A Brief History of Female Rampage Killers

By Mike Pearl

Screencap via BBC News

While news about the motive for Sunday's lunchtime cop-killing rampage in Las Vegas paints the two shooters as deranged, right-wing racists, that kind of early speculation has been way wrong in the past. One detail that's consistent across all reports, however, is that the perpetrators in this rampage were a man and a woman.

While it can't be said that the first post–Elliot Rodger killing spree had a female perpetrator—killing sprees are just too common for that—the fact that one of these killers wasn't a dude makes for at least an interesting footnote.

If you're a men's rights advocate, I'd advise strongly against starting some kind of #SeeIToldYouNotAllMen hashtag. Instead, maybe look into the history of why and when women snap and get all murdery. Who knows, you just might relate to them the way you related to Rodger.

I. Vehicular Homicide

While we shouldn't forget the carnage men, including Elliot Rodger himself, so often create with well-aimed automobiles, it's still worth noting that out of the handful of female spree killers, cars were the weapon of choice for two, and the body counts were shockingly high in both cases:

Screencap via youtube user Hartsword

Olga Hepnarová was a 22-year-old Czech woman who killed eight people by driving a truck into a crowd in Prague on July 10, 1973. Use of a car wasn't the only similarity to Elliot Rodger's crime: She also left mountains of written testimony about her motive, mainly revenge for perceived slights by a society that had misunderstood and abused her—now, granted, more of the abuse was probably real in Hepnarová's case than in Rodger's. A letter to a newspaper included this excerpt:

I am a loner. A destroyed woman. A woman destroyed by people... I have a choice—to kill myself or to kill others. I choose—TO REVENGE MY HATERS. It would be too easy to leave this world as an unknown suicide. The society is too indifferent, rightly so. My verdict is: I, Olga Hepnarová, the victim of your bestiality, sentence you to death penalty.

Having carefully planned her crime, and being vocal about her regret that she hadn't killed more people, no insanity defense stuck. Hepnarová was hanged. There's a movie coming out soon about her.

Priscilla Ford took to a Reno sidewalk in her Lincoln on Thanksgiving Day of 1980, killing six. Unlike Hepnarová, she was far from cold and calculating, claiming in a court of law to be the reincarnation of Jesus and incapable of sin. Her crime was also seemingly spontaneous. Nonetheless, she, too, was given the death penalty, but she died before it could be carried out. 

II. Firearms

There's nothing inherently gendered about a gun. When you need specific people to die, guns eliminate the most variables out of any conventional weapon, and they give you the element of surprise. Still, Sunday's assailant will, for what it's worth, probably never be as famous as these two legends of American murder lore:

Screencap via YouTube user The Crime Scene

Brenda "I Don't Like Mondays" Spencer isn't just a mass killer; she was the first of the American school shooters. Shooting up a school is a stunt that, like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, people tend to forget got its start with a woman, or, more accurately, a 16 year-old girl. Her crime, the Cleveland Elementary School shooting, happened on January 29, 1979, in San Diego. She killed the principal and a custodian with a .22 rifle and wounded eight children. Fortunately, no children died.

Her bizarre explanation, that she didn't like Mondays, and that a little murder "livens up the day," placed her squarely in the too-goulish-to-be-completely-crazy camp.

Jennifer San Marco: By 2006, "going postal" had been a phrase for 13 years. Postal was a successful video game franchise, and Uwe Boll's ill-fated movie adaptation was in production. With no apparent concern about being a cliché, on January 30 of that year, Jennifer San Marco forced her way into the postal processing plant where she formerly worked and killed seven people, and then herself, with a 9mm pistol. 

As is often the case, no satisfying explanation really emerged from San Marco's shooting. She was out of work and had seemed paranoid, but she wasn't out for revenge after losing her job. According to USA Today, no supervisors died, and she hadn't even seemed mad at her boss to begin with.

III. Arson

You won't find a much more a terrifyingly successful formula for mass murder than a roaring fire, plus a blocked exit. Sure, guns let you choose your targets, and they give you the bonus of feeling like Rambo, but with fire, you just set it and forget it.

Nasra Yussef Mohammed al-Enezi was a well-to-do 23-year-old in Kuwait who took revenge on her ex-husband's entire wedding party on August 15, 2009. She doused the tent with gasoline in the section where the wedding's women and children were cordoned off, and 57 people perished in the ensuing inferno. The new bride, however, made it out alive. Al-Enezi insisted to the end that she just sprinkled it with "cursed water." She was hanged in 2010.

When it comes to women and murder, there are unexpected statistics. Joni E. Johnston, PsyD, writes on the Psychology Today blog that even though there are far fewer female serial killers than males, "percentage-wise, there are more female serial murderers [with] 15 percent in comparison to 85 percent males [as opposed to] one-time killers [at] 90 percent men [and] 10 percent women." In other words, a slightly higher percentage of female killers are serial killers.

But while even the dustiest of history books are full of female murderers, there are very few spree killers. The crimes of the Manson women, Eileen Wuornos, and Andrea Yates all lack the exhibitionism and spontenaity of a rampage. Out of 1,336 spree killers in recorded history, it appears that less than ten were women, which is low, given that women commit about 10 percent of total murders.

A 2012 study published in the International Journal of Women's Health suggests that psychopathy in women might occur at different rates, or be expressed differently in criminals, with "only 11% of female violent subjects, as opposed to 31% of male violent subjects, [meeting] the criteria for psychopathy."

Quite tellingly, however, the study starts this way: "Prior research on psychopathy has primarily focused on the problem in men. Only a few studies have examined whether psychopathy even exists in women, and if so, how the disorder manifests itself in them."

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