Traditionally, women have been perceived as “the fairer sex.” Remember that old saying that girls are “made of sugar and spice and everything nice?” Well, these women prove that’s not always true.
Throughout history, some women have demonstrated a very different side to the “fairer sex” stereotype. It’s no surprise that men are not the only people who have committed some terrible atrocities, although since they are often the ones who are central to the stories in history books, the contributions that men make – good or bad – are likewise those that also receive the most attention. But many women, including mothers, wives, powerful women, rich women, even beautiful women, all have managed to do their fair share to prove that women can also be awful, managing to commit terrible crimes despite (or perhaps in spite of) the constraints that had been placed on them in the past.
Some of these women may have simply fallen on the wrong side of history, with legend remembering them (perhaps unfairly?) as tyrannical or bloodthirsty rulers. Other women on this list were evil because of the chilling crimes that they undoubtedly committed, and in some cases, got away with. From legendary royals to wealthy heiresses with dark secrets, to maniacal women trying to take advantage of innocent people, these historical ladies have proven that women have not always been “everything nice.”
11. Queen Mary I of England, aka. Bloody Mary
While Mary I of England was the first woman to successfully claim the throne of England and enjoyed support and sympathy during the early parts of her reign, she quickly slipped from public favor as she became known for her crimes against Protestants. “Bloody” Queen Mary became a legendary woman for all of the wrong reasons. Queen Mary ultimately ended up terrorizing thousands of Protestants after she inherited the throne to England and Ireland in July 1553. Her first cousin once removed, Lady Jane Grey, was initially proclaimed queen, but Mary deposed Jane (who was ultimately beheaded). She then returned England to the Catholic faith. To do so, she had hundreds of religious dissenters burned at the stake; hence her nickname “Bloody Mary.” Her legacy was not long lived: after her death, Roman Catholicism was once again abolished by her younger half-sister and successor, Elizabeth I. Instead, for centuries after her rule, her legacy has been being known as a bloodthirsty and tyrannical woman.
10. Isabella I of Castile (Isabella of Spain)
Isabella I was either an enviable and influential ruler, or a tyrant… depending on which side of history you fall on. To some, Isabella I was a powerful and effective ruler: in fact, in 1974, Pope Paul VI put her forward for beatification. She’s also well known as the patron of Christopher Columbus. Many historians even say that she was responsible for pushing Spain into a period of modernity. Unfortunately, uniting Spain culturally and religiously under a new banner of modernity came at a very dark price. In March 1492, the Alhambra Decree was enacted, which forced the conversion of tens of thousands of Jews and Muslims to Catholicism and ushered in the worst period of the Inquisition. Many were forced to leave their homes and livelihoods because of these harsh policies, and thousands more were persecuted and executed during the Inquisition. To make matters worse, many historians have suggested that the rulers of Spain supported these harsh policies because they wanted to spread their influence or even profit off of the confiscated property of the “heretics.” This terrifying period lasted until Isabella II disbanded it in 1834.
9. Empress Wu Zetian
Wu Zetian was, impressively, the only female emperor of China in 4,000 years. She was a concubine of Emperor Taizong, who, after his death, married his son, Emperor Geozong. During her husband’s rule, she was said to meddle with his powers. When Emperor Gaozong also passed away, she became the ruler of China from 690 to 705. On the bright side, her rule resulted in progress in religion, education and literature in China. However, throughout her rule she was known for abusing her power, as she did everything she could to protect her rare and coveted position. She accused those who opposed her of treason and either exiled or executed them. She was also known for poisoning or starving rivals, torturing and murdering them, and as legend has it, she even killed her own infant daughter in order to protect her position of power.
8. The Countess of Bathory
The medieval Countess of Bathory was, unlike the other royal women on the list, not cruel to protect her position of power – although she was a member of the Royal family, she had no real influence – indeed, it seems she was evil just for the sake of being evil. This woman, who lived alone in a castle, is said to have tortured and killed hundreds of girls for no reason at all. She managed this career as a serial murderer by luring hopeful young girls to her castle with promises of a job. After complaints of strange happenings on her estates, Hungarian authorities came to investigate. Chillingly, dead, dying, and imprisoned girls were found on her premises, and evidence of her brutality was verified by hundreds of accounts by victims and witnesses. She was arrested but escaped punishment because of her status, but lived under house arrest for the rest of her life. After her death, the Countess became a folk legend and many stories circulated about her vampire-like tendencies. One story says she bathed in the blood of virgins to retain her beauty and youth, which could have blended into well-known European fairy tales.
7. Ranavalona I
Ranavalona I positioned herself as queen after her husband’s death, and as a result ruled the Kingdom of Madagascar from 1828-1861. Her main policy was that of isolationism: she was determined to keep the island of Madagascar protected from European colonization and influences. This might have been a noble idea, but in order to carry out such policies, she first had to conquer nearby kingdoms and expand her influence throughout the island. She then used forced labor and enacted a harsh judicial system during this brutal military campaign and banned Christianity. Those put to trial could merely be accused by anyone of small things like practicing Christianity. Thousands were tried and put to death. Her methods of justice were also bizarre and brutal: someone on trial would be forced to eat poison along with three pieces of chicken skin; if the accused vomited up all three pieces of skin, then they were declared innocent, and if they could not vomit all of the skin, they were guilty. Overall, these policies and military campaigns caused the loss of millions of lives: the population of Madagascar actually shrank from 5 million to 2.5 million in only 6 years during her rule.
6. Ilse Koch Born
Known in history as the “Witch of Buchenwald,” Ilse was the wife of Karl Koch, who commanded the Buchenwald concentration camp and the Majdanek camp. She was one of the first prominent Nazis to be tried by the U.S. military for her crimes. Isle was known as a brutal guard of these Nazi concentration camps. Her trial received worldwide attention, as survivors described her as sadistic, accusing her of taking souvenirs – in the form of human skin – from her victims. She eventually committed suicide in prison.
5. Irma Grese
Irma Grese was another Nazi guard who was known for being a particularly chilling figure at several concentration camps. As a guard and later a warden, she was in charge of tens of thousands of female prisoners throughout her “career”. She subjected them to torture, beatings, and excessive and arbitrary murder, and she was known for enacting both physical and psychological torture on those in the prison. Following a trial for her crimes, she was executed.
4. Mary Ann Cotton
Not all women who committed horrible crimes in history were in positions of power. Mary Ann Cotton was more or less a regular woman, who realized she could collect money upon the deaths of her children and husband from life insurance payouts. After the death of her first husband and several children, she remarried, and that husband subsequently died, then she remarried again… and on and on. Finally, she was caught when suspicions arose after the death of her fourth husband. She finally went to trial. In all, it was discovered that she likely murdered 21 people including 12 of her own children, her husbands and mother.
3. Delphine LaLaurie
A rich and prominent socialite in New Orleans, Delphine LaLaurie was beautiful and popular. Unfortunately, she hid a dark and horrible secret, which finally came to light when a fire broke out in her mansion during a party. When firefighters entered her home, they discovered two slaves chained to the stove, and in the attic, they found several disfigured slaves who had been wounded, badly hurt and mutilated. Other slaves were forced to wear spiked collars that prevented them from moving their heads. Deceased slaves were found buried under her mansion. Although a mob arrived to protest the atrocities and she fled, the “rescued” slaves were forced to endure further humiliation when they were put on public display. This wicked woman was never caught after she left New Orleans – she reportedly fled to France – nor was she ever brought to justice for her horrible crimes. Later, she became somewhat of a legendary figure in New Orleans.
2. Belle Gunness
Like Mary Ann Cotton, Belle Gunness, a large, strong Norwegian-American woman, was empowered by the knowledge that she could receive payouts after the death of her three children and husband. After she got rid of her first victims, her first husband and her children, she took the insurance money and bought a home (which then mysteriously burned down), then remarried, had another child, and killed both her second husband and his daughter. At this point, investigators became suspicious but she managed to convince them she had nothing to do with all of these tragic accidents. At this point, Gunness changed her methods slightly: she put her property on the market and everyone who came to look at it was robbed and disappeared. Once locals caught on to her, Gunness disappeared. She may have been murdered herself, or faked her own murder, but the fate of Gunness is still unknown. Chillingly, many human remains were found on her property and more than 40 people were suspected to have been murdered by the woman.
1. Williamina “Minnie” Dean
“Minnie” has the dubious honor of having been the only woman to ever be executed in New Zealand. Minnie’s crime was truly twisted: she pretended to help young girls who were pregnant. In the late 19th century, young girls who became pregnant were stigmatized and therefore it was common practice for these scared mothers to give their illegitimate children to strangers on “baby farms” who would then raise them for a small fee. However, instead of raising the children, Minnie murdered the children who came to her and stole the money that was supposed to be going towards their care. She escaped suspicion for a long time because the children were not well tracked (records of the children that came to her were not required to be kept), and infant mortality was common at the time. The children simply vanished, in many cases, their real parents never knowing about their fate.
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