Murderers in Size-XX Genes

Homicides by Gender
(Forensic Files)

We Americans sure do like women who kill. That is, we like to watch them and read about them.

To market dime novels, publishers used flattering drawings, like this one, of Belle Gunness
To market tawdry books based on real crimes, publishers used romanticized drawings, like this one of Belle Gunness in the early 1900s. See below for a photo

It’s not just a recent phenomenon. A century before Casey Anthony and Jodi Arias delivered ratings for HLN, the story of Belle Gunness, a Norwegian-American who killed her suitors, husbands, and even her own offspring, sold fanciful paperbacks for enterprising publishers.

Genuine evil. Forensic Files has brought us many a memorable modern-day murderess, including Stacey Castor (“Freeze Framed”), who poisoned her husband and then tried to blame the crime on her daughter. And Sharon Zachary (“Prints Among Thieves”), who beat to death the old man she was paid to take care of; she was in his will and couldn’t wait. Sixteen-year-old Idaho resident Sarah Johnson (“Disrobed”), who shot her parents to silence their objections over her relationship with an older boy, was another memorable one.

And Dante Sutorius (the subject of a recent blog post), the newlywed who seemed charming until she got greedy and executed her husband for life insurance money, made a colorful subject for “A Second Shot at Love.”

Not that the media coverage these types of crimes receive has ever fooled viewers into thinking that women are going berserk out there, mowing down anyone standing in the way of their ambitions. Most homicides are committed by men. But I got curious about exactly how the numbers break down by gender.

Below, the results of a little research.

Relative trouble. Only 20 percent of people who killed family members were female, according to the most recent (2005) numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Narrowing it down to spouse murderers, women committed just 17 percent of those crimes. Of those Americans who killed a boyfriend or girlfriend, women were slightly more heavily represented, at 25 percent. Most spouse murderers — of either gender — were over 35 years of age. (Maybe it takes a while to build up homicidal fury.)

Men committed 90 percent of murders overall — that is, any homicides, regardless of whether the victim was a stranger, acquaintance, friend, love interest, or spouse.

Getting quantitative. Recent statistics on male vs. female convictions for spouse homicide were hard to come by, but a 1995 BJS study of cases in the 75 most heavily populated U.S. counties reported that women were five times more likely to beat murder raps. Juries acquitted 31 percent of wives, but only 6 percent of husbands.

Belle Gunness, seen here with her children, murdered dozens of people in the early 1900s.
Brawny Indiana farmer Belle Gunness, seen here with her children, got away with dozens of murders from 1884 until  authorities caught on in 1908

Please leave a comment if you find any other interesting homicide stats or have a theory about why women commit way fewer murders (and are more likely to escape conviction when they do) than men. RR

Next week: A brand-new interview with Helga Luest, who survived a murder attempt in Miami and became an advocate for traumatized people.


6 thoughts on “Murderers in Size-XX Genes”

  1. I love the compare/contrast photo and drawing of Belle Gunness. The more things change, the more they stay the same — the actors who appear on true crime shows are usually way more glamorous-looking than the real people. It’s oddly reassuring that people in the “good old days” were just as susceptible to a little pulchritude as we are today.

  2. Of course a person watching a series of television shows about spouse-Xing may fall into unfounded conjecture about the gender statistics. No one can prove how many wives succeeded in poisoning their husband for the insurance, because no one knows they did it. The number of psycho-angel-o’death nurses is probably incalculable for the same reason. What if women do more murders than men, but leave less blood and gore? The subject of crib death still gets a blue star for ‘specious.’ How many of those incidents fell under the hidden heading of ‘post-natal abortion?’ Why, jeepers, yes, men are leaders in violent crime, but that character flaw aside, it is conceivable that women are equally criminal.

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