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10 Female Serial Killers Who Killed by Poisoning

Updated on August 25, 2015

Serial murder is not a uniquely American phenomenon though, as a country, we have been sensationalizing it since the late 1980s and the rise of a serial killer who called himself "Jack the Ripper". According to the FBI, serial murders comprise of less than 1% of all murders committed in a year (Link 2), but still we find ourselves fascinated by the macabre of serial killing. A large chunk of our televised entertainment deals with topics of deranged serial murderers and offbeat characters with anti-social personalities, but what is it that you picture when you hear the term "serial killer"? A white male? Since the 1900s, Radford has kept a database chronicling all of the serial murders since 1900, and it turns out that 40.6% were women in 1900. While this number has since decreased to presently stand at 5.6% (Link 1), serial killing amongst women is still present in today's society; however, female serial killers tend to set themselves apart from male serial killers due to their favored method of murder: poisoning.

1. Lydia Sherman

Lydia Sherman claimed her first victim in the early 1860s and continued with a string of suspected poisonings that lasted for over a decade (Link 4). Nicknamed the Queen Poisoner or American Borgia (Link 5), Lydia Sherman was originally a wife and mother to six children. When her home life became too much for her to handle, she decided to put an end to all of her responsibilities with some rat poisoning she purchased without her family's knowledge. But simply killing off her husband and six children was not enough for Lydia Sherman; in an effort to score some extra cash, Lydia Sherman insured her husband's life for a modest sum. After killing him and reaping the monetary benefits, she repeated the same steps with each of her six children and became quite wealthy (Link 4). Shockingly enough, she was able to go on to re-marry and then kill a second husband (Link 3), Dennis Hulbrut, a wealthy but senile farmer in New Haven, Connecticut. Lydia Smith then gathered the man's estate and went on to find her next victim, a newly widowed man named Nelson Sherman. After tricking the man into marrying her, Lydia Smith proceeded to poison both him and his two children with arsenic (Link 4). By the time of her arrest, she had become known as a black widow: one who killed for monetary gain (Link 5). Lydia Sherman was only convicted of second degree murder due to circumstantial evidence and died in prison on May 16th, 1878 (Link 4). She was responsible for at least 10 deaths (Link 5).

2. Genene Jones

Genene Jones is another female serial killer who liked to play with poison. She was a pediatric nurse who worked in three San Antonio hospitals and poisoned over 50 infants (Link 3) with digoxin, heparin and succinylcholine before finally getting arrested in 1982. In less than a decade, Jones was thought to have killed more than 40 infants, though she was only convicted for the murders of six. This crime earned her 99 years in prison (Link 6) and the title of "the angel of death" (Link 8). Genene Jones had a hero complex that compelled her to inject healthy infants with life-threatening drugs. As the children gasped for air, Jones would thrust herself into the situation, saving the child and claiming the title of the hero. This proved to be a dangerous life-or-death game that often did not end the way Jones anticipated and many infants died as a result (Link 6). Genene Jones was dismissed from two different medical facilities under suspicion that she was injecting infants with chemicals to induce cardiac arrest and hemorrhaging, though not one of the three investigations implicated her directly. The actual number of infants that died under Genene Jones' care has never been determined (Link 6). Now, 30 years later, Genene Jones is going to become the first serial killer in our country's history to be legally released from prison (Link 8) thanks to an old Texas law that was designed to prevent the overcrowding of the prison system. The Mandatory Release law allows any inmates in Texas prisons convicted for violent crimes between the years 1977 and 1987 to be automatically released depending on their behavior. While the law was altered in 1987 to exclude those convicted of violent crimes, such as Genene Jones, this law is not retroactive (Link 7). Thus, after just 36 years--barely 1/3 of her actual sentence--Genene Jones will walk free (Link 8).

3. Tillie Klimek

Tillie Klimek murdered for nearly a decade, claiming the lives of up to twenty or more (Link 11) men, women and children (Link 3). Similarly to Lydia Sherman, Tillie Klimek cycled through a number of husbands before being caught. But she didn't only murder her husbands; Tillie Klimek also poisoned neighbors, relatives, and dogs that irritated her with arsenic (Link 11). Fourteen of the twenty people Klimek was suspected of poisoning died, typically after having eaten at Klimek's house and all after perceived quarrels (Link 9). In fact, several women complained of becoming deathly ill after having eaten a piece of candy at Klimek's house, which perhaps marks the beginning of parents fearing arsenic laced candy (Link 10) on Halloween. Tillie Klimek was already on her fifth husband by the time police arrested her for the murder of her fourth husband (Link 10). Upon exhuming the previous three husbands, authorities were able to determine that arsenic was the most probable cause of death (Link 11); however, Klimek was only convicted for the one murder (Link 10) due to a lack of a solid evidence. Tillie Klimek covered her murders by claiming to have precognitive dreams, though she never called herself a psychic (Link 9). In these precognitive dreams, Klimek claimed to see when someone would die when, in reality, it was her poison that caused these people to die on the dates she listed (Link 11).

4. Nannie Doss

Nannie Doss was the daughter of an abusive farmer who had little respect or regard for her education. Pulled out of school at the age of twelve, she spent most of her life secluded to her family's farm working in the factory and reading her mother's romance magazines (Link 16). At the young age of seven, Nannie Doss suffered from a traumatic brain injury that stuck with her for the rest of her life (Link 14) and may have potentially played some part in her violent personality. By the age of sixteen, Nannie Doss had married her first husband and even had four children with him in a quick four-year period (Link 15). Doss' first murders were thought to have occurred in 1927 when two of her daughters suddenly died of "food poisoning" in quick succession while their father was at work (Link 16). Following this incident, Doss' first husband fled with their oldest daughter, leaving behind an infant and his mother, Doss' mother-in-law, who died soon after (Link 15). Once again a free woman, Nannie Doss went on to pursue more men, leaving four dead husbands in her wake (Link 14), along with her mother, her sister, her grandson, her mother-in-law, and another man's mother. Relatives and family members kept dying of stomach problems (Link 15). Nannie Doss was not caught until after she had already poisoned her fifth and final husband--twice. Her first attempt, an arsenic-laced prune cake, failed and her husband spent a month recovering in a local hospital. Upon his homecoming, Doss put arsenic in the man's coffee, and he died soon after (Link 14). The physician who had treated Doss' husband suspected foul play and had the body exhumed for further testing, at which point he found enough arsenic in the man's system to kill a horse. Prompted to kill by marital boredom and her desired to find an ideal mate like the one's she had read about in her mother's romance magazines (Link 14), Nannie Doss earned the title of "the giggling granny" due to her tendency to laugh during each of her interrogations (Link 12).

5. Jane Toppan

Jane Toppan, a.k.a "Jolly Jane" (Link 12), grew up as the poor daughter of an alcoholic single father. After a few years, Jane and her sister were sent to a Boston Insane Asylum, where Jane was eventually adopted by Mrs. Anne Toppan (Link 17) and made to be a servant (Link 19). Realizing that no man would want to marry her, Jane settled down and became a nurse (Link 17), at which point she took to experimenting with morphine and atropine on patients (Link 12). After administering a lethal dose, Toppan would watch her patients die and then alter the medical reports (Link 12). The facility she worked at was low security, though none of her co-workers suspected her. To them, Jane seemed happy and up-beat. Little did they know, Toppan spent most of her time with her patients filling out the fake paperwork and bringing them in and out of consciousness with drugs (Link 17). In 1931, when Jane Toppan was finally caught, she was thought to have killed 31 people (Link 12), though she confessed to having killed over 100 (Link 18). Jane attested that her goal was "to… kill more [helpless] people… than any other man or woman who ever lived" (Link 12).

6. Dorothea Puente

Dorothea Puente is another product of bad parenting. One of anywhere from seven to eighteen children who was raised by a prostitute and often saw her father put a gun to his head, Dorothea Puente spent a majority of her childhood being passed through homes. In one of these homes, she was molested and had two children by the age of 16 (Link 20). Puente spent most of her life dealing with the legal system, the first time for forging checks and another time for vagrancy (Link 21). Puente finally ended up in prison for five years after a 74-year-old pensioner accused her of drugging and robbing him (Link 21). While in prison, Dorothea Puente began communicating with a pen-pal named Everson Gillmouth. Upon being released from prison, Puente moved in and opened a joint bank account with Gillmouth (Link 22), who was discovered dead in a wooden box by the river some time later--though police could not ID the body until three years later when Puente was caught and arrested (Link 21). Following her release, Dorothea Puente started up a "room and board" business, taking in 40 tenants (Link 21) investigators considered "shadow people": elderly alcoholics with disabilities (Link 20). Although no witnesses lived to tell the tale, Puente allegedly used drugs to overdose and kill her boarders and then claimed their Social Security checks. She was finally caught when a mentally ill man went missing and his social worker became suspicious of Puente's unlicensed boarding home (Link 20). Upon inspecting the property, police discovered disturbed soil on the property and were able to uncover seven bodies. Dorothea Puente was charged with nine counts of murder and convicted of six (Link 22), earning her the title of "the death house landlady" (Link 12).

7. Leonarda Cianciulli

Leonarda Cianciulli, also known as "the soap-maker of Correggio", was a typical Italian wife (Link 12) and mother. As a child, Cianciulli was anything but stable, attempting suicide twice. In 1914, Leonarda married a man whom her parents did not approve of; On this day, Leonarda believed that her mother cursed her marriage. During her younger years, Cianciulli and her husband had seventeen pregnancies: three were miscarriages and ten died in their youth, leaving only four children that Cianciulli was highly protective of (Link 23). Cianciulli was a superstitious woman who spent most of her life being haunted by a fortune-teller's prediction that she would lose all of her children (Link 25) and end up in an insane asylum (Link 23). Her murders were motivated by the urge to sacrifice souls in order to ensure the protection of her remaining children--particularly her favorite son, Giuseppe, who was enlisted in the Italian army (Link 25). How did Leonarda Cianciulli do this? She baked teacakes and made homemade soap, all with one special ingredient: human flesh (Link 12). Leonarda's human sacrifices were three neighbor women (Link 23), whom she would drug with a glass of wine and then proceed to chop up their bodies with an axe (Link 12). Leonarda's disposed of the bodies by boiling them in caustic soda (Link (Link 24) until they dissolved into what Leonarda described as "a thick, dark mush", at which point she poured them into the septic tank (Link 25). The remain blood was then left to coagulate, dried in the oven, and ground and mixed with flour to make teacakes. She served these human flesh teacakes to the ladies who came to her shop, as well as her son Giuseppe (Link 25). Cianciulli's final victim was boiled in a pot and turned into soap and teacakes. The way Cianciulli described it: "that woman was really sweet" (Link 23). In the end, Leonarda Cianciulli was arrested and sentenced to 30 years in prison and another three in a criminal insane asylum (Link 23), just like the fortune-teller predicted.

8. Lavinia Fisher

Some people believe that Lavinia Fisher was the first female serial killer in the United States (Link 27), but the truth is that there is no real evidence the prove that Lavinia Fisher killed anyone. In fact, most of Lavinia's story is nothing more than a legend (Link 27). Born in 1792, much about Lavinia Fisher's life and origin has been lost through time. Most people remember her for the hotel she and her husband operated in Charleston, South Carolina (Link 13) called The Six Mile Wayfarer House. Lavinia and her husband were well liked by the townspeople, so it took a while for anyone to suspect them when men who stayed at the hotel began to disappear. Lavinia herself was a charming and lovely woman, a trait which she exploited to lure men into her husband's hotel (Link 26). Lavinia would invite men to dinner, question them about their occupations in order to determine wealth and then send them to bed with tea that was laced with poison to put them to sleep (Link 28). Legend has it that once the men were asleep, a lever would be pulled to lower the bed, along with the victim, into a pit (Link 28), where he would be met by Lavinia and her husband. The couple's undoing came when a business man traveling from Georgia entered the hotel to inquire about getting a room. The man, lured by Lavinia's beauty, accepted her usual invitation to tea. This particular man grew suspicious of Lavinia's questioning and her husband's leering stares, as well as the odd taste of the tea. He didn't want to be rude, so he dumped the tea into a plant when no one was looking. Due to the fact that this man was not actually drugged, he managed to escape and contact the authorities (Link 26). This tale has been skewed over time to entertain travelers, so there is no telling which of these facts are true (Link 27), such as how many bodies were actually discovered in the cellar beneath The Mile Six Wayfarer House. Some accounts claim that there were hundreds (Link 26), and others that there were just two, neither of which was linked directly to Lavinia (Link 27). Regardless of which version is true, Lavinia and her husband were hung for their crimes (Link 13).

9. Bertha Gifford

Bertha Gifford was revered by her friends and neighbors as a "Good Samaritan", renowned for her cooking and willingness to take care of those who were ill (Link 29). The only problem was that most of Gifford's "patients" died suddenly after complaining about stomach pains (Link 31). Bertha Gifford killed a dozen people between the years of 1906 and 1927 in the small town of Franklin County, Missouri, just 50 miles outside of Saint Louis (Link 29). Although many may not have heard her name, the people of Missouri remember it quite well (Link 31). After enough people died and were linked back to Bertha Gifford's care (Link 29), Berth was arrested and the dead bodies of her victims were exhumed. Autopsies revealed large quantities of arsenic, which Gifford had used to kill the sick (Link 30). Bertha Gifford was tried and found not guilty based on an insanity plea that left her spending the rest of her life in a mental hospital (Link 13). She is thought to have possibly murdered up to two-dozen people, though this has not been confirmed (Link 13).

10. Velma Barfield

Velma Barfield, also known as "The Death Row Granny" (Link 35), was the first woman to be executed in the United States since 1962, after the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 (Link 33). As a child, Velma Barfield was raised in an incredibly strict Pentecostal household, one of nine other children (Link 32); however, as an adult, Barfield's religion faltered. She married and re-married a few times, with each of her husbands dying of different causes: her first husband died in a fire (Link 33), while her second husband died of "a severe stomach virus". In fact, many people who associated with Velma Barfield began dying of similar "severe stomach viruses" and other stomach related issues, include Barfield's own mother, who was hospitalized multiple times before dying of an unknown stomach disease (Link 32). Barfield was finally caught when Stuart Taylor, Barfield's boyfriend, fell sick. Barfield volunteered to care for him, eventually taking Taylor to the hospital, where he died less than two hours later. An autopsy was performed, at which point arsenic was discovered as the cause of death (Link 33). Velma Barfield claimed that "the devil made [her] do it", attesting that she merely intended to sicken her victims to cover up the fact that she had been using their money to pay for her prescription drug use (Link 35). Convicted of two murders, Barfield was sentenced to death by lethal injection--a fact that troubled many who were opposed to its reinstatement (Link 34). While on death row, Velma Barfield claimed that she had been rehabilitated as a born-again Christian and appealed to the court to take the death penalty off of the table (Link 32). Prison guards described Barfield as being deeply religious and gave her credit for counseling numerous women in the facility (Link 34). In fact, upon the day of Velma Barfield's lethal injection, there were 39 other prisoners slated for the same fate. The hollow pounding of the inmates beating against their Plexiglas cells could be heard as Barfield died peaceful by lethal injection (Link 34).

Who did you think was the creepiest female serial killer?

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