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.