Psychological profile of Spouse killer Black Widows: Veiled in Their Own Web of Darkness
Violence in Dulcet Tones
The gentler sex.
The softer sex.
The weaker sex.
Since 1970, there has been an increasing and alarming rise 138 percent of violent crimes committed by women. Still, while the equivalent percentage compared to male violence is small (15 percent to 85 percent) the fact that the numbers have elevated so drastically points to something changing in society.
There are now 130 women on death row in prisons across America. Both Betty Lou Beets and Christina Riggs were put to death in 2000: Beets by lethal injection in February for her husband's murder, and Riggs by lethal injection in May for killing two offspring.
The Bureau of Justice's Statistics Division released a report at the end of 1999 citing an estimated 2.1 million known violent female offenders yearly in the United States.
An adjoining "Special Report" details the results found by the Bureau of Justice. The report, compiled by Bureau statisticians Lawrence A. Greenfeld and Tracy L. Snell, highlights specifics. Among these are:
An estimated 28 percent of violent female offenders are juveniles.
Three out of four victims of violent female offenders were women.
An estimated four in 10 women committing violence were perceived by the victim as being under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs at the time of the crime.
In 1998, there were more than two million arrests of women accounting for about 22 percent of all arrests that year.
Since 1980, the number of female defendants convicted of felonies in state courts has grown at more than two times the rate of increase in male defendants.
Nearly six in 10 women serving time in state prisons had experienced physical or sexual abuse in the past (and) just under a quarter reported prior abuse by a family member.
In the case of more than 60 percent of the 60,000 murders committed by women between 1976 and 1997, the murderer and the victim had known each other intimately as a lover or family member.
Keep these facts in mind as we now move ahead to further examine and define how and why the Black Widow and other female serial killers fit into the scene of the crime.
In his book, Serial Murderers and their Victims, author Eric Hickey probably best describes females who murder as "quiet killers." His study of these women throughout the 19th and 20th centuries has led him to believe — and his peers agree with him — that, unlike their bombastic and zealously motivated male counterparts, female serial killers are much more subtle. They are sly, deliberate and careful in plotting their murders and performing them. Scenes of bloody rampages are rare, replaced by such modus operandi as poisoned foodstuff and staged domestic accidents.
There are a variety of female serial killer types, the most notorious and shifty being the aptly termed Black Widows, whose nickname recalls the toxic spiders who destroy their mates when their usefulness is over. These are the women who wear the Betty Crocker apron and the June Cleaver façade of wife and mother to hide their murderous instinct.
Three-quarters of the time, they kill strictly for profit. They live off life insurance policies, pensions, and other assets gained from "sudden" deaths of close relations — husbands, children, grandchildren, stepchildren, sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers.
Marked differences between the male and female serial killers are quite distinct.
While males regularly stalk strangers, females largely tend to slay those close to them intimately, family members and people dependent upon their role as caregiver.
Whereas males tend to be physical — they shoot, stab, batter and strangle — women most often elect the more undetectable, non-aggressive way, poison. (The Electronic Journal of Sociology, published by the University of Guelph, Ontario, estimates that 80 percent of female serialists have employed poison by itself or with other means.)
When men kill repetitively, their motive is half the time sexually driven. Females kill with an aim for profit (75 percent), for control (13 percent) or for revenge (12 percent).
The longevity of a male's killing spree ranges from several months to, at the extremity, four years. Recorded lengths of like female activities are, on the average, from six to eight years. Some have gone undetected for three decades.
Despite their differences, there are three common denominators in both female and male genders. One, they have an ability to portray a surface normality when it is necessary for planning and survival purposes. Two, they may be psychopaths, but psychopaths are not insane. Three, as psychopaths they lack a conscience. John Douglas, former FBI profiler, told ABC-TV that the serial killer's greatest defense is that he/she is virtually unrecognizable by sight. "They certainly do know the difference between right and wrong."
Eric Hickey in 1991 divided female serial killers into two distinct groups, Black Widows (who, simply put, marry for one purpose: to kill their husband for financial gain) and Angels of Death (mercy killers, who murder someone in their care — e.g., baby, mother, grandmother — for power and, perhaps, attention). By 1998, when authors Michael D. and C.L. Kelleher published Murder Most Rare, the assortment of female serial categories had lengthened significantly. The Kellehers' book divides the universe of female multiple murderers into nine categories:
Angels of Death,
Killers Whose Sanity is in Question,
Killers Whose Motives Defy Explanation, and
An Angel of Death sets herself up as God, preying on those who in her estimation are already marked for natural death — the sick in hospitals or an aged relative whose daily support has been left in her hands. Her weapons are either chemical, such as a lethal injection of potassium, or suffocation with a pillow, both means hard to trace.
Sexual Predators are, as their name indicates, driven by sexual fantasy.
Revenge Killers are typically obsession-driven; hate or love or jealousy are the most common factors. They are as rare as sexual predators but, when pushed, they strike with a vengeance.
Profit Killers kill strictly for monetary gain; they hire out as (to be direct) "hit women". Whereas the equally greedy Black Widows choose their own victims (friends and relatives) and contrive their own killings, female profit killers commit murders for others — usually, jealous wives who want their cheating or abusive mate six feet under. Because they are "silent witnesses," their careers may go on for years.
Team Killers come in assorted shapes and sizes, and comprise two-thirds of the entire female serial killer rank and file. There are three types of female team killer groups. The most predominant is the "male/female" duo, consisting of one woman and one man; in most cases, they are nothing but thrill-seeking lovers. The second most common genus is the "female/female" bonding, made up of two or more women — usually two — engaged in a murder pact. Finally, there is the "killing family" of three or more people joined together on a death-dealing joyride.
It was stated earlier that a female serial killer generally avoids bloody havoc; that is, that her crime is of a "quiet" nature involving poisons and suffocation. That is true when she acts alone. However, that rule of thumb does not always hold up when she is in a partnership with someone else, especially a male who tends to do the thinking and the rough stuff for her.
Of family teams, one particular person, usually a male who sets himself up as the guru or thinker for the group, guides them all. These teams act impulsively with few set patterns.
Cold-blooded killers all, these heartless women. But, none better portray the female killer than the Black Widow, to whose attention we now turn. Throughout her long and devilish reign, she has managed to be the stuff of legend and song and even, in a very macabre way, romance.
A long convoy of automobiles sits idle along the winding driveway beside the plot of graves in a shaded cemetery. From the hearse, in front of the convoy, six dark-suited pallbearers lift a platinum coffin and, somberly, carry it to a gurney waiting beside a newly dug place of interment. Mourners, leaving the confines of their cars, whose windows have been tagged with a purple sticker identifying them as a funeral procession, follow behind. The minister motions family, friends and neighbors to circle the grave, then leads them in a simple rendition of "Rock of Ages".
The voices stilled, he whispers a few prayers, decreeing the body of the loved one to the earth and his soul to God. While he prays, he lays a comforting hand on the shoulder of the new widow who weeps into a handkerchief beside him. Family members cup her elbows to keep her from fainting. She looks so frail; the widow does; so forlorn, so much in anguish.
And while she moans, groans, and wets her hankie with thespian tears, she is wondering just how quickly — she hopes it is quickly — Friendly Insurance Company will deliver the check for dear old hubby.
She is a Black Widow, named after the venomous multi-legged crawling thing that comes out of nowhere, bites fast and hard, without deliberation, and kills. The above scenario, though presented tongue-in-cheek, is not, however, atypical. Stereotypical perhaps, but it is true. The scene — the grieving widow cum charlatan — has replayed itself over and over again in real life.
Some Black Widows had children from their earliest marriages. We mentioned a few of these killer mothers in the previous chapter. Now, children are perceptive, even to the point of sensing horrible things within their own parentage; yet most of the young victims seemed to have been oblivious to the murderous intent of their mothers.
The Black Widow's façade holds up well in a society that has always placed so much stock in the virtue of the faithful wife and doting Mom. Say the Kellehers in Murder Most Rare, "Because she will deliberately target those who have come to trust her, the crimes of this type of serial murderer violate our basic assumptions about love, loyalty, guardianship and friendship."
The majority of Black Widows begin killing in their mid-thirties, although some have begun much earlier. Motive is profit, and only on rare occasions does rage enter into the crime. There have also been a few cases where the Black Widow has been suspected of murdering someone who she fears has learned the truth about her. Otherwise, every murder is a well-planned, methodical masterpiece.