The Demented Goddess [DG]: Caitlin, you’ve said that your book, Queens of the Underworld, includes those criminals who were “at the top of their game”. It spans women from the last few centuries, poor, financially independent, queer, or straight; including white collar fraudsters like Joyti De-Laurey, who stole £4.3 million from her bosses. Who’s your favourite, most successful criminal from this book, and why?
I fell a bit in love with many of the ‘Queens’, starting with Zoe Progl, Britain’s Number One Woman Burglar. She was certainly at the top of her game when she made a daring escape from Holloway Prison in 1960. I also loved Elsie Carey, who led a shop breaking gang in the 1930s; she had such nerve and charisma.
But the woman I admired the most was probably Chris Tchaikovsky, who led a fraud gang and turned her life around by forming the charity Women in Prison. I think what attracted me to all of them was their lack of fear, when as women we’re encouraged to be fearful.
DG: Reading your account of women who transgressed, we were struck by how women were vilified for departing from expectations of female modesty and kindness. This pervading sexism seems to have infiltrated the barbaric treatment that teenagers received in 1920s Borstals, including solitary confinement and a body belt with swivel handcuffs, and intrusive surveillance: a regime that drove some to lunatic asylums. How far do you think women criminals in the West are vilified today for not fitting with social ideals of femininity?
Women have always been held up to different standards from men, and this influenced what they were arrested for, how they were treated while on trial, and how they were portrayed in the media. Women were explicitly punished for transgressing the feminine role; for over a hundred years they were incarcerated in order to become domesticated.
DG: That’s a fascinating idea, that we were incarcerated in order to become domesticated. Can you expand on that, with an example of what you mean?
In the 19th century, Houses of Mercy trained ‘fallen women’ for domestic service, as did Home Office Certified Schools in the early 20th century, when young women were urged to aspire to ‘the qualities of womanhood’ – to be gentle, pure, good, and obedient. I don’t think the standards we’re held up to have changed that much.
DG: A theme of being avenged on society runs through some of the accounts of criminals in your book. Who was the most interesting vengeful woman you came across in your research, and why?
The women’s motivations varied, but revenge came up quite a bit. Chicago May, the American self-styled ‘Queen of Crooks’, explained that if a man attempted to take advantage of her, then ‘it was up to me to pretend to go along, but to do my best to thwart him and to make him pay dearly’.
DG: A “coffee-coloured beauty” like Queenie Day, who was “fascinating to men”, seems to exemplify the racist tendency to exoticize non-white outlaws. She rose, through her crimes, to running her own house raids. Queenie seems to have been queer, being found in bed with her partner. Being non-white, good-looking, mixed-race, a musical actor and a sex worker gave Queenie a dubious glamour. She herself cited some of her violence as being in response to being called racist names. In your research, in what way was race a factor in the way non-white women criminals were characterised by the media?
In 1744, a young woman called Ann Duck was convicted of highway robbery. She’d already been on trial 19 times, and acquitted, so she was quite a notorious figure. Yet the fact she was mixed-race didn’t play a role in her conviction, or how she was treated in court, and the press didn’t even mention her colour. Queenie Day on the other hand grew up in the early 1900s when a racist ideology was far more entrenched in Britain. She was vilified from such an early age, she was mixed-race, lesbian, and had been convicted of prostitution, she had to fight to survive.
DG: You give an account of Eileen Blackmore, who holed up in a suburban house, shooting the surrounding police. Given the worldwide scale of violence against women, there is something exhilarating about the image of a lone woman with a weapon. In film and TV, from Kill Bill and Promising Young Woman, to Killing Eve and Ozark, we have become increasingly enamoured by violent women. Culturally, the willingness of a female character to transgress is often equated with empowerment. How does this idea of empowerment fit with your history of actual female outlaws? Are such fictions helpful towards perception of women in real crime and punishment?
There’s no doubt that crime gave the ‘Queens’ power – money, authority, respect – but they were always sexualised, in this case, a young woman in a mini skirt holding a gun and firing on men. Eileen had experienced terrible things. I think at that moment she had nothing to lose.
Our society has long been enamoured by violent women, when in reality, the vast majority of women in prison have always been convicted of petty offences, usually to support a family.
What’s missing in TV and film are portrayals of professional women criminals. Women are allowed to be victims or psychopaths, but our society is still too uncomfortable with non-violent women who have fun breaking the rules.
Caitlin Davies’ book, Queens of The Underworld: A Journey into the Lives of Female Crooks is out now in print and audio.
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