One thing that hasn’t changed in human culture for thousands of years is the widespread notion that murder is wrong. Death is inevitable, but the death of one person at the hands of another paints the thing in a whole new, wholly horrific light. In the case of murder, you have two people, both born miraculously out of mysterious nothingness, one of whom stumbles upon the notion that they should send someone like themselves back to the black ether, where who knows what is waiting for them.
As nightmarish as it is to think about, murder has been a part of our history and development, and we would not be at the precise spot in space and time that we are today were it not for the multitude of atrocious deeds committed by our ancestors. Would we be in a better spot if humanity had evolved in a totally murder-free way? Probably.
Despite that, despite murder being firmly ingrained into our vast history, there are cases that stand apart from the rest as being singularly frightening. We’re talking about cases of mass murder that describe psychopaths who, we can probably safely observe, had the notion of killing other people in their heads more than they had any other notion at all. These cases are less uniquely fascinating than they are painful to think about, let alone write about. But how could we truly learn about our red-stained history without being genuinely appalled by the grimiest parts of it? The title of “prolific serial killer” is given to men more often than not, for a myriad of ancient reasons. Still, we tend to forget that the “fairer” sex is equally capable of gruesome, heartbreakingly regretful mass murder. Feel free to gulp at will.
15 Leonarda Cianciulli
Known by her haunting pseudonym, the “Soap-Maker of Correggio,” Leonarda Cianciulli was responsible for the ghastly murders of three poor women in Coreggio, Italy, from 1939 to 1940. As her nickname suggests, Cianciulli rendered her victims’ bodies into soap, as well as teacakes. She committed these murders in the insane hope that human sacrifices would help her son, Giuseppe, a soldier fighting for the Italian Army, survive the dangers of World War II. Cianciulli was known as a fortune teller by her community, and each of the women she murdered had come to her in search of their fortunes. Their fortunes proved dim, of course, as they were all drugged and brutally sliced into pieces by Cianciulli, whose description of her last murder encompasses her horrific psychopathy: “She ended up in the pot, like the other two… her flesh was fat and white, when it had melted I added a bottle of cologne, and after a long time on the boil I was able to make some most acceptable creamy soap. I gave bars to neighbours and acquaintances. The cakes, too, were better: that woman was really sweet.”
14 Aileen Wuornos
Known by the masses due to the film Monster, in which Charlize Theron portrays the serial killer, Aileen Wuornos is known for killing several men in Florida from 1989 to 1990. She would shoot her victims at point blank range, claiming that each of the men had either sexually assaulted Wuornos, or attempted to while she was doing work as a prostitute. Despite the claim that all of her killings were committed in self-defense, Aileen Wuornos was sentenced to death by lethal injection for her six murders. During her petition to the Florida Supreme Court in 2001, Wuornos stated: "I killed those men, robbed them as cold as ice. And I'd do it again, too. There's no chance in keeping me alive or anything, because I'd kill again. I have hate crawling through my system...I am so sick of hearing this 'she's crazy' stuff. I've been evaluated so many times. I'm competent, sane, and I'm trying to tell the truth. I'm one who seriously hates human life and would kill again.”
13 Nannie Doss
Nannie Doss had several pseudonyms: Lonely Hearts Killer, The Black Widow, Lady Blue Beard, and of course, the Giggling Nannie. Call her what you will, her nickname does nothing to lighten the atrocious acts she committed. Nannie Doss was responsible for 11 murders committed from the 1920s onto 1954. Her murders were hauntingly restricted to members of her immediate family: nannie Doss killed four of her husbands, two of her children, both her sisters, one grandson, one mother-in-law, and her own mother. Judging from the results of an autopsy performed on one of her victims, there was enough arsenic in his body to effectively kill 40 horses. She confessed to all of these murders in the state of Oklahoma, and was sentenced to life in prison. Her gender is what spared her from the death penalty, which was a luxury afforded to her by the condition of the era she was living in. She died in prison of leukemia in 1965.
12 Elizabeth Báthory
Elizabeth Báthory holds a spot in the Guinness Book Of World Records for being the most prolific female serial killer in history. While the tales of the other women on this list are inherently horrifying, the sheer number of Elizabeth Báthory’s victims is hard to wrap one’s mind around. During her trial, Báthory, along with her four collaborators, were said to have killed 650 people, all young women, between the years 1585 and 1609. Perhaps the most humble of her torture methods was making her victims stand naked outside in the freezing cold until they succumbed to hypothermia. Of course, that wasn’t her only method; Báthory was partial to the iron maiden, which forced spikes into the victim in the most private and painful of body parts. She also trapped her victims in a small cylindrical cage, lined on the inside by spikes, and would have her servants raise and shake the cage until the victims skewered themselves to death.
11 Miyuki Ishikawa
Although any murder is tragic by nature, it stings in a particular way when one hears of the murder of infant children. That is exactly what Miyuki Ishikawa was known for. With the help of several psychopathic accomplices, Ishikawa was responsible for approximately 103 infant deaths throughout the 1940s, though the number may be as high as 169. Ishikawa was a midwife working in a maternity hospital who was responsible for many children whose parents did not have the proper financial means to raise them. So, the solution she came up with was to neglect the children entirely, letting them die a slow death in their cribs. As an incredible aside, Ishikawa and her husband even sought financial compensation from the parents of these deceased children. By their logic, the couple saved the families the vast sum of money that it would take to raise the children, so they thought they were entitled to some of it. Ishikawa’s death toll is easily the highest of any other known serial killer in Japan, which makes the four-year prison sentence given to her by the Tokyo High Court all the more puzzling.
10 Jane Toppan
Jane Toppan, also known as Jolly Jane, was a serial killer responsible for 33 murders. Working as a nurse, Toppan would use her patients as test subjects in experiments with atrophine and morphine, allegedly curious to see what the mixture of drugs would do to their nervous systems. This morbid curiosity quickly evolved into a sick, murderous obsession; Toppan eventually developed a sexual thrill from seeing her drowsy patients toe the line of death, coming back to life temporarily before dying again. By 1902, Toppan had confessed to 31 murders, but was found by the Barnstable County Courthouse to be not guilty by reason of insanity, and was committed in the Taunton Insane Hospital for life. Regarding her reasoning for murder, Toppan said that her life’s goal was "to have killed more people — helpless people — than any other man or woman who ever lived…" She did not quite get there, but she smeared her dreaded mark on the pages of human history all the same.
9 Miranda Barbour
The most recent inductee into the prolific female serial killers of history, Miranda Barbour’s killing spree is shrouded in mystery, and it seems horribly absurd for modern times. “When I hit 22, I stopped counting,” said Barbour regarding her victims. “But it’s less than 100.” At only 19 years old during her trial, Barbour claimed to have gone on a murdering spree from Alaska to California and from Texas to North Carolina, leaving a trail of dead bodies in her wake. In Barbour’s mind, she performed a great public service, since she believes that everyone she killed were “bad people” who deserved to die. Echoing Charles Manson’s haunting sentiments, Barbour says that she will continue on the same path if she were to be released from prison. If the sheer number of her victims is accurate, Miranda Barbour would be among the most lethal female serial killers of all time.
8 Belle Gunness
As far as murder motives go, money is definitely the plainest of the bunch. However, as it turns out, sometimes, people just kill for money — and for the removal of potential evidence, of course. This was the alleged case for Belle Gunness, who was said to have killed between 25 and 40 people throughout multiple decades during her lifetime, which lasted from 1859 to 1908. At a staggering six feet tall height and weighing in at over 200 pounds, Gunness possessed considerable physical strength, which surely assisted her in her brutal murders. She was known to post ads in local papers, asking for financially-endowed men to come visit her for “courtship.” Here’s how one of those ads went: “Personal — comely widow who owns a large farm in one of the finest districts in La Porte County, Indiana, desires to make the acquaintance of a gentleman equally well provided, with view of joining fortunes. No replies by letter considered unless sender is willing to follow answer with personal visit. Triflers need not apply.” Of course, the vast majority of the men who came to visit Gunness were never seen again, and Gunness would make regular trips to the bank to deposit large checks. Gunness disappeared without a trace before she was ever tried for murder.
7 Amelia Dyer
Amelia Dyer is another name on this list whose sheer alleged murder toll is almost too much for the mind to fathom. Despite being eventually hanged for a single murder, some sources put her total death count to be over 400! Apparently, all of those victims were babies. Dyer was initially trained as a nurse, but eventually opened up her home to receive mothers of illegitimately conceived children. For a substantial initial fee, Dyer would take the children from their unwilling mothers and assure them that she would provide care for the babies before finding them a safe, loving home. What she did, of course, was the exact opposite. In her tamest violations, Dyer would let the children wither slowly from neglect and malnourishment. In other, incomprehensibly brutal cases, Dyer would wrap the infant’s neck twice-over with tape and watch them pass horrifically away. Harold Shipman, with his 250 victims, is commonly known as Britain’s worst serial killer, but amateur historians would do well to keep Amelia Dyer’s cursed name in mind during the telling of their unfortunate tales.
6 Magdalena Solis
Known simply as the High Priestess of Blood, serial killer Magdalena Solis was responsible for carrying out several murders during her membership of a long-dissolved Mexican cult. As per the cult’s rituals, Solis would drink the victim’s blood. In a nightmarish practice inspired from ancient Aztec mythology, Solis and her cult would brutally beat, burn, cut, and maim her victims, pouring their blood into a chalice mixed with chicken water. The cult, all the while under the influence of drugs like marijuana and peyote, would pass the chalice around in a joyous ritual as their victims lay bleeding to death. This process evolved from the relatively simple, straightforward group murder scene, and it would eventually progress to the point that Solis and her cult would dissect their victims’ hearts while they were still alive. Solis was eventually captured and sentenced to 50 years in prison, tried for only two of the murders she orchestrated.
5 Mary Bell
The case of Mary Bell is uniquely horrifying in the context of this list, since she committed her murders when she was just a child. In 1968, when she was 11 years old, Mary Bell strangled two little boys to death in Scotswood, a suburb of Newcastle upon Tyne, in England. The two boys were 4-year-old Martin Brown, and 3-year-old Brian Howe. Although the murder of Brian Howe had been allegedly committed by Bell and an acquaintance named Norma Joyce Bell (no relation), Mary Bell was the only one tried for the murder, as court-appointed psychiatrists declared that she displayed “classic symptoms os psychopathy.” Bell was given an indefinite prison sentence and was released in 1980, at which point she was granted anonymity and the opportunity to start a new life. She would go on to have a daughter, who did not know about her mother’s haunting past until reporters eventually discovered their location.
4 Myra Hindley
The despicable case of Myra Hindley describes the sexual assault and murders of five victims, ranging from the ages of 10 to 17. She partnered up with her equally malicious husband, Ian Brady, and together they abducted, sexually assaulted, and murdered their young victims. In one case, they visited a playground and asked 10-year-old Lesley Ann Downey to help them carry some packages to their home. When they got there, they stripped the young girl nude, took photos of her before full-on sexually assaulting and murdering her. The couple’s spree was eventually put to a merciful halt. Their trial began in 1965, which was quite lucky for them, since capital punishment had been abolished in England just a few short weeks prior to their arrest. They were sentenced to life in prison. Myra Hindley died in 2002 of bronchial pneumonia, while Ian Brady is still alive, carrying out the remainder of his sentence.
3 Mary Ann Cotton
This serial killer seemed to have definitely been motivated by money, though that’s surely not the final motive of her ghastly deeds. Mary Ann Cotton was confirmed to have been responsible for the deaths of three of her four husbands, although she is thought to have murdered 21 victims in all, which includes eleven of her 13 children as well as her own mother. Her main instrument of murder was arsenic poisoning, which caused great gastric pain and the accelerated decline of life force in her victims. After a 20-year long spree of mysterious murders surrounding Cotton’s life, she was eventually arrested and put on trial in 1873. Mary Ann Cotton was convicted of the murder of three of her husbands and was sentenced to death by hanging. The execution was not a smooth one; Cotton’s trap door proved to be too short, and she writhed wildly at the end of her rope until she eventually choked to death.
2 Katherine Knight
Known as the first Australian woman to be given a life imprisonment sentence without parole, Katherine Knight was responsible for the murder of her partner, John Price. As the dreaded tale goes, Knight stabbed the man to death, skinned him, and put his skin on a meat hook. She cooked his head and various other body parts, placed them alongside vegetables on plates next to placecards containing his children’s names. Knight was planning to serve Price’s cooked body parts to his children. She might have succeeded in doing so if the police did not immediately apprehend her. The police found her knocked out on pills amid the horrific murder scene. During her trial, Knight eventually pleaded guilty to Price’s murder, though she never directly acknowledged the crime. When shown footage of the murder, she reportedly grew hysterical and had to be sedated in court. She is currently serving out her sentence at the Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre in New South Wales.
1 Gaetana Stimoli
Gaetana Stimoli, of Aderno, Sicily, was responsible for the murders of 23 children. She would lure children to her home with the promise of treats, after which point she would give them some wine with traces of undiluted phosphoric acids, which is incredibly lethal to the human body. The victims would then be sent on their way back home, but before they would get there, they would suffer excruciating bodily pain which led to an inevitable death. Stimoli had apparently lost two children of her own, believing their deaths to have stemmed from some sort of bewitchment. In order to achieve some form of karmic balance in her mind, Stimoli sought to take the lives of other children to avenge hers. This occurred in the late 19th century, when witchcraft was a somewhat prevalent belief in secluded communities. Indeed, when her home was eventually searched, authorities found all the stock-in-trade of witchcraft they needed to confirm her extensive crimes.