Do women commit murder for different reasons than men do? In Lifetime movies, they kill to escape abuse, for revenge, or to cash in on a big life insurance policy. But for these real-life female serial killers, the motives are far more sinister.
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The Motive: Test Her Voodoo Superpowers
In 1911 and 1912, brutal ax killings were terrorizing Louisiana. Entire families were slaughtered while they slept, and horrific, bloody crime scenes were left behind. A young African-American woman, Clementine Barnabet, confessed to participating in the murders. She claimed that she possessed a voodoo charm that would protect her from detection by the police. The 19-year-old said that she was the one who killed the children of the slain families so they wouldn’t be left as orphans. But Barnabet changed her story so many times that the police didn’t know what to believe.
She killed at least 35 people and was sentenced to life at Louisiana Penitentiary. While in prison, Barnabet reportedly received a procedure that “restored her to normal conditions.” She was released on good behavior after serving 10 years.
The Motive: Starve Them for Their Own Good
Linda Hazzard ran a sanitarium in the early 20th century. Her specialty was a fasting treatment that she used to the extreme. Despite having no formal medical training, she was licensed as a “fasting specialist” in Washington. Hazzard believed that food, particularly too much food, caused disease. She treated patients with tiny portions of vegetable broth, daily enemas, and vigorous massages that witnesses likened to beatings. Patient Claire Williamson was fed two cups of tomato broth per day and given hours-long enemas in the bathtub. She weighed less than 70 pounds when she died, and Hazzard was charged with first-degree murder for starving her to death.
Hazzard took no responsibility for the deaths of any of her patients. At least 15 died in her care. She believed, “Death in the fast never results from deprivation of food”—if someone died during a fast, it was because they had something that would soon have killed them anyway. Hazzard was sentenced to hard labor at the Walla Walla penitentiary, and her medical license was revoked. She served just two years.
8Martha Ann Johnson
The Motive: Punish Her Husband for Leaving
Martha Ann Johnson smothered three of her own children between 1977 and 1982. Each of the murders followed a domestic dispute with her husband. Each time he walked out, a child died. In September 1977, 21-year-old Johnson and her third husband lived with Johnson’s children from previous marriages. Shortly after her husband stormed out after a fight, Johnson brought her 2-year-old to the hospital. The child was pronounced dead, and doctors listed sudden infant death syndrome as the cause. Johnson and her husband reconciled and had two additional children. In 1980, they fought again, and this time their 3-month-old died. This death was also blamed on cot death. Not long after, their young son died after yet another fight between the couple.
One year later, Johnson’s eldest daughter was dead—asphyxiated from an undetermined cause. In 1989, Johnson (now married to husband No. 4) confessed. She described how she had smothered two children by rolling her 250-pound body onto them and suffocating them to death. She said she did it to punish her husband and, ultimately, to make him come back home. She denied killing her other two children. Johnson is serving a life sentence at Pulaski State Prison.
The Motive: Boost Psychic Reputation
Tillie Klimek was well-known in her neighborhood for her uncanny ability to predict deaths. The Polish-American claimed that her dreams told her when a neighbor or even a stray dog would die. But these weren’t visions or premonitions, they were to-dos: Klimek caused deaths she predicted. In 1914, Klimek told friends that she dreamed that her husband was sick and would die within weeks. Sure enough, he died just as she had predicted. Within a month, Klimek was remarried and receiving “visions” of her new husband’s demise. Hubby No. 2 died just three months later. A new beau was soon on the scene. He became violently ill and died soon after eating some candy given to him by Klimek. A few years later, Klimek wed again. The newlyweds moved into an apartment that Klimek had lived in before with another gentleman who had mysteriously disappeared. Klimek assured neighbors that her third husband wasn’t long for this world. (She even kept a coffin on hand!)
The mister died in April 1921, and Klimek married for the fourth time. Unlike the men who preceded him, husband No. 4 reached out to a doctor when he fell sick. Tests confirmed that he was suffering from arsenic poisoning. Klimek was arrested and confessed to poisoning her husband with a soot-and-arsenic rat poison. Investigators exhumed Klimek’s dead husbands and confirmed that they all had lethal quantities of arsenic in their bodies. At her trial, Klimek confirmed that she had killed 20 people (and several animals). She was convicted of one murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In 1936, she died at age 60 in the Illinois State Penitentiary.
The Motive: For the Sexual Thrill
Jane Toppan was a well-respected nurse—one of the best, according to the doctors who hired her. But unlike most nurses who to pledge to help others, Toppan aspired to “kill more helpless people than any other man or woman who ever lived.” Toppan’s outgoing personality initially earned her the title of “Jolly Jane” among her nursing classmates. Hospital administrators had noticed that talented nursing student was obsessed with autopsies. But what they didn’t notice was that she experimented with drugs on her elderly patients. Toppan completed her studies but lost her first hospital job because she was reckless with opiate prescriptions. Nevertheless, doctors recommended the skilled caregiver as a private nurse to their wealthy clients. One by one, she began murdering her clients. She administered drugs to her patients and then held them close.
She fondled her victims as they died and watched “with delight as [they] gasped [their] life out.” She was arrested in 1901 and confessed to killing at least 31 people (but there were perhaps 100 victims in all). She admitted that she derived a sexual thrill from patients being near death, coming back to life, and then dying again. After an eight-hour trial and 27-minute jury deliberation, Toppan was found not guilty by reason of insanity. She spent the rest of her life at a state hospital and died in 1938.
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5Gwendolyn Graham and Catherine Wood
The Motive: To Spell M-U-R-D-E-R
“Lethal Lovers” Gwendolyn Graham and Catherine Wood were aides at a nursing home in Grand Rapids in 1986. In early 1987, Graham reportedly “relieved tension” by smothering an elderly woman to death. Over the next two months, she and Wood killed four more patients in a similar manner. The deaths were not considered suspicious at the time. Wood claimed that they chose their victims by their initials, with the intent to spell M-U-R-D-E-R. When the couple parted ways, Wood blabbed. She agreed to a plea bargain in exchange for her testimony against her Graham. Wood claimed that Graham was the mastermind and perpetrator of the crimes. Graham was convicted of five counts of murder and sentenced to five life sentences. Wood pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Some speculate that it was Wood who planned the murders after she discovered Graham with another woman. Wood involved Graham in the scheme as an insurance policy to keep her. Wood then manipulated the prosecutor and jury: willingly pleading guilty as an accessory to murder to exact revenge on Graham.
The Motive: Send the Kids to Heaven
Sarah Whiteling’s family dropped dead one at a time. Husband John was the first to go. Dr. George Smith attributed John’s death to inflammation of the bowels. One month later, when daughter Bertha died, Smith blamed gastric fever. Two-year-old William died less than two months later. Cause of death: obstruction of the bowels as the cause of death. Smith alerted the coroner to the three deaths. The bodies were exhumed and found to contain large amounts of arsenic. Whiteling was arrested and described how rat poison had killed her family. She claimed that John has poisoned himself because he was depressed and unable to provide for his family. Whiteling fed the poison to her daughter because she feared “that ‘Birdie’ might grow up to be sinful and wicked.” She poisoned her son to “get him out of the way.” He was a burden, and she was unable to provide for him.
She considered taking her own life but didn’t want to sin. “I know my children are angels in Heaven,” she said, “and I want to meet them when I die. I don’t expect to meet my husband there because he committed suicide and a suicide cannot go to heaven.” She later admitted that she had killed John, too. “The devil possessed me and told me to go home and give my husband some [poison], and I did.” Whiteling was charged with three counts of murder. In 1889, she became the first woman to be hanged in Philadelphia.
The Motive: Get Rid of the “Bastard Children”
Diane O’Dell had 12 babies. Four of them died acrpss a timeline that is confusing and disturbing. In 1981, O’Dell left her husband and their three children. Over the next four years, she gave birth to three more babies without anyone knowing. She said that she was able to hide her condition because she is a heavyset woman. In 1985, O’Dell met Robert Sauerstein, who would become her common-law husband and with whom she would have five more children. Sauerstein reportedly had no idea that, during their frequent moves from state to state, his wife had three newborn corpses in tow. In 1989, an infant’s body was found in a suitcase in a car that was about to be crushed. The car was traced back to O’Dell. She admitted that she gave birth to that baby in 1972, when she was a teenager. She claimed that the baby was stillborn as a result of beatings from her late father. No charges were filed and the other three dead babies remained a secret.
O’Dell kept the corpses with her until 1992, when she left them in an Arizona storage shed. In 2003, the babies’ remains were finally discovered in the abandoned storage unit. All accounts indicate that O’Dell murdered the infants because they were illegitimate. The district attorney prosecuting the case said of the dead babies, “They were unwanted, and they were ‘the bastard children.’” O’Dell is serving a life sentence.
The Motive: Peace and Quiet
In 1972, a medical journal declared that cot death (also known as SIDS or sudden infant death syndrome) ran in families. The compelling evidence it cited involved the deaths of siblings Molly and Noah Hoyt. Twenty years later, a jury would find that Molly and Noah were murdered by their mother, as were their two brothers and a sister. In 1994, Waneta Hoyt told police that she had smothered her babies—Erik, Julie, James, Molly, and Noah—because she wanted to silence them. “I could not stand the crying. It was the thing that cause me to kill them all because I didn’t know what to do for them.” Three of the children were smothered with pillows, one with a bath towel, and one by being pressed into her mother’s shoulder. She was sentenced to 15 years for each murder. Hoyt died in prison in 1998. She was formally exonerated because she died before her appeal.
The Motive: Restitution for the Dodo Birds
Susan Monica ran pig farm. In 2012, she shot a handyman and fed his corpse to her swine. She told police that the man was suicidal and shot himself in the head five times. She later changed her story and claimed she shot the man in self-defense. She said that the pigs dragged the handyman’s body away on their own—she didn’t feed it to them. They “picked his bones clean” for the next two weeks. Then Monica buried the skull and other remains. One year later, Monica did the same thing to a second handyman. She claimed that this shooting was a mercy killing: the pigs had attacked the man, so she put him out of his misery. She didn’t report the shootings because she feared that her pigs would be put down.
During her interrogation, Monica said, “I do not value human life very much. My feeling is the only thing wrong with the planet is there’s people on it. If not for us, all the other animals, even dodo birds, would be here.” Monica was sentenced to 50 years in prison. The pigs were euthanized.
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