Loving Killers, Even Long Ago

The phenomenon of women adoring serial killers dates way back.

Posted Dec 18, 2020

K. Ramsland
Source: K. Ramsland

A lot has been written lately about women (and girls) who love men who kill (especially Ted Bundy). Some authors of such articles present this as a recent phenomenon. They haven’t done their homework. Certain types of offenders have always attracted admirers.

The sensational journalism of the nineteenth century sometimes featured murder trials in which a young male defendant attracted lavish attention. In 1895 in San Francisco, for example, William Henry Theodore Durrant was on trial. He’d been a doctor in training at the Cooper Medical College in San Francisco and a superintendent of Sunday school at Emmanuel Baptist Church. Handsome and polite, Durrant appeared to be anything but a cold-blooded killer.

Yet the bodies of two missing women had turned up in the church. Minnie Williams had been raped, stabbed, and stuffed into a cupboard. Blanche Lamont was found in the belfry, nude, strangled, and posed with some degree of care. Durrant was the common denominator, and he’d reportedly behaved in suspicious ways.

There was talk that he’d hypnotized the young women, similar to the evil Svengali in Trilby, a serialized novel published the previous year in Harper’s Monthly. At the time, hypnosis was considered to be dangerously commanding.

Between four and five thousand people viewed the victims in their white coffins, and many women got into line several times. Durrant was quickly dubbed “the Demon of the Belfry.” Females of all ages flocked to the courthouse, crowding into the front rows to gawk at the defendant and hope he'd look at them.

Mrs. Rosalind Bowers attended each morning, carrying a bouquet of sweet pea flowers to send over to Durrant and it wasn’t long before she became the “Sweet Pea Girl” in the press. Some stories say she tried to see him in his cell. She attracted so much attention she was reportedly considered for a theater engagement. Her husband told a reporter he awaited the time when she might be “cured of her hallucinations,” and return home. She insisted she would attend the trial each day until it was over.

Another woman also vied for Durrant’s attention, and some reports said she was the sweet pea girl. Rosa Holland sent flowers, notes, books, and “sweetmeats” to Durrant’s cell. Supposedly, she'd met him prior to his arrest and wanted to show her support.

Despite Durrant’s repeated claims of innocence and his defense attorney’s efforts to throw suspicion on the church pastor as the killer, it took the jury only five minutes to convict the young man of both murders. He was executed in 1898.

In 1929, “Dusseldorf Vampire” Peter Kürten also heard reports of female interest in him as he approached his trial for multiple counts of murder. In 1913, he killed a young girl in a room at an inn, drinking blood that spurted from a wound in her throat. Sixteen years later, he began to kill with regularity in the town of Dusseldorf, Germany, with victims ranging from adults — male and female — to children. They were usually stabbed, sometimes with scissors, sometimes with a dagger. Most were also asphyxiated or strangled, and he hit several in the head with a hammer. Then a rape victim led police to his home. He quickly confessed to numerous assaults and murders.

Karl Berg, the pathologist who’d done many of the autopsies, interviewed Kurten, post-arrest. Kürten confessed in shocking detail, and he added crimes that the police did not know about, culminating in 13 murders and more than 60 other criminal acts.

Kürten told Berg he wanted to exclude the public from his trial, because he recalled his own youthful excitement over crime stories like this. He didn’t want to inspire other boys to do what he’d done. Then he commented on the girls. “I have heard, too, in the streets, how even quite young girls are keen after newspaper reports like these and how they promise chocolate to each other if one of them can secure the latest report in the editions.” He added that he’d heard a pupil from the women’s college say, “I would rather like to go with him once, if I was only sure he wouldn’t harm me.”

There’s a titillation factor in crimes involving victims that bear some likeness to those who listen to the tales. One can imagine the killer's focused attention on them, needing them to satisfy his desire. It’s no secret that females represent a higher percentage of the true-crime audience, and that they’re especially keen about murder tales involving middle-class young women. Some think a killer like Durrant or Kürten is the ultimate male. Featured in media headlines, they seem larger-than-life. This generalizes into an assessment of their other capabilities. If they’re worthy of such heightened attention, they must be exceptional — including sexually.

Women who crave to be the object of their attention often do so for erotic reasons. Since the killer is detained and likely to be locked up, it’s a safe fantasy. In their minds, they can swoon under the spell of a dominant figure, free of any real danger. The appeal of this vampiric embrace is timeless.

References

Ramsland, K. (2002). The Science of Vampires, Berkley.