A Brief History
On May 30, 1899, one of the last of the Old West outlaws struck again, this time robbing a stage coach 30 miles Southeast of Globe, Arizona. What was somewhat different about this robbery, was the fact a woman, Pearl Hart, one of the Old West’s female banditos was the person doing the robbing. Today we list 10 women that are famous for being lawbreakers, murderers, robbers, crime family heads or whatever. Who would you add to the list? (Elizabeth Bathory? Martha Stewart? Leona Helmsley?)
1. Pearl Hart, Wild West Outlaw.
Proving that the fair sex can be just as rotten as the next guy, Pearl came from Canada to live it up in the American West in the 1880’s. Hooking up with an outlaw named Joe Boot (not her husband) she went on a crime spree robbing stagecoaches. Drinking liquor, smoking cigarettes, and dabbling in drugs of abuse (morphine), when Hart was caught and put on trial she famously said, “I shall not consent to be tried under a law in which my sex had no voice in making.” She was tried anyway!
2. Patty Hearst, Bank Robber.
Wealthy heiress Patty Hearst of the Hearst newspapers family was kidnapped at age 19 by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) from her apartment in Berkeley California. Ordered by the kidnappers to provide $70 worth of food to every single needy Californian, Patty’s father spent $6 million on food for the poor. (Actual cost of compliance with the demand would have been a staggering $400 million.) Two months after the kidnapping Patty Hearst announced her name was now “Tania” and that she was a member of the SLA. She then took part in bank robberies and was arrested 7 months after being taken. Convicted of bank robbery and jailed, she claimed she had been forced to do the crimes and had been “brainwashed.” Despite the public being less than sympathetic, President Jimmy Carter commuted her sentence after only 2 years.
3. Belle Starr, Wild West James Gang associate.
Part of the Jesse James, Cole Younger gang, Belle is said to have participated in robberies and counterfeiting. Born Myra Maybelle Shirley, Belle was fashion conscious, unlike the other female robbers of her day. She was known to wear a riding dress of black velvet while wearing a plumed hat, six guns on her hips, and riding a lady like side-saddle! Leading a life of crime, she not surprisingly was shot in the back in 1889. Belle was related to the Hatfields of the Hatfields and McCoys Feud.
4. Women Pirates.
Of course, the ones named here are not the only females to have flown the Jolly Roger, but among them these are some of the most famous. Anne Dieu-le-Veut, the last name is actually a sobriquet meaning “God wills it” or “God Wants.” She was given this nickname because it seemed she achieved everything she tried. Sent to Tortuga against her will by the French government to be married to colonists there, she married a pirate, and when he was killed she became one herself and married another pirate. Captured by the English, Anne was imprisoned for 3 years before being released, with her activities and circumstances of death after that unknown. Unlike many other women pirates, Anne wore normal female clothing and did not hide her gender while on ship. Unlike the stereotype of a woman on a ship being bad luck, Anne was seen more of a good luck charm, hence her nickname. Mary Read was born illegitimately and raised as a boy, later joining the British Army disguised as a man and distinguishing herself in battle on the continent. There she married a Flemish soldier and when he died she went back into a man’s clothing and back in the Army. During a period of peace, Mary quit and went to find her fortune in the West Indies but was captured by pirates on the way. Forced to join them, she was pardoned by British authorities, becoming a privateer. When the crew mutinied, she joined them in becoming pirates and became part of Calico Jack’s crew. When Jack’s girlfriend, Anne Bonny, took a romantic interest in “Mark,” Mary revealed herself as a woman. Mary fell in love with a male prisoner, and when she was captured by authorities she announced that she was pregnant, and thus could not be hanged. Mary died in prison awaiting childbirth. Anne Bonny was of an Irish family that had moved to the Caribbean when she was a girl. In the Bahamas she met and circulated amongst pirates, meeting and falling in love with John Rackham, aka Calico Jack the pirate. In 1720 when the Royal Navy surprised the pirates, only Anne, Mary Read, and one other crewman fought the boarders with vigor, the rest of the crew including Calico Jack sleeping off a drunk meekly surrendering. Like Read, Bonny was pregnant when captured, and her hanging was delayed until after the delivery of her baby, but she was spared and lived until 1782 dying at a remarkable 93 years old. The last time she spoke to Calico Jack, she told him, “If you fought like a man, you wouldn’t have been hanged like a dog.”
5. Ma Barker, Crime family head.
Kate Clark was born in Missouri in 1873, an era still part of the Old Wild West. Married to George Barker in 1892, she had 4 sons that formed the nucleus of her crime family. The crimes of the Barker boys are chronicled as early as 1910 when the eldest, Herman (born 1893) was charged with running over a boy during a getaway. The boys, probably illiterate, continued to commit robberies, burglaries and even murder, never afraid to shoot it out with police or security guards. Herman was the first to die, when he shot himself after being gravely injured in a car wreck after a shootout with police in 1927. Lloyd, Arthur and Fred all did time in prison for various crimes. By 1931 Ma’s husband, George, had left her, possibly because of the crimes of their sons and also her “loose morals” which included seeing other men. Ma came on hard times by 1931, with no husband and all 3 surviving sons in prison. Known to law enforcement as “Old Lady Arrie Barker” and to gang members as “Kate,” Ma Barker had an improvement in living standards when Fred got out of jail and they joined in on a crime spree with Alvin Karpis, forming a gang known as the Barker-Karpis Gang. Joined by Arthur upon his release from prison in 1932, the gang traveled throughout the Midwest, leaving Chicago to avoid having to work for Al Capone. Based in St. Paul, Minnesota, they were protected by the corrupt police chief and branched out into kidnapping as well as robbery. The gang believed Ma’s boyfriend, Arthur Dunlop, had ratted them out, and subsequently murdered him with a shot to the head. A pair of high value kidnappings netted the gang ransoms of $100,000 and $200,000, far better than the haul from robberies. Son Arthur Barker was arrested in 1935, and shortly afterwards Ma and Fred died in a shootout with federal agents in Ocklawaha, Florida after the Feds found out where their hideout was. Only Ma and Fred were in the house at the time, and it is unknown if Ma even took part in the protracted shootout. Local residents of the area came to watch the excitement and even held picnics during the shooting! Both Ma and Fred died on the scene, Fred from numerous bullet wounds but Ma from only a single bullet wound. Due to the notoriety of Ma Barker and her son, the bodies were placed on display and not claimed by relatives for 10 months. Arthur died during an attempted prison break from Alcatraz in 1939, and Lloyd died last at the age of 52 in 1949. Some historians claim Ma Barker was not actually involved with planning or committing crimes, though she certainly tolerated them and profited from those crimes. Her reputation as put forth by police and federal authorities demonized her and she is usually portrayed in film and books as a bloodthirsty criminal mastermind.
6. Bonnie Parker, ½ of the Bonnie and Clyde Crime duo.
On May 23, 1934, waiting policemen ambushed notorious robbers and murderers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, filling them and their stolen car full of holes. Bonnie was not quite 24 years old and Clyde was only 25, but at the time they were the most famous outlaws in the United States. Blazing a trail of crime from 1932 to 1934, the couple and their gang had robbed about 12 banks, many stores and gas stations and had killed 9 police officers and a handful of civilians in the process. Both of these career criminals were born in Texas, and they died together (of course) in Louisiana. Bonnie had been married at 15 years old but soon left her husband for good, although they never divorced. Clyde was already a car thief and all-round criminal when they met and had already killed a man while in jail. (The man had been sexually assaulting him.). Bonnie had been arrested for robbery at one point but was released weeks later for lack of indictment. On another occasion, the police (who do learn from mistakes) were armed with a BAR and machine guns when they attempted to ambush the pair in November of 1933. Although Bonnie and Clyde escaped, both were wounded in the legs as they drove away. Clyde planned and executed a prison breakout for some of his gang members and other prisoners in Texas in January of 1934, and this insult to Texas law enforcement seemed to precipitate a renewed eagerness to catch or kill the criminal pair. Killing more highway patrolmen contributed to the enthusiasm for the blood of Bonnie and Clyde, and public opinion swung decidedly against them as newspapers published false and embellished accounts of Bonnie’s supposed bloodthirstiness. Fate caught up to the murderous duo on a country road in Louisiana on May 23, 1934 as 6 officers (4 from Texas, 2 from Louisiana) set up an ambush and blasted the pair when they rolled up in a stolen car. About 130 rounds were fired by the cops, with at least 25 hitting Bonnie and Clyde apiece. Of course, they died right there and without any medical attention. Bonnie and Clyde are remembered in movies, made-for-television films, books and in a number of songs
7. Aileen Wournos, Monster.
Portrayed by Charlize Theron in the 2003 movie Monster, while working as a prostitute, Wournos killed 7 men in Florida in only a year (1989-1990). She claimed self-defense, saying all her victims had tried to rape her but was convicted of the murders nonetheless and executed by lethal injection in 2002. At the time of her death, she was the tenth woman to have been executed after the Supreme Court had lifted the ban on capital punishment in 1976. Prior to the murders, Wournos had been a career criminal who had been involved in many crimes ranging from drunk driving, to robbery, assault, theft and shooting a gun from a moving car. Among her murder victims were a former chief of police and a police reserve officer. Theron earned the Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Wournos.
8. Female Assassins.
Not all these famous female assassins were successful, but nonetheless achieved a high degree of notoriety for their attempted murders. President of the United States Gerald R. Ford was the target of 2 different women assassins in 1975. The first, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme was a Manson Family nut that pulled the trigger on a .45 caliber pistol on Ford, but an alert Secret Service agent had grabbed the gun and the hammer fell on the webbing of his hand, failing to discharge the weapon. Sarah Jane Moore was the second attempted assassin of Gerald Ford, this time getting a .38 shot off before a retired Marine grabbed her and her gun. The shot missed Ford, but the ricochet hit and slightly wounded a taxi driver. Both women were sentenced to life in prison and are now paroled. Mary Surratt was a boarding house owner convicted of conspiring to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 along with John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators. Surratt was sentenced to death and hanged, the first woman executed by the US Government. Charlotte Corday was caught up in the frenzy of the French Revolution in 1793 when she murdered Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat with a 6 inch kitchen knife as Marat lay in his bathtub (due to a skin condition he spent a lot of time in the tub). Corday blamed Marat as a main instigator of the Reign of Terror and the enormous number of executions taking place. She in turn was beheaded on the guillotine. Fanny Kaplan, her real name was Feiga Roytblat, and she was Jewish socialist revolutionary in Russia. Already in 1906 at age 16, she had been given a life sentence for her participation in a terrorist bomb plot. During her captivity, she was severely beaten and had nearly been blinded. After she was freed during the Russian Revolution, she attempted to kill Lenin because she considered him “a traitor to the revolution.” She targeted the leader of the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, shooting him in the jaw and shoulder with her pistol, a third shot passing through his coat in 1918. Although Lenin survived, he later died of a stroke that may have had its roots in this shooting. Kaplan was convicted and shot to death. Violet Gibson was a 49-year-old Irish woman in 1926 when she fired 3 shots at Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, hitting him in the beezer (nose) twice! Mussolini’s wounds were not severe, and he continued with his parade. Since Gibson appeared to be insane, Mussolini had her released without charges and sent her to England where she spent the remainder of her life in an insane asylum. History suffered another close call when Izola Curry, a deranged African-American woman, stabbed Martin Luther King, Jr. in the chest with a letter opener in 1958. King was at a book signing, when the well-dressed and normal-looking Curry stabbed him deeply in the chest. Luckily King was saved by a delicate surgical procedure, and fortunately Curry had been a little off mark in her aim as well; the letter opener was found to be resting right against King’s aorta! When arrested, the 42-year old Curry was also found to be carrying a loaded gun in her purse. She did not have a real reason for attacking King but believed he and the NAACP were communists and were torturing her. She was then sent to a mental asylum. Today at 98 she may be in a nursing home. Whether or not she is alive is unknown.
9. Heidi Fleiss, Hollywood Madame.
Born in Los Angeles in 1965, Fleiss started her career as a prostitution master under a prostitution queen called “Madam Alex” in 1987, when only 22 years old. Working as a prostitute to “learn the trade,” Heidi went off on her own in 1990 to start her own prostitution service, claiming she made a million dollars in her first 4 months in business, with even poor days netting $10,000. By 1993 her business had boomed to the point where girls flocked to work for Fleiss, and many were turned away. Her services were so popular that when she was arrested in 1993 the extent of her celebrity clients earned her the media nick-name “The Hollywood Madam,” although she declined to name clients. Sentenced to a fine of $200,000 and a prison sentence of 7 years on Federal tax evasion charges, she served only 20 months. Her notoriety resulted in a documentary and a made for television movie, as well as magazine columns and stories and television appearances. Heidi opened a legal brothel in Nevada in 2005 (Heidi Fleiss’ Stud Farm) and in 2013 was found to have 400 marijuana plants growing at her Nevada home (no charges filed). In 2003 her then boyfriend, actor Tom Sizemore, was convicted of domestic violence against her. Heidi’s illegal activity also included drug abuse, extensive enough to have required treatment and to have left her brain impaired. She is a bird lover and has 25 parrots and has appeared in 4 movies as an actress.
10. Genene Jones, Killer Nurse.
This nutty serial killer was born in Texas in 1950 and became a licensed vocational nurse after a stint as a beautician in the 1970’s. Working as a pediatric nurse in Bexar County Hospital, San Antonio, Texas, her grim work first became apparent by the unusual spike in infant deaths. The hospital simply fired ALL of their pediatric nurses rather than risk the complications of an investigation (What!?!) and Jones went on to her next hospital job in Kerrville, Texas, where she ended up charged with the murder of 6 infants by injecting them with a paralytic substance. She claimed she was trying to kick start a movement to get a pediatric intensive care unit for the hospital! She was arrested in 1984 and in 1985 was convicted of murder and given a 99 year sentence. Due to be released in 2018 due to prison overcrowding alleviation rules, authorities instead indicted Jones for another murder in 2017 to keep her locked up. She is believed to have killed around 60 infants and toddlers by injecting a variety of medicines such as heparin and paralytic compounds. Her murder spree has been the subject of movies and television episodes. Married as a young girl in 1968, Jones was divorced in 1974 but bore a child to her ex-husband in 1977. Shortly before her indictment in 1984 she became engaged to a 19 year old nursing assistant. He dumped her once the indictment came down!
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For more information, please see…
Chesney-Lind, Meda. The Female Offender: Girls, Women, and Crime. SAGE Publications, 1997.
Jensen, Vickie. Women Criminals [2 volumes]: An Encyclopedia of People and Issues. ABC-CLIO, 2011.