5 most notorious female murderers

Published On: Oct 20 2011 11:06:41 AM HST   Updated On: Oct 20 2011 07:03:30 PM HST
Crime scene


Forget about the stereotypes that say women are nonviolent. Although it's true that fewer women than men become murderers, the ranks of female killers are filled with hardened criminals whose deeds are so lurid that they shock the imagination.

Nearly three-quarters of female serial killers are motivated by money, and a large majority of female killers choose poison as their weapon, according to the book "Murder Most Rare" by C.L. and Michael Kellehuer.

But the women you will encounter in these pages killed for a variety of reasons, using a variety of methods.

Here you will meet a woman who killed her guests, one who drowned her own children, another who killed her own mother (and her fiance and a bunch of other people too), one whose story was splashed across the headlines 41 years ago and "black widow" even older than that ...

Belle Gunness black widow murderer

No. 5: Belle Gunness

Women who kill a succession of husbands and boyfriends are often referred to as "black widow" murderers. And there has never been quite a black widow like the Norwegian-born Belle Gunness.

Gunness immigrated to the United States in 1881. A series of suspicious fires and deaths soon followed.

After both of her husbands and most of her children met with suspicious deaths, Gunness used insurance proceeds to buy a farm in La Porte, Ind.

A physically strong woman who stood 5-feet-8-inches tall and weighed more than 200 pounds, Gunness began posting notices in lovelorn columns to entice wealthy men to her farm, after which they were never seen again.

After a deadly fire in April 1908, authorities found the remains of at least 12 victims on Gunness' property, including a woman's headless corpse that was first thought to be Gunness herself.

That later turned out not to be true and Gunness, who some reports estimate to have killed between 25 and 40 people over several decades, disappeared without a trace.

Our next murderer is almost a case of "Arsenic and Old Lace" coming to life ...

Dorothea Puente Sacramento serial killer

No. 4: Dorothea Puente

Dorothea Puente, with her curly white hair, glasses and colorful outfits, looked like a sweet old lady straight out of central casting. She was anything but.

Puente ran a boardinghouse in a Victorian building in Sacramento, Calif., where she rented rooms to elderly, alcoholic and disabled tenants. In 1988 police discovered seven bodies buried in her yard.

Puente said she was going out for a cup of coffee when the police started digging but instead fled to Los Angeles. She had murdered nine of her tenants in order to collect their disability and social security payments.

She found new victims by going to bars and chatting up lonely looking old men, asking them about their incomes, and inviting those with money to come live in her house.

She used the money from her victims to get plastic surgery and to buy expensive clothing and perfume.

She was sentenced to two life sentences in 1993 and ended up dying in prison in March 2011.

Up next, a despicable crime and a despicable cover-up ...

Susan Smith in court

No. 3: Susan Smith

Susan Smith drowned her two young sons, then blamed their disappearance on a nonexistent black carjacker.

The South Carolina woman was 23 years old the night she took a drive in 1994 with her 3-year-old and 14-month-old sons asleep in the car. She drove onto a boat ramp, stopped, got out, then released the emergency brake and watched as the car sank slowly into the lake.

She concocted an elaborate racially charged phony story, which was widely repeated by the national press. Nine days later, Smith finally confessed when a skeptical sheriff pressed her to tell the truth.

Smith had a troubled childhood -- her father committed suicide and her stepfather molested her.

Shortly before the murders, her boyfriend broke up with her, in part because he didn't want a relationship with someone who already had children.

Smith was sentenced to 30 years to life. She will be eligible for parole in November 2024.

You probably don't want to get too close to our next murderer ...

Margie Velma Barfield serial killer in jail

No. 2: Margie Velma Barfield

Margie Velma Barfield confessed to poisoning her mother, her fiance and two elderly people whom she was supposed to be taking care of. Other people close to her, including her two husbands, also died in circumstances that appeared suspicious.

Barfield was caught when an autopsy done on her fiance showed he had died of arsenic poisoning.

Nicknamed "Death Row Granny," Barfield became religious while in prison, helped other prisoners and attracted many supporters, including Billy Graham.

When she was killed in the wee hours of the morning of Nov. 2, 1984, she was the first woman executed in the U.S. since 1962 and the first woman ever in the U.S. to be executed by lethal injection.

For her last meal, she chose Coke and Cheez Doodles.

Last up, a Manson family member bites the dust

Susan Atkins being led into jail

No. 1: Susan Atkins

Susan Atkins was a member of Charles Manson's infamous "family" who participated in the group's nine-murder killing spree. On Aug. 8, 1969, Atkins stabbed the eight-months-pregnant actress Sharon Tate (Roman Polanski's wife) 16 times, then wrote the word "Pig" in Tate's blood on the door.

Four other people were murdered that night in the Beverly Hills home. Atkins was also convicted for the murder of musician Gary Hinman.

Along with Manson and other members of the group, Atkins was sentenced to death. Their sentences were changed to life in prison when the death penalty laws were struck down in 1972.

Atkins became a born-again Christian in prison and by all accounts was a model prisoner who helped others in need. However, Sharon Tate's sister said that Atkins had never apologized to her for the murder.

Atkins died of brain cancer on Sept. 24, 2009, in a California prison.

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