“Man has ruled this world as a stumbling, demented child-king long enough! And as his empire crumbles, my precious Black Widow shall rise as his most fitting successor!”
The black widow is the most venomous spider in North America. During the mating ritual, the female has the habit to devour the male of the specie. As a result of this, the term ‘black widow’ has now become part of a mythology made of women whose mourning is voluntary. The fascination with the image of the black widow is paving the way towards an intriguing, ruthless femme fatale, a new woman that charms us because she is so rare.
The black widow spider can generally be identified by the coloured, hourglass-shaped mark on its abdomen. To feed, black widows puncture their prey with their fangs, administering them with digestive enzymes which liquefy their bodies aided by the spider’s gnashing fangs.
The image of the black widow has been creeping up the popular culture, alimenting the decadent fantasy of a new class of intriguing, seductive and lethal women: the calculating, cunning, ruthless femmes fatales. In Alice Cooper’s 1975 album Welcome To My Nightmare , horror film actor Vincent Price opens the song The Black Widow saying:
“Her kiss is fifteen times as poisonous as that of the rattlesnake. You see, her venom is highly neurotoxic, which is to say that it attacks the central nervous system causing intense pain; profuse sweating; difficulty in breathing; loss of consciousness; violent convulsions, and, finally... death.
“You know, I think what I love the most about her is her in-born need to dominate, possess. In fact, immediately after the consummation of her marriage to the smaller and weaker male of the specie, she kills and eats him. Oh, she is delicious! (And I hope he was.) Such power and dignity, unhampered by sentiment! If I may put forward a slice of personal philosophy, I feel that Man has ruled this world as a stumbling, demented child-king long enough! And as his empire crumbles, my precious Black Widow shall rise as his most fitting successor!”
The entertainment industry has thrived on black widows: films which bear their name as a title date as far back as the 1940s . Hard rock and metal songs by bands such as Mötley Crüe , Children of Bodom and Lita Ford are only a few examples of the glamour such a creature and its human counterparts have gained.
The grim charm aroused by black widows does not stop at entertainment: black widow killings are now a special category of murders studied by criminologists. According to Kelleher and Kelleher’s Murder Most Rare, a Black Widow is a woman who “systematically murders multiple spouses, partners, other family members, or individuals outside of the family with whom she has developed a personal relationship” .
For Kelleher and Kelleher the Black Widow is the archetype of the successful female serial murderer. She is typically intelligent, manipulative, organised and patient; she plans her killings with great care, leaving trails of dead lovers and husbands.
Black Widows tend to kill for profit, typically beginning their criminal career after the age of twenty-five. They actively murder for a decade or more before being captured or ceasing to kill for other reasons. The typical murdering cycle goes from six to eight victims over a period of ten to 15 years.
Black Widows rely on their ability to gain their victims’ trust. Thus, they are seldom viewed as a suspect. In the past, poison was generally the weapon of choice. With the development of autopsy techniques however, Black Widows have abandoned poison in favour of the simulation of an accident, such as a fall, suicide or a car crash.
According to Ruben De Luca and Vincenzo Maria Mastronardi , the most prolific Black Widow murderer is Norwegian-born Belle Gunness, who killed between 25 and 40 people over several decades. Her victims ranged from her suitors and boyfriends to her two daughters, Myrtle and Lucy. She may also have killed both her husbands and all the children she was rumoured to have had from them. Her apparent motives involved collecting life insurance, cash and other valuables and eliminating witnesses of her crimes. All her murders took place in America, where she moved in 1881 after a troubled past in which she was the victim of an assault that caused a miscarriage.
By 1907, as a widow, Gunness advertised for suitors in the matrimonial columns of the Chicago daily. Several middle-aged men responded and most visited her farm, but never left. Gunness disappeared after the police found the body of her children. She became an urban legend, with sightings dating as late as 1931.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear,” said H.P. Lovecraft. Add love and money and you will know why black widows offer so much intrigue.