Think of a notorious crime boss from history and you’re probably picturing a man. Al Capone, Pablo Escobar, El Chapo, Lucky Luciano, Carlo Gambino, the CIA…
However, plenty of women have been in charge – and not just as madams of brothels. Here are 10 of the most notorious.
10. Cheng Chui Ping, “Sister Ping” (1949-2014)
For more than a decade, Sister Ping, as she was called in New York’s Chinatown, smuggled up to 3,000 Chinese immigrants into the US — amassing a fortune of more than $40 million. Her fees were extortionate – $40,000 per person – and those who couldn’t pay in full were hounded for the balance, threatened with violence, and even held prisoner. Conditions aboard the smuggling ships were also inhumane. In June 1993, one ship carrying 300 immigrants ran aground in Queens and 10 drowned swimming to safety.
Ping set up her human smuggling (“snakehead”) operation shortly after her arrival in the US in 1981. From her store in Manhattan’s Chinatown, she joined with other snakeheads and steadily expanded operations. With the proceeds, she set up legitimate businesses – a travel agency, real estate company, restaurants, and a clothing store. She also bought real estate in Chinatown, apartments in Hong Kong, and a farm in South Africa.
After her indictment, she fled to China and continued to run her operation. In 2000, she was captured by Hong Kong police and, three years later, extradited back to the US. Witnesses from around the world testified against her.
9. Thelma Wright, “Boss Lady” (b. 1951)
Raised a Catholic in a loving family, Thelma didn’t seem fated for a life of crime. But she fell in love with Philadelphia heroin dealer Jackie Wright. Together, they enjoyed the lifestyle only crime can provide. And she was so in love that, when Jackie was eventually murdered, she impulsively agreed to keep his business going. She reasoned that it would at least put her son through college. Really, she wasn’t ready to let go of the life she’d got used to.
In any case, the new Boss Lady ran the coast-to-coast heroin and cocaine empire differently to her husband. For one thing she didn’t have employees, only people she supplied. And her careful, calculated approach actually won her more respect – and success – than her husband ever had. She continued to live the high life – private jets, custom cars, speed boats – until in 1991 she found herself in a shootout. One of her friends was killed, along with some of her associates, and she felt a desperate need to get out of the business.
So she became a receptionist and kept her head down. Thelma Wright was never caught, and it’s probably a good thing. She’s doing far more good nowadays, helping vulnerable women and teenagers avoid the path she took.
8. Tilly Devine, “Queen of the Loo” (1900-1970)
Tilly started out as a hooker in London, making £20 a week between the two World Wars (when the average wage was less than £3 a week). Then, at 17, she married one of her johns – Australian serviceman Jim Devine – who, three years later, became her pimp in Sydney.
Settling in Woollomooloo (or “the Loo” as locals call it), Tilly was in her element. It didn’t take her long to build a reputation for herself in the seedy seaside pleasure district. Within the first five years, she’d racked up 79 convictions – the last of which, for slashing a man with a razor, got her two years in jail.
But even this didn’t curb her ambition. When she got out, she opened a brothel. This was actually legal for a woman due to the naive wording of the Police Offences Act (1908), which only made it a crime for a man. In her new role as madam, she pampered her girls and took half their money while Jim kept them hooked on cocaine. It was a winning formula. By the end of the decade, she’d opened 18 brothels and amassed more diamonds than the Queen of England (“better ones too,” she liked to say). She dressed in furs, traveled the world, and, between lavish parties, even helped pay for Australia’s war effort. She also ditched Jim. In the press, she was dubbed “the Queen of the Night” or the “Queen of the Loo” or simply the “worst woman in Sydney.”
7. Marica Licciardi, “The Godmother” (b. 1951)
Maria Licciardi was born into the mafia. Her father and brother were both bosses within the Camorra. It was when a nephew, next in the line of succession, was murdered that she took over as la Madrina (“the Godmother”).
Under her watch, the Licciardi Camorra ran extortion rackets, trafficked drugs, and hijacked public works contracts. Following one of the bloodiest mafia wars in living memory, she also formed an alliance between the Camorra clans – convincing her fellow leaders that cooperation was more profitable than war. She always had more sense than her associates. In 1999, when a large shipment of heroin arrived from Istanbul so pure that it was deadly, Licciardi ordered clans not to sell it. The Lo Russo clan defied her, killing numerous addicts and prompting public outrage, a police crackdown, and the collapse of Licciardi’s alliance.
Even the police respected her approach – even as she became one of Italy’s most wanted.
6. Stephanie St. Clair, “Queenie” (1887/97-1969)
Born on Guadeloupe in the late 1800s, Stephanie St. Clair got to New York on a steamer, settling in Harlem aged 13 or 23 (her year of birth is disputed). Because she spoke in her native French as well as English, she was able to pass as an immigrant from France – and a sophisticated one too, given her education. At a time when African-Americans were arriving en masse to escape segregation in the south, this proved to be an advantage.
Setting herself up as the boss of the 40 Thieves, she got into “policy banking” – a numbers racket involving extortion and theft. And she was good at it too, maybe too good. Before long, her success (and notoriety) drew unwanted attention from New York’s established mobsters – especially after Prohibition ended. Dutch Schultz, one of the city’s top gangsters, began to move in on her racket.
And he probably would have ousted her had his plan to assassinate the District Attorney not drawn the attention of the kingpin. Lucky Luciano, “chairman of the board” of New York’s Five Families, warned Schultz against the hit. When Schultz proceeded anyway, Luciano had him shot. It took Schultz a full day to die – just long enough for St. Clair to send him a telegram: “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.”
5. Alice Diamond, “Queen of the Forty Elephants” (1896-1952)
The Forty Elephants were a gang of working class women specializing in shoplifting, blackmail, and extortion. Under various female bosses, or “queens,” they worked London for almost a century – between the 1870s and 1950s. Their modus operandi was walking into department stores and stuffing the most expensive goods up their dresses. There was more than enough space in the fashions of the day.
The most famous Queen of the Forty Elephants was Alice Diamond, who at 5-foot-9 and with a full figure, was a match for most men of the time. She was known for her diamond rings and knuckle dusters, as well as for reorganizing the gang into separate cells allowing for simultaneous heists. This, she reasoned, would divide police attention and catch their targets by surprise.
She also drafted the Hoister’s Code, outlining how they should operate. It mandated, among other things: the equal division of money; caring for relatives of imprisoned members; providing alibis for each other; and absolute fealty on pain of “ridicule or beating.”
Unfortunately it was this Code that ultimately brought her reign to an end. She became too controlling, forbidding members from doing anything without her say so – including getting married. When one of the Elephants defied her on this point, she led an attack against the newlyweds – for which she was jailed for a year and a half. By the time she got out a new queen had replaced her.
4. Phoolan Devi, “Bandit Queen” (1963-2001)
As a low-caste woman in India, the naturally headstrong Phoolan Devi had a hard time growing up. In fact, her family hated her. When she was 10, her uncle knocked her out with a brick for saying he stole her father’s land. Then he married her off to a 45-year-old man to get rid of her. When she came back, aged 12 and no longer a virgin, her mother told her to jump down a well. She didn’t, so her uncle arranged for the local bandits to take her away for good.
In captivity, Phoolan may have faced a lifetime of gang rape had it not been for an unlikely savior. Bikram Singh, a bandit of the same low caste as she, shot the high caste leader to death. The two became lovers, but not for long; Singh was killed in revenge, and Phoolan locked up in a village.
When she escaped, she gathered followers and took revenge of her own. On Valentines Day 1981, dressed in a khaki police coat, blue jeans, boots, and lipstick – with a gun and ammo slung over her shoulders – she marched her men to the village and demanded to know the whereabouts of her captors. The villagers didn’t know, so she had 30 of them (all men) lined up and shot. Because they were all from the landowning warrior caste, she became the most wanted person in India with a $10,000 bounty on her head.
Two years later, aged 20, she gave herself up. By this time, she had won the hearts of the Indian public. 8,000 people gathered at her hideout for the surrender. Evidently touched, she entered politics when she got out of prison.
3. Ma Barker, “Machine Gun Kate” (1872-1935)
Once called “the most vicious, dangerous, and resourceful criminal” in America by J Edgar Hoover, Ma Barker was, in her day, as infamous as Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and even Al Capone. She was the mother of a group of outlaws that terrorized the Midwest in the early 1930s. Ma helped them out and knew all their plans. She was also proficient with the Tommy gun, for which she earned the nickname Machine Gun Kate.
Together, she and her boys “swept the nation like a spring tornado,” as one newspaper put it, amassing a fortune of up to $2 million. Their specialties were highway robbery, bank and post office heists, extortion, and kidnapping. They also killed cops. One of her sons, Herman, was already implicated for killing a policeman when he shot himself to avoid capture at a roadblock. That was in 1927. A few years later, the remaining Barker boys killed the police chief of Pocahontas, Arkansas, as well as the sheriff of Howell County, Missouri.
When kidnapping became a federal offense, however, they fell foul of the FBI. So they split up. Ma took her son Fred to Florida, while the other, Arthur, laid low on his own. Unfortunately for them all, when Arthur was arrested, the Feds found a map in his hideout showing the whereabouts of his mother and brother. Surrounding the house before sunrise, agents threw tear gas inside – to which Ma and Fred responded by opening fire from the second floor windows. It became a shootout – the “battle of Oklawaha” — and when the smoke finally cleared, Ma was found dead in an upstairs bedroom, machine gun still in her hands.
2. Maria Dolores Estevez Zuleta, “Lola la Chata” (1906-1959)
Lola la Chata grew up in La Merced, one of Mexico City’s oldest barrios, running drugs for her mother from a market stall. Here, in a neighborhood so criminal the police were afraid to invade, the young girl learned lessons that set her up for life. She learned the layout of the city, how to evade pursuers, and – from her prostitute friends – how to manipulate men.
After rounding out her education smuggling for a drug lord internationally, Lola returned to La Merced to build an empire of her own. Like her mother, she started out from a stall. She paid off the police and got kids to mule heroin in yo-yos. And she branded her products (a first for Mexico City) to encourage customer loyalty. She also offered loans to members of her community who couldn’t otherwise get one.
By the 1950s, she was known as the “drug empress” – with her notoriety reaching the US.
1. Griselda Blanco Restrepo, “Cocaine Godmother” (1943-2012)
Raised by an abusive mother in Colombia, Griselda got into crime and prostitution at an early age. But it wasn’t until she met her second husband that she started trafficking cocaine to the US. Her contribution to the Medellin Cartel’s existing infrastructure was the design of a special undergarment for smuggling coke across the border.
She’s also known for killing her own husbands, earning her the nickname Black Widow. Her second husband she killed in a parking lot shootout, along with six of his bodyguards, while her third she had assassinated for cheating.
By this time her standing in the criminal underworld rivaled that of Pablo Escobar, and the DEA was out to get her. She was the Godmother of Miami’s cocaine underworld between the 1970s and 80s, but in the end was taken down for murdering her husbands, as well as a few others — although it’s estimated she killed as many as 200. Blanco was sentenced to almost 20 years in prison in the US before she was deported to Colombia. There, before her 70th birthday, she was gunned down outside a butchers shop in Medellin.