Saturday, May 13, 2017

Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History



Lady Killers is a strangely delightful compendium of lady murderesses (specifically serial killers) throughout the ages. Obviously, that comes with some caveats, such as:

  • History was written by men. (And some cultures' history isn't written at all, but passed down orally, but that's for another time) These men were Not Happy about women with power, even if that power was, you know, murder. Many of the women in this book had some sort of social or financial power that was extraordinary for their time, and this certainly would have colored the judicial narrative.
  • Our knowledge of the nature of the crimes is limited by the scientific progress of the time period during which the murder occurred; modern readers can speculate that someone in the 1300s poisoned her husband, but since those bodies are long gone and people back then would have accepted "The evil goat looked at me sideways and so I got sick" as a perfectly plausible pathology, we don't have much hard evidence at all. 
However, Tori Telfer (a staff writer for Jezebel, which, while not the exceedingly smart and funny publication of my college days, is still sometimes relatively decent) does a competent and witty job with the female serial killers that we know about from History, As Written By Old White Men. She regularly and consistently acknowledges the almost-definite bias in the stories we have about these women, but also doesn't ignore the scientific and judicial evidence convicting these women of some really heinous crimes. If you want to know more about the last woman profiled, La Brinvilliers, grab a copy of City of Light, City of Poison, a fascinating examination of l'affaire des poisons in Louis XIV's court.

I hesitate to say that any of the women within were favorites, but I was particularly intrigued by the stories of Erzsébet, Countess Báthory; Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova; and Raya and Sakina Mouet, two Egyptian sisters in the 1920s.

Báthory is rather a given--tales of her bathing in virgins' blood to keep her complexion clear run rampant on the internet and in pop culture in general, but she probably didn't do that. She did have a monomania for murdering her young female servants, however, and did so with a measure of cruelty that would have curled Vlad Ţepeş' moustache. Poor, droopy thing. The other problem, of course, is that she was one of the most powerful women in her part of the world, since the King of Hungary basically owed her all the money. Combine that with a view of servants as less than worthless, and you've got conditions ripe for a very, very unhealthy release of rage. This woman's torture methods make her sound like the mastermind behind the Spanish Inquisition. I mean, she literally beat someone until their body exploded. She would be so bloody during a torture session that there would be a wardrobe change before Act II. How can such people exist?

Similarly, Darya Nikolayevna's systematic murder of serfs went pretty much unnoticed and virtually condoned by the system of the day because serfs were just property to Russian nobles. If you haven't read Dead Souls by Gogol, please do! It makes Darya Nikolayevna's story even more horrific. In between pilgrimages, Darya Nikolayevna beat her serfs to death, occasionally boiling the flesh from their bones for a little spice. To her, the serfs were less than animals. They were her possessions to do with as she pleased, and since (as she believed) God put her on earth as a noble, she had a sort of divine right to punish them with impunity. This is droit du seigneur gone very, very, very wrong. She slipped up, however, when she decided to punish her lover and his mistress by blowing them up in a miniature version of the Gunpowder Plot against Parliament. This was too much for her serfs to bear, even with the threat of being bashed against a stone wall or smashed with a fireplace log (one of Darya's favorite weapons). Eventually, the police arrested her, but she never confessed to a single thing.

Early reviewers have been complaining that the women featured in this book are not contemporary (so what?) and all white (not exactly true, but I'll get to that in a moment). I had never heard of Raya and Sakina, the two Egyptian sisters who murdered scads of people in post-WWI Alexandria. They killed the prostitutes in their employ when they got to be too rich for the sisters' liking, although they did also kill a poultry vendor. I am unsure whether it was over the state of the chicken or if Raya and Sakina just felt like it. This is a fascinating account of two women making it as madams in a city wracked with corruption and unrest, and could easily have been one of those rah-rah-go-ladies stories, except for the gruesome murders. Raya and Sakina had hustle, sure, but they also suffocated women and stuffed them inside of clay home walls. Body disposal was not their forte, and eventually led to their arrest.

Interestingly, the women profiled in this book span economic statuses from very poor to "Hi, the King owes me money" rich. But with the exception of Raya and Sakina, they are all white. This matches the data collected on male serial killers--again,  overwhelmingly white. I am no social anthropologist, nor am I a criminologist or, indeed, any other sort of ologist, so I can't comment on what that means. But Telfer notes that any accounts of women of color who were also serial killers were either obviously exaggerated as racist propaganda, or so lacking in any evidence whatsoever that she could not in good conscience include them in this book.

Telfer keeps the tone relatively light, but she takes care to examine the cases from multiple angles, and gives weight to the way women have been systematically abused by men (and therefore, by society). She does not condone their actions, but her research helps you to try and understand them. Then again, some evil is simply beyond comprehension.

This is a must for library collections, as well as for history buffs.

I received an ARC of Lady Killers from Edelweiss.

2 comments:

  1. This sounds like an entertaining read. And it's true that you can't trust the Old White Males on history. Look what they did to poor Lucrezia Borgia, who never poisoned anyone! I think they've been re-examining the story of Elizabeth Bathory recently.

    If you ever get a chance to check out my children's book on crime, Crime Time: Australians Behaving Badly, I have a few examples of women killers, such as the arsenic-and-old -lace murrderer Caroline Grills, who poisoned family members with afternoon tea and nursed them during their illnesses. She did it first for property, then for fun. I once met a former nurse who had known the old lady during a stint at the jail where Grills was imprisoned and described her as "such a sweet woman!" And she knew what the woman had done! That was probably why Caroline Grills got away with it for so long.

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    1. Oooh, I'll have to look for your book!

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