Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Female of the Species Part 3: His Killer Half

We've covered the typical and not-so-typical female serial killer.  Now it's time to look at a female serial killer in a serial killer couple.  Because there are so many of these women who claim to simply be a victim it's hard to figure out which were, in fact, abused loves who were dragged along for the ride and which were active participants in the crimes them and their significant other committed.  There are, however, certain women who not only active participants but the actual killers of some of the couples' victims themselves - they were not women too scared to run, they were women too in love (with the kill) to run.  It will be one of those that we'll look at here.

"Lonely Hearts" Lady

Martha Beck was part of a killer duo that murdered at least 3 (and as many as 20 individuals if rumors held true) in 1949.  Her, along with her lover, Raymond Fernandez, would become known as "The Lonely Hearts Killers" for their tendency to prey upon women using the "Lonely Hearts" ads in newspapers.  On her own Martha was little more than a sad story of an unfortunate childhood that seemed to lead her to make unfortunate choices.  She was born Martha Jule Seabrook in 1920 in and, due to a glandular problem, was overweight and experienced puberty at a very young age which lead to her being a continual outcast and early promiscuity.

When she grew up Martha became a nurse though, to start, because of her looks, she had to take a job as an undertaker's assistant in her home state of Florida.  Eventually she grew unhappy with this and moved out to California in 1942 to be an army nurse.  (Unlike the Angels of Death we've covered in the past Marth was recorded as being a good nurse without any suspicious deaths of those in her care who took her job helping people seriously.)  Her promiscuity caught up with her when she became pregnant by a man who refused to marry her and, so upset over this, she returned to Florida.  In order to explain the illegitimate pregnancy she created a rather elaborate charade to explain the situation - she claimed that she was married to a naval officer (even bought herself a ring to wear) and, when the time came, she had a telegram sent to herself saying he'd died in action.  Not long after Martha became pregnant again, this time from bus driver Alfred Beck, who married her, although the two divorced six months after.

For the next two years Martha, unemployed and single mother of two, slipped into a rich fantasy life of romance novels and afternoon movies.  She dreamed of a Prince Charming to whisk her away into his loving arms.  In 1946 she got a job as a nurse once more and put out a "Lonely Hearts" ad in the paper...and it was through this ad that she met Ray Fernandez who answered it.  By the end of 1947 the two met face-to-face and, by 1948, Martha was abandoning her two children at the Salvation Army in order to keep Ray in her life permanently (she would not have contact with them again in in prison in 1951).  She had her Prince Charming; nothing would get between her and him now.

Now previous to their meeting neither Beck nor Fernandez were recorded as having killed anyone (though one of Fernandez's former lovers died under suspicious circumstances) and neither were shown to have any tendency towards violence.  That being said once they met things began to change rapidly for both of them.  Martha grew to have a wicked jealous streak which led to their first murder in January 1949 when, after seeing Fernandez in bed with their (they now pulled cons together, Beck playing his sister to add respectability and lower women's guards farther) latest mark, Janet Fay, Martha lost control.  She bludgeoned the woman with a ball-peen hammer and then, to finish the job, Fernandez strangled her using a scarf.  The couple then wrapped the body up and stuffed it into the closet before getting some sleep.  The next morning they got a large trunk, stuck the woman's body inside, and eventually buried it in a rented house.

From the murder in Long Island the killer couple quickly moved on to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they would meet their next two victims.  Again using the "Lonely Hearts" ads as a victim pool Fernandez began to correspond with a 41-year-old widow, Delphine Downing, who was the mother of a two-year-old daughter, Rainelle.  For some time things went relatively smoothly; though Beck's jealous rage began to creep up once more the woman seemed able to keep it in check.  But when Downing discovered that Fernandez was not the man he claimed to be (thanks to witnessing him without his customary toupee) things grew ugly quickly.  Downing refused to be charmed by Fernandez any farther and accused him of deception and fraud.  Hoping to calm the woman Beck convinced her to take some sleeping pills...but, while the pills did their job, Downing's little girl began to cry.  An already frustrated Beck snapped once more.  She grabbed the child and choked her into unconsciousness, leaving clear bruises on the tot's neck as she did.  When Fernandez saw what Beck has done they both panicked realizing, when Downing woke, she'd see the bruises her daughter.  So they did the only thing they could think of - using Downing's late husband's gun (and a towel as a form of silencer) Fernandez shot the woman pointblank in the head, killing her.  Over the next two days they made plans to skip town before realizing they also had to kill the little girl, Rainelle.  Filling a tub with water Martha drowned the small child and then buried the girl with her mother in the basement of the house.  Then, oddly, rather than leave town, they went to the movies.  When they returned to continue packing they were stopped by a knock at the door...neighbors, suspecting something, had called the cops and "The Lonely Hearts Killers" murders came to an end.

The two depraved lovebirds would not stand trial for the murders of Delphine and Rainelle Downing for one reason...they would stand trial for Janet Fay instead, thus opening up the possibility for the death penalty.  Both of them would end up being convicted of the murder and, in the end, both receive the punishment of death by electric chair.  Until the end they would both loudly, proudly, and continually proclaim love for one another.

...It's unlikely that, if they'd never met one another, neither Ray Fernandez nor (especially) Martha Beck would've ever committed multiple murders.  It's the most interesting and bizarre part of killer couples like them.  Alone they were both troubled individuals who simply would've continued on their own pathetic paths; but in getting together, in becoming a couple, they became a true danger to virtually anyone they preyed upon. Any morals they might've had were set aside for one another and killing became an acceptable act for both of them.  And, in this specific case, it was the woman who not only participated in the violence, but began them on the terrible road that ended in death row.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Female of the Species Part 2: The Aggressive Girls

As reviewed in the previous piece women serial killers tend to do things a little differently.  For the most part their methodology is subtler and less overtly violent - smothering, poison - and their victims are those they know, those others would expect them to care for - family, patients if they're a nurse.  But there are exceptions to every rule and, sometimes, female serial killers are just as openly aggressive and random in their kills as their male counterparts.  (For the purposes of this essay I'm leaving out those females involved in "killer couples" as there are a number of other dynamics going on that might be influencing their level of violence and choice of victim.)

The Blood Countess

Elizabeth Bathory was exceptional...exceptionally beautiful, exceptionally powerful, and exceptionally sexually sadistic.  It's the sexual sadism that sets her apart from her other female serial killing counterparts.  True that most other women serial killers got a sadistic pleasure from the deaths they caused (orgasming as they held their victims during the final death throes of a poisoning), but they were not sexual sadists.  Other women did not get a sexual release from the torturing and degradation of their victims like Countess Bathory did.  Documents found concerning her trial describe a number of shocking acts of violence that she performed on servant girls under her control - biting off pieces of their flesh, burning their genitals, and literally tearing their mouths open with her own bare hands - none of which would ever be considered the norm for a female serial killer.  Oddly though the one thing that was missing was what she's most frequently known for...bathing in blood.  In truth it would seem that the rumor started because Bathory was so aggressive and violent in her torture of her servants that their blood got all over her clothing and body giving the appearance that she'd bathed in it.

Sadly, because her crimes occurred so long ago, her trial was actually held in secret (the fact any documents were found was a miracle in and of itself), and for about one hundred years after her crimes the people of the country were virtually forbidden to mention her, there isn't as much information on her as one would like.  Most of what is believed is rumor - such as the bathing in blood - and other factors may have been overblown due to the sociopolitical influences in that time in history - she was a Protestant when Catholics were taking over the government.  That being said there were at least 50 confirmed murders based on testimony and, if she started her sadistic tortures in her adolescence as appearances would indicate, and continued until she was caught, that's 35 years of torture and murder she indulged in...more than enough to accomplish the 650 murders she's been credited with.

The "First" Female Serial Killer

Aileen Wuornos is wrongly, but frequently, proclaimed the first female serial killer.  There is a good reason that she earned this misnomer though, and it has to do with both her methodology and victimology, which sets her apart from other female serial killer just like Elizabeth Bathory was set apart.  It also likely has to do with the horrific type of childhood she shares with male serial killers.

Born in 1956 she seemed almost doomed from the start, her life a near constant experience of abuse and abandonment.  Her father (whom Aileen never actually met) spent much of his life in and out of prison before hanging himself after being charged with child molestation and her mother left her and her brother  with a babysitter when Aileen was just six months old and never returned.  Taken in by her grandparents Aileen was then kicked out at age 13 when she had a child of her own that, she claimed, was the result of a rape.  At 20 she married a 70-year-old man, but the marriage ended after a month with both of them claiming the other was abusive.  At age 22 Aileen shot herself in a suicide attempt and, while recovering, she then robbed a convenience store at gunpoint...she spent 13 months in prison for that one and, soon, other arrests for various crimes (check forgery, auto theft) followed.

Of course it's not surprising to find that many female serial killers had horrible childhoods as well - ones filled with violence, abandonment, and that caused them to be sociopaths incapable of such things as love, compassion, and trust.  It's clear though that Aileen tended towards open acts of aggression such as physical altercations and the use of weapons (in her case a .22 caliber handgun) in committing some of her crimes more in line with male antisocial behavior.  This more male-based way of interacting with others followed into her killings beginning with her first victim, Richard Mallory, on November 30, 1989.  Mallory, like the six others that followed, was murdered via multiple gunshot wounds.  Aileen also followed the more male-based act of killing those who were virtual strangers, using her profession as a prostitute to pick up and then seclude her victims before murdering them.

The Unanswerable Question

Why?  That's the one question that can't quite be answered for the women who kill "like a man".  By her adolescence Elizabeth Bathory already had a reputation for being excessively cruel in the discipline of her female servants, but there doesn't seem to be an indication as to where she'd have learned to be so over the top in her violence towards others.  Aileen Wuornos certainly seemed to reenact the aggression she experienced in her childhood on others, but it doesn't explain why she did while other female serial killers never took the same openly violent path.  It would seem, perhaps, that those killers like Bathory and Wuornos are, in fact, one of aberration even in the horrifyingly strange world of serial killers.

Side Note Trivia: There's been some debate as to whether or not Elizabeth Bathory was, in fact, related to Vlad "The Impaler" Tepes (aka Dracul, the man upon which the character Dracula was said to be based)...according to what I could find, yes, she was distantly related to him through marriage.  That being said the fact that they had similar murderous personalities is coincidence and doesn't have to do with their relation to each other.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Female of the Species

When people think of serial killers they think of men and that's hardly a surprise since a vast majority of serial killers are, in fact male.  But it would be a mistake to think that women, "the fairer sex" as it the old saying goes, aren't every bit as capable of multiple murders as their male counterparts.  They tend to go about their murders a little differently and select different kinds of victims to prey upon but they are no less guilty of their crimes and get no less of a sexual thrill in causing the death of other  And, of those chosen to be their victims, they are no less terrifyingly dangerous.

Cuddly Killers

Male serial killers are well known for being abhorrently violent towards their victims.  They stab, shoot, and bludgeon.  Their kills are unmistakably aggressive, there's no hiding a serial murder done by a man should the body be found.  This isn't the case with women killers.  They kill in much more quiet, far less detectable, methods but whether they are "gentler" methods is really a moot point:  Would you rather be shot in the head or smothered by a pillow?

Likely, more than even those that smother, female serial killers are known as poisoners.  It's hardly a surprise...poisons are easily accessible, difficult to detect (compared to a knife wound), and incredibly effective.  Nannie Doss, aka the "Giggling Granny", killed four husbands, two children, a grandchild, two sisters, and her mother  between the years of 1929-1953 by slipping rat poison in their whiskey, coffee, or stewed prunes.  Rat poison, by the way, generally includes the rather infamous ingredient of arsenic which is also found in wallpaper, paint, weed killer, pesticides, and tanning products.  So it's almost natural that women aiming to kill should end up using arsenic, it's likely already in their home or an easily excusable purchase ("Well of course I bought a large supply bug spray, I have a garden and whole backyard to tend to!")

I Love You To Death

Another major, and somewhat frightening, difference between male and female serial killers is their victim choice.  Male serial killers select victims they don't know and a great deal of their efforts go into trolling for victims that suit their needs (this is outside, of course, the few that sometimes start or end their killings with a relations such as Ed Kemper with his grandparents and mother).  For the most part, if able, they tend to gear their victimology towards their sexual preference; straight male killers go for women, gay male killers go for men, bisexual killers will attack either, and pedophile killers target children.  But, no matter what, they tend towards targeting strangers.  None of these circumstances are true with female serial killers.

Victims of women serial killers are close to them; they're related, dating, or otherwise under the care of the killer.  Because of the victims they select these killers have earned themselves rather catchy names such as Blackwidows for those women who marry, then kill, men over and over (frequently having the secondary motive of gaining life insurance money from them as with Mary Ann Cotton who killed 20-21 people, including 4 husbands) and Angels of Death for those nurses choosing to prey upon their helpless patients.  One most recent Angel of Death was Genene Jones of Texas who killed as many as 46 infants and toddlers from 1971-1984. Using injections of heparin and succinylcholine to induce medical crises in her patients she would then try to revive them in order to receive praise and attention...sadly most the little ones in her care never survived that first injection.

Same Difference

So, with all these keys differences in male and female serial killers it's only natural to wonder if there are any similarities?  Yes, there's one core similarity...They both get a sick, sadistic, sexual thrill out of their kills.  Jane Toppan played nurse as she killed 31 people via poison from 1885-1901 and, once caught, confessed that killing gave her a "voluptuous delight".  She went on to admit that her murders were motivated by "an irresistible sexual impulse" and that she would climb into the beds of her victims as they were in their death throes in order to achieve orgasm.  ...Man or woman it's clear that a serial killer will have that same underlying motive of getting off.  So why the differences in methodology and victimology?

It's somewhat related to the cliche of men having to "stick it wherever they can" and women needing to "settle down and nest".  Male sexuality is penetration-based, it's promiscuous and rather undiscriminating and, in the serial killer, that relates to weapons that enter or batter the body, killing as many individuals of their preference (male/female/child) as possible and making whatever strangers they can their prey.  Women serial killers, on the other hand, need to have a relationship with the victim before they kill.  Their pleasure comes not from violating some stranger's body with a penile substitute (such a knife or bullet) but from perverting the very concept of love into a gruesome show of tenderness and intimacy.

(End Note: There is one exception to the rules above: Aileen Wuornos.  But, since she's the exception and not the rule in female serial killers she'll be covered separately at another point in time.)