In the Mind of a Female Serial Killer by Stephen Jakobi – Review
By Victoria Holdsworth
Stephen Jakobi is a retired solicitor and an advocate and founder of the Human Rights organisation Fair Trial International. This true crimes debut offers an absorbing view of four of the worst crimes of their time. The crimes, even by today’s standards, are still shocking – because they were committed by women.
These once hidden and forgotten-about cases, had it not been for the interests of Jakobi, would have been left uncovered for another hundred years. It was his strong belief in justice, but also the effects of the execution of Ruth Ellis, which encouraged him to dig a little deeper into these infamous crimes of their times and try to understand more about the minds of the women involved.
In the Mind of a Female Serial Killer tells the stories of four female serial killers; Agnes Norman, Louie Calvert, Kate Webster and Mrs Willis. These are names that you would rarely find pop up in any search for a murderer or criminal of this kind, however they were very real – and the crimes even more so – but were they responsible for their own actions?
Jakobi has used his wealth of legal knowledge and research skills to put forward the notion of whether these women were in fact the monsters they were portrayed as. Were they really just victims of circumstance? The author has applied research based on family-owned primary sources, government files and genealogy websites, to try and piece together the true facts of these cases, with some of the evidence even coming from the ‘killers’ themselves.
Unlike a lot of true crime books, this one is particularly unique in the sense that Jakobi has presented each case with conflicting objectives, which lends enhancement to the modern day psychological theories of criminal psychopaths, and what can lead someone to commit such crimes.
In the case of Agnes Norman, whom Jakobi describes as ‘the most successful known mass killer of her generation’ there would definitely be, especially by today’s standards, a strong case put forward to a jury that she suffered with severe mental illness.
“Victim of circumstance”
The second case is Yorkshire born Louie Calvert, of Gawthorpe, which seems to be the unfortunate life story of a career criminal, who from a very young age was first charged with theft at just 15-years-old. Despite coming from a prominent and respectable local family, this young girl seemed to develop a double life, which eventually led to her being charged with murder and executed in 1926, leaving behind an account of her life and time in prison, written by her own hand when incarcerated in her condemned cell. This account we presume to be true, however, thanks to court documents and family testaments that were uncovered by the hands of Jakobi, we can see that it is, in part, a work of fiction.
In the circumstances of Kate Webster, we see another shift in sociological changes of the times, and we learn of the horrific Thames Torso murders being attributed to this young woman, which was only presumed and labelled upon her after her execution in 1879. Whilst on the surface it seems that the evidence is stacked against her, could it be that she was also a victim of circumstance, only this time a willing one?
The last case of Mrs Willis, again gives you an entirely new perspective of what we deem to be a pathological liar. Compared to the other women in the book, Mrs Willis is an older lady and a baby farmer, who seemed to live many different lives at once. Her last confession before her execution in 1907, seems to confirm that her entire defence that went before was false.
Although the book can sometimes be a little hard to read, due to the reproduction of the language used from the time within the court transcripts, it certainly offers an enthralling insight into the police and judiciary services of the period, and how these events and executions came to be.
Just how did four women really turn into these cold blooded killers? Was it impoverished conditions? Was it mental illness? In the case of the Mrs Willis it appears to have been a head injury that caused a seemingly normal, law abiding woman to turn into a child killer.
Whilst there are some similarities and common links in all the stories, especially the first three instances, the author has presented them in such a way that it is up to the reader to decide, and form their own views. Looking at these stories in a modernist, moral and informed way, these women would have probably been spared the death penalty today. I can only be thankful that modern medicine and social assistance can help a lot of people, whom may be suffering with the same afflictions as these.
In the Mind of a Female Serial Killer is an excellently balanced and unbiased book from which valuable lessons can be learnt. It gives great historical insight into these cases and leaves the reader wondering how many more similar cases may lay uncovered.
‘In the Mind of a Female Serial Killer’ by Stephen Jakobi is published by Pen & Sword History, £12.99