Thursday, January 5, 2017

Gangster Women and the Criminals they Loved by Susan McNicoll

I had a good, hard workout at the gym and was not in the mood to return home so I stopped at Books A Million to just sit and relax.  I didn't go to Starbucks, even though I had a gift card, because I wanted to be good and not drink back the calories I just burned off.

So I went to Books A Million and immediately learned that being good when PEPPERMINT MOCHA LATTE! is on the menu doesn't work.  Being Good and PEPPERMINT MOCHA LATTE! do NOT hold hands and skip down the road of Self-Control in solidarity.  They are enemies and PEPPERMINT MOCHA LATTE WON!  I mean, won.

Ever read, "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie"?  No?  You must not have kids.  Anyway, if you give a reader in BAM! a PEPPERMINT MOCHA LATTE! (Has that gotten old?  I'll quit) she's going to want to read a book with it.

So I browsed and grabbed the first thing that caught my eye.  After reading about half of Gangster Women and the Criminals They Loved by Susan McNicoll, my conscience smote me.  Here I was reading a book I hadn't paid for.  So sipping the last dregs of my PEPPERMIN... sorry...drink, I bought the book and took it home.

 Gangster Women is an interesting read for a number of reasons.

One, it offers a brief psyschology of the sort of female that would not only fall in love with but also aid and abet a criminal in committing crimes.

McNicoll, while respectful of the women, doesn't romanticize them or their motives, although she does leave some facts out. Case in point is Bonnie and Clyde.  While showing that Bonnie had about as much conscience as Clyde, she fails to mention that Bonnie largely coped with his loutish ways by staying drunk most of the time.  McNicoll also omits that fact that Clyde was not always so gentle with Bonnie, at one time throwing her across a room (which may explain Bonnie's drinking habits). looks romantic but Bonnie could not walk the last year of her life because her legs were badly burned by car battery acid and lack of treatment because of constantly being on the run.

The other women I did not know about.  A lot of them were mere teenagers running starry eyed after a man they had romanticized in their head.  Helen Gillis would seem to be one of those.  Helen Gillis, wife of Baby Face Nelson

She was the wife of Baby Face Nelson and mother of their several children.  While she was pregnant, she was arrested and starved by the detectives to get information as to the whereabouts of her husband and other gangsters.  She never caved.
Delores Delaney, 16 year old girlfriend of 26 year old Alvin Karpis of the Barker Gang. Alvin was one of the few gangsters to live to an old age.  On the other hand he spent most of it in Alcatraz and holds the record for the being the longest running inmate there.

Looking at the photos of these ladies, it's disturbing how incongruous their looks are to their character.   From their pictures you'd think they were sweet, pretty girls giggling about the next high school dance.  Instead they were in the get away car loading sawed-off shot guns for their husbands/lovers.

Truly a partner in crime.

Gangster Women also provides a glimpse of life in the 1930's.  It was hard.  A lot of people lived in dire poverty.  However, most people toughened up and slogged their way through it.  My grandparents, for instance.  

They worked liked dogs and got through the worst of it.  As poor as they were, they never felt sorry for themselves or felt entitled to other people's incomes, no matter how poor they were or rich and sometimes corrupt others were.  They possessed a quality of character that they valued more than receiving charity.  They instinctively understood that when someone gives you something you haven't earned you're giving them something back:  your dignity.  And they survived. There's a reason why we call them the "Greatest Generation".  They earned that title.

Not everyone back then stood on such dignity.  A criminal element existed that, for whatever reasons, did not possess the same conscience as others.  They became bank robbers.

McNicoll tries to explain away their actions.  Times were hard, yada, yada, yada... but see previous paragraph.  Most people were hard up but most did not rob banks.  

Probably because most people back then had common sense.  Rarely did any of these gangsters or molls survive their twenties.  Many of them died in horrible shootouts with the police.

Most of us are familiar with Bonnie and Clyde's demise but there are others whose end were no less dramatic, although they run largely to the same formula.  Gangster commits crimes, runs from the law, finally apprehended and, as often as not, killed in a shoot out. 

 In addition to the molls, McNicholl gives us short biographies of the bank robbers themselves.

One story in particular  was interesting for what it revealed about the gangster community and how laws were changed.

Verne Miller started on the right side of the law as sheriff, enforcing prohibition.  He soon discovered he could make a lot of money boot legging.  After embezzling money from the Police Department he took off and began a life of crime in Chicago by using connections with Al Capone.

Things went sour for Miller when an incident occurred that thrust him out of the Gangster world.  

A friend and fellow gangster, Frank "Jelly" Nash got caught by federal agents.  Verne and some other gangsters staged a rescue while Nash was in a car with the agents.  What ensued was a horrible shooting match that left police officers and federal agents dead. This was known as the "Kansas City Massacre".

Naturally this received a lot of publicity and also caused Federal Laws to be changed.  After this Federal Agents could be armed, something that was previously not allowed.  

Secondly, and most importantly in effectively reducing crime, law enforcement were allowed to cross state lines in pursuing criminals.  This allowed for greater cooperation between states and the apprehension of more law breakers.

This did not make Verne Miller popular in the underworld.  Because of his crime sprees, he needed to be able to hide out but fellow gangsters were no longer willing to help him.

Still, FBI agents found him elusive.  Finally, agents approached Lewis Buchalter, a local Chicago businessman and also Crime Boss who was angry to find his business under close scrutiny thanks to Miller.  

One of the agents asked Buchalter point blank if Verne might be murdered in the next thirty days.  

"Let me look into that," was Buchalter's response.

I won't tell you in what state Verne's body was discovered on the outskirts of Detroit.  Needless to say, he was dead. He was thirty-seven.  Crime really doesn't pay.

Vi Matthis was Miller's girlfriend.  She was fun loving and addicted to excitement.  After Miller stood up for her when another man hit her, she was his devoted lover for the rest of his life.

If excitement was what she wanted, she got it.  As with most gangsters and their molls, they spent most of their life running from the law.  She herself ended up imprisoned and was not treated too nicely as detectives tried to extract information from her.

She learned of Miller's death while in prison and she gave up her raison d'etre.  Later she married a man who was a violent, hard drinker.  She died three years later in a hospital.  At the funeral home, her physician brother noticed that her body was covered in bruises.  She was thirty-eight years old.

After the depression, gangsters were eventually replaced by Organized Crime and the Mafia.  Gangster Women includes a couple of Mafia Molls as well.  

Janice Drake was a young Beauty Queen that acquired some celebrity status with T.V. stars and also enjoyed hanging out with Crime Bosses at night clubs.

She went home with the wrong Boss one night when he was gunned down in his car in New York City at a stop light.  There was no motive to kill her; apparently she was in the line of fire.

One who fared a little better at least for most of her life was Virginia Hill, also known as the "Mob Queen". She enjoyed celebrity status as a money carrier in organized Crime and kept a meticulous diary about everything she knew.

She was the lover of Bugsy Siegel, a man quickly moving up the mob ladder.  After Siegel's death (he was gunned down in his house), she was subpoenaed and made to give testimony about her dealings with the Mob.  While enjoying the cameras and attention she succeeded in betraying no one.  Later, in an effort to avoid arrest for tax evasion, she moved to Switzerland where she died at the age of forty-nine of an apparent suicide by poison.

Before her death she mailed her diary to a mobster that she had worked for several years ago, presumably to destroy. 

There is, however, suspicion to her death.  The Mafia learned of her diary and there is speculation that someone was sent to Switzerland to apprehend the diary and do away with her.  

Gangster Women is probably not the most exhaustive book on the subject, but it's a quick, interesting read.  I read it in two sittings; half in the book store and the other half after I got home.


  1. Great review Sharon.

    You raise a lot of good points. I also wonder when I look at these pictures why these women would aligned themselves with these criminals.

    Though I knew that the famous film version of Bonnie and Clyde was not a reflection of reality, it is striking how that movie romanticized what was a lot of ugliness.

  2. Hi Brian. Hope you're year is off to a great start.

    I do find it interesting as to why someone who find it romantic to be with a criminal. Obviously these girls had no conscience either but I wonder how they got involved in the first place.

    I did not see the movie but the book mentions how unrealistic it is.

  3. did pretty boy floyd really leave a hundred $ bill under the plate of a poor farmer who fed him? one wonders about these things in our off hours...

    1. Ha! I googled your question. Sources say it was a thousand dollar bill. He's an interesting case, from what I read about him.

  4. I find this old gangster couples fascinating and I am a sucker for historical women's nonfiction anyway. I will have to look for this book. Thank you for the proper introduction.
    I love your profile pic, by the way. We had a guinea pig years ago that had more personality than I think most people know them capable of.

    1. Hi Toady. This book was luckily cheap since I felt obligate to buy it, only about five bucks.

      My profile picture is Percy. He is one of five guinea pigs I own. You're right about their personality. Each of them is completely different than the others. But all of them are sassy.

  5. Hi Sharon, I’m very glad you drank that PEPPERMINT MOCHA LATTE! we might not have heard about this interesting book otherwise!
    I love what you say about your grandparents. So many problems are caused by people who just don’t understand the work ethic. They think it is fine to take without a thought of giving anything in return, and it makes my blood boil!

    1. Hi Barbara! You're right about our grandparents. People today don't know what deprivation is. In America, even those are on government assistance have cell phones, computers and WIFI. I learned this first hand when I took a 12 year old into my house to help his mother out. I know there are people in genuine need and deserve help but some of them (like the 12 year old's mother) really knew how to work the system.

      Have a great week!

  6. Fascinating post, looks like a very interesting read. And now you've made me want a Peppermint Mocha Latte.... :)

    1. Hi Marcia! I am indeed shamefully addicted to mochas. I'm considering rejoining Weight Watchers because they are beginning to take their toll on my hips.

      Thanks for visiting. I enjoyed perusing your blog as well and look forward to visiting it as new posts come up. Take care!

  7. Thank you for your interesting posting.
    I guess love is blind; the women you've spotlighted were so blinded by their love that their moral compasses were useless. Isn't it amazing, though, what people are willing to do because of love?

    1. Hi R.T. Ah, what is love? Is that what those women possessed? I really want to know. Did they have some perverse attachment that made them follow these men to an early grave?

      Or were they dim watt light bulbs?

  8. What is love? Beats me! But I suppose it has a lot to do with someone willing to surrender her life in order to safe the life of her beloved. And you are right. Perverse attachments are sometimes mistakenly labeled "love."


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.