Journalist and author Tori Telfer has become a true crime expert in the last few years.
Though she didn’t grow up reading or watching the genre—Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” was her limit—something clicked when she started writing about female serial killers a few years ago.
Telfer, based in New York City, began writing an online column about this criminal subset in 2014. She covered women like Tillie Klimek, who became known as a husband killer in Chicago and was sentenced to life in prison in the 1920s.
Telfer continued writing and researching these serial killers and in 2017, her book “Lady Killers: Deadly Women Throughout History,” hit the shelves.
Through compellingly crafted prose, Telfer tells the stories of female serial killers, putting their lives in a context that partly helps explain their actions and set the scene. It’s a topic that many tend to overlook, or as Telfer writes, “Society tends to sink into 'collective amnesia' about female violence.”
The author will be visiting Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont on Friday and in Saratoga Springs on Saturday to discuss her book, the research behind it and some of the scariest and surprisingly funniest female serial killer stories.
The Gazette caught up with the author earlier this week to talk about writing and of course, “Lady Killers.”
Q: How did you get started writing?
A: I was one of those annoying kids [who] always wanted to be a writer. I wrote a “novel” at age six. So it was always something I liked doing. In college, I majored in fiction writing. My school had a creative writing major which was really cool. Then I tried to be a fiction writer for a while and it really wasn’t until I did a year of an MFA and found that that wasn’t for me that I got into the non-fiction world. I started freelance writing and everything suddenly clicked into place. Once I discovered the world of history [writing] and essays, I was like “This is what I was supposed to be doing all along.”
Q: How in the world did you get started writing about female serial killers?
A: I just stumbled into it honestly. The [website] The Awl was looking for historical columns and I had just discovered this controversial figure on Wikipedia, Erzsébet Báthory, this Hungarian countess from the 1500s who maybe killed 600 girls. Obviously, that was interesting to me, so I pitched the idea of a column on female serial killers. That’s how I got here today. It became a column in The Hairpin and I started getting interest from editors. I didn’t realize what a market it was, but that’s what led to my book.
Q: How do you do your research for all of these [stories]?
A: It varies, depending on the woman. I do a lot of looking through newspaper archives. Thank the lord a lot of those are online these days. I feel so spoiled compared to researchers of the past. I like to see what people were writing about them as the cases were unfolding. I love crazy old journalism headlines, they’re so juicy. I try to get as many primary sources as [I can]. That’s not always possible when, [for example I’m researching] a woman from Ireland from the 1200s, [like] Alice Kyteler. She had this bishop who was hunting her down and his attempts were written about in Latin in this book of things that bishops did. I found a translation of [the book]. Then, for the chapter on Darya [Nikolayevna Saltykova], a Russian noblewoman from the 1700s, I found this secondary source on her in Russian. I worked with some translators to translate that. So I’m really proud of that chapter because [the story] has never before been seen in English.
Academics are another good source. I found a lot of sources by finding an academic article and then [looking] at what sources [it] used.
Q: Who are some of your favorite [killers] that you’ve gotten to know through your research?
A: I really liked Kate Bender because she was this creepy wild west figure who was very mysterious and a lot of the things about her life fit with what we know about settling the frontier, except they were twisted. She was this ambitious American entrepreneur who was going out west to make money but she was just doing it in very horrifying and illegal ways. So I found that interesting to write about because it felt culturally resonant.
I really enjoyed researching Lizzie Halliday, who was [around during the] turn of the century [in the] New York Pennsylvania-area. There was a ton of newspaper coverage on her so I didn’t have that frustrating feeling of “I don’t really know what’s going on, I don’t know who to trust.” I think most of my chapters ended up being 4-6,000 words but my original draft on her was 10,000 words because there was just so much material.
Q: Were there any killers that you had to leave out that you wanted to include?
A: There were a lot of female serial killers that I left out just because I couldn’t find enough material or they would have made the book redundant or they didn’t fit within my time period. I stopped in the 1950s, so I didn’t include Aileen Wuornos, who [killed] in the 90s. The parameters that I set for myself naturally eliminated some people. But I went down this path for awhile [researching] this Japanese female serial killer from the World War II [era]. I even had a friend in Tokyo digging into Japanese sources because I couldn’t find a lot on her in English. So I had him dig into Japanese archives and he couldn’t find [very much either]. We eventually theorized that World War II must have distracted everyone, which is understandable. [But] she was really horrible. She wasn’t the only one who's done this, but [she had] this baby hospital where the babies went missing. But there wasn’t a lot of [material on it]. To come up with 5,000 words on these women I had to have a lot of material and especially in other countries, I was not always able to access the material I needed or even know if it existed.
Q: Who was the [earliest] killer you wrote about?
A: Alice Kyteler, she was from the end of the 1200s in Ireland. Before that, you hear rumors of queens who poisoned a lot of their rivals. But those don’t count as serial killers to me. I’m sure there were serial killing women before the 1200s, but they’ve been lost to the mists of time.
Q: Did you read a lot of true crime when you were a kid?
A: I did not. I’m really a late bloomer [when it comes to] true crime. My siblings and I did not grow up watching horror movies or anything like that. We were all scared of that kind of thing. But when I look back at the things that I would write [in] my fiction, it was clear that I was always interested in dark things. I had written a short story about a serial killer, my senior thesis was about five children who ended up being ghosts because their mother abandoned them or they fell out of a window--it’s unclear. So I guess, in terms of what I was interested in, I was always drawn to darker stories. But in terms of the true crime genre, I’m pretty new to that. I think the only true crime book I’d ever read was “In Cold Blood,” which scarred me for life. It’s so good but so scary. But now I’m deep in the true crime world.
Q: Was there any point during your research where you were genuinely felt creeped out?
A: You know, I really don’t think so because something that helped me maintain a healthy distance was that it was work. For nonfiction books, you sell them before you’ve written them so I had a contract. I think that helped me [treat it as] my job. Sometimes now, like I just read a book about the Green River Killer, and that gets under my skin more. I think it’s because I’m not working on it, I’m just consuming it. But I was moved, not to terror, but empathetically, a couple times in this book because some of these women just had it really rough, even though that doesn’t justify what they did. I cried when I was working on [one scene] twice—once while I was writing it and another time during the revisions—when the German-American serial killer Anna Marie Hahn, was executed. She was this really icy psychopath and then “oh, surprise, she didn’t want to die.” It actually kind of makes me angry too when I think about it, but I just started crying because it was just such an ironic juxtaposition of someone who has taken life realizing that life is really special and valuable.
Q: Are you continuing [your research on female serial killers] or have you moved on to other things now?
A: Well, I am going to write another book about criminal women. It’s not going to be a sequel to “Lady Killers,” but I’m staying within the same genre. Then, I have a podcast on criminal women, called Criminal Broads. I’m also interested in these really famous crimes, [in] which mostly the criminals are men. The Ted Bundys and Charles Mansons of the world. I like thinking about how those crimes are just in the culture now and how weird that is. So I’ve been doing a bit of writing on that and I hope to do more. Looking at the industry of people who are selling Charles Manson memorabilia online is so interesting to me. He’s an official celebrity now and that’s so strange and gross but kinda understandable.
Telfer will be discussing her book starting at 6 p.m. on Friday at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont (4869 Main Street) and at 7 p.m. on Saturday at the Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs (424 Broadway). For more information visit northshire.com.