10 Ruthless Black Widow Killers Whose Crimes Made History

Some of the most ruthless and prolific female murderers are known as black widows - ladies who use their feminine nature in some way to lure their victims.

Deadly black widows hold a particular fascination for crime buffs and horror fans, so it's only fitting that we examine some of them in a historical context. This list looks at high-profile cases of female murderers from times past, giving a rundown of their alleged crimes, body counts, and ultimate fates.

  • Aileen Wuornos
    Photo: Florida Department of Corrections / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Between 1989 and 1990, Aileen Wuornos killed several men along Florida and southern Georgia highways, later claiming that they had tried to rape her (she was a sex worker at the time, supporting herself and her girlfriend, Tyria Moore, with the money she earned). But the fact that she robbed her victims' bodies and went out of her way to hide them helped convince a jury that the killings were more sinister.

    Wuornos's killing career came to an end when investigators were able to track her and Moore down using fingerprints and palm prints left behind in one of Wuornos's victims' cars.

    Moore cut a deal with police, and eventually got Wuornos to confess over the phone to all seven murders, taking sole responsibility for them.

    She was convicted of first-degree murder in one of the victim's cases, and she was sentenced to death in 1992. She was put to death in 2002.

    Body Count: 7

    Fate: Death by lethal injection. Her story was the subject of the 2003 film Monster, starring Charlize Theron (who won an Oscar for her performance) in the role of Wuornos.

  • Lucrezia Borgia
    Photo: Bartolomeo Veneto / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Reviled through the ages as a Renaissance femme fatale who carried poison in her ring and used it to kill husbands and political rivals, Lucrezia Borgia's image has recently undergone a revision.  Historians now largely consider her a scapegoat who was actually quite pleasant, especially compared to her kinfolk, Spanish nobles who emigrated to Italy in the 15th century and swiftly gained control of the Vatican.

    Married three times, Borgia was often a pawn in the schemes of her father and brothers, and she is likely the only woman on this list who never actually killed anyone (though she has been accused of doing so for centuries).

    Body Count: Unknown - likely zero.

    Fate: Died June 24, 1519, at the age of 39.

  • Marie Manning

    Marie Manning
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A Swiss immigrant to England, Manning is on our list not so much for the scope of her crimes (she had only one victim) as for the sensation her crime spawned.

    Marie had two suitors - a young man close to her age named Frederick Manning and an older gentleman named Patrick O'Connor - who both proposed marriage. She chose Manning, who promised he had an inheritance coming, but she maintained a "friendship" with O'Connor that many believe to have been sexual.

    When it became clear that Frederick's inheritance was not forthcoming (he may have lied about that part), Marie hatched a plan with him to murder O'Connor and rob his house of everything they could find. She invited O'Connor to dinner one night and shot him in the back of the head. Frederick finished him off with a chisel. They then stashed his body in a hole they'd dug under the kitchen flagstones ahead of time and packed it with quicklime to speed up the body's decomposition.

    Over the next two days, Marie gathered whatever valuables and stock certificates she could find at O'Connor's residence. Two of O'Connor's colleagues came to their house asking about him, so Marie and Frederick fled London. Marie went to Edinburgh, where she was arrested after trying to sell some of O'Connor's stock certificates.

    The couple blamed each other at trial and both were found guilty and publicly executed in 1849. Their case was such a sensation that an estimated 50,000 people showed up to witness their deaths. One of those people was Charles Dickens, whose letter of disgust to The Times helped pave the way for the abolition of public executions in Britain.

    Body Count: 1

    Fate: Publicly hanged alongside her husband and accomplice. Marie became the inspiration for one of Dickens's characters, Hortense, the maid in his novel Bleak House.

  • Marie Besnard

    Marie Besnard
    Photo: Maurice Tournade / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Dubbed "the Queen of Poisoners" by the French press, Marie Besnard was ultimately charged with 13 counts of murder. Her alleged victims included both her husbands, her father, her mother, a father-in-law, a mother-in-law, two friends, and a handful of relatives who left her their estates. Her second husband, Leon, confided to his mistress (both he and Marie had lovers on the side) that he was certain Marie was planning to kill him. When he finally died, Marie became a suspect. Leon's body tested positive for arsenic poisoning, and several other bodies associated with Marie were exhumed and also tested positive for arsenic.

    Marie was tried three times over 10 years in French courts. Her first two trials were declared mistrials, and her third got her an acquittal, even though few people doubted her guilt.

    Body Count: Possibly 13

    Fate: Died a free woman in 1980.

  • Tillie Klimek

    Tillie Klimek
    Video: YouTube

    According to legend, Tillie Klimek claimed have a knack for predicting the impending deaths of those around her.

    Among her predictions were the deaths of her first, second, third, and fourth husbands; the deaths of three children from a family that had given her some trouble; the deaths of several dogs in the neighborhood; and the death of her fifth husband, Anton, who was saved only because family members found him sick and had his stomach pumped.

    Sure enough, his food had been poisoned with arsenic, and Klimek was arrested. She confessed to trying to kill him, and she was given a life sentence.

    She was not allowed to cook for any fellow inmates in prison, either, and suddenly, her psychic powers went away.

    Body Count: 7 (possibly more)

    Fate: Died in prison in 1936.

  • Amy Archer-Gilligan
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Amy Archer-Gilligan ran a nursing home in Connecticut from 1907 to 1917, where many people perished. That, by itself, probably wouldn't have raised suspicions at the time, since medical science wasn't very advanced back then.

    It was the deaths of Archer-Gilligan's two husbands that first piqued suspicions. Her first husband, James Archer, died in 1910, making Amy the beneficiary of his recently purchased life insurance policy. Her second husband, Michael Gilligan, died after only three months of marriage, also leaving Archer-Gilligan a substantial life insurance policy. Some people close to Archer-Gilligan began to have doubts about her.

    Then, a complaint from a relative of one of the patients who'd died under Archer-Gilligan's care led to a police investigation and several exhumations. Both of her husbands' bodies and those of all the patients who were exhumed tested positive for arsenic.

    Nonetheless, she was tried on only one count of murder, and she was sentenced to death. However, she was granted a new trial and her death sentence was commuted to life in prison.

    Body Count: Possibly as high as 48

    Fate: Died in a mental hospital in 1962. Her story inspired Joseph Kesselring's classic play, Arsenic and Old Lace.