Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History

by Tori Telfer

Paperback, 2017




Harper Perennial (2017), Edition: 1st Printing, 352 pages


"In 1998, an FBI profiler infamously declared in a homicide conference, 'There are no female serial killers'--but Lady Killers offers fourteen creepy examples to the contrary."--Page 4 of cover.Serial killers are thought to be so universally, overwhelmingly male that in 1998, FBI profiler Roy Hazelwood infamously declared in a homicide conference, "There are no female serial killers." Telfer delves into the reality of female aggression and predation with this compendium of female serial killers and their crimes through the ages.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jen.e.moore
I was expecting this to be a somewhat frothy, somewhat pulpy read, lots of lurid exaggeration and overblown body counts. I was pleasantly surprised when what I got instead was a chronicle of the way the contemporary media, and then history, treats women murderers. There are some big names in here (Countess Bathory, obviously; the Bloody Benders) but also a few I'd never heard of, and some I only knew a little about. They aren't just stories from America and the UK, either - we've got murderers here from Egypt, Hungary, Russia, and Ireland. In each story, Telfer picks apart the ways these women are dehumanized (many of them were described as animalistic) or their crimes minimized by making them sexy (bathing in the blood of virgins!) or purely mercenary (killing one husband for the insurance money is one thing, but five?). And then, once they've been executed or died in prison, we forget all about them. Aileen Wurnos is far from the first female serial killer, but that was exactly what she was called in the press. In the end, Telfer's thesis is simple: women are people, and sometimes people are horrible. Fans of Harold Schechter and Skip Hollandsworth should enjoy this very much.… (more)
LibraryThing member seasonsoflove
I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion of the book or my review itself.

In Lady Killers, Telfer tells the true stories of fourteen female serial killers from history, ranging from groups of women who banded together to poison the men in their lives, to a woman who kept finding her way to elderly men and their money. Telfer has a wonderfully wry writing style, and manages to find moments of subtle humor amidst the darkness, making her book very accessible, while never losing sight of her subject matter.

I have read a lot of true crime, and I hadn't heard of many of these women. And that is one of Telfer's main points. That whatever media existed at their time marveled at how a woman could commit such heinous crimes, and then history promptly forgot them, proclaiming every time that this was the first female serial killer.

I would absolutely recommend this book for true crime readers, as well as people interested in history and women's studies.
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LibraryThing member Calavari
What a delightfully creepy book. I'm not really a true crime fan because it makes me even more paranoid than I already tend to be, but I had to find one for Read Harder this year. I still couldn't listen to it right before bed but it was fascinating. Telfer brings together a set of women from our near to distant past to show how women have never been the pure maternal souls we so often get put on us.

The most recent lady killer mentioned was in the 1950's, which I appreciated. Lady killers may not be a thing of the past only, but I feel I'm better off not knowing popular contemporary ways to get rid of people. It also helps that not one of these women didn't really get away with it. I don't consider that a spoiler because there's no other way to get the details without extensive documentation plus the detail that it was definitively a woman. I think one did elude the police, though.

The tales collected are incredibly detailed, including methods of murder, motives, rumors, lore, sentences, and what alerted people to their deeds. The women themselves are from many countries and eras and of every class. They were in a variety of circumstances and their actions were the result of situations from excessive abuse to excessive privilege. The author admits in the end, though, that she was unable to find sufficient information to include women of color and mentions a few she had looked into along with a caveat that this does not mean they didn't exist among other races.

The book itself was written to not just refute the idea that women can't kill even their own children but to combat the erasure that happens when women do kill. The point is not to glorify this sort of behavior, nor to excuse it, but acknowledge that it is there, despite popular belief. Many of these women got away with murder for as long as tbey did because no one around them could fathom that a woman was capable of such a thing.

It was likewise interesting to read about the preferred methods of murder for women over the years, especially having seen several mentioned in some of my favorite fiction, like Etiquette and Espionage. We continue to forget what women can be capable of when push comes to shove and while I nor the author condone murder, we recognize that women should not be underestimated in this regard either.
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LibraryThing member Maydacat
The subject of female serial killers is not one that comes up often in literature, but this book handled the subject well and is aptly named. Many of these killers were ladies in the strictest sense. Some came from well-to-do families. They looked liked society people, or like hard-working innkeepers, or like loving relatives, or even like a kindly grandmother. But in reality, they were cool, conniving, cold-blooded killers. They beat their servants, poisoned their husbands, and buried the bodies without losing a wink of sleep. Author Tori Telfer does an excellent job of breathing life into killers who come from different countries and are spread over several centuries. You will be appalled by their cruelty and horrendous crimes even as you are compelled to read about them. This audio version is well performed by Sarah Mollo-Christensen.… (more)
LibraryThing member starbox
This is a light read, but not a trashy one. I'd heard of a couple of the female serial killers (Elizabeth Bathory and Mary Anne Cotton) but the rest wre all new and - generally- quite an interesting lot. The "Angel Makers of Nagyrev" - a sisterhood of old Hungarian villagerswho operated almost like social workers, 'fixing' things for overburdened mothers, unhappily married wives; a sadistic Russian serf-owner; "the Beautiful Throat Cutter- a Kansas inn owner who despatched her guests; the murky word of a pair of Egyptian brothel owners; the 'Giggling Grandma'...
The author considers, too, how female killers are represented entirely differently to men...our need to paint their crimes with comprehensible motives- money, love, witchcraft- and their very existence a bit of a joke, since to envisage the nurturing gender as truly psychopathic, relishing suffering, is too scary to contemplate.
Very interesting!
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Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

352 p.; 5.31 inches


0062433733 / 9780062433732

Local notes

violence/ crime
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