Special Report

The Most Brutal Female Criminals in History

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History’s most fiendish female criminals are not limited by social status, geography, or a particular time period. What connects them are unspeakable acts, in some cases triggered by an abusive childhood, mental illness, trauma, grinding poverty, or violence around them. 

To assemble a list of the most fiendish female criminals in history, 24/7 Tempo reviewed information from The Crime Museum, Biography, Newsweek, Encyclopedia Britannica, All That’s Interesting, and other media sources. With one exception, only women who were convicted of or were pursued in connection with violent crimes are included here. (The exception, Maria Licciardi, was convicted of extortion and money laundering for Italy’s murderous Camorra.) Lizzie Borden, accused of murdering her father and stepmother in 19th-century Massachusetts, was not considered for this list because she was acquitted. (Borden’s residence, though, is considered one of America’s most infamous murder homes.)

Many of the women listed here preyed on those in society who are most vulnerable: small children, the elderly, the infirm, and in earlier times, serfs and the enslaved. 

Women such as Amelia Dyer, Dagmar Overbye, and Miyuki Ishikawa had businesses in which they were entrusted with the welfare of infants, and many babies died in their care. Murder was a path to monetary gain for Belle Gunness, Tillie Klimek, and Dorothea Puente, who killed people for insurance money or Social Security or pension checks.

In many cases, the preferred method of killing for these women criminals was by rat poison or arsenic. That was the choice for Dorothea Puente, Velma Barfield, and Nannie Doss (whose grandmotherly appearance belied more sinister motives).  

Some women on the list scaled the heights of criminal enterprises, occupying leadership roles normally held by men, though they are no less ruthless. Enedina Arellano Felix and Mireya Moreno Carreon have led drug cartels, and Maria Licciardi ran an organized-crime family in Italy. Two women who contributed to history’s darkest hour, the Holocaust, were concentration camp overseers, and both met a violent fate. (These are horrifying images of Nazi death camps.)

Click here to see the most fiendish female criminals in history

Even though the law has historically treated aristocrats differently than the rest of society, Countess Elizabeth Báthory, a Hungarian noblewoman who lived 400 years ago, and Russian aristocrat Darya Saltykova, who lived in the 18th century, received lifelong punishments for the mistreatment and murder of their servants and serfs.

1. Aileen Wuornos (1956-2002)
> Crime: Murder
> Country: U.S.

Aileen Wuornos never had a chance at a normal life. Her father was a child molester who killed himself after she was born, and her mother abandoned the family when Wuornos was a child. Wuornos was left with her mother’s parents who were abusive alcoholics. She began her life as a sex worker at 11 and later moved to Florida to ply her trade. She was convicted for killing six of her seven victims – men she picked up while working as a prоstitute along Florida highways – and was executed by lethal injection in 2002. Charlize Theron won a Best Actress Oscar for portraying her in the 2003 Wuornos biopic “Monster.”

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2. Amelia Dyer (1837-1896)
> Crime: Murder
> Country: England

Amelia Dyer was a baby farmer, which was a real job during the Victorian Era in England in which a woman would adopt unwanted children for a fee. Over the course of 20 years, she is thought to have been responsible for the murder of hundreds of children, most by starving them to death. Her crimes were so appalling that it took just five minutes to find her guilty of murder. Dyer was hanged shortly afterward.

3. Andrea Yates (1964- )
> Crime: Murder
> Country: U.S.

Yates, from Houston, Texas, drowned her five children in their bathtub on June 20, 2001. She had been dealing with severe postpartum depression, postpartum psychosis, and schizophrenia for some time before the crime was committed. In March 2002, a jury rejected the insanity defense and found Yates guilty of capital murder, sentencing her to life in prison with eligibility for parole in 40 years.

4. Belle Gunness (1859-1908)
> Crime: Murder
> Country: U.S.

Norwegian immigrant Belle Gunness came to the United States looking to strike it rich in her adopted country. Her path to wealth was to post public lovelorn messages to lure men to her farm, marry them or romance them, and kill them for their insurance money. At least 14 men died by her hand, as well as some of their children from previous marriages; she may have been involved with as many as 40 murders in all. Gunness may have died violently as well. In 1908, a fire burned down her Indiana farm. Authorities found the remains of some of her suitors, several children, and a woman presumed to be Gunness — though some believe she faked her death.

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5. Bonnie Parker (1910-1934)
> Crime: Robbery, murder
> Country: U.S.

Bonnie Parker is the distaff half of the infamous duo Bonnie & Clyde, who were bank robbers and car thieves responsible for 13 murders, according to the FBI. They terrorized the Plains states, Texas, and Oklahoma over a two-year period during the Depression. Bonnie & Clyde were killed in an ambush by lawmen in Louisiana in 1934.

6. Charlene Gallego (1956- )
> Crime: Murder
> Country: U.S.

Gerald Armond Gallego and Charlene Adell Gallego were serial killers and rapists who terrorized Sacramento, California, between 1978 and 1980. They murdered 10 people, mostly teens, who were often kept as sex slaves before killing them. In 1984, Charlene testified against Gerald, who was executed in the gas chamber. In July 1997, Charlene completed her sentence and was released.

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7. Countess Elizabeth Báthory (1560-1614)
> Crime: Murder
> Country: Hungary

Elizabeth Báthory, a Hungarian noblewoman, may have killed as many as 600 people, making her the most prolific female murderer ever, according to Guinness World Records. She was accused, along with several of her servants, of torturing and murdering female servants and noblewomen of lesser stature who came to her for education. She was apprehended but because of her aristocratic station, did not face the death penalty. Instead, she was forced to live out the rest of her life in her castle, dying there in 1614.

8. Dagmar Overbye (1887-1929)
> Crime: Murder
> Country: Denmark

A native of Denmark, Dagmar Overbye ran a child care in Copenhagen. She was a liaison for families looking to adopt and for mothers who did not want their babies. She cared for the children while she found proper homes for them – but murdered between nine and 25 of them, including one of her own. In 1921, she was found guilty and given the death penalty, making her the first woman sentenced to death in Denmark since 1861. However, Danish King Christian X opposed the death penalty for women and her sentence was commuted to life in prison.

9. Darya Saltykova (1730-1801)
> Crime: Murder
> Country: Russia

Russian noblewoman Darya Saltykova murdered 139 serfs under her custody. She was tried and found guilty of the killings, but because of her noble rank, did not receive the death penalty. The Russian imperial court imposed a life sentence on her. Before serving that sentence, Saltykova was taken to Red Square in Moscow and publicly beaten for over an hour wearing a sign that read: “This woman tortured and murdered.” She spent the rest of her years chained up in the basement of a monastery.

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10. Delphine LaLaurie (1787-1849)
> Crime: Torture
> Country: U.S.

Delphine LaLaurie, who was born into an affluent family, became infamous for torturing and possibly murdering enslaved people at a mansion she owned in New Orleans in the 1830s. Her crimes were discovered when authorities responded to a fire at her house in 1834 and found a number of abused and seriously injured victims. Townspeople attacked and partially destroyed her house after learning of her crimes and LaLaurie fled the city, possibly to France, where she is said to have died.

11. Dorothea Puente (1929-2011)
> Crime: Fraud, murder
> Country: U.S.

Dorothea Puente ran a boarding house in Sacramento, California, where she murdered various elderly and mentally disabled boarders before cashing their Social Security checks. Many of the victims were found buried in her backyard. Puente was convicted of three murders and sentenced to two life sentences in 1993. She died in 2011 at age 82.

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12. Enedina Arellano Félix (1961- )
> Crime: Drug trafficking, money laundering
> Country: Mexico

Enedina Arellano Félix runs the Tijuana Cartel, which had been managed by her six brothers. She has been identified as the world’s first female drug lord by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). In recent years, Félix has kept a low profile as leader of the cartel.

13. Griselda Blanco Restrepo (1943-2012)
> Crime: Murder, drug trafficking
> Country: Colombia

Griselda Blanco Restrepo was a drug trafficker with Colombia’s Medellín cartel who is thought to have been responsible for more than 200 murders. Married and widowed three times, she named one of her sons Michael Corleone in a nod to her criminal activities. She served 13 years on drug charges in a U.S. federal prison, and then was sent to Florida to face murder charges. She was serving a life sentence when, in 2002, she suffered a heart attack in prison. Two years later, she was released and deported to Colombia. Restrepo was shot to death by a motorcyclist while purchasing meat in a butcher shop in Medellín in 2012.

14. Ilse Koch (1906-1967)
> Crime: War crimes
> Country: Germany

Regardless of their sex, WWII produced some of the worst fiends in history. Ilse Koch was one of them. She was an overseer at the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald, run by her husband, commandant Karl-Otto Koch. Isle Koch was infamous for her perversion and cruelty, flogging prisoners with her riding crop and forcing them to perform physically exhausting activities for her pleasure. Her hobby was collecting lampshades, book covers, and gloves made from the skins of murdered concentration camp inmates. She was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. In 1967 she hanged herself with bedsheets in her cell at the women’s prison in Aichach, Germany.

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15. Irma Grese (1923-1945)
> Crime: War crimes
> Country: Germany

Another female Nazi fiend was Irma Grese, a young Nazi concentration camp guard at Ravensbrück – a camp for women – and Auschwitz. In selecting victims for the gas chamber, Grese would purposely pick out beautiful females out of jealousy and spite. Grese would also sic her dog on prisoners, whip them, and kick them with her hobnailed jackboots until they bled. The Jewish Virtual Library called Grese “the most notorious of the female Nazi war criminals.” At the end of the war, when she was only 22, she was tried and hanged.

16. Juana Barraza (1957- )
> Crime: Murder
> Country: Mexico

Juana Barraza is a former professional wrestler who killed between 42 and 48 elderly women. She gained access to their homes, murdered them, and then stole their money. Mexican authorities were at first convinced that the serial killer was a male who wore women’s clothes. Barraza was arrested in 2006 and tried in 2008, with the prosecution claiming that she had been responsible for as many as 40 deaths. She was sentenced to 759 years in prison but because sentences imposed in Mexican courts are usually served concurrently, she will serve no more than 60.

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17. Karla Leanne Homolka (1970- )
> Crime: Murder
> Country: Canada

Karla Homolka was jailed in 1993 along with her then-husband Paul Bernardo over the killings of three teens, including her younger sister, Tammy, in Canada. The victims were raped and tortured, and one was dismembered, over a three-year period beginning in 1990. As the result of a plea bargain, Homolka was convicted only of manslaughter and was released in 2005 after serving a 12-year sentence. Her former husband received a life sentence in 1995.

18. Klara Mauerova (1975- )
> Crime: Torture, child abuse
> Country: Czechia

Klara Mauerova, a Czech woman, belonged to a religious cannibal cult. She and her sister beat the children – two adopted boys – with belts, put cigarettes out on them, sexually abused them, forced them to cut themselves with knives, and cut one boy’s skin and forced him to eat it. They kept the boys locked up in dog cages, forcing them to sleep in their own excrement. Mauerova was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2008.

19. Leonarda Cianciulli (1894-1970)
> Crime: Murder, cannibalism
> Country: Italy

Leonarda Cianciulli, who operated a soap shop, was a serial killer and cannibal infamous for turning her victims’ bodies into soaps and teacakes. She became pregnant 17 times in her life, but lost three pregnancies to miscarriage, and 10 of the children she bore died before they became adults. She was very protective of her surviving children, however, and when her eldest son went into the army in WWII, she thought she could protect him through human sacrifice. Arrested and tried in 1946, she was found guilty of murdering three women and was sentenced to 30 years in prison and three years in a criminal asylum.

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20. Ma Barker (1873-1935)
> Crime: Robbery, murder
> Country: U.S.

Ma Barker led the Barker Gang, which included her two sons, in the 1930s. They committed numerous robberies, murders, and kidnappings in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Kansas. She was killed at a house she was renting in Florida in 1935 by the FBI in what became the longest FBI shoot-out in history.

21. Manson girls: Susan Atkins (1948-2009), Patricia Krenwinkel (1947- ), and Leslie Van Houten (1949- )
> Crime: Murder
> Country: U.S.

Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten came under the spell of Charles Manson and committed several of the most sensational murders of the 1960s in California. The three young women killed seven people in 1969 at the behest of Manson, who was trying to start a race war in the United States. All three Manson disciples were convicted of murder and received life sentences. Atkins died in prison in 2009. Van Houten is serving a life sentence as is Krenwinkel, who is the longest-incarcerated female inmate in the California penal system.

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22. Maria Licciardi (1951- )
> Crime: Extortion, money laundering
> Country: Italy

Maria Licciardi, also called “The Godmother,” led the Camorra crime syndicate in Naples from 1993 to 2001. It was an unusual accomplishment for a woman to ascend the heights in the organized crime world in Italy. Licciardi was first arrested in 2001 when she was stopped while driving in a car near Naples. She spent eight years in prison for convictions of Mafia-connected crimes and was released in 2009 – only to be arrested again in 2021.

23. Mireya Moreno Carreon 
> Crime: Drug trafficking, money laundering
> Country: Mexico

The lure of drug riches apparently proved too much to resist for former police officer Mireya Moreno Carreon, who became a drug trafficker for Mexico’s Los Zetas cartel (founded by deserters from the Mexican army’s special forces) and eventually became its leader – the first woman to hold that position. Carreon ran the Zetas, known as one of the most violent of the cartels, for a year before she was arrested in 2011 in a stolen car containing marijuana and cocaine.

24. Miyuki Ishikawa (1897-1987)
> Crime: Murder
> Country: Japan

Called the “Demon midwife,” Miyuki Ishikawa willfully neglected children whose parents couldn’t afford to keep them during the postwar era in Japan, when food was scarce. She’s believed to have killed more than 100 babies. Ishikawa is the most prolific serial killer in Japanese history. She asserted that the deaths were the fault of parents who had abandoned the children and the Japanese public supported her. As a result, Ishikawa received a sentence of only eight years in prison.

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25. Myra Hindley (1942-2002)
> Crime: Murder, rape
> Country: England

Myra Hindley and her boyfriend, Ian Brady, raped and killed five children between the ages of 10 and 17 by strangulation and by axe in England in the 1960s. Hindley was sentenced to two life sentences in 1966, and died at age 60 in 2002. Brady, serving a life sentence, was declared criminally insane in 1985.

26. Nannie Doss (1905-1965)
> Crime: Murder
> Country: U.S.

Nannie Doss was arrested for the murder of one husband in 1955, and confessed to murdering four. She maintained that she never harmed her blood relatives, however Alabama law enforcement officers believed that she may have killed as many as 12 people, including a mother-in-law, a grandson, a granddaughter, her mother, her sister, and two of her own children with rat poison or arsenic. She received a life sentence in 1955 and died in prison in 1965.

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27. Phoolan Devi (1963-2001)
> Crime: Robbery, murder
> Country: India

Abused as a young bride in India, Devi joined a gang and took revenge on those in another caste who had abused her, ordering her gang members to kill 22 men in one village, including those attending a wedding. Known as the “Bandit Queen of India,” she surrendered to authorities in 1983 and served 11 years in prison. Devi eventually ran for a Parliament seat and won. She was slain in a revenge killing in 2001. Devi has been the subject of several films and documentaries.

28. Rosemary West (1953- )
> Crime: Murder, child abuse
> Country: England

Rosemary West, known as Rose, who was physically abused as a young girl by her father, went on to murder 12 women, including one of her own daughters, starting in the early 1970s. She and her husband, Fred, opened their home to boarders and offered rides to young women. Some of them were never heard from again and ended up buried in the basement or under the patio of West’s home. Rose had eight children, who were often physically assaulted by her and Fred. She also brought men home as a prostitute, and both Fred and some of the men repeatedly raped the daughters. One girl was forced into prostitution herself at the age of 13. When police raided this house of horrors in 1994, they found mummified remains of decapitated and dismembered bodies. Rose and her husband received life sentences. She is still serving hers, but Fred committed suicide in 1995.

29. Tillie Klimek (1876-1936)
> Crime: Murder
> Country: U.S.

Tillie Klimek fed poisoned candy to as many as 20 people, 14 of whom died and the others of whom got gravely ill. She had killed several husbands – she was married five times – and tried to kill another when she was arrested in 1921. It was eventually discovered that she had taken out life insurance policies on the men. She was found guilty in 1923 and sentenced to life in prison, and died there in 1936.

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30. Velma Barfield (1932-1984)
> Crime: Murder
> Country: U.S.

Velma Barfield, who grew up poor in South Carolina and was sexually abused by her father as a child, was convicted of one murder though she may have killed six people, most by arsenic poisoning. The so-called “Death Row Granny” confessed to four murders and in 1984 became the first woman executed in the U.S. in 22 years. She was a church-going Christian who numbered Reverend Billy Graham among her friends while she awaited the death sentence.

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