Monday, August 15, 2022

When Women Kill: Inside the Mind of a Female Psychopath – Plus, a Top US Crime Podcaster Explains Why More Women Than Ever Are Tuning in

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True crime podcasts are completely taking over the charts at the moment – and the ones driving that rise is mostly women. My Favourite Murder has become one of the most listened to shows in the world, and the growing network behind it, Exactly Right, is only continuing to grow. It’s a station run mostly by women, now hosting a bevy of women including celebrated author, teacher and historian Kate Winkler Dawson who hosts the podcast, Tenfold More Wicked, which is now in its fourth season. We spoke to Kate about her latest, truly wicked season.

It was the height of the roaring twenties and a charming, beautiful young Southern woman had made her way to Los Angeles where she soon became a Hollywood chorus girl. She could have taken her pick from many suiters but, she’d already met the love of her life, Armour Philips, at 15 and the pair appeared to live a picture-perfect life in a beautiful home.

But Clara Anne Weaver was not all that she seemed on the surface.

When she heard rumours that her husband was having an affair with a 19-year-old bank teller named Alberta Meadows, she stalked her. She then bought a claw hammer, asked a friend to come out with her for a few drinks, then wound up picking up young Alberta from work and beating her to death. She sent her friend home – after threatening her – then drove home, where she walked in the door, covered in blood and calmly said to her husband, “I just killed the one you love, and now I’m going to make you the best dinner you ever had.”

The brutal and senseless crime (it was later proven that no affair had taken place) consumed the attention of Hollywood. Clara was dubbed ‘The Tiger Woman’ due to the ferocity and brutality of the murder. And from there, the case only took more bizarre twists and turns – from Clara framing others as the killer during an insane trial, and then a sensational prison break aided by a new love interest when she was finally put behind bars.

The truly bizarre (and fascinating) story has also captivated the attention of the host of one of the most popular murder podcasts in the US, Tenfold More Wicked, with the latest season devoted to the truly wicked crime.

From her study in her home in Texas, we had a chat to the host, author and historian Kate Winkler Dawson about her successful podcast – and just why the heck so many women are drawn to the true crime genre – plus her all new findings in the Clara case, insights into women who kill, what it’s like working alongside the two biggest names in the genre right now (Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff of My Favourite Murder fame, who are Executive Producers on her show), plus her views on one of the biggest murder mysteries to grip the world last year…

Kate, for anyone who (crazily) hasn’t listened to your podcast, Tenfold More Wicked, how would you describe it to them?

I am a huge fan of BBC Radio, audio documentaries and I’m a really big fan of the old school American radio shows with sound effects and dramatic music. But I’m also a journalist, and I’m also a crime historian and so I wanted to do a mash up of all of those things.

I wanted it to feel like an immersive experience, so with Tenfold we have one crime in history that was significant and there are themes around each of the seasons that resonate with us today.

I talk to experts who are entertaining and who can tell me about those themes. I’ve talked to authors who have maybe reported on that story, from a crime long ago, but most importantly, I talk to family members and they give me a perspective of why this story was important and how this crime fits into their family or has changed their family dynamic.

Then I pair all that with music from the time period – I have a composer who everything is original. He’ll sometimes take public domain music and twist it to whatever the time period,  but he composes all original music for this specific podcast. And then we have a lot of sound effects of a brilliant sound designer, who does, like, people walking through leaves and water splashing on the shore. My producer and my sound designer a couple of weeks ago, debated over how loud a car from the 1920s would sound and what kind of engine because people call me out on that stuff! So it’s a lot of work, but it’s so much fun – this season I just want people to feel like they’re a 1920s Los Angeles with like flapper girls and grifters and Hollywood everywhere, so hopefully I achieve that for the listeners.

The Tiger Woman herself

I’m so looking forward to this season – I hadn’t heard a thing about this case, the Tiger Woman before, but jeeeeepers, what a story. It’s a truly horrible, brutal crime, but then there’s so many more elements to this story, including an insane court case and then a wild prison break. What was it that attracted you to telling the story of this particular case?

Well, I have a little checklist, just like with my books, I have a checklist that I have to be able to meet in order for this to be a good podcast season. So, number one is, it’s got to be a time period that I’m willing to invest a lot of time in because I go to all of the locations. For the first season I was in upstate New York in Manhattan and the second season I was in Edinburgh and this one in LA, so it has to be a city I want to be in and has to be a time period that I’m really interested in.

My second book, American Sherlock was set in 1920s, California, so I was really excited about this case, and time period. Prohibition is amazing, the jazz was amazing and there were all kinds of crazy things happening on the west coast. So I was really attracted to that time period. But the most important thing I need is family members and I need family members who are interested. Maybe they’ve done tons of research – for the folks with families back in the 1800s. Or in this case with Clara Phillips, I have people who actually have met the players in the story, which to me, it’s inexplicable because it’s from the 1920s! But her niece is in the show, so there are people out there who may have heard the story of Claire Phillips, but they’ve never heard from her family and the family offers a pretty interesting perspective.

One thing that strikes me about this story is we don’t often hear stories about female murderers – and particularly not crime that is female-on-female. Did that also draw you to delving into it?

It did! I’d just finished writing a book that’s going to come out in October based on season one of Tenfold. It’s called All That Is Wicked and season one was about murderer Edward Rulloff who was someone with psychopathy and was very clearly a psychopath – he checked all the boxes. And when I started reading about Clara Phillips, I was just thinking this is clearly somebody who has psychopathy also. But what I didn’t realise and what had drawn me so much to the story, is when I started talking to experts – forensic psychiatrists and people who are world renowned on research in psychopathy – is that psychopathy in women is so different than psychopathy.

They say that the male psychopath will stab you to death, but the female psychopath will ruin your credit, she’ll steal your identity – she won’t likely kill you, but she’ll ruin every other aspect of your life. And we don’t hear a lot about that! There are more women who have psychopathy than we think, because it presents so differently, and it just gets interpreted in different ways.

I think that women with psychopathy are vastly undercounted compared to men because we mostly just study males. So, the idea of dealing with a female psychopath who comes home after beating someone to death, covered in blood and says, “Okay, let’s have dinner – I have taken care of the problem”. Well, that is textbook psychopathy. So it’s exciting – although, I really don’t like to get excited about murders, but I am interested in exploring what would cause this, and what the repercussions were. And it’s stunning how manipulative she could be and how she convinced so many people to do things on her behalf.

Kate Winkler Dawson

It’s pertinent though, isn’t it, talking about and delving into a crime with women at the centre of it, because we’re really seeing that this is who the audience is for true crime now, isn’t it? Women – and in growing numbers – are the ones who are tuning in, or buying the crime books. What’s your take on that? Why are we so keen to listen to such morbid stories??

That is the eternal question that I’m asked all the time. And I know, Karen and Georgia are asked it constantly. And it’s because it seems counterintuitive: why would you want to read stories or listen to podcasts, about women being predominantly killed by men? I mean, that’s what I write about mostly, is women who are killed by men, unfortunately.

But I think there are lots of reasons for it.

My mom is a massive true crime fan – even bigger than I am. And she thinks it prepares her for something. She’s 78, so I don’t know what she would do with a serial killer and if knowing everything about Ted Bundy is really gonna prepare her for that! But it makes her feel better.

And actually, studies show that women actually change their routine based on true crime stories that they read about, because they pick up tips. The thing is, we are vulnerable. The majority of victims are women, so I think it’s a little bit of self-preservation, I think we’re constantly looking for ways to get out of it.

But I think for me, it is a little bit like people who are really into sci fi: it’s a world you’re, you’re hopefully never going to explore, there’s a lot of drama. If you think about like the narrative arc telling a story, like I teach my film students at the University of Texas, we need to establish a character, why do we care about that character? Now we’ve invested in the character, then somebody gets killed, or there’s a trial, and the killer goes on trial. Now, we care about the victim’s parents, and we want this guy convicted! And he’s either gonna get convicted, or he’s not. So somebody’s life is altered by the end of a true crime story. So it automatically has that narrative arc.

I get that – a lot of that rings true. And what you were saying about using that information to be prepared. I think it was in the Dirty John podcast – I won’t do any spoilers for Capsule readers, but one of the women involved talks about how she watched a lot of zombie shows and so when she was being attacked, her mind went to that and she drew on those to fight back and overcome the man who was trying to murder her.

Oh, 100% yes, I remember that too. I think it also makes me kind of go, ‘Whoa, I’m glad that this is not happening to me.’ And I want to see what I would have done in that situation. I  want to be able to say I would never have gone out with that person, or I would have never done that. So, I think it was a little bit Monday morning quarterbacking in a way. I think it’s just exploring a world that, like I said, most of us hopefully will never have to be involved.

I will say that there is a lot of true crime I don’t like. I do not like shows that exploit victims or glamorise the killer. I think there’s a difference between what I tried to do which is explaining motive, you know, figuring out what happened but also elevating the victim, and just sort of saying, you know, Israel Keyes is the greatest mastermind on the planet and the most amazing person ever. I think there’s a way that you can present for crime where it’s respectful to both sides and sort of academic but entertaining.

A hundred percent. I’ve started listening to a few that sounded really only a step above being those women who send love letters to murderers on prison row. All the shows I listen to on your network, Exactly Right really manage to hit the right tone though and treat these subjects with respect. It’s great that now, not only is the audience female, but the ones making and telling these stories are females – I mean, you have the juggernaut that is My Favourite Murder, with Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff, who I know are also executive producers on your show. Is the Exactly Right team predominantly female?

They are, which is wonderful, and I adore working for men and women and collaborating with them. This is, I would say, a unique experience though, because, I have all of these different eyes listening and they are really educated women – I mean, in a way where they will pick up on if I use a single word the wrong way, or if there seems to be a sentence a bit out of place or, you know, tell me, maybe you need to concentrate on this instead, or talk about this aspect of mental health… And I think that’s because of Karen and Georgia who have a network that has been built on women talking to each other and having a really open line of communication. So, as much as you hear that on My Favourite Murder, that is the way it is for all of Exactly Right. It’s a great place for me to have these shows.

Karen and Georgia, the hosts of My Favourite Murder and the executive producers of Tenfold More Wicked.

How is it, working with Georgia and Karen?

They’re great. I actually just saw Karen a couple nights ago via Zoom. And I think it’s, you know, they’re as personable as you can imagine. They’re personable but also professional and they have really good instincts for what shows work for their audience. I think they know you guys, the Muderinos really, really well. So, I feel very safe, being guided by them. And by the rest of the network! All the people there, they’re just such Smarties that I like having Smarties on my team, especially because we talk about some sensitive issues and on both shows.

How did you end up working in true crime? I mean, you’ve talked a bit about your mum and I know your dad was a criminal law professor, but what is it that drew you to working in this genre?

I think it probably did start with my mom. You know, my father, as you said, was a criminal law professor at the University of Texas for 37 years, so I was always in in classes, and I love the law. In another life, I would go back and go to law school. Honestly, if I weren’t doing podcasts and books, that’s probably what I would have done is at age 40, gone back to law school.

My dad started the Innocence Project at the University of Texas and so we talked a lot about forensics. My mom, though, was a clinical psychologist, and a huge true crime fan. Just six months ago we stayed at her house and I got up early the next morning and  looked at the bookshelves – which are bookshelves I’ve looked at for my whole life and haven’t changed. But I looked at all the books as an adult, and it was like In Cold Blood and The Alienist and it’s all the true crime stuff – there’s a PD James book in there. And I thought, ‘Okay, this makes sense now!’

And when I was a TV producer, both on the East Coast and West Coast, I was on crime all the time. I was on Fox News, for just a couple of years and I reported on the Gary Condit  story, which was in Northern California, Southern California. He was a congressman who was apparently having an affair with his intern, and she went missing. He just wouldn’t talk to the police and he got booted out of Congress, he lost the election and it kind of ruined his life. And it turned out he hadn’t been the one who did it. She went running in the park and was snatched by serial killer and was buried in the park – they found that out just a couple years ago.

That was my first really big true crime Story and I essentially lived there for two or three months because it was such a big story – we were reporting on it every day. The only thing that sent me back to San Francisco was September 11.

But the Gary Condit story really resonated with me – it was about a young woman, who was very intelligent. I hate it when we when we describe women who are crime victims as beautiful as the very first thing – that is not the first thing we should value of anybody, particularly a victim of murder. She was intelligent, she was ambitious, and it doesn’t really matter, but she was attractive. You had this vulnerable woman who is in an affair with an older man and somebody who’s a superior, and so I think that theme was really interesting for me to kind of dig into.

Are there any other big true crime stories that have always had you fascinated – those ones you’ll see an article about and can’t help but stop and have a read?

I was completely enthralled with the West Cork murder – Sophie Toscan du Plantier. It was a fantastic podcast that a friend of mine Eric Nuzum made. And then of course the documentary, I’ve probably watched it 15 times on Netflix!

I think the story really resonates because it’s a French woman who is at a retreat – she has a house in West Cork that she owns, which is very rural Ireland, and she hardly speaks English. And she goes there because she wants to be alone. She’s an artist and a writer, and it’s very isolated, and she ends up murdered.

I think the access that both the podcast and the TV series on Netflix had was remarkable. I really am interested in the con man grifter, and they interview the killer in this podcast and in the story on Netflix and I find it fascinating hearing from that person, and seeing the way that he’s trying to spin. His involvement was interesting number one, but what I really enjoyed about both of those stories is how it was handled, it was really handled her story, Sophie’s story, the victim story was handled so well. And her family was so eloquent.

And it feels it felt like this is gonna sound strange, but it felt like a very humane, true crime story. It didn’t feel gross, it didn’t feel like, you know, we were we were talking about it felt like there were bigger themes and bigger issues, and a lot about family and her son pursued the killer – who we presume is the killer – for a very long time, and still is I’m guessing. So. It’s a remarkable story. And I think the way it’s told is really good. Yeah, that’s where I’m always interested in in keeping up with just because the characters are so compelling to me.

That was an incredible podcast! So I presume from what you’re saying that you’re sure that trench-coat wearing local reporter man was the one behind the crime?

Yeah, I do think Ian Bailey was the one. It’s hard, I don’t like unsolved cases. I know a lot of people do, but I just, I like a nice and tidy conclusion. The exceptions I have are Jack the Ripper – I never want to know who Jack the Ripper is and I think most people, if they think about it, they really don’t want to know either, it’s never gonna live up to your expectation – and I don’t really actually want to know if Lizzie Borden did it or didn’t do it. It comes back to the story of the female killer, which I find fascinating. I think in our society, even we as women find it hard to believe that a woman are capable of just being terrible.

Season Four of Tenfold More Wicked is available from today, Monday January 17 on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to good podcasts!

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