Since the 1800s scholars and scientists alike have been piecing together the puzzle that is the mind of a serial killer. Early scientists believed phrenology, or the measuring one’s skull size, could be used to determine if that individual had the tendencies of a serial killer (Class Lecture). This theory has been since debunked and deemed too simple of a tactic.
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In fact, the ecological model implies that intentional homicide is the result of an interplay of individual, relational, social, cultural, and environmental factors (Dogra, Leenars, Chadha, Manju, Lalwani, Sood, and Behera). It would be unbelievably simplistic if, in our modern era, we could measure all the skulls of inmates and determine which ones would only ever commit petty crimes and which ones would actually harm others. Sadly, this theory has proven to be erroneous. It is clearly far more complicated. It is now known that being a serial killer is usually not a predetermined mindset that individuals are born with. Of course there are characteristics that are more likely to make someone exhibit such tendencies such as being a psychopath, or someone who is incapable of feeling empathy for others. While psychopathy can contribute to an individual’s serial killer ways, the individual, social, and environmental elements of the individual’s life can form the mind of a serial killer (Malizia). These elements typically work together to produce the response that occurs in the case of a serial killing. For example individually the individual may have low self-esteem and socially they are withdrawn and antisocial (Malizia). This combination may be what it takes to make someone a killer while it may take more to push others to that point. Everyone is individual and that is where the problem lies in identifying who will become a serial killer and who will not. Taking all of that information into consideration, the question of whether a combination of these factors can shed light onto who is or will become a serial killer. Specifically we will be comparing and contrasting the lives, personalities, and crimes of male and female serial killers to develop a better understanding of how their crimes came to be and to see if there is one or more characteristics that can be utilized to determine who in the present and future will also commit such crimes.
Far more widely know are male serial killers. Males in general commit crime at much higher rates than women especially in reference to serial killings (Frei, Vollum, & Dittmann). This has nothing to do with the number of victims or the nature of the crimes because women serial killers have killed equal if not more victims than their male counterparts and in equally upsetting ways. In fact, lesser known female killers like Mary Ann Cotton and Amelia Dryer’s kill list reached at least twenty victims per women which is far more than the more famous Jack the Ripper’s five victims (Gurian). Despite being lesser known, adequate research is available to uncover the mystery that is female serial killers and attempt to unearth any similarities they share with their more well-known counterpart.
One of the main similarities between male and female serial killers is their victim selection. Though the victims may not appear to be similar upon first inspection, a closer look confirms. Males are notorious for killing adult women, specifically women who are strangers to them (Gurian). Whereas women will kill both genders and usually do not target strangers. They will target people who they know such as members of their family, those who are in their care like patients, and children (Gurian). While these two types of victimology seem quite contradictory they are actually more similar than it seems. Both males and females appear to kill victims that present low risks. Men likely kill women because, genetically speaking, it is easy for a man to over-power a woman. The easier it is for them to overpower their victim the quicker the crime and the higher their murder rate. If a victim were to overpower the potential killer, than the victim would be able to get away and report the attempt to the police which would potentially lead to an arrest of the killer (LaBrode). Men choose their victims based on the idea that they can control the victim and the outcome simultaneously. If the killer does not have complete control of the situation, he feels helpless, without power (Malizia). Likewise, women also look to control the victim and the crime. Due to women typically having a smaller frame than men, it naturally make sense that they would target people who they would be able to over power as well. Targeting family members gives them an element of surprise that males tend to not need. Most people would not expect a member of their family to hurt them. This is the surprise that would give them the upper hand on a male spouse that would otherwise be able to overpower them. These killers are known as black widows and typically have the longest time frame for their killings because they generally go undetected (Case 6).
Furthermore, in regards to killing children and patients, it is general knowledge that most adult women are stronger than children and people who are sickly and or elderly who need the help of a caregiver (Gurian).This fact confirms the idea that both men and women do not target people at random. Instead they both target victims that they can control and overpower, thus proving one of few similarities between the two sexes.
There are various methods that a serial killer can choose to take the life of their victim. While this may seem like something that is decided one of two ways: premeditate with whatever means the killer has access to or in the heat of the moment with whatever items happen to be near them, this is only partially correct and actually goes much deeper into the analysis of a serial killer’s actions. Weapons are typically chosen for a reason. For example, women typically choose to kill their victims with poison. This killing method is incredibly quit and in some circumstances nearly impossible to detect (Gurian). Also, considering that many female serial killers work in a field of medicine or act as caregivers it would give them easier access to such poisons that the average individual would have difficulties accessing (Frei, Vollum, Graf, and Dittmann). Another common method of killing for females is strangulation or starvation of their victims. Yet again a method that is respectively mess free. This too aligns with female killer’s victimology. Essentially it would be easier for a women to suffocate a child or an elderly person she is acting as caregiver to rather than to smother a healthy adult. Opportunity is the key word when it comes to women and the methods they choose because of their typically smaller frames and the need for them to think uncongenially about how they can most effectively complete their crime. In contrast, men tend to be quite messy when it comes to their killing method. They are far more likely to physically assault their victim with a weapon or with their bare heads. Men will also use knives and guns (Gurian). Such weapon selection will literally leave behind a trail of blood. Fighting with fists certainly will bruise and injure the victim, but can potentially injure the killer as well. If the killer gets a cuts then there is a risk of their blood being found at the crime scene which can lead to an arrest. Being picked up by the police with bruised and bleeding knuckles will also not help their case in any way. This also means that the victim’s blood could be found on the killer or their clothes and that will further help bring forth a conviction. Men choose messy methods.
There are many factors that affect how long a serial killer will kill for. One of the major contributing factors is how soon they are caught or if at all. Men’s timeframe of taking victims is typically shorter than women’s. It is estimated that men will kill for two years or less whereas women will kill for four ou more years. The reason that women kill longer is because it generally takes longer for them to be caught by authorities (Gurian). Thus reflecting on why men’s killing time frame is shorter. Perhaps if they were able to more deftly evade the police they would be able to kill for a longer time frame. Women are typically spared because of society’s reluctance to view women as offenders instead of victims (Gurian). Pulling into victimology, women often kill their families and that is a difficult reality for society to wrap their minds around. No one likes to think that a mother killed her husband and children. It almost seems to defy nature, therefore female serial killers are often overlooked. Furthermore, since women kill primarily poison it makes it difficult for the crimes to be traced back to them.
Lastly is the most daunting question of all: why do they do it? This is also known as an MO or modus operandi. There are two ways to break down the MO of a serial killer, whether male or female: pleasure or purpose orientated (Wilson and Hilton). With these categories in mind, men typically fall into the pleasure-orientated category. This can be attributed to the fact that most male serial killers are sexual sadist (LaBrode). In other words, males who kill repeatedly tend to enjoy the thrill of inflicting pain onto others. They seek the excitement that such acts give them and to go without becomes a burden for them. That is the driving force that causes them to search for new victims. This can also perhaps shed light onto the reason why men choose to kill women more often because it does provide that sexual experience that they are unable to obtain in regularly sanctioned activities (Gurian). Completely opposite of that is women and their modus operandi. Women are primarily purpose-orientated in their killings. Some examples of purpose-based killing include killing for financial gain, attention, or for religious reasons (Wilson and Hilton). An example of such behavior is the case of Gesina Gottfried from Bremen, Germany. She exemplifies both killing for profit and for attention. Gottfried married three times throughout her life and each time her husband would die. Interestingly enough, she came from a poor family and seemed to move up the financial ladder with each death of her many husbands. In addition to that she would play the role of the caring, doting wife who cared for her ailing husband each time who had the worst of luck. In the eyes of an unsuspecting world she was a sad widow. She further gained attention and sympathy by killing all of her children. While it was not considered infanticide because her youngest child was three years old, she did kill her own children and gained even more attention and thus more sympathy. She was later given the nickname the Angel of Bermen (Holck). Gottfried clearly gained from her murders. The motives behind male and female serial killings share no similarities.
In conclusion, we have learned that there is little similarities between male and female serial killers. Males kill more frequently and in shorter bursts, they kill women, with violent methods, and they usually do it for their own pleasure. Which happens to be almost opposite of women killers. They kill patients and children over longer periods of time, they use poison most often as their choice of method, and they kill for purpose not pleasure. The one detail that can connect their crimes in the slightest way is their choice of victimology selection and their need to be in control of the situation. Obviously they choose victims that are different based on age and gender, but these victims all give the killer, despite being a male or female, what they are looking for which is a sense of control. While this information is not a solid piece of evidence that can be used to automatically determine if someone is a serial killer or not, it is a starting point. Perhaps individuals who have a lack of control of their lives are the ones who need to be paid more attention to.
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