5 Famous Black Widows

1 / 7
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.