She-devils: Why do female killers fascinate society?

THEY are the antithesis of feminity, not gentle but sadistic and destructive. So, why is society so fascinated by women who kill? A conference in Glasgow is about to discuss the taboo of female violence.

When Myra Hindley died no funeral directors within 200 miles would agree to handle her body. Even in death, the murderer who, with Ian Brady, killed five children and buried them on Saddleworth Moor, was too toxic to touch. Imagine how you’d feel, one of those who refused the job said, if your mother was transported in a hearse which had carried the coffin of the most notorious criminal in British history.

Hindley has long been seen as the antithesis of everything women are supposed to represent, not gentle and nurturing, but sadistic and destructive. This subversion of femininity, particularly as it related to her deviant sexuality, turned her into an icon of evil; a platinum blonde monstrosity who was so reviled that she eclipsed Brady in the public consciousness.

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Hindley’s crimes are almost unparalleled; but she is far from the only woman criminal (or alleged criminal) to have been viewed through the prism of her gender. You need only look at Amanda Knox (acquitted on appeal of the murder of Meredith Kercher, but soon to be subjected to a retrial) to see how obsessed society is with female killers (or suspected killers). Three people – Knox, Raffaele Sollecito and Rudy Guede – were accused of the crime, but from the very beginning the focus was on “Foxy Knoxy”, the “she devil” who was judged on her good looks, her emotional detachment and her alleged promiscuity.

In fact, most women murderers, other than those who turn on their abusive husbands or kill their babies while post-natally depressed, are a source of simultaneous fascination and revulsion. The most extreme take on an almost mythic status, far exceeding that which attaches itself to their male counterparts .

This phenomenon, in part, is what inspired Scottish author and journalist Jean Rafferty to write her controversial novel, Myra, Beyond Saddleworth, which takes as its premise the idea that Hindley did not die in prison, but was released under a new identity to live out the rest of her life in anonymity. However, it also formed a stumbling block for the project’s success. The book is not sympathetic to Hindley; indeed, it depicts her as utterly self-absorbed and lacking in remorse. But the author quickly discovered that the visceral hatred Hindley’s name evokes made publishers wary of getting involved.

On Sunday she will join Scottish crime writer Caro Ramsay and criminologist Dr Lizzie Seal to talk about the taboo of female violence and look at literary representations of female murderers at Bad Women, a Scottish PEN event being held as part of the Aye Write festival in Glasgow.

Rafferty was driving along the M62 on her way back from an Arvon creative writing course when she passed the turn-off for Saddleworth Moor and became consumed by the desire to write about Hindley. At that time, the internet was buzzing with conspiracy theories suggesting she hadn’t really died in 2002, so Rafferty created a fictional life in which she was freed and had affairs with a wealthy woman and a Catholic priest before succumbing to cancer. Even once the book was published, she faced a degree of hostility from critics who felt she was glamorising Hindley’s crimes. But, having researched every aspect of the Moors murderer’s life, she found few redeeming features with which to invest her protagonist; only once does she allow her a flash of insight and shame.

“Hindley was one of these people who are immersed in their own drama,” says Rafferty, who is chair of Scottish PEN’s Writers in Prison committee. “At one point the families had written to her and she said ‘these people have haunted and hunted me for 20 years’. That level of self-regard and self- absorption is so extreme you have to say it’s some kind of personality disorder, complete narcissism.”

Yet Rafferty is interested in Hindley’s humanity, railing against society’s tendency to portray those who commit heinous crimes as monsters or aliens.

“Hindley and Brady felt there was something more than what life had dealt them. In that sense they had a lot in common with many young people in the Sixties. They wanted to move beyond the order and safety of their lives,” she says. “The way they chose to break out was awful and perverse, but I think it was an extension of that desire. Hindley became a Catholic when she was a teenager, abandoned it when she met Brady, then took it up again later. The Catholic Church offers many things – drama, spectacle, ritual – which might satisfy someone like her. If Brady had offered her a spiritual experience of a finer nature, perhaps she would have followed that.”

Dr Lizzie Seal, the author of Women, Murder and Femininity: Gender Representations of Women Who Kill, has researched the way female offenders are viewed both by the criminal justice system and the media. She divides portrayals of the killers she studied into five broad types: the masculine woman, the witch, the muse/mastermind dichotomy, the damaged woman and the respectable woman. She cites Aileen Wuornos as an example of the “masculine woman” not only because of her appearance and the fact her crimes – shooting to death seven customers she met as a sex worker in Flordia – involve a weapon and level of violence more commonly associated with men, but also because she was a lesbian.

The type of women portrayed as witches, Seal says, tend to be older and at the margins of society, for example Mary Wilson, the last woman in Britain to have her death sentence reprieved – who poisoned at least two of her husbands – and Dorothy Puente who murdered elderly and often vulnerable lodgers in her boarding house in California in the 1980s.

Beverley Allitt, a nurse who murdered four children in Grantham and Kesteven Hospital in Lincolnshire, and was said to have suffered from Münchhausen’s Disease by proxy, is among those portrayed as damaged, while Lizzie Borden, who was acquitted of the axe murders of her parents in 1892, was seen as a respectable woman by virtue of her religious and comfortable upbringing – so respectable the jury could not bring themselves to convict her. But it is the last category – the muse/mastermind dichotomy – including Hindley, Karla Homolka (who, with Paul Bernardo, was involved in the rape and killing of three girls, including her sister), and Lonely Hearts killer Martha Beck, who, with Raymond Fernandez, is believed to have killed 20 women in the 1940s – that holds the greatest fascination for the public.

In these cases, the woman can be seen either as under the man’s control (but perhaps an inspiration to him at the same time) or as the evil mastermind, with the same woman often subjected to both interpretations at the same time.

But how does the way women are viewed affect the way they are treated within the criminal justice system? Where they present as “normal”, women may experience greater leniency. “Edith Chubb strangled her sister-in-law with her own scarf,” says Seal, who is based at Sussex University. “She said she didn’t realise how tight she was pulling it until her sister-in-law started choking. At the same time the postman was putting post through the door and, because she was afraid of him hearing, she put her hand over her sister-in-law’s mouth and nose. Well, Edith Chubb was a nurse so whether she wouldn’t have realised these things could kill someone is open to question, but she had a large family, and was portrayed as very hard working, while her sister-in-law, a spinster who lived with her, was portrayed in a negative way.” Chubb was sentenced to four years for manslaughter in 1958, but had only been in jail a year when a newspaper ran a campaign to have her released. She was eventually freed after two and a half years.

Gender also has an impact when it comes to the death penalty. Between 1900 and 1949, 40 per cent of men given the death penalty in the UK won reprieves and 90 per cent of women. But, according to Seal, those who stray furthest from their gender stereotype, like Wuornos or Ruth Ellis, who refused to play down her sexuality – appearing in the dock with freshly bleached blonde hair – were the least likely to have their sentences commuted.

Hindley escaped the death penalty (it was abolished in 1965), but she was demonised, many believe justifiably, to the point that her release was impossible even after 30 years. Campaigns by the likes of Lord Longford did nothing to convince the public she had reformed or to erase the image of her looking defiantly out from beneath a mop of blonde hair.

• Bad Women, part of the Aye Write book festival, will be held in The Mitchell Library, Glasgow, from 3-4.30pm on Sunday.