Traditional ideas about female serial killers hold that such offenders are motivated primarily by gain, are less violent than males, are largely reactive rather than initiating, and are not sexually compulsive in their bid to kill. But there are exceptions to every rule, particularly when it comes to stereotypes about serial killers. Some women who repeatedly kill have certainly been predatory and brutal. A few have even been sexually compulsive. There’s no reason to believe that females are immune to an erotic rush from the act of murder, and we’ll examine several cases to illustrate this. Not surprisingly, many turn up in the healthcare industry.
Jane Toppan, a nurse at the end of the nineteenth century, experimented on patients with a mixture of drugs that killed slowly. As they gradually lost consciousness, she would climb into bed to cradle them while they slipped into oblivion. (Schechter 2003). After she went to work for a family, its members began to die, one by one, with gentle Jane by their side. Finally, someone grew suspicious and examined these deaths more closely, leading to Toppan’s arrest. During her examination and trial, Toppan admitted to being aroused by death, which places her squarely in the category of a lust killer. In fact, she said that her sole regret was that she had been stopped so soon, and had she married and had a family, she was certain she would have killed them all as well.
There has been little to no research on female lust killers, in part because it’s an unexpected phenomenon and in part because the cases are rare. However, similar to male lust murder, the female counterpart is often driven by a paraphilia, such as arousal upon viewing a corpse or when rubbing inappropriately against someone. Often, there’s something deviant in their sexual development that consistently triggers arousal and thus feeds a compulsion.
Erotic motivation is even more prevalent among women who kill in partnerships with other women (although this behavior does not show up in all cases). There aren’t many documented examples, but those we have identified involved at least one person with a scheming mind, a degree of psychopathy, and the capacity for getting a thrill from deciding that others should die. In our first case involving two women, it’s not altogether clear who was actually the dominant partner, but violence apparently gave them both a sexual rush.
Catherine May Wood was described by her former husband, Ken Wood, as flighty, overly sensitive, moody, and unpredictable (Cauffiel 1992). She would start something and even pursue it for months, but would then drop it to do something else. He said that he could never count on her to commit and believed that she had never known unconditional love. As a result, he thought, she was both needy and insecure. She surprised him once by admitting that she wondered what it would be like to stab someone. She also felt no maternal affection for their daughter. Bothered by her excessive weight, she nevertheless continued to eat junk food.
The Woods separated in 1986, but not before Ken caught a glimpse of the kinds of friends Cathy was keeping at the nursing home where she worked as a supervisor —the Alpine Manor in Walker, Michigan. Apparently, a clique of lesbians employed there had become party friends, Cathy among them. Her sense of morality, already tenuous, seemed to Ken to have taken a back seat completely.
Cathy told Ken that she was in love with an aide, Gwendolyn Gail Graham, but that some of the things they did together frightened her. Graham had arrived from Texas, and this 22-year-old motorcycle rider had a tough side. Cauffiel (1992) states that people viewed her as masculine. She had been seriously injured several times and she often displayed the scars on her arms, sometimes lying about how she got them. She apparently had severe reactions to what she perceived as abandonment, which included the type of self-mutilation common to people with borderline personality disorder. Several of Graham’s coworkers liked her, but she took up with Cathy and they became lovers. Then they became killing partners.
Alpine Manor, with more than 200 beds, averaged about 40 deaths a year, and thus, six unnatural deaths, especially of “total care” patients who required the most attention, did not stand out. One victim had gangrene, another had Alzheimer’s, and all of them had been expected to die there at some point. It was an easy situation to exploit, especially with 70 staff members covering all the shifts.
According to Wood, whose tale became the primary legal record, it was Graham who first broached the subject of murder. At first Wood claimed she was just a witness, but later admitted to participating. Under interrogation and later at trial, Wood described how they had practiced sexual asphyxia to achieve greater orgasms, so she thought Graham was kidding when she suggested killing a patient. Yet the linked pain and pleasure of their sexual games had become threaded with images of cruelty against others. Just talking about murder, she said, got them both sexually excited. Finally, they decided to do it.
They started killing patients in January 1987 and continued for three months, initially attempting to select victims whose names would be part of a spelling game. The idea occurred while working on a crossword puzzle. They knew that the Alpine Manor recorded the names of patients who had died or were discharged in a book. Just for fun, they wanted to make the first initial of six names in a row, when read down, spell MURDER.
However, it proved too complicated to select the right patients in a way that minimized risk and also spelled the word, so they just selected patients that seemed easy to kill without discovery. Their new motive, said Wood, was to share this secret so they would be bonded “forever.” With each killing, they added one more day to that time period, so that after the third murder they might sign a love letter, “forever and three days.” Wood said she agreed to be an accomplice because she feared losing Graham, who apparently killed to relieve personal tension.
Acting as sentry, Wood watched as Graham attempted to smother elderly women, but some struggled so hard she had to back off. Oddly enough, none registered a complaint, and in fact most of the patients liked these two women. In many respects, they appeared to be good at this job, patient and compassionate.
The first victim to actually die was a woman suffering from Alzheimer’s disease whom both knew would be unable to fight. Her last name began with an “M.” Placing a washcloth over the woman’s nose and mouth, Graham smothered her to death. In the weeks that followed, Graham moved on to another, and then another, leaving a washcloth in the room as her “calling card.” After she failed at killing one of the male patients, they stuck to females, especially those who proved difficult to care for. In one version of the story, they had targeted at least 20 different people, including other aides.
To relive the crimes, Graham took items off the victims, such as jewelry, personal keepsakes, and socks. She and Wood placed these souvenirs at home on a special shelf. In a morbid postscript, they sometimes washed down the bodies as part of the postmortem routine, and handling their deceased victims further excited them.
Then they grew bolder. They told colleagues what they were doing, because the confessions added to their heightened sexual drive, but their accounts were dismissed as sick jokes. No one could believe that a person who entered healthcare would actively kill a patient, let alone become an outright predator. Wood, in particular, was known to lie and play mind games, so few associates took her seriously. Even her shelf of souvenirs impressed no one.
Graham then pressured Wood to take a more active role: she would have to kill one of the patients herself. Wood wasn’t ready for this, or so she later claimed. This angered Graham, who took up with another woman and returned to Texas. From there, she wrote disturbing letters about wanting to smash the faces of babies in her care at another facility. Wood swore her ex-husband to secrecy and confessed everything, admitting they had killed patients because it was fun. Despite his promise to her, Ken felt endangered just by knowing about their activities, so he notified a therapist, and a year later, the police. Wood attempted to deflect their investigation but quickly caved and blamed Graham. (There is some speculation that she set Graham up with this confession to punish her for leaving.)
After an investigation that involved two exhumations (which offered no physical evidence), both women were arrested. Wood turned state’s witness against her former lover for a sentence of 20 to 40 years, with the possibility of parole. Graham, too, testified, but the most telling witness was Graham’s current lover, who admitted that Graham had confessed six murders to her. Others testified in a similar vein.
On September 20, 1989, the jury deliberated for only 6 hours before they rendered a verdict: Graham was convicted of five counts of first-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. She drew six life sentences, with no possibility of parole. In media accounts, Wood’s role was downplayed to “occasional lookout,” and the case remains controversial today over whether there were more murders, as well as whether there were any murders at all. There is some speculation, especially after a psychological evaluation of Graham, that even if Graham did the killing, Wood had been the mastermind.
In studies of team killers, researchers have found that many couples, no matter what gender, follow a common pattern: Two people meet, feel a strong attraction, and establish an intimate familiarity that allows them to share fantasies—even violent ones. When eroticized, this approval encourages acting out, and if the partners succeed in committing a violent crime without getting caught, they grow bolder. The dominant person is generally charismatic and maintains psychological control—his or her erotic preferences set the tone.
In the case of Graham and Wood, regardless of who actually performed the murders, their fantasies and activities enhanced their sadomasochistic sex. Thus, until they broke up, the “game” became an essential aspect of their pleasure and a way for each to manipulate the other. They egged each other on, but they also exploited the fear of discovery to threaten each other. The fact that killing elderly women also gave them an outlet for issues they both had with their mothers added yet another level of motivation. All in all, murder was both fun and satisfying.
When lust is not the propellant, but females nevertheless kill for camaraderie, there still appears to be an element of thrill with erotic manifestations. They don’t kill specifically for a sexual thrill, but their pact and the actions that sustain it provide the stimulation. We see this phenomenon in a series of murders in Vienna, Austria.
It was again a nurse’s aide who initiated the 6-year spree at Lainz General Hospital. Most of the victims were elderly, many terminally ill. The killing began in 1983, and by the time officials began to investigate, the death toll stood at 49 (Protzman 1989). Reports of the trial turned up in the New York Times.
Waltraud Wagner, 23, had a 77-year-old patient who one day asked for help to end her suffering. Many nurses in elder care units or facilities face such requests. Wagner hesitatingly obliged, overdosing the ailing woman with morphine. Once she accomplished this without being caught, she apparently felt a surge of energy. She soon recruited accomplices from the night shift to engage in this “mercy-killing.” Maria Gruber, 19, and a nursing school dropout, was happy to join. So was Ilene Leidolf, 21. The third recruit was a grandmother, 43-year-old Stephanija Mayer. While the initial idea was to do something beneficial, they soon found pleasure in killing patients who got on their nerves. Many were not even deathly ill; they were just annoying.
Wagner showed the others how to give lethal injections with insulin and tranquilizers, and added a mechanism of her own creation: the “water cure.” This brutal method involved holding a patient’s nose while forcing him or her to drink water, which then filled the lungs and caused an agonizing death. Yet it was virtually undiscoverable as murder, because many elderly patients already had a certain amount of fluid in their lungs.
At first, the nurses killed sporadically, but by 1987 they had escalated and rumors spread that there was a killer on Pavilion 5. Allegedly, Wagner may have killed as many as 75—her own estimate before she withdrew parts of her confession. She then said she had only killed nine, although one of her accomplices placed her victim toll closer to 200.
As they grew bold, the nurses also grew careless. Over drinks one day, they relived one of their latest cases. A doctor overheard them, and he went to the police, who launched an investigation. It took 6 weeks, but all four women were arrested on April 7, 1989. The doctor in charge of their ward, who had been alerted to the killings a year earlier, was suspended.
While Wagner and the others insisted on selfless motives, the jury did not agree. Ultimately, Wagner was convicted of 15 murders, 17 attempted murders, and two counts of assault. She received life in prison. Leidolf, too, got life for five murders, while the other two drew 15 years for manslaughter and several attempted murder charges. This set of relatively light sentences may indicate how difficult it is for society to accept the idea of a predatory female killer—let alone four working together.
Researcher Carol Anne Davis (2001), who wrote about Graham and Wood, states that many female killers do plan their crimes, feeling empowered when they get away with them. Alone, they might be “bad news” in other ways, but engaging a partner willing to go the distance can provide a catalyst for repeat murder. Dominant women intent on violence, she says, tend to be sexually-driven, narcissistic, secretive, and manipulative. Often victimized in some manner during their lives, they turn this around by victimizing others. Having an approving or submissive partner energizes them, perhaps even making them feel invincible. Once caught, they attempt to manipulate the system, still believing in their own power. Sometimes they even succeed, thanks in part to the misperception of violent females fostered by erroneous stereotypes. As more cases emerge, we’ll learn more about this type of crime, and formal studies of female killing teams is clearly in order.
Associated Press. (1989, November 3). Ex-nursing home aide gets life term in five patient killings [Electronic Version]. The New York Times.
Cauffiel, L. (1992). Forever and five days. New York: Zebra Books.
Davis, C. (2001) Women who kill. London: Allison & Busby.
Yeomen, B. (1999). Bad girls. Psychology Today, 32(6).
Protzman, F. (1989, April 18). Killing of 49 patients by 4 nurse’s aids stuns the Austrians [Electronic version]. The New York Times.
Schechter, H. (2003). Fatal: The poisonous life of a female serial killer. New York: Pocket Books.
Women killed to assure love, one testifies,” (1989, September 14). Detroit Free Press.
About the Author
Katherine Ramsland, PhD, CMI-V, has published 25 books including The Human Predator: A historical Chronicle of Serial Murder and Forensic Investigation. Dr. Ramsland is an assistant professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. She is a Certified Medical Investigator (CMI-V) and has been a member of the American College of Forensic Examiners since 1999.