Surely you've heard tales of "black widow" killers — cold-blooded, calculating women who dispatch a spouse of a boyfriend, and sometimes more than one. Who are these femme fatales?
Spiders of the genus Latrodectus are known as black widows because the females kill and consume males as part of the mating ritual. Unfortunately, that lethal pattern sometimes is mimicked by the human species. Over the years, tabloid newspapers, TV shows and true-crime books have startled us with tales of "black widow" killers, cold-blooded and calculating women who've dispatched a spouse or boyfriend — sometimes more than one.
What is it about black widow killers that so shocks our sensibilities? Perhaps they fascinate us because they're so rare. Very few women kill; according to U.S. Department of Justice, between 1976 and 2005, nearly 90 percent of homicides were committed by men. In the pool of spousal murders, men who kill their wives outnumber women who do away with their husbands (59 percent for men, and 41 percent for women), according to a 1995 federal study of spousal homicide.
Women murderers often don't kill for the same reasons as male murderers. They're more likely to kill because they've been battered, or because they suffer from a mental illness like post-partum depression, than because they're sociopaths who lack empathy and kill without hesitation or remorse.
When women do kill, though, they're more likely to kill a spouse or a boyfriend than a stranger. Perhaps because they're less powerful physically, women murderers also tend to use less bloody tactics in dispatching their victims than men use, such as poisoning or suffocating a victim in his sleep.
Black widows also have an easier time getting away with their crimes. Women murder defendants were less likely to be convicted than men, and those who were found guilty usually received lesser sentences, according to the 1995 Department of Justice study. The Death Penalty Information Center notes that, out of 1,233 total executions, only 12 women have been executed in the United States since 1976. Of those women, six were convicted of murdering a spouse or intimate partner.
Who are these female killers? Click ahead to meet five black widows from the annals of crime.
5: Betty Lou Beets
Anti-death penalty and domestic violence activists, who believed claims by Beets and her daughters that she'd been physically abused by her father and five husbands, protested the silver-haired, 62-year-old Texas grandmother's execution in 2000. But to the authorities, the cause celebre was the one with a penchant for brutality.
In 1972, she pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge for shooting and wounding her second husband Bill Lane. Thirteen years later, the bodies of husband number five, Jimmy Don Beets, and husband number four, Doyle Barker, were found buried in the yard of Betty Lou Beets' mobile home in aptly-named Gun Barrel City, Texas. Both men had been shot in the head several times. Prosecutors alleged that Betty Lou Beets had killed Jimmy Don Beets to steal his insurance and pension money, and she was convicted and sentenced to death. She also initially was charged in Barker's murder, but that case never came to trial.
4: Judias V. "Judy" Buenoano
In 1971, this dark-haired, bespectacled nail salon owner murdered her husband, Air Force sergeant James Goodyear, by poisoning him with arsenic. She used the same poison to paralyze her 19-year-old son Michael, so she could push him out of a canoe and cause him to drown. Her motive, prosecutors later contended, was to collect $240,000 in insurance money.
She might have gotten away with those killings, except that in 1983, she attempted to murder her new fiance, John Gentry, twice — first by bombing his car and then by providing him with "vitamin pills" that actually contained arsenic and formaldehyde. Gentry went to authorities, and they exhumed the bodies of Sgt. Goodyear and his son, which both showed traces of that same poison.
In 1998, at age 54, Bueonoano was executed in the electric chair, becoming the first woman put to death in Florida since 1848. She is suspected of killing at least two other men with whom she was romantically involved.
3: Laura Christy
Stout and matronly, with a Clara Bow haircut and owl-shaped eyeglasses, Christy seemed like an unlikely femme fatale. But looks can be deceiving. In the 1910s and 1920s, the woman that a small-town Ohio newspaper headline decried as a "modern Bluebeard" married eight times, and six of her spouses died suddenly under mysterious circumstances.
In 1926, police persuaded Christy to confess that she'd given arsenic to her seventh husband, a pottery worker named John Ebert, and to her eighth, the Rev. William Christy, attache of the Christian Missionary Alliance. She continued to insist that the others had died of natural causes.
According to a contemporary newspaper account, Mrs. Christy explained that she'd substituted an arsenic capsule for Ebert's prescribed medication because "John treated me ill at the time." Because Rev. Christy "treated me mean, too," Mrs. Christy slipped him arsenic powder under the pretense that it was bicarbonate of soda to help his indigestion. They'd only been married for three weeks.
Mrs. Christy, who reportedly celebrated her final husband's demise by withdrawing $200 from his bank account and spending it on "cheap trinkets," was deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial, and instead was sent to the state hospital for the criminally insane in Lima, where she spent the remainder of her days.
2: Jill Coit
A former beauty queen who once won the title of "Miss Eskimo Pie," Jill Coit wasn't the most-married woman in U.S. history, but she was close. She married 11 times to nine different men. It was her union to hardware store owner Gerald Boggs that led to her undoing.
Suspecting his wife wasn't telling him the truth about her marital history, Boggs hired a private investigator and discovered Coit was still technically married to her eighth husband. In 1993, after Boggs' and Coit's marriage had been annulled, and the couple was embroiled in lawsuits over money, Boggs was found beaten and shot to death in his home.
In 1995, Coit and her boyfriend, Michael Backus, were arrested and convicted of first degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. But even after going to prison, Coit may still have sought to add another husband to make it an even dozen. In 1998, authorities discovered a Web personals ad with Coit's picture, seeking an immigrant who would marry her in order to obtain U.S. citizenship. "I just don't seem able to make a marriage work," she once admitted in a newspaper interview. "But before this, you could ask any of my husbands, and they would tell you that I was an excellent wife."
1: Brenda Andrew
It was a case reminiscent of the classic movie Double Indemnity — but with a dark-haired beauty named Brenda Andrew in the Barbara Stanwyck role. Brenda Andrew, who was married to advertising executive Rob Andrew, started an affair with an insurance salesman named Jim Pavatt, whom she'd met at church. The boyfriend, in turn, sold Andrews" husband an $800,000 life insurance policy, with Andrew as the beneficiary.
When the Andrews separated, Brenda Andrew and her lover conspired to kill her soon-to-be ex-husband for the insurance money. In October 2001, Rob Andrew received several anonymous phone calls telling him that his estranged wife had been in an accident. The calls were a ruse to lure him out onto the highway in a car with severed brake lines, but Rob Andrew didn't take the bait.
Not quite a month later, when he showed up at his estranged wife's house to pick up their two children for the Thanksgiving weekend, Brenda Andrew asked him to come inside and help her light the pilot on her furnace. When he knelt down in the basement, Pavatt blasted him with a shotgun. Brenda Andrew then took the gun and shot her husband a second time, killing him.
The couple then fled to Mexico, but they were arrested when they re-entered the United States a few months later. In 2004, Brenda was convicted of murder and is now on death row. Pavatt, who also was sentenced to death, has filed a lawsuit challenging Oklahoma's lethal injection method on grounds that it is cruel and unusual punishment.