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For many, elderly women are expected to be sweet and gentle, grandmas who bake cookies and sneak gifts. Of course, they weren’t always depicted that way— in fairytales, they’re often the frightening witches boiling children and tossing them into ovens. And while that’s at odds with the images we have of grandmothers today, these five older female serial killers prove those stories aren’t total fantasy.
Consider Dorothea Puente, the scheming landlord featured in Oxygen’s upcoming special, “Murders at the Boarding House,” airing Saturday, April 17 at 7/6c on Oxygen. Or Nannie Doss, a grandmother with a double life as a “Black Widow.” Despite the white hair and wrinkles, these women ruthlessly killed for their own gain.
Here are some of the most fearsome “granny” killers of all time:
Nannie Doss, born in 1905, was dubbed the “Giggling Granny” by the press because she was so affable and cheerful. Of course, the crimes she was accused of were anything but sweet: The Oklahoma woman murdered four out of five of her husbands, spiking their food and drinks with rat poison and arsenic, Tulsa World reported in 2015. She killed one husband, Samuel, simply because “he got on [her] nerves,” she said. She also made off with hefty insurance payouts in all the deaths.
Doss was also suspected of killing others close to her, including her own mother and two daughters, but only confessed to killing the four husbands in 1954. She was sentenced to life in prison in 1955, and died there 10 years later.
Tamara Samsonova’s crimes were absolutely chilling. Nicknamed “Granny Ripper,” the Russian woman was caught after she was recorded on video carrying her victim’s body parts in plastic bags in July 2015, HuffPost reported that year.
Samsonova, 68, was apparently a caretaker for Valentina Ulanova, 79, but after an argument over dirty dishes she gave the woman sleeping pills and cut her with a saw while she was still alive. Authorities also believe she may have ate bits of her body, according to the outlet.
Samsonova may have killed others — she allegedly detailed killing a husband and past tenants in her diary — but in 2017 she was found guilty of only Ulanova’s murder and sent to a mental institution with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, British tabloid The Sun reported at the time.
Faye Copeland spun a sinister scam with her husband, Ray. In 1989, in a get-rich-quick scheme, the Missouri couple enlisted five transient men write bad checks to purchase cattle, before reselling the cattle themselves, keeping the money, and killing the men before the checks could be traced, according to a 1990 Associated Press report. They made $32,000 through their dirty dealings.
Faye would later claim Ray acted alone and that he was abusive, but she was ultimately convicted and sent to death row. In 1999, her sentence was commuted to life in prison, where she died in 2004, the Los Angeles Times reported that year.
It was a fortune-teller’s prophecy, allegedly, that sparked this Italian woman’s killing spree. Leonarda Cianciulli had been told her children were all fated to die young, and tragedy certainly did befall her family. Of her 17 pregnancies, she lost 13 of her children, including three miscarriages, per a 2015 Gizmodo article. She apparently came to believe she needed to safeguard her surviving kids’ lives through some kind of black magic.
Between 1939 and 1940, Cianciulli killed three women, all friends. She didn’t just murder them — she turned at least one woman’s remains into bars of soap that she gave to friends. She was ultimately caught and confessed to the murders and was sentenced to 30 years in prison and three years in an asylum. In 1970, she died while imprisoned at the age of 76, according to the outlet.
Dorothea Puente may have seemed like a Good Samaritan, opening her Sacramento boarding house up to the elderly, the disabled, the mentally ill, and the homeless — but the truth was, she was stealing their Social Security checks and then murdering them, according to a 2011 Los Angeles Times article.
Puente would poison them and then take the cash, raking in about $87,000 from her murderous schemes. She even spent some of the money on a facelift. She was eventually caught in 1988, three years after she opened the home, and seven bodies were found buried on the property. It’s believed she killed two others in 1982 and 1985, one of whom was an ex-boyfriend found dead in a box in a river, according to the outlet.
Nicknamed the “Death House Landlady,” she was sentenced to life in prison in 1993, where she died in 2011 (but not before writing a cookbook called “Cooking with a Serial Killer.”
For more on Puente, watch “Murders At The Boarding House,” airing Saturday, April 17 at 7/6c on Oxygen as part of Serial Killer Week, a special nine-night event on Oxygen diving into the most fearsome and fascinating criminals of all time.
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