A chat with “Lady Killer” Tori Telfer

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It’s pretty safe to say that true crime is having a moment (or rather, a couple of years.) Hits like “Making a Murderer” and “Serial” have thrust the true crime genre into entertainment gold and it seems like everyone can’t get enough of the creepy, can’t-believe-this-happened crimes that are happening next door — myself included.

So, my interest was immediately sparked when I saw Tori Telfer, author of “Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History,” scheduled to speak at Midtown Scholar this month.

True crime? Crazy women? What a fascinating (and frightening) combination.

To learn more, I reached out to Telfer to pick her brain and see why on earth someone would be so interested in such a terrifying (yet so intriguing) topic.

HF: What made you want to explore this topic? It’s pretty intense. How did you get into it?

TT: I’ve always been drawn to history! I went through a period in high school where my favorite historical figure was the deranged Roman emperor Nero (“favorite” being sort of tongue-in-cheek, but I was obsessed with learning about all the bad things he did).

And then I majored in fiction-writing in college, and no matter what I did, all of my stories ended up being incredibly dark. There was one about a woman who split in half, one about five children who fell out of a window, and one about a serial killer. I didn’t want to scare people, but I found it much more interesting and rewarding to write about dark topics and just kind of explore them and even flirt with empathy a little it.

My book enabled me to really delve into the history behind all these women, and it ended up being the perfect marriage of everything I’d been interested in up until that point.

Who or what has been the most interesting case you’ve studied? In a weird way, I’m asking, what has been your favorite murder?

Probably the sad, strange case of Lizzie Halliday, an Irish immigrant who killed several different people — somewhat randomly, because she used a different technique every time — at the end of the 1800s. She was a mystery to the courts, she was a mystery to the media at the time, and she’s still something of a mystery to me.

No one could decide if she was insane or not, and it was a subject of much debate. She had this weird, roving life — multiple husbands, arson, a brief stint as a horse thief — and it was perpetually unclear if she was a sane, ice-cold killer who was acting crazy to avoid the electric chair or a madwoman who truly didn’t understand the gravity of what she was doing. There was a lot of coverage of her case at the time (someone even claimed she was Jack the Ripper!), which made the chapter on her very thrilling to write since there was so much material to sift through.

What have you found most interesting about women and their role as killers through writing your book or your research?

I found it interesting that most of these women seemed to view killing as a means of improving their lot in life — but they did it with kind of a psychopath’s detachment.

It wasn’t like they sat down and wrote, “Ways to advance in my career: Kill Joe. Kill Timmy? Definitely kill Greg.” They just kind of … started killing and then didn’t stop. It’s pretty different than how a lot of male serial killers act — like Gary Ridgeway, who thought he was nobly ridding the world of sex workers, or Jeffrey Dahmer, who wanted to make a love zombie.

These women usually didn’t have such grandiose, deranged psychoses—they were just kinda getting things done. Of course, some of them were creepy maniacs with body counts to rival their male counterparts. We mustn’t forget that!

As you can see, Telfer’s take is surprisingly humorous and witty, which makes her research and storytelling even more intriguing. Hear more from Telfer when she visits Midtown Scholar at 7 p.m. next Wednesday, Nov. 14.

P.S. Telfer is also the host of “Criminal Broads,” your next guilty pleasure podcast. You’re welcome.

Sara Bozich
Author: Sara Bozich

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