True Crime - Mothers Who Kill

Written by Carol Anne Davis


For centuries women have killed their children. They may once have done so out of economic necessity for in the days before reliable contraception became freely available a woman might give birth to twenty children in as many years. She simply didn't have the money to feed, house and clothe them and would also run out of energy.

This authors great grandmother had sixteen babies and in later life wanted nothing more to do with children. But some women went further than exhausted indifference, quietly suffocating their offspring when there were no witnesses around.

Nowadays the reason for most infanticides has changed and women tend to kill their young so that they themselves can enjoy a less restricted lifestyle without risking possible public disapproval by giving their children up for adoption. These crimes are often premeditated and carefully carried out.

Susan Smith who murdered her three year old and one year old sons fits into this category. The Carolina-based mother had separated amicably from her husband and had found herself a wealthy new boyfriend. But he was honest enough to admit that he didn't want to raise a family so broke off their relationship.

A more stable woman would have recovered from this, but Susan Smith hadn't enjoyed a life of stability. Instead, her father had committed suicide when she was a child and her mother had remarried. Moreover, young Susan had been repeatedly sexually abused. She'd taken an overdose at thirteen and another at eighteen and spent a week after her second suicide attempt in a mental health facility. But a year after her second overdose she married and by age twenty-two she had two children, had separated from her husband and was living an increasingly small life.

Now Susan looked for a way to get her attractive boyfriend back. She could have given the children to their father who loved them dearly. But that would have gone against what society expects of women and she was desperate for societal consent. To the outside world she was a devoted mother and she wanted to appear like a devoted mother to the end. So she decided to kill the babies and make up a story which would win her endless sympathy.

On 25th October 1994 she strapped the babies into her car and drove the vehicle into a lake. She jumped out at the last minute and went to the authorities, claiming that a black man had stolen her car and driven off with the babies in tow. For nine days America hoped that the children would be returned safely. Susan was a religious women so she even asked the nation to pray for them. Luckily the authorities were more realistic and asked her to take a lie detector test which she failed, showing especial guilt when asked if she knew where the babies were. Her story didn't add up and eventually she confessed and the car with its tiny drowned occupants was recovered from the lake.

Another young woman who committed a very similar crime was the Oregon-based Diane Downs who became infatuated with a married man. He too made it clear that he didn't want children. Diane, who had previously been regarded as the ideal mother, now saw her three youngsters in a whole new light. She put them in her car and shot all three with a pistol then pretended that a man had attacked them. Unfortunately for her, one of the children survived, albeit with severe long term injuries, and told the authorities the truth.

Diane Downs then did what many mothers who've killed do - she got pregnant again for the trial. This often wins these women sympathy as naive members of the public don't believe that a woman who could kill children would choose to get pregnant again.

Diane Downs and Susan Smith killed all of their children at once - but many mothers kill one child then give birth to another only to kill it too. Often these acts are preceded by a period of deep depression or alcoholism. Sometimes the mother will even admit that she hasn't bonded with the baby, that she requires help. Unfortunately society's need to believe in the perfect mother is so strong that friends or neighbours will tell the woman not to worry, that she's doing just fine. Even when the woman goes on to sequentially murder her children, many of her acquaintances will continue to insist that she's simply had two or three cot deaths in a row, that she's innocent.

Paula Sims of Illinois initially fit into this category. She killed her first baby in June 1986 then attempted to knock herself out and said she and the baby had been attacked in their home by a masked kidnapper. Everyone who knew her was supportive and sympathetic. The police were more suspicious but couldn't prove maternal or paternal violence so had to let her and her husband go.

The couple moved states and within three years Paula had given birth to another daughter who she also murdered, again telling the authorities that the baby had been kidnapped. In truth, she put the little corpse in a freezer for several days before dumping it in a trash can in order to give the impression that the baby was alive for some time in the kidnapper's care.

Years later, whilst still in jail for the murders, she admitted that she'd been suffering from depression throughout her months of motherhood and often took tranquilizers. She said that she also felt very isolated in her rural home.

Again, more stable women find ways to end their isolation that doesn't involve killing their young. But these infant killers tend to fit into the borderline psychological category. They haven't received enough love during their childhoods and are desperate to latch on to other people - or create babies - for whom they declare undying love. Unfortunately their early experiences haven't involved long-term affection so that love can quickly transmogrify into an equally intense hate.

Borderline individuals tend to overdramatise situations and act impulsively. They can superficially look like loving mothers but they save most of their true feelings for themselves. The mother sees the child as a commodity, like a doll that she can dress up for society to admire. But like a doll that is tired of, the baby is ultimately expendable especially if a new boyfriend, new career or potential new lifestyle is the reward.

If we are to lessen the infanticide figures, we have to stop romanticising motherhood and give out the message that having babies simply isn't right for everyone. And we have to start listening to women who do give birth and then admit that they cannot cope. We also have to accept that one child a week dies in Britain at its parents hands - and that the vast majority of preschool children who are murdered are killed by their mothers. The hand that rocks the cradle isn't always fit to rule the world.

Women Who Kill: Profiles of Female Serial Killers by Carol Anne Davis 

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Carol Anne Davis

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