ring
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For a man who didn't wrestle much, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan wound up becoming more famous than a lot of the men flexing in the squared circle. The onscreen manager of several notable grapplers, including André the Giant and “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Heenan died on Sunday at the age of 73. His passing has led to several tributes recalling his memorable moments, from dressing up in a weasel suit to hosting a short-lived talk show on TNT.

While Heenan’s “heel” persona was considered great entertainment, there was a night back in 1975 when he did his job a little too well. As a result, an irate fan tried to assassinate him in the ring.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Heenan was appearing at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the now-defunct AWA wrestling promotion when his performance began to grate on the nerves of an unnamed attendee seated on the floor. Eyewitnesses described the man as friendly up until wrestlers Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel started their bout with Heenan at ringside in Bockwinkel’s corner.

“Get Heenan out of there,” the fan screamed, possibly concerned his character would interfere in a fair contest. Heenan, known as “Pretty Boy” at the time, began to distract the referee, awarding an advantage to his wrestler. When the official began waving his arms to signal Heenan to stop interrupting, the fan apparently took it as the match being over and awarded in Bockwinkel’s favor. He drew a gun and began firing.

The man got off two shots, hitting three bystanders with one bullet and two more with the other before running out of the arena. (No fatalities were reported.) Security swarmed the scene, getting medical attention for the injured and escorting both Heenan and the wrestlers to the back.

According to Heenan, the shooter was never identified by anyone, and he was brazen enough to continue attending wrestling cards at the arena. ("Chicago really took that 'no snitching' thing to heart back then," according to Uproxx.)

Heenan went on to spend another 30 years in the business getting yelled at and hit with chairs, but was never again forced to dodge a bullet.

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