Black Widows Female Serial Killers Research Proposal

Excerpt from Research Proposal :

Doss met third husband Arlie Lanning through the lonely hearts column. Lanning died of apparent heart failure, but the house, which Lanning had left to his sister, burned down, leaving the insurance proceeds for Doss. Before Doss left town, Lanning's mother died in her seat. Doss had gone to her sister Dovie's house, and, shortly after Doss' arrival, Dovie died in her sleep. Doss married fourth husband Richard Morton, poisoned her mother, and then killed Morton. Doss married Samuel Doss, and killed him four months after their marriage. Doss had taken out two life insurance policies on her husband. The doctor ordered an autopsy because of the life insurance policies, and the cause of death was determined to be poison.

When Nannie was arrested, she maintained an eerily cheerful demeanor for the public. She giggled and laughed, not showing remorse for her actions, or even seeming to clearly comprehend what she had done. She confessed to killing her husbands, her mother, her sister, her grandson, and her mother-in-law. She was charged with the murder of Samuel Doss, pleaded guilty to the crime, and received a life sentence. She was never prosecuted for the other murders. Nannie died in prison.

Nannie's story demonstrates several factors that link her to a serial killer. First, unlike Belle, Nannie's motives were not always financial; she did not always profit from her murders. Furthermore, she had a difficult childhood, raised by a stepfather who beat her and her mother. She was most likely the product of an unplanned pregnancy, since her mother was a single mother. Nannie reported receiving a head injury when she was a child, and she blamed it for her violent behavior. Furthermore, Nannie was known to have mood swings, which could have been indicative of a biochemical imbalance. Her father prohibited her from dating, which actually made her different from her peers, and could be described as an outwardly-imposed sexual deviance. Once married, she engaged in several extra-marital affairs, in a pursuit of true love. In fact, her reported reason for killing her husbands was not for financial gain, but because they had grown boring and dull (Geringer, Nannie, 2009).

The final woman to be examined, Aileen Wuornos, most closely fits the stereotype that most people have of serial killers. In fact, like many male serial killers, she had a very troubled childhood. Her mother married her biological father at 15 and divorced him at 17. The father was a physically abusive pedophile who liked to torture animals and who committed suicide. It is easy to speculate that Aileen was the result of an unwanted pregnancy, since her mother was 17 and divorcing her husband when pregnant with Aileen. Moreover, Aileen's mother abandoned her. Aileen and her brother began setting fires as children. This led to a serious injury that permanently disfigured Aileen. She was physically abused by the maternal grandmother who raised her. Furthermore, Aileen engaged in deviant sexual behavior. She reported having sex with her brother and was definitely promiscuous at an early age. She had a child at 14. She also had a personal history of suicidal tendencies, as well as suicide in the family; the grandfather who raised her committed suicide. Just these few facts suggest that Wuornos will have many of the traits identified by Norris' as concomitant with serial-killer tendencies.

What is fascinating is that Wuornos, whose personal history so strongly suggests the characteristics Norris identified in serial killers, killed the most like male serial killers. She selected random victims. While it is true that Wuornos was a prostitute, it cannot be assumed that all of her victims were johns. On the contrary, Wuornos' confessions suggest that she would pick up some of the men while hitchhiking, offer them sex, then kill them and rob them. She claims that her first victim raped her, a claim that may have been accurate, because he had a history of sexual violence, but her claims that all of her subsequent victims also tried to rape her seem unlikely. She seemed unwilling to accept blame for her actions, while, at the same time, intervening in her defense to prevent her appellate attorneys from stopping her execution. All of these factors paint a complex portrait of someone who knew she had done something wrong, but may have lacked a mechanism for feeling remorse about it. That facet is similar to the mainstream portrayal of serial killers. However, it is clear that Wuornos was motivated by money. She was desperate to try to keep her live-in girlfriend, and used the money from the murders to finance their very meager standard-of-living. That facet of Wuornos story suggests that while Wuornos, like Belle and Nannie, may have exhibited many of the same features as the male serial killers, the innate differences between men and women may mean that male and female serial killers should be approached in different ways.


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Geringer, J. (2009). Nannie Doss: lonely hearts lady loved her man to death. Retrieved October

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Norris, J. (1988). Serial killers: the growing menace. New York: Doubleday.

Macleod, M. (2009). Aileen Wuornos: killer who preyed on truck drivers. Retrieved October 6,

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