The macabre has always fascinated me. I don’t know what it is about situations that make your skin crawl that piques my interest, but it does. Most things that could be described as “creepy” are things I find myself Googling late at night. That’s how I came to hold a secret love for historical murderesses. My favorite, discussed below, is Elizabeth Bathory. She, and women who’ve followed in her footsteps, fascinate me with their inhumane violence and sheer volume of their killings. When it comes to volume, in fact, the three women I’ve picked to profile today may have killed a total of 1,000 people.
- Elizabeth Bathory
In the 1500s, there was a countess by the name of Elizabeth Bathory who was the most prolific female serial killer in all of history. Over the course of 25 years, she killed at least 80 and possibly as many as 650 young women. As a member of the royalty, she was easily able to hire girls from the peasantry for a promised high wage. When a young girl went to work in a castle in those days, no one was surprised if they were never heard from again.
The reason why Bathory’s story is so renowned has to do with the cruelty of the killings, as well as the number. Her methods involved burning hands, biting flesh off victims, and freezing them to death. The best part, though, is that she’s rumored to have bathed in the blood of her victims. It was supposed to help her retain her youth!
Lesson Learned: Be Rich.
Three other people were tried along with Bathory for the cruel murders committed in her Hungarian castle. Two of them had their fingers ripped off, one was beheaded and all three were burned at the stake. Bathory was put on house arrest until she died, 4 years later. If it wasn’t for her position, she would have certainly faced a harsher punishment.
*Fun Fact: Elizabeth Bathory’s body had to be exhumed from the town cemetery and re-buried elsewhere because of the outcry from the townsfolk.
- Amelia Dyer
Mrs. Dyer (nee Hobley) ran what was called a “baby farm” in Victorian England. In the 1800s, there weren’t a lot of resources to go around, so some poor mothers and mothers of illegitimate babies would pay a fee (sometimes as little as £5 and going up to £80) to have their child reared and taken care of–frequently with the expectation that they would be able to retrieve the child at a later time. Because such “adopting out” was legal but poorly regulated, many of Dyer’s contemporaries would take in babies and then simply neglect them until they died. Some used tinctures of laudanum to keep the babies quiet while they starved. Sickeningly malicious as that is, Dyer chose to forego it and just killed the babies from the word go. Because of this, she couldn’t call the local coroner to report the baby’s death, which made her business even more shady. Dyer lived in several homes before she was finally caught.In 1896, a package with a dead baby inside was found and a barely-visible name and address on the package led police to Dyer. They raided her home and though they didn’t find any corpses, they found plenty of other evidence (such as adoption arrangement papers and the signature tape she used to strangle the babies) implying she was a killer. She was arrested, tried and convicted of murder, then hanged on June 10. Lesson Learned: Don’t get sloppy.
Amelia Dyer left far too much evidence around. Her daughter and even other parts of her family knew about the murders. In order to avoid being caught, you need to minimize the number of people who know about them. Correspondence with birth mothers, pawn receipts for baby clothes, or anything else that could link you to a murder needs to be gone. Like it never existed. Nothing that would make you suspicious looking in an investigation should be hanging around.
*Fun fact: it’s speculated that Amelia Dyer may have also been behind the “Jack the Ripper” killings.
- Belle Gunness
An immigrant from Norway, Belle Gunness was determined not to be poor as an adult, the way she was as a child. Her first husband died of heart failure, on the only day when two separate life insurance policies for him overlapped. His family protested, asserting that Gunness had poisoned him, but the charges were dismissed and Gunness collected $8,500 ($219,760 in 2010 dollars).
With the insurance money, Gunness moved to La Porte, Indiana. She married a recent widower, Peter Gunness, whom she had met while living in Chicago with her first husband. Within 6 months, her new husband and his infant daughter had both died in tragic accidents. Within a year of Peter Gunness’ death, his older daughter was taken in by relatives in Wisconsin.
Belle Gunness then took out the following ad in many midwestern papers: “Personal – comely widow who owns a large farm in one of the finest districts in La Porte County, Indiana, desires to make the acquaintance of a gentleman equally well provided, with view of joining fortunes. No replies by letter considered unless sender is willing to follow answer with personal visit. Triflers need not apply.” (Source) The men who responded brought thousands of dollars (hundreds of thousands in today’s dollars) in cash to Gunness’ remote farm. They, and their cash, would then disappear.
In 1908, the Gunness farm went up in flames. Four bodies were found burned, three were determined to be her children and the fourth was decapitated. The headless body was ultimately determined to be Belle Gunness, though an initial report determined the body to have weighed approximately 150 pounds, while Gunness had weighed between 180 and 200. Her friends from Chicago also identified the body as decidedly not Gunness. Her handyman of many years, who had been infatuated with her and also recently fired, was convicted of starting the fire, but not of murdering Belle Gunness or any of the children because the prosecution had been unable to positively identify the decapitated body. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. It is suspected that Belle Gunness may have been alive and even murdering as late as 1931.
Lesson Learned: Isolate Your Victim
Belle Gunness is suspected of killing over 40 people, and she never would have been able to accomplish it somewhere like the a city. Men said farewell to their families back home to marry her, so they were essentially unaccounted for in the world. Of course, it would be significantly harder to physically isolate someone like that now. Instead, should you be considering becoming a lonely hearts murderer, isolating your victim socially will have to do. The more space you take up in their life, the less other people will hear from them and the less likely they’ll come looking for the victim.
*Fun Fact: the Los Angeles murderer Esther Carlson, who died awaiting trial in 1931, may have actually been Belle Gunness.
So now you have a little information on how to be a better serial killer. Just don’t tell anyone you got them from me. It’s always good to look at examples of people in your chosen profession to learn from. I hope this article is the first of many you read before delving into a life of crime.
Minnie isn’t a serial killer, she’s just fascinated by them.