The image of the mobster is predominantly male. Traditionally, organised crime hierarchies relegated women to the role of the wife, mother, or at best, low-level criminal. In recent years, this has been changing.
In Italy, the police crackdown on the Mafia from the 1980s onwards has meant that male mobsters heading to prison often give their assets to their wives and daughters. In Italy alone, though women make up only 2.5% of those sent to prison for Mafia-linked crimes, they control around a third of all Mafia financial resources.
However, there are a number of historic female mobsters who were as ruthless, strategic and daring as their male counterparts. Here are 6 of the most notorious.
1. Ma Barker (1893-1935)
Described by J. Edgar Hoover as “the most vicious, dangerous and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade”, Arizona Donnie Barker was a matriarch known for her murderous highway robberies. She often worked alongside her husband George and her sons Herman, Lloyd, Arthur and Fred. As founders of the infamous Barker-Karpis gang, the Barker family heists soon captured press and public attention.
In 1927, the police closed in and Herman killed himself to avoid arrest. Shortly after, Ma Barker’s remaining three sons and husband ended up in jail. Following Fred’s release in 1931, the couple embarked upon another crime spree, which ultimately ended in them both being shot and killed in their hideout in Florida in 1935.
2. Virginia Hill (1916-1966)
Born into poverty in Alabama, Virginia Hill would go on to become a prolific gang-affiliated money launderer, cash courier, Mexican heroin trafficker and informant. Nicknamed the Flamingo and Queen of the Gangster Molls, she was the girlfriend of Brooklyn mobster Bugsy Siegel. Known for using her charisma and looks to secure deals, she earned herself fame and fortune by working as an accountant for Al Capone and running errands for various gangs.
Her fortunes changed when Siegel was murdered, which rendered her less useful. Her huge debts combined with her criminal past forced her to evade the law. Her past eventually caught up with her, and she was found dead in 1961 in an Austrian snowdrift, likely because of a self-administered sleeping pill overdose, though some speculate it was a hit.
3. Stephanie St. Clair (1897-1969)
Though her methods could be vicious, Stephanie St. Clair was fiercely protective of her Harlem neighbourhood, fought for African-American rights and testified against corrupt police. Nicknamed Madame St. Clair and Queenie, she formed an alliance with chief enforcer Ellsworth ‘Bumpy’ Johnson and gang leader Lucky Luciano to keep other gangs, such as one run by mob boss Dutch Schultz, out of Harlem. She ran a successful and lucrative illegal numbers game, lent money and forcefully collected debts.
She was variously in trouble with the law; however, her indictment of a number of corrupt police officers was hugely embarrassing for the New York Police Department. She later retired from the numbers game, handing it over to Bumpy, who came to be known as the Harlem Godfather. She later campaigned for African-American rights and died quietly as a wealthy woman in 1969.
4. Griselda Blanco (1943 – 2012)
At her peak in the 1970s and ’80s, Griselda Blanco became the first-ever billionaire criminal, earning $80 million a month from the proceeds of smuggling cocaine from Colombia to the US. A drug lord of the Medellín Cartel, she was nicknamed La Madrina, the Black Widow, the Cocaine Godmother and the Queen of Narco-Trafficking. She killed her first three husbands, enjoyed watching her victims be tortured, and was even convicted of murdering a two-year-old boy.
To traffic Medellín cocaine from south Florida to New York, she invented a special women’s underwear for her smugglers. Never one to carry out killings, she ordered the deaths of some 2,000 people. She was shot dead aged 69 outside a butchershop by a man on a motorbike in Medellín, Colombia.
5. Sister Ping (1949-2014)
Earning the nickname The Snakehead, Cheng Chiu Ping was the leader of an underground crime group in New York’s Chinatown which was responsible for trafficking some 3,000 illegal immigrants from China to the US. Charging a staggering $40,000 a head, the 100-day voyages from Hong Kong to Guatemala to New York were often dangerous, with many dying as a result. Her criminal enterprises meant that by the 1980s and 1990s, Sister Ping was worth $40 million.
She was eventually convicted of immigrant smuggling, money laundering and trafficking, and died in prison aged 65. Despite her fearsome business reputation, she was posthumously described by an immigrant man in Chinatown as “good, honest… her warmth moved everyone.”
6. Maria Licciardi (1951-)
Maria Licciardi took over the Licciardi Clan after her husband died and her brothers were arrested. She is also one of the founders of the strategic Secondigliano Alliance. She was subsequently one of the most powerful bosses of the Camorra in Naples from 1993 until she was arrested in 2001. She has various reputations and nicknames: her fellow gang members call her the Godmother as well as the Little Girl, owing to her height, whereas among women in the region she is respectfully known as the Princess.
Alongside drugs and cigarette smuggling as well as protection rackets, Licciardi was the first to introduce the sex trade into the gang’s criminal profile. Her downfall came after a heroin shipment into Naples was too pure and killed a number of users. Ensuing gang wars killed nearly 120 people, and she was eventually imprisoned. She has since been released.