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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.


Women's History Magazine


  1. jo oliver said...
    You cant fight crime...with crime. It made them no better than the criminal they were trying to capture, or should I say kill.
    Auron said...
    Couln't agree more, and tourture tactics could only ever make you say what the tourturer wants to hear, regaurdless of the trueth.

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