The Most Brutal Female Criminals in History

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History’s most fiendish female criminals are not limited by social status, geography, or a particular time period. What connects them are unspeakable acts, in some cases triggered by an abusive childhood, mental illness, trauma, grinding poverty, or violence around them. 

To assemble a list of the most fiendish female criminals in history, 24/7 Tempo reviewed information from The Crime Museum, Biography, Newsweek, Encyclopedia Britannica, All That’s Interesting, and other media sources. With one exception, only women who were convicted of or were pursued in connection with violent crimes are included here. (The exception, Maria Licciardi, was convicted of extortion and money laundering for Italy’s murderous Camorra.) Lizzie Borden, accused of murdering her father and stepmother in 19th-century Massachusetts, was not considered for this list because she was acquitted. (Borden’s residence, though, is considered one of America’s most infamous murder homes.)

Many of the women listed here preyed on those in society who are most vulnerable: small children, the elderly, the infirm, and in earlier times, serfs and the enslaved. 

Women such as Amelia Dyer, Dagmar Overbye, and Miyuki Ishikawa had businesses in which they were entrusted with the welfare of infants, and many babies died in their care. Murder was a path to monetary gain for Belle Gunness, Tillie Klimek, and Dorothea Puente, who killed people for insurance money or Social Security or pension checks.

In many cases, the preferred method of killing for these women criminals was by rat poison or arsenic. That was the choice for Dorothea Puente, Velma Barfield, and Nannie Doss (whose grandmotherly appearance belied more sinister motives).  

Some women on the list scaled the heights of criminal enterprises, occupying leadership roles normally held by men, though they are no less ruthless. Enedina Arellano Felix and Mireya Moreno Carreon have led drug cartels, and Maria Licciardi ran an organized-crime family in Italy. Two women who contributed to history’s darkest hour, the Holocaust, were concentration camp overseers, and both met a violent fate. (These are horrifying images of Nazi death camps.)

Even though the law has historically treated aristocrats differently than the rest of society, Countess Elizabeth Báthory, a Hungarian noblewoman who lived 400 years ago, and Russian aristocrat Darya Saltykova, who lived in the 18th century, received lifelong punishments for the mistreatment and murder of their servants and serfs.

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