Lady Killers

Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History takes a look at 14 women who didn’t stop at one murder, or two, or three … Fourteen serial killers throughout history.

Chicago’s own Tori Telfer looks at their origins and motivation, their rationale. Perhaps even more important, she looks at how they were seen. How does society view women who are cold-blooded killers? Differently than men. Let’s start there. We caught up with Telfer with just a few questions in anticipation for her book launch at Women and Children First, Tuesday, Oct. 10 at 7 p.m.

JB: “I believe we have to laugh and shudder in order to understand our own human history, which is partially an inheritance of death. Recoiling from crime is natural, but recoil too far and it becomes a delusion.”

The way you wrote about these women definitely triggered both reactions in me. I was amused, but also horrified. How did you attempt to keep a balance as you wrote this book? Did you find yourself leaning strongly in one or the other direction?

TT: It’s much easier for me to research and write about things that are terrifying than to just consume things that are terrifying. I can’t watch horror movies, I don’t like “Investigation Discovery” shows, I once had trouble falling asleep in the same room as a TV where I’d seen a channel playing some awful story about a young boy who accidentally killed his neighbor. But when I’m in the library stacks or reading old newspapers or whatever—well, then it’s a job. A job I adore! But a job nonetheless. So the process of writing this book was more formal and professional than the process of reading about true crime. That was nice because it gave me a lot of distance. I wasn’t thinking about these women in terms of, “How much does this scare me??” but rather, “What actually happened, what’s interesting about them, how can I tell this story in a way that’s true and also compelling?” I do hope my readers are terrified at points and laugh at other points (like when Nannie Doss makes puns about murder). Not to sound like an ad for green juice, but it’s all about balance.

You write about some of the historic accounts of the women you researched became how exaggerated and absurd: like Erzsebet Bathory bathing in the blood of her victims. Do you think we still have a tendency of inflating the truth of serial killers today? Is this part of how death becomes a delusion?

Yes, absolutely! You definitely see that inflation in the treatment of our most famous modern female serial killer, Aileen Wuornos. We’ve moved beyond the days of straight-up folklore, of course, but she still got folklorized in subtle ways: She was a man-hating lesbian enacting a feminist agenda! She was the world’s ugliest woman! She was a hero to abused women everywhere! People don’t like to treat serial killers as individuals, each with their own secret formula that led them to destruction. They want to see them as archetypes, almost. (The One Who Bathed in Blood!) Especially with female serial killers, it’s always got to be more, more, more, excess, excess, excess. I think it’s too scary for people to just think: oh man, a woman did this, and she wasn’t a myth or a legend or a symbol of any agenda. A woman did this.

You attempted to break apart the stereotypes that we place on both women and women killers. At the core, you write, “They were horrifyingly, quintessentially, inescapably human.” Why do you feel it’s important to study these women? What do you think it helps us understand about the impact of gendered perspectives on society?

I think it’s important to at least know that these women exist because it’s part of the world we live in, even though we all wish it wasn’t. (I mean, it’s also important to understand how beautiful humans can be, how smart, how creative, how selfless…I would never advocate for a life spent only learning about serial killers.) And this idea that violence = inherently male is simply false. That being said, this book isn’t just for studying human nature. It’s also for entertainment. True crime is pretty addictive, as many of us know, and I think it’s okay to just enjoy the tales on a certain level.

Do you think you’ve learned anything about mass killing in writing this book that has helped you (and might help us) process recent events, like the Las Vegas shooting?

Ugh. That human nature has always had a terrifying dark side? That there is something of the beast about us; that violence is hard to control; that it can bubble up anywhere? I do want to note that being a serial killer is so, so different than being a mass shooter. It’s a completely different crime, in my opinion; a different psychology. But I was just talking with a friend about the Las Vegas shooting, and what I think all these horrible crimes slowly prove is that you can’t simply pinpoint them on violent video games, or death metal, or bump stocks. Slowly, horrifyingly, you realize—oh God—it’s humans. Humans do this sort of thing to each other. Not all humans. But humans.

Jera writes about sexuality, spirituality, and social justice. They are the author of Just the Tip, a queer-friendly, sex-positive, relationship advice column and the editor of Sacred and Subversive,...