Notorious Female Serial Killers: A History Across Time

A serial killer is many things, but most often it is not a woman. As we noted in our research on the Psychology of Serial Killers, serial killers truly think differently than most of the population; this is especially true of female serial killers. They are not motivated by the same things that their male counterparts are like sexual gratification and dominance. Instead, most female serial killers are directly motivated by greed and power.

According to Psychology Today the percentage ratio for a serial killer being a woman is 15 percent women to 85 percent males. That just shows us that females are not often caught because of their perceived innocent nature and the social stigmas placed upon them. 

Female serial killers may not be as numerous as their male counterparts, however, when they are caught, their stories seem to rock us to our very foundations. They hide in plain sight and are masters of disguise, their backgrounds seem troubled (but who’s isn’t?)  and sometimes even after they are caught you are left wondering – did they really do that? 

Here is our list of some of the Most Notorious Female Serial Killers from Around the World and some book recommendations to dive deeper.

Notorious Female Serial Killers

First Female Serial Killers

America’s first recorded Female serial killer was Jane Toppan, born Honora Kelley. She was known as the “Angel of Death” or “Jolly Jane” during her reign of terror. Jane Toppan’s profession was that of a nurse, which gave her easy access to her victims who were mostly patients or family members of patients in her care. Her killings all happened in the Massachusetts area. She confessed to thirty-one murders, however, only twelve of them were ever proven. When asked why she committed these acts of violence Jane Toppan said her reasoning was simple she wanted to *have killed more people—helpless people—than any other man or woman who ever lived. 

*Smith, Col Robert Barr (2015). “The Modest Ambition of Jane Toppan”. Outlaw Women: America’s Most Notorious Daughters, Wives, and Mothers. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 155. ISBN 978-1-4422-4730-7.

Outlaw Women: America’s Most Notorious Daughters, Wives, and Mothers

This collection of short, action-filled stories of the Old West’s most egregiously badly behaved female outlaws is a great addition to Western author Robert Barr Smith’s books on the American frontier. Pulling together stories of ladies caught in the acts of mayhem, distraction, murder, and highway robbery, it includes famous names like Belle Starr and lesser known characters, and contains archival illustrations and photographs.

Some famous females earned their criminal status through less-than-ladylike pursuits, making a living by capitalizing on the other sex’s weaknesses of drinking, gambling, and enjoying the company of women. More than a few, like Cecilia and Edna “The Rabbit” Murray, weren’t above robbing a bank or two to stay afloat for a while. Others, however, were much more sinister in their aims, earning a living by making sure others kept dying. Visitors to the homes of Kate Bender and Belle Gunness–dozens, no less–went missing over the years, only to be dug up months or years later, when suspicions were finally aroused.

Find it on Goodreads, Amazon, and Bookbub.

Britain’s first recorded Female serial killer was Mary Ann Cotton, otherwise known as the “Black Widow”, “The West Auckland Borgia”, and the “Dark Angel” because her killings involved primarily family members. Mary Ann Cotton killed three of her four husbands, a lover, and reportedly eleven of her children. Her preferred method of killing was with arsenic. Her body count is believed to be around twenty people. 

Mary Ann Cotton: Dark Angel: Britain’s First Female Serial Killer by Martin Connolly

A true crime account of the life, trial, death, and aftermath of Britain’s first female serial killer.

A female thief, with four husbands, a lover and, reportedly, over twelve children, is arrested and tried for the murder of her stepson in 1872, turning the small village of West Auckland in County Durham upside down. Other bodies are exhumed and when they are found to contain arsenic, she is suspected of their murder as well. The perpetrator, Mary Ann Cotton, was tried and found guilty and later hanged on 24 March 1873 in Durham Gaol. It is claimed she murdered over twenty people and was the first female serial killer in England.

With location photographs and a blow-by-blow account of the trial, this book challenges the claim that Mary Ann Cotton was the “The West Auckland Borgia,” a title given to her at the time. It sets out her life, trial, death, and the aftermath and also questions the legal system used to convict her by looking at contemporary evidence from the time and offering another explanation for the deaths. The book also covers the lives of those left behind, including the daughter born to Mary Ann Cotton in Durham Gaol.

Find it on Goodreads, Amazon, and Bookbub.

Other Books I found Helpful for this section:

Female Serial Killers: HOW AND WHY WOMEN BECOME MONSTERS By Peter Vronsky

America’s First Female Serial Killer: Jane Toppan and the Making of a Monster 

Female Serial Killers from the United States

Aileen Wuornos – (Born Aileen Carol Pittman) Her first known kill was of Florida rapist Richard Mallory in 1989. She killed a total of seven men over twelve months, all of them between the ages of 40 and 65. She claimed that they had all tried to rape her and that she only killed them in self-defense. She was sentenced to death by lethal injection and died on October 9th, 2002.  Charlize Theron’s Monster (2003) is based on this female serial killer.

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Told in her own words, this is the story of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who was portrayed in an Oscar-winning performance by Charlize Theron in the film Monster. There have been few female serial killers, but Aileen Wuornos, who was executed in 2002, was a remarkable example of this rare breed of death row inmate. All too often, female prostitutes have been the victims of male serial killers—Wuornos’ killings were the inverse of this pattern. After escaping an abusive childhood at the hands of her grandparents, she became a child prostitute, progressing into a disastrous adulthood of prostitution and damaging affairs with both men and women. Her eventual metamorphosis from victim to attacker had brutal consequences—a stream of dead men. This is her story, as told to Christopher Berry-Dee, editor of The New Criminologist and director of Britain’s Criminology Research Center.

Find it on Goodreads, Amazon, and Bookbub.

Belle Gunness, born Brynhild Paulsdatter Størseth in Norway. On again off again Lover’ Ray Lamphere, First Husband Mads Ditlev Anton Sørensen, Second Husband Peter Gunness. It is was originally believed that her husbands died of natural causes. However, after the fire that supposedly killed her and her children (many believe she somehow faked her death), they discovered at minimum, twelve mutilated bodies buried around her pig farm in rural La Porte, Indiana. Most were never identified. She is known as Hell’s Belle and is one of the most prolific female serial killers in United States History.

In the pantheon of serial killers, Belle Gunness stands alone. She was the rarest of female psychopaths, a woman who engaged in wholesale slaughter, partly out of greed but mostly for the sheer joy of it. Between 1902 and 1908, she lured a succession of unsuspecting victims to her Indiana “murder farm.” Some were hired hands. Others were well-to-do bachelors. All of them vanished without a trace. When their bodies were dug up, they hadn’t merely been poisoned, like victims of other female killers. They’d been butchered.

Hell’s Princess is a riveting account of one of the most sensational killing sprees in the annals of American crime: the shocking series of murders committed by the woman who came to be known as Lady Bluebeard. The only definitive book on this notorious case and the first to reveal previously unknown information about its subject, Harold Schechter’s gripping, suspenseful narrative has all the elements of a classic mystery―and all the gruesome twists of a nightmare.

Find it on Goodreads, Amazon, and Bookbub.

The Giggling Granny, Nannie Doss, was an American serial Killer known for giggling when asked how or why she killed four of her five ex-husbands (and possibly many of her relatives as well!). She said she didn’t kill for the insurance money, she killed because she wanted to find true love after growing up reading the Lonely Hearts column in the newspaper. Nannie Doss was sentenced to life in prison for killing her fifth husband with arsenic or rat poison and she died while in prison in late 1964.

In 1927, Charley Braggs arrived home to find two of his children dead. The doctor who observed the children in their last moments diagnosed food poisoning as the cause.

There was no need for an autopsy. His wife, Nannie, blamed tainted grains as the source but Charley wasn’t convinced. Charley didn’t feel safe around his wife. In the middle of the night, he took his eldest daughter and ran for his life.

The outpouring of sympathy doubled for Nannie when they discovered her husband’s treachery. To her community, she was a sweet lady renowned for her cheerful disposition. But behind the facade was a much darker and sinister reality. A truth that four of her future husbands, two of her sisters, her mother, her mother-in-law, her nephew and her grandson would perilously discover.

Black Widow is a dramatic and chilling account of one of the most shocking true crime stories in American history. Ryan Green’s riveting narrative draws the reader into the real-live horror experienced by the victims and has all the elements of a classic thriller.

Find it on Goodreads, Amazon, and Bookbub.

Known as the death house landlady with her little house of horrors, Dorothea Puente (born Dorothea Helen Gray) owned a boarding house in Sacramento, CA that had a habit of guests checking in — but never checking out. She was finally caught in 1982 and officially charged with nine murders. She was convicted of three of them and sentenced to two life sentences in prison.

Learn More Here:–a-look-back-at-unexpected-serial-killer-do

In 1988, detectives from the Sacramento Police Department were called to investigate the disappearance of a man at his last known address, a boarding house for the elderly, homeless and mentally ill. The owner, Dorothea Puente, was an adorable old lady who cared for stray cats and the rest of society’s castaways. She had a strong standing in the community and was celebrated for her selfless charitable work.

The search revealed nothing untoward but one of the guests recalled some unusual incidents leading up to the disappearance. He shared stories about holes being dug in the garden and filled in overnight. Guests who were taken ill and vanished overnight, and a number of excuses why they couldn’t be contacted. This was enough to launch a thorough investigation and on 11th November 1988, the Sacramento Police Department headed back to the boarding house with shovels in hand.

Were they wasting their time pursuing a charming and charitable old lady or were they closing in on a clandestine killer who exploited the most vulnerable members of society? The investigation gripped the entire nation and the answers lay Buried Beneath the Boarding House.

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Lavinia Fisher may be a legend, we’ll let you decide. Lavinia Fisher and her Husband John Fisher ran a resting house just outside of Charleston, South Carolina that was a popular place for travelers to stop on their journey for the night. It is believed that when travelers arrived Lavinia would evaluate them and then offer weary people poison-laced tea lulling them into a deep sleep so that they could steal any valuables the travelers may have. Both Lavinia and John were convicted of Highway robbery – Not Murder. Lavinia and John received the death penalty and were hanged for their crimes. 

The shocking true story of America’s first female serial killer, half of a husband and wife team who terrorized Charleston, SC, in the early 19th century.
On February 18th, 1820, John and Lavinia Fisher were executed in front of some two thousand South Carolinians. To this day, legends of the husband-and-wife serial killers range from the fearsome to the fantastical—and many swear they have encountered Lavinia’s ghost haunting the Old Charleston Jail House. But in Six Miles to Charleston, local historian and former homicide investigator Bruce Orr uncovers their horrifying true story.
When a young man outwitted John and Lavinia in 1819, he escaped death and went straight to the authorities. Orr recounts the investigation from the initial police raid on the murderous couple’s Six Mile Inn—with its reportedly grisly cellar—to their capture, incarceration and dramatic last moments of life. But as Orr reveals, there still may be more sinister deeds left unpunished. An overzealous sheriff, corrupt officials and documents only recently discovered all suggest that there is more to the tale.

Find it on Goodreads, Amazon, and Bookbub.

Judy Buenoano, was a nurse and manicurist who killed at least three people, all for financial gain. She was caught in 1983 when her then-boyfriend John Gentry, was almost killed in a car bombing. He had reportedly been feeling ill, and when Policed looked at his toxicology they found paraformaldehyde in his system. Given to him by his “girlfriend” Judy Buenoano who said they were vitamin C. It then came to light that Judy had taken out an insurance policy against him and stood to gain a tidy sum. This caused Police to look back into her history and discover her Son and Former Husband both had died with insurance policies taken out on them. Their bodies were exhumed and her husband was found to have arsenic poisoning in his system, her paralytic son it seems was pushed out of a canoe by her and drowned. Judy was convicted of all three murders and in 1998, was executed in the electric chair at age 54. She was the first woman to be executed in Florida in 150 years.

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**There are not many books on Judy Buenoano and the few I did find were not edited or researched very well. So I have no recommendations for you currently. I will up date this if I end up finding one.**

Kristen Gilbert, (born Kristen Heather Strickland) a nurse from Massachusetts and a quintessential mom, had a hidden dark side no one saw coming. Her death method of choice: injection. Kristen Gilbert was convicted of four murders, though the thought that she was responsible for literally hundreds more is not out of the realm of possibility. She was sentenced to life in prison. 

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At the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northampton, Massachusetts, Kristen Gilbert was known as a hardworking, dedicated nurse. Yet so many emergencies and sudden deaths occurred under Kristen’s watch that others jokingly called her the “Angel of Death.” No one suspected the horrifying truth: that over the course of six months, Gilbert had caused the deaths of as many as forty patients. With new insight into the sociopathic mindset of nurses who kill, and the latest details on Gilbert’s ongoing prison sentence, M. William Phelps exposes how one person’s good intentions went so chillingly, killingly wrong . . .

Find it on Goodreads, Amazon, and Bookbub.

Female Serial Killers from the United Kingdom

Myra Hindley (and partner Ian Brady) are known across the United Kingdom as the Moors Murderers. Together they killed five children ranging in age from ten to seventeen, most if not all were sexually assaulted before being buried in the moors surrounding Manchester, England. However, two of the bodies have never been found despite numerous searches. Both Myra Hindley and Ian Brady served a life sentence in prison for their crimes. At the time of her conviction Myra Hindley was characterized by the press as “the most evil woman in Britain”[1].

[1 ]BBC News, 29 February 2000,, Retrieved March 2024.

A deep dive into the lives and crimes of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley—featuring newly released photos from a collection called “The Tartan Album.”

In the mid-1960s, the serenity of Saddleworth Moor was forever interrupted, even if people didn’t yet know it, as the area became a grave for the innocent child victims of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.

The couple’s vile torture and killings have shaken up British history ever since, with the couple often considered two of the most evil people to have lived. However, the public still have many questions about who they were and how their dysfunctional relationship operated.

In this book, many artifacts become public for the first time, including photographs from Ian Brady’s “Tartan Album,” police interviews and witness statements, which shed vital new light on Brady, Hindley and the dangerous cocktail their union became.

Find it on Goodreads, Amazon, and Bookbub.

Amelia Dyer is the United Kingdom’s most prolific female serial killer. She was trained as a midwife and nurse but by the mid-1800s she became a baby farmer. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 made it so fathers of illegitimate children were not obligated by law to support their children financially, leaving many women without options. For a fee, baby farmers would adopt the unwanted children [2]. Though she was only convicted of one murder, it is estimated she killed between 200-400 infants during the THIRTY YEARS she was active [3]. She was sentenced to death by hanging in 1896.

[2] Crime Museum,

[3] BBC News,

On 30 March 1896, a bargeman hooked a parcel from the river Thames at Caversham. Inside the brown paper package was the body of a baby girl – she had been strangled with tape. When two more tiny bodies were found in a carpet bag, the police launched a nationwide hunt for a serial killer.

A faint name and address on the sodden wrapping provided Reading police with their first clue. Can Chief Constable George Tewsley and his colleagues catch this heartless baby farmer before more infants meet a similar fate?

The first in a new historical true crime series, Victorian Supersleuth Investigates, Angela Buckley recounts the frantic race to stop Amelia Dyer – one of Britain’s most prolific murderers.

Find it on Goodreads, and Amazon.

Rosemary West (or Rose West), was married to Fred West, who was also a known serial killer in his own right. Rosemary West came from a family of two parents who suffered extreme mental illness, some believe this contributed to her life choices. Rosemary targeted young children (even some of her own), as sexual victims for her and her husband. After they sexually assaulted and tortured them, the couple would bury the bodies under their 25 Cromwell Street home, often forcing their children to help. Rosemary and Fred were found guilty of at least 10 deaths (though many believe there were more deaths that the pair were responsible for). However, Fred hanged himself before sentencing, Rosemary was sentenced to life imprisonment.

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The true crime bestseller about Fred and Rose West a couple virtually unique in British criminal history who loved and killed together as husband and wife.

During their long relationship the Wests murdered a series of young women, burying the remains of nine victims under their home at 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester, including those of their teenage daughter, Heather. What was left of Fred West’s eight-year-old stepdaughter was dug up from under the Wests’ previous Gloucester home; his first wife and nanny were buried in open country outside the city. Several victims had been decapitated and dismembered, their remains showing signs of sexual torture. These twelve are just the ones the police found when the Wests were arrested in 1994. There may be more whose bones have not been located.

Howard Sounes broke the first major story about the Wests as a journalist, and covered the murder trial of Rosemary West, before writing this , the classic book about the case. Beginning with Fred’s and Rose’s bizarre childhoods, Sounes charts their lives and crimes in forensic detail, creating a fascinating and truly frightening account of a marriage soaked in blood.

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Beverley Allitt, was a nurse in 1991 who was convicted of murdering four children in her care, along with three att­em­pted murders, and six counts of grievous bodily harm. Nicknamed the “Angel of Death”, Beverley suffered from severe mental illness and killed the children to bring attention to herself. She laughed when telling the story of how she killed them. Her method of choice was death by insulin overdose causing cardiac arrest in most cases. 

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It made national the true story of how state enrolled nurse Beverley Allitt murdered four children on her ward and attempted to take the lives of many others. Liam Taylor’s death, on 21 February 1991, was to become the first in a string of infanticides carried out by the soon-to-be-notorious ‘Angel of Death’. Between February and April 1991, four babies were murdered and another nine attacked.

Recounting the emotional turmoil of those parents, the 3-month police investigation, Allitt’s motive and accounts from her early life, John Askill and Martyn Sharpe tell a sensitive, at times harrowing, tale of how this ‘plain’, rather ‘ordinary’ girl from the small village of Corby Glen became one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers.

Find it on Goodreads, Amazon, and Bookbub.

Female Serial Killers From Other Countries

Leonarda Cianciulli – Italy

This serial killer may be one you want to skip over if you have a light stomach. 

Leonarda Cianciulli is one of Italy’s most gut-wrenching female serial killers – and not for the reasons you may imagine. Leonarda Cianciulli was known as the “Soap-Maker of Correggio” killer because she made soap out of her victim’s blood, as well as crunchy tea cakes with their fat. Thankfully she was caught after her third victim and sentenced to thirty years in prison and three years at an asylum in 1946.

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Imagine being invited in for tea and cakes… only to later learn you were fed human remains.

From suicide attempts, to claiming her mother cursed her, to miscarriages and losing ten of her fourteen children, Leonarda’s life wasn’t easy. Protecting her four surviving children became something of an obsession for the woman. Perhaps tragedy loosened her grip on reality, or maybe the fear of losing her oldest to war caused a mental break.

Whatever the cause, Leonarda’s chilling deeds will raise the hair on the back of your neck and leave you wondering if those around you are capable of the same evil.

Follow along her twisted journey that’ll make you question how much one person can take before they do the unthinkable… or if her tragedies were simply an excuse for murder, desecration, and turning remains into cakes and soap. Read and judge for yourself in this true account of Leonarda Cianciulli, the superstitious mother who turned victims into soaps and cakes.

Find it on Goodreads, Amazon, and Bookbub.

Elizabeth Báthory – Hungry

Throughout Europe 16th-century noblewoman Elizabeth Báthory is infamous for her bloody crimes—but was she actually framed for them? Legend says she murdered at least twenty young women, though some accounts say as many as SIX HUNDRED, were murdered by her. However, new theories suggest she may have been framed by the opposing political thrown of the time. It was the year 1610 when the formal investigation into Elizabeth Báthory was convened. She was convicted for the murder of 80 young women and sentenced to life imprisonment at Čachtice Castle, Slovakia where she remained until her death.

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In this book, readers are given a rare glimpse into the life of Hungary’s most controversial noblewoman, Countess Erzsébet (Elizabeth) Báthory. Over 40 letters and documents, many of which have been recently discovered and translated, are presented here for the first time in English. Read the private letters Lady Báthory sent in secret to fellow nobility, learn how she administered her estates, and experience life as she knew it. Historical background is provided as well as biographical material. This book is an excellent resource for the Báthory scholar and enthusiast who is looking for new and factual information on the so-called Infamous lady.

Find it on Goodreads and Amazon.

I found this book while researching Countess Elizabeth Bathory and it was an epic tale!

Emily Jacobs is the descendant of a serial killer. Now, she’s become the hunted.

She’s on a quest that will take her to the secret underground of Europe and the inner circles of three ancient orders—one determined to kill her, one devoted to keeping her alive, and one she must ultimately save.

Filled with adrenaline, romance, and reversals, The Progeny is the present-day saga of a 400-year-old war between the uncanny descendants of “Blood Countess” Elizabeth Bathory, the most prolific female serial killer of all time, and a secret society dedicated to erasing every one of her descendants. It is a story about the search for self filled with centuries-old intrigues against the backdrop of atrocity and hope.

Find it on Goodreads, Amazon, and Bookbub.

Miyuki Ishikawa – Japan

Miyuki Ishikawa (AKA the “Demon Midwife”) was a Japanese Midwife responsible for over 100 children’s deaths in the mid-1900s. Her reasoning for killing them was that she saw the struggle of many families in poverty to care for their children so she stepped in and did what she considered humane to save them from a life of poverty. She along with her Doctor husband (the one who signed the death certificates) were found guilty and sentenced to eight years of prison time, a drastically low amount of years that still leaves many shaking their heads. 

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** I could not find any books on her that were translated to English.**

Karla Homolka – Canada

Karla Homolka was a seemingly innocent-appearing woman married to by all accounts a handsome man, the perfect Ken and Barbie pair. However, this couple soon gave new meaning to the saying, you never truly know someone. Karla Homolka and her then-husband Paul Bernardo became known all across Canada as the Ken and Barbie Killers (Paul was also the Scarborough Rapist). Between them, they killed and raped at least four teenage girls in the 1990s; including Karla’s 14-year-old sister Tammy. The scary part about this couple is that Karla received a plea deal before the full extent of her involvement was found out, and she is currently out of jail free as a bird. It is scary because until Karla and Paul married, Paul never killed any of his victims. So it leaves one to wonder… who was the killer in this messed up couple?

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This book contains graphic descriptions of violence.

One of Canada’s finest crime reporters tells the whole story of the Bernardo-Homolka case.

The sensational trials of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka for abduction, rape, manslaughter and murder caused widespread controversy, as did the twelve-year sentence Homolka received as part of her deal with government lawyers. Yet, even though the publication ban on the case has been lifted, there is much the Canadian public still has not been told.

Nick Pron now gives us a comprehensive account of previously banned information about Bernardo and Homolka’s backgrounds and early relationship; of Homolka’s role in the death of her sister, Tammy; of what turned Bernardo into a sadistic rapist and killer; of slip-shod police work and lack of communication that gave Bernardo and Homolka the opportunity to murder schoolgirls Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French; of the fifteen-month suppression of key videotape evidence; and a host of disturbing facts that were ruled inadmissable at the trial.

Find it on Goodreads, Amazon, and Bookbub.

Juana Barraza – Mexico

Juana Barraza, also known as the “Old Lady Killer” is the first confirmed serial killer from Mexico. She was 48 year old a wanna-be wrestler with the stage name La Dama de Silencio (Lady of Silence). Her killing spree spanned 8 years and consisted of at least 17 deaths all of them abuelas (grandmas) though according to Juana Barraza she only killed one. In, 2008 a judge found her guilty of all 17 murders and sentenced her to 789 years in prison. When asked for a motive, she simply replied, “I got angry.”

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The surprising true story of Mexico’s hunt, arrest, and conviction of its first female serial killer

For three years, amid widespread public outrage, police in Mexico City struggled to uncover the identity of the killer responsible for the ghastly deaths of forty elderly women, many of whom had been strangled in their homes with a stethoscope by someone posing as a government nurse. When Juana Barraza Samperio, a female professional wrestler known as la Dama del Silencio (the Lady of Silence), was arrested–and eventually sentenced to 759 years in prison–for her crimes as the Mataviejitas (the little old lady killer), her case disrupted traditional narratives about gender, criminality, and victimhood in the popular and criminological imagination.

Marshaling ten years of research, and one of the only interviews that Juana Barraza Samperio has given while in prison, Susana Vargas Cervantes deconstructs this uniquely provocative story. She focuses, in particular, on the complex, gendered aspects of the case, asking: Who is a killer? Barraza–with her “manly” features and strength, her career as a masked wrestler in lucha libre, and her violent crimes–is presented, here, as a study in gender deviance, a disruption of what scholars call mexicanidad, or the masculine notion of what it means to be Mexican. Cervantes also challenges our conception of victimhood–specifically, who “counts” as a victim.

The Little Old Lady Killer presents a fascinating analysis of what serial killing–often considered “killing for the pleasure of killing”–represents to us.

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