There is a tendency to underestimate just how vicious these women were.
The gangsters we're most familiar with appeared in Sicily in the mid-eighteenth century. Known as the Sicilian Mafia or the Cosa Nostra, the Italian mob originated when feudalism was abolished in the territory during its annexation to the country at the beginning of that century. If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense since the structure of these groups respond to a feudal system where leaders collect money from and control the people in these territories. So, as you’ve seen in films like Gangs of New York or the renowned Godfather trilogy, the image of the gangster as we know it in fiction comes from a time where New York City experienced an immigration wave mainly from Ireland and Italy (especially from Sicily), where these gangs were formed. However, it wasn’t until the 1920s and early 1930s, during the Prohibition era, when the term and the character of "gangster" were established.
Now, what’s interesting is that, when most people think about gangsters, they picture men in suits surrounded by bodyguards, but what about those female gangsters who also terrorized the country? Although they aren’t as famous in popular history, there have been many women who played important roles in these organizations that committed violent and ruthless acts. Here are ten of the most famous female gangsters, some of which you’ve probably never heard of, but who were key to the survival of their gangs.
We couldn’t talk about ruthless female criminals without mentioning Bonnie Parker, forever associated to her partner, Clyde Barrow, and their long list of robberies and murders during the Great Depression. The story of her life is much darker and more complex than the popular version, which portrays her as a woman madly in love who tags along on her partner's crime spree. Bonnie was the middle child of Emma and Robert Parker. Her father died when she was only four years old, and her mother had to work to provide for her family, but Bonnie wanted more than what her mother could give her. Then, just before she turned sixteen, she met Roy Thornton (a man with his own criminal history and eventually spent his life in prison) and fell in love to the point that she decided to drop out of school to marry him. Their marriage didn’t last, and although they never actually got divorced, they never saw each other again. Enter Clyde Barrow.
He was a young man born into a very poor family, but with many ambitions in life. As the story goes, he met Bonnie through a mutual friend, and it was love at first sight. It’s estimated that they killed a total of nine police officers, and were involved in more than a dozen robberies. Their crime spree, though, ended abruptly when they were ambushed by the police, who shot them and set their car on fire. They both died in the ambush, but their story will remain in our collective imagination forever.
Stephanie St. Clair
Also known as Queenie or Madame St. Clair, Stephanie was a Martinican immigrant with a penchant for crime who lived in Manhattan in the early 20th century. Her life wasn’t very easy... As a young girl, her mother fell ill, and she had to drop out of school and work for a wealthy French family. After their son tried to rape her and her mother passed away, she decided to start a new life in France, but she couldn’t find a good job there, so she did what so many other people did at the time and moved to America, the land of opportunity, although it wasn’t really as she had expected it. In New York, full of hopes and dreams, she met and fell in love a man called Duke. However, this man, tried to prostitute her, so, understandably angry and hurt, she stuck a fork in his eye and left the city. If you thought this was enough to kill her spirit, you’re very mistaken.
On her way out of the city, the bus she was on was ambushed by the Ku Klux Klan group, and most of the black passengers were killed and burned, while she was raped by multiple men. She survived and decided to return to New York, determined not to let anyone walk over her. So, along with her new boyfriend, she started selling drugs. Only a few months later, she had made a small fortune, but she wanted it all for herself, so she decided to work solo and created her own gang, which took over Manhattan.
After her husband tried to use her money to start a new business with his lover, she killed him and was convicted to ten years in prison. Then, when she was released, she decided to start over. After a life of crime, she wanted to do good for other people. For instance, she testified many times against corrupt cops involved with the mafia, and stood up for the working-class people of her community, but perhaps what she’s most remembered for is her during the civil rights movement, in which she was very active until her death in 1969 at the age of 82.
Considered by J. Edgar Hoover as “the most vicious, dangerous, and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade,” Arizona Donnie Barker, known as Ma Barker, was the ruthless matriarch of one of the most dangerous gangs in the early twentieth century. Along with her husband and four sons, the Barker family business started with highway robberies that eventually involved murder and other despicable crimes. During the 1910s and part of the 1920s, the criminal family was in the public eye, which eventually led to the eldest son's suicide, who wanted to spare his brothers from prison. After less that a decade in prison, Ma Barker reunited with her son Fred and started a new crime spree.
After four years in business, both were killed by the FBI in January 1935. Following her death, there was a debate about her role in the gang started, with some people claiming that she had nothing to do with her son’s crimes, while others (like Hoover) were convinced that she was actually the mastermind behind all the horrors they committed.
In the 1930s, a kidnapping caught the attention of the government, the FBI, and the entire nation. Oil tycoon Charles F. Urschel was abducted from his house during a bridge game. After a thorough investigation, the authorities named George aka “Machine Gun” Kelly as the culprit, along with his gang and his wife, Kathryn Kelly. Now, some historians believe that she wasn't just his wife, but was actually the mind behind many of their heists and crimes, since she had a long record of crimes before she even Kelly. In fact, many believe she was the one who dragged George into a life of crime.
After three failed marriages, one of which was to a successful bootlegger who died in mysterious circumstances, she met George, and together they started a new bootlegging business. But since this was a very common business venture during the Prohibition, they soon got involved in the kidnapping business, which proved to be much more profitable, especially when they planned thoroughly and snatched the right people. It’s said that Kathryn was the one who bought him his machine gun and the one who created this criminal persona. When they decided to go big by kidnapping a very wealthy man and asking for a ransom of 200,000 dollars (which was a ridiculous amount of money back then), they never suspected that going that big would mean their doom. The FBI caught them after they received the money (by the way, Kathryn had suggested killing Urschel anyway) they were both arrested along with her mother, who was found to be their accomplice. Both women were released about 25 years later, but George died in prison.
The early 20th century was a difficult period in the history of the US, which paved the way for many years of successful criminal organizations. When you think about it, the Prohibition wasn't the only thing that inspired people to start illegal bootlegging business; it was also the economic crisis that led to the Depression what pushed so many to crime to make the money they couldn't earn at an honest job. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be held accountable for their crimes or the harm they did to so many people. It’s just a way to understand why so many gangsters, including women, emerged at this time in history.
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