Tori Telfer is the author of the new book Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Salon, Jezebel, and The Hairpin.
Q: Why did you decide to write Lady Killers?
A: Because, like Mount Everest, the topic was there! Lady Killers started out as a column on The Hairpin and Jezebel—a column I pitched because I saw that an editor was looking for historical columns and I’d recently discovered a nasty little serial killer called Erzsébet Báthory—and once editors started asking me if I’d ever thought about turning it into a book, I was like, “Well…I guess I’m writing a book about female serial killers!”
Plus, the subject is inherently fascinating to me, and it hadn’t been written about very extensively, especially not in a way that was sort of empathetic and curious and a little humorous. So the project made sense for all those reasons.
Q: What are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about female serial killers?
A: The most common perception is that female serial killers use poison and kill people they know (family members, neighbors, husbands)—both of those things are true.
The most common misperception is that lady killers are these highly sexualized creatures who are murdering out of some twisted desire-gone-wrong situation. That’s very much untrue.
Another misconception is that they must have relied on a man to help them move the bodies or lead them into murdering temptation or whatever—but no, these women very much acted alone.
Q: How did you choose the women to include in the book, and the order in which to place the chapters?
A: I looked for a wide variety of women from different countries, income levels, centuries, etc.—but mostly, I just looked for women who interested me. I figured that if I cared enough about these women to tell their story in depth, then hopefully readers would care, too.
I was initially going to arrange the book in chronological order, but my editor suggested that it might be more compelling to jump between centuries a bit, and she was right.
I came up with the final order by writing all the killers’ names on pieces of paper and arranging them on the floor, like a puzzle, until the order felt intuitive.
For example, in the first three chapters, we move from Erzsébet (very bloody, 1500s, lots of myth) to Nannie (funny, 1950s, oddly romantic) to Lizzie (deranged, unknowable, turn-of-the-century). Variety is the spice of life, even with serial killers.
I also tried to stagger the chapters so that you’re not reading two extremely depressing ones back to back.
Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?
A: My research involved a lot of diving into old newspaper archives, a handful of old books, some really helpful academic texts, and working with a couple of translators.
I have to say that pretty much every personal detail from the killers’ lives surprised me. While working on each chapter, I was trying to transform these women from vague archetypes into living breathing humans, so any time I found out something about their childhood or their hobbies or anything sort of “regular” like that, it illuminated their characters a bit more.
To give you a specific example, I think one of the most telling details in the book is the fact that Anna Marie Hahn made up a crazy, tragi-romantic story about the father of her son. That tells us a lot about how delusional she was and how she wanted others to perceive her.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m finishing up another series about serial killers—you can read the first four installments here—it’s basically about some of the realizations that I had after writing the book. I’m also starting to do some historical writing that doesn’t necessarily involve such a high body count!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb