It is commonly believed inequality extends to violence, with women (thankfully) accounting for far fewer instances of murder. The title and topic of a book published last month in Germany, though, suggests that women murderers may bridge the gender gap, if not with numbers, then by means of their unexpected and unusual methods.

In a recent interview with Spiegel Online, forensic psychiatrist and author of Are Women Better Murderers?, Dr. Sigrun Rossmanith noted that it is true women kill far less often than men — about 10 times less frequently. Yet, she claimed, women find more creative ways to murder than men, giving as an example a woman who slipped a cyanide pill into the mouth of her partner as she kisses him. Women also rarely kill strangers, according to Rossmanith.

Femme Fatale

“Most conflicts arise in one's own four walls, and they can escalate," she told Spiegel Online. Having treated many women murderers, she noted how frequently she has come upon "the classic situation" in which victim and perpetrator reverse roles. Examples of such cases would include an abused wife killing her husband or an abused child murdering a parent.

Rossmanith also highlighted the case described in her book of a woman murderer who afterward had no memory of her violence. The woman, who was arguing with her husband about child custody, threw her two small children out of a fourth story window. Asked if blacking out was a female phenomenon, Rossmanith said no. “Because the act is irreconcilable with one's conscience, and because one has to live with it… one deals with it by being a stranger to oneself,” she told Spiegel Online. “As if an alien part of one's self committed the crime.”

In most ways, as Rossmanith explained, violence has no gender. She believes that “every person has a certain threshold. If that is overstepped, things can happen that one never would have imagined.” Research from other quarters suggests her understanding of human nature is on the mark. A study of 225 women incarcerated in a medium security prison in the United Kingdom, for example, found that more than half had a history of childhood sexual abuse. Although this group of prisoners does not necessarily represent murderers only, the study still speaks volumes.

Other factors, common sense dictates, may come into play as well. Another recent study conducted by a researcher at the University of Connecticut found substance abuse and dependence to be prevalent among female violent criminals: 56.1 percent used and had become dependent on alcohol, 48.8 percent on opiates, and 61.0 percent on cocaine.

Another recent study involved data from the FBI’s "Supplemental Homicide Report" covering a 32-year span from 1976 to 2007. Specifically, the researcher examined 204 female sexual homicide offender cases (27 juveniles and 177 adults). In some ways, the female sexual murderers were found to be very similar to their male counterparts. For instance, they were more likely to target victims of the same race and they were more likely to attack the opposite gender (a full three-quarters of their victims were males). That said, women chose adult victims in most cases (78 percent) and usually targeted someone they knew (81 percent). Unlike the majority of male sexual murderers, often female offenders used firearms in their sex killings. The researchers accounted for this as due to the difference in physical strength between offenders and victims but also perhaps “to avoid personalization of the killing process.”

What We Can Learn from Death Row Offenders

One final window into the subject of women murderers can be gained by visiting the website of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Although little real information is supplied in the brief reports on the nine women serving time on death row, a reader can glean some insight from these scant descriptions of violent crimes.

For instance, of the nine women, six had been in a relationship with their victims. Specifically, four had been involved as either mother or caretaker — two mothers, one babysitter, and one caretaker (possibly mother as well, though this is not clear). Certainly, then, the fact that most of these nine women knew their victim gives credence to Rossmanith’s claims about the tendency of women to murder those they know.

Yet, the remaining cases suggest, if not contradictory behaviors, another pattern altogether. Three of the women awaiting capital punishment worked with co-defendents. In one case, the woman murderer and her male accomplice slashed the throat of a woman, wrapped her head in plastic bag, and struck her with a statue, before robbing her car. In another case, the woman murderer and three accomplices, all men, entered a stranger’s home; after beating two victims and leaving them, they kidnapped a 25-year-old mother and her 3-day-old baby. The mother died of suffocation after being placed her in a trunk of a car. No mention is made of the baby.

Were these women ‘led’ to murder by their male accomplices? Rossmanith’s insight would be helpful here. In an unusually brutal case, the woman murderer is described as the leader of a group of five men and women. According to the record posted by the Department of Criminal Justice, she killed a 59-year-old retarded man in order to collect on an insurance policy in which she was named the beneficiary. She “wooed the victim into leaving his family and friends in New Jersey,” the report stated, under the guise that she would marry him. Presumably sometime after he arrived, she and her accomplices kidnapped him and then beat him with belts, baseball bats, boots, hands, and feet. “The victim was found in a ditch with injuries so horrendous that the body was unrecognizable,” the record states.

An equally heinous crime is that committed by another offender who robbed an 80-year-old man. This female murderer struck him with a hammer and stabbed him nearly 60 times with a butcher’s knife, a paring knife, a grapefruit knife, and a fork. “A lamp pole had been shoved more than 5 inches down the victim's throat,” the report succinctly concludes. No relationship to the victim, no accomplice, no ‘impersonal’ firearm — this case speaks of brutality in its most simple form.

Certainly, a forensic psychiatrist such as Rossmanith would be able to draw fine distinctions about these crimes based on extensive knowledge of women murderers. For most of us, though, murder is simply a horrifying and unpretty business whether performed with a feminine touch or not.

Sources: Lewis CF. Substance use and violent behavior in women with antisocial personality disorder. Behavioral Sciences & The Law. 2011.

Dolan M, Whitworth H. Childhood sexual abuse, adult psychiatric morbidity, and criminal outcomes in women assessed by medium secure forensic service. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse. 2013.

Choon H, Frei A. An examination of an underresearched offender population. Homocide Studies. 2012.