So many are lost to time, their names an alias on a fading,
carbon copy indictment.
By Ellen Poulsen, Author and Crime Lecturer
Check out the website, www.Dillingerswomen.com .
In the 1930s, women in crime were called gun molls. They loved the bad guys. Or perhaps, they’d gotten stuck in a love-hate cycle of fear, unrest and deceit.
The love usually came easy, in the first blush of passion, money and excitement. The hate would generally follow, after arrests, abandonment and ultimate betrayal.
The media fuss went to the molls of the Public Enemy gangs. They were photographed in court, and their mug shots reproduced and sent to every corner of the U.S. Yet, organized crime figures of New York and Chicago were rarely photographed on the streets. Consequently, inner-city molls remained behind the scenes.
The dubious honor of the spotlight went to the women of the Midwest Crime Wave, who basked in their scarlet personas throughout 1933 and 1934. Kathryn Kelly, the wife of Machine Gun Kelly, preened during her Federal kidnapping trial in Oklahoma City. Clyde Barrow’s Texas girlfriend, Bonnie Parker, said cheese while fondling her man’s pet guns and cigars. These photos, left behind in a Joplin, Missouri shootout, found their way to the front page, if not the photogravure of every Sunday Supplement.
The Crowned Queens of Gangland formed a prototype for the forgotten molls who weren’t caught on cue. Most were smarter than Kit Kelly and Bonnie Parker. They avoided publicity, in light of their sad reality. A moll’s only value was her ability to lay low.
The female associates of mobsters first assumed unwilling importance in 1933 when FBI agents, police officers, and district attorneys, took molls seriously enough to interrogate them with the same force and brutality used on male prisoners.
Before that, in the years 1905-1930, during which time the New York Women’s Court was documented by the Committee of 14, females were arrested mainly for prostitution and shoplifting. These crimes were of little interest to police, who would see the woman handed over to Magistrate Court and the case disposed of with bail, bribe or a prison sentence. Yet, police ignored mobsters’ wives and sweethearts throughout the 1920s.
After the Kansas City Massacre in June 1933, the precursor to the FBI, the Bureau of Investigation of the Justice Department, took an interest in the women running with Verne Miller, the Barkers and Alvin Karpis. Later, with the arrests of the Dillinger gang women in 1934, the art of the interrogation advanced from its earliest, primitive stages of bright lights and sleep deprivation to a more sophisticated denial of constitutional rights.
Police interrogators were willing to go to extremes to ensure the women talked. After an arrest, a woman was held "incommunicado" for up to two weeks without regular sleep, food, or telephone access to an attorney. They were punched, with hair pulling and cigarette burns. Verbal abuse in the form of insults, with ethnic and racial slurs occurred.
Police felt justified, if queasy, in using these savage methods. The gun moll was the most important element in the manhunt.
Fresh from the streets, she had new information on the whereabouts of desperate cop killers and Federal fugitives. Police interrogators leant the captured molls their due, vesting them with great knowledge of the underworld.
The irony is, they didn’t know much. Very few gun molls of the 1930s got to carry much money. The women of the John Dillinger gang didn’t participate in the action of bank robberies.
Yet the moll of the 1930s was a worker bee. Unlike the movie stereotype of the glamorous platinum blond, the gangster’s moll performed the housework of crime. This didn’t mean they clipped coupons for Babo bathtub cleanser. But they did pack the loot and ammunition – and could do so in the frantic moment of the police shootout. Women of the desperado gangs did their share of behind-the scenes work. They purchased cars, rented apartments to be used as hideouts, opened safe deposit boxes for the purpose of stashing the loot, and acted as go-betweens when gang members became disenfranchised due to a shootout or pinch.
The March, 1934, St. Paul ambush of Eddie Green and the concurrent arrest of Beth Green, his common-law wife, brought the FBI into a new era of extracting information from women.
Beth Green wasn’t coaxed like the usual suspects. A former restaurant manager, she impressed the field agents with her business acumen. They judged her intelligence, and approached her with an eye toward negotiation. She worked out her own deal, wrote her own ticket, so to speak. In contrast, most underworld women got stuck in the web of the prosecutors.
The surprising difference between the women of the Public Enemy gangs, and the molls of the Chicago Outfit and the fledgling New York families, could be found in one word: mortality. The women of the gangs comprising the FBI’s 1930s Public Enemies, survived. None were murdered. In comparison, women involved with syndicate mobsters of the same era, ran a high risk of being strangled or shot if suspected of informing.
Often, they had no choice at all. When arrested and interrogated without counsel, they were faced with the dilemma of doing time, or cooperating. Exploited as witnesses, they were discarded after-the-trial by prosecutors. If not murdered by their former lovers or their associates, they dropped out of sight in fear of their lives. Special Prosecutor Thomas Dewey, in hunting down New York crime figures, relied heavily on the testimony of females. Yet these women were lost to time, their names an alias on a fading, carbon copy indictment.
With the cards stacked against them by prosecutors, and fearing a return to the streets, they had nowhere to turn but the assistant district attorneys. These young men were college-educated and presented a new image of a man – one with book smarts. The women, if left behind bars long enough, transferred their trust to the Assistant D.A.
This put the gangster’s moll in great danger. The county jails were rife with poison or stabbing, as payoffs could ensure that anyone with a mission of murder could get access to a prisoner. If a woman survived county jail and talked in court, she was doomed upon her release from jail.
Elitist politicians like Thomas Dewey and J. Edgar Hoover, used female informants as stool pigeons. And like all pigeons, they were written off as dirty, annoying, and anonymous. The phrase "stool-pigeon," originated in the New York vice scandals of the late 1920s. Originally used to denote a police plant in a frame-up, the word evolved into a description of an informant. It had its equivalent in that other despised rodent, the "rat."
The court systems were set up to turn most underworld women into informers. Mildred Balitzer, New York madam and prostitute, was married to bookie Pete Harris. A key Luciano witness for the prosecution, she wrote a magazine article, partly as a catharsis for her shame in testifying. Her feelings mattered little to a public hardened by crime stories. The madam, prostitute or moll, got no sympathy from society.
Some molls of the era did make a modest living on their former notoriety. During the late 1930s, Gangland Queens Billie Frechette, and Mary Kinder, went on the road in a string of carnival tours. They also told their stories to the tabloids.
Was the carnival sideshow a glorified way of informing? Not if you consider their reinvention as romantic gangster girls. They even developed some print-friendly pathos. Mary Kinder, of the Dillinger gang, told the Chicago Herald & Examiner, "You pay in the end and you keep on paying. I ought to know."
The molls, if not murdered or frightened into helplessness, tried to change their troubled lives. Some followed the advice of judges, offered solicitously at time of sentencing. They were told to get married, go home, go to confession -- go anywhere but the streets. Some unfortunates, in spite of the good tidings, vanished back to the shadows.
Others, finding their reputations destroyed, got married as a way to legally change their names. The best defense against notoriety was the legitimate alias of a married name. The new husbands, found after parole in the lost years of the late 1930s, were not underworld figures at all. They were barbers, salesmen, and businessmen. As the wife of the butcher, an aging moll knew she’d have a meal every night. It was more than she’d ever gotten before.
Ellen Poulsen, is the author of "Don’t Call Us Molls: Women of the John Dillinger Gang." She lives in Queens, New York, where she actively lectures on 1930s crime topics in libraries and historical societies. Her new book, in progress, is tentatively entitled, "Give Her The Works: Women of the Luciano Trial."
Check out the website, www.Dillingerswomen.com
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