The pioneering psychiatrist Philippe Pinel introduced the concept of the psychopathic personality at the turn of the 19th century. He described general characteristics of these individuals, such as impulsive violence, that occurred in the absence of any appreciable deficits in intellect or cognition. In 1941, psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley published his classic text, "The Mask of Sanity," which provided rich clinical descriptions and detailed case studies of psychopathic individuals. At the present time, and particularly among forensic mental health staff, the term "psychopath" may be thrown about loose and fast. However, it should be understood that this term now denotes a very specific clinical concept as researched and defined by Robert Hare. Older literature sometimes uses the term sociopath. It would be technically incorrect to use the terms psychopathy and sociopathy as synonyms. The term sociopathy has fallen out of favor, and was used primarily to stress the sociological factors influencing an individual's antisocial behaviors.
JANIE MARIE, New Bern, N.C.: Concerning a "black widow" persona, what causes her to do her deeds? Does she look for any little excuse to begin a plot to kill? What kind of person does she look for to befriend and what may their personality be like?
KNOLL: The most common motive identified for such "black widow" killers was material gain. [i] Others have pointed to a driving need for control and/or domination in the form of having the power to take someone's life -- not too dissimilar from medical professionals who murder patients -- the so-called "angels of mercy" killers.
Interestingly, the notorious case of "Sister" Amy Archer-Gilligan (1873-1962) contains features of both. "Sister Amy" was a nursing-home proprietor in Connecticut, who systematically murdered at least five people and at least one husband by poison. Her husband's will had been drawn up not long before his death, which left her his entire estate. The rest of her victims were residents of her nursing home.
Each individual killer will have her own proclivities, needs and triggers, so this data can only be obtained from the killer herself. In a study of 105 female serial killers, the preferred method of killing was poisoning. [ii] An analysis of 86 female serial killers from the U.S. found that the victims tended to be spouses, children or the elderly. [iii] Sometimes referred to as "black widow" killers, these women tend to be geographically stable and live in the same area where their offenses occurred. Their victims are not strangers, and the methods they use are covert or "low profile."21 On rare occasions, women may be involved with a male serial killer as a part of a serial killing "team." [iv] [i] Frei A., Vollm B., Graf M., Volker D. Female serial killing: Review and case report. Criminal Behaviour and Mental Health 2006 16: 167-176. [ii] Wilson W., Hilton T. Modus operandi of female serial killers. Psychological Reports 1998 82: 495-498. [iii] Kelleher M. Kelleher C. Murder Most Rare: The Female Serial Killer. Praeger: Westport, CT, 1998. [iv] Holmes R., Holmes S. Serial Murder, 2nd Ed. Wadsworth: Belmond, CA, 1998.