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10 Notorious Female Gangsters

Idolized and villainized, the American gangster is a character as iconic as the cowboy. Though organized crime tends to be a boys' club, there have been a slate of deadly women who have broken into its ranks. You know John Dillinger, Al Capone, and Bugsy Siegel. But do you know Stephanie St. Clair or The Pretty Pants Bandit? We think it's time that you did.

1. BONNIE PARKER

Undoubtedly the most famous of the female American gangsters, Parker was half of the iconic crime duo Bonnie and Clyde. The two were notorious bank robbers in the "public enemy era" of 1931 to 1934, when the exploits of outlaws made them celebrities.

Parker was born in Rowena, Texas, where she earned a reputation for being smart and outspoken. She met Clyde Barrow in 1930. Though she was married, the two hit it off immediately. Apart from their robberies and killings, the legend of Bonnie and Clyde grew in part because of a photo shoot they did near their Joplin, Missouri hideout, images that still inspire re-imaginings of their lives. But those lives were cut short in a gruesome shootout with police in 1934. She was 23; he was 25.

Parker has been portrayed by Dorothy Provine in 1958's The Bonnie Parker Story, by Tracey Needham in the 1992 made-for-TV movie Bonnie & Clyde: A True Story, and by Holliday Granger in the 2013 mini-series Bonnie & Clyde. But best remembered is the sultry turn of Faye Dunaway in the two-time Oscar-winning biopic Bonnie & Clyde.

2. Stephanie St. Clair

She was called "Queenie" in much of Manhattan, but in her Harlem home she was known only as Madame St. Clair. An immigrant of French and African descent, St. Clair set up her numbers bank ten years after moving to the U.S. and became fiercely protective of her neighborhood. She testified against corrupt cops, getting them fired from the force. Even more impressive, she thwarted the invasion of downtown mobsters once the end of Prohibition sent them uptown in search of new revenue.

With the help of her chief enforcer Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson and an alliance with Lucky Luciano, Madame St. Clair kept the likes of Dutch Schultz out of Harlem. She later gloated when Schultz lay dying from a gunshot wound, sending a note to his hospital bed that read, "As ye sow, so shall ye reap." When she retired, St. Clair handed her operation over to Bumpy, who became known as The Harlem Godfather.

St. Clair has been immortalized in two films to date. In 1984, Novella Nelson played her in The Cotton Club. In 1997, she was portrayed by Cicely Tyson in Hoodlum.

3. OPAL "MACK TRUCK" LONG

Believed to be born in Texas, Long earned the nickname "Mack Truck" because of her size (though it's said no one called her this to her face). She was a member of John Dillinger's Terror Gang, brought in as the wife of Russell Clark. A caretaker by nature, Long—who preferred to be called Bernice Clark—happily cleaned the hideout and cooked for the whole gang, who she considered family.

Things soured when her husband was arrested in Tucson, Arizona on January 25, 1934. She attacked the police who made the arrest, and later begged Dillinger for money to fund an appeal of Clark's case. Her demands ultimately ostracized her from the group. That summer she, too, was arrested. She never squealed on her cohorts, yet earned parole by November 1934. She lived out her days in Chicago.

4. Helen Gillis

At 16, Helen Wawrzyniak made a fateful move marrying Lester Gillis, the man who came to be known as Baby Face Nelson. By 20, she had two babies—and a spot on the "shoot to kill" list of Public Enemies, thanks to him. She's regarded more as an accomplice than a gangster in her own right, but Gillis was present at the "Battle of Barrington" in Illinois on November 27, 1934. There, Nelson spotted a cop car, and with Gillis and fellow thug John Paul Chase in tow, chased it down, guns blazing. This led to a shootout that killed Nelson along with two police officers.

Gillis earned her place on the Public Enemies list by harboring her dying husband. She surrendered on Thanksgiving Day. Bitter over Nelson's ugly demise, Gillis testified against Chase, helping secure his life sentence. She died more than fifty years later, but was buried next to her beloved Baby Face in Chicago's St. Joseph's Cemetery.

5. Ma Barker

Don't let the nickname of this godmother of crime throw you. Arizona Donnie Barker (aka Kate Barker) was considered a merciless matriarch. At 19, Arizona Clark married George Barker and the two went on to have four sons: Herman, Lloyd, Arthur, and Fred. But the Barkers weren't just a family; they were a crime family, pulling off highway robberies as early as 1910.

These heists led to murder, and soon captivated the press and public of the Midwest. But fate took a turn for the Barkers in 1927, when Herman committed suicide to avoid arrest. Shortly thereafter, the other three sons ended up in jail. Arizona faced some lean years, but she reunited with Fred upon his release in 1931, spurring a new crime spree that led to her death and his.

Both were killed when the FBI stormed her hideout in Lake Weir, Florida on January 8, 1935. Posthumously, her role in the Barker gang has been the matter of debate. Those close to the family insisted she could have played no active role in the criminal dealings of her sons, but J. Edgar Hoover called her "the most vicious, dangerous and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade."

The legend of Ma Barker has inspired a slew of malevolent mothers in film and television, from ones seen in the James Cagney gangster classic White Heat to the children's cartoon show DuckTales. But the character of Ma Barker would go on to be played by Jane Crowley in 1959's The FBI Story, Shelley Winters in 1970's Bloody Mama, and Theresa Russell in 1996's Public Enemies.

6. Pearl Elliott

She shared ties with John Dillinger and Harry Pierpont, but Elliott was no hanger-on or gun moll. Instead, she was a notorious madam. She owned a whorehouse in Kokomo, Indiana that boasted police protection. To help keep things at her rural brothel safe, they had a system where she'd shine a flashlight out a window to signal for help should some john get out of hand.

Her establishment also served as a hideout for Pierpont's crew following a 1925 bank robbery. Later, her role as "treasurer" for Dillinger earned her a spot on the 1933 Public Enemies list, which ordered officers to "shoot to kill." Despite her illegal operation and dangerous dealings, Elliott did not die in a hail of gunfire or in prison. She passed away on August 10, 1935, from an illness that may have been cancer. She was 47.

7. The Pretty Pants Bandit

Described as an attractive brunette with brown eyes and a habit of carrying two guns, this outlaw known as Marie Baker grabbed headlines in 1933 for a string of shop robberies committed by her Pants Gang. Baker earned her nickname for her bizarre demand to the shops' clerks. Once all other customers had left, this lingering lady would draw her weapons and command, "Take off your pants!" Those too shy to oblige were forcibly helped, with Baker sneering she couldn't be shocked.

The Miami News reports that it was vanity that eventually brought her down. While checking her makeup during a butcher shop heist, Baker allowed a hostage to run free. She was soon caught and booked as Marie Baker. Later, it was uncovered she was in fact Mrs. Rose Durante, who would ultimately serve three years before vanishing into obscurity.

8. Virginia Hill

Known as The Flamingo as well as "Queen of the Gangster Molls," Hill became notorious as the girlfriend of Brooklyn mobster Bugsy Siegel. She came from a poor background, telling people she didn't own a pair of shoes until age seventeen. Born in Alabama and raised in Georgia, she moved to Chicago to seek fame and fortune. She found a bit of both working as an accountant for Al Capone.

When she moved to Los Angeles to pursue her acting ambitions, she met Siegel, for whom she'd soon be lover and courier. He'd later name his Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas after her. But this proved a bust business, bringing an abrupt end to Siegel's career, and arguably his life. He was gunned down in Hill's Hollywood home on June 20, 1947.

Hill was coincidentally out of the house, and claimed, "If anyone or anything was his mistress, it was that Las Vegas hotel. I never knew Ben was involved in all that gang stuff. I can't imagine who shot him or why." Her underworld dealings had her take the stand increasingly as the years went on. In 1961, Hill was found dead in an Austria snowdrift, the victim of an apparent overdose of sleeping pills—although some speculate this too was a hit.

Though Hill never made it as an actress, she did make it to the big screen in 1991, when Annette Bening portrayed her in Bugsy.

9. Arlyne Brickman

Born in 1933 to a Jewish family in East Harlem, Brickman grew up idolizing the glamor and thrills of Virginia Hill. "In my eyes, here was a broad that really made good," she later told biographer Teresa Carpenter. She worked for the mob as a numbers runner, drug dealer, and loan shark. Yet her Jewish heritage was an obstacle to rising up the ranks of the Sicilian-run crime syndicate. Still, the money and power was good enough to please her.

Years later, after a loan shark threatened her daughter, Brickman turned informant. Her spying and testimony ultimate led to the conviction of Anthony Scarpati and several associates for racketeering. In 1992, Brickman told her story in Mob Girl: A Woman's Life In the Underworld.

10. Evelyn "Billie" Frechette

She became infamous as John Dillinger's devoted girlfriend, but Frechette came from an unexpected background for a gun moll. A child of French and Native American descent through the Menominee tribe, she attended Catholic grade school, then went on to graduate from high school. Even with an education, finding work was difficult, which led Frechette to Chicago. After her first husband was jailed for a post office robbery, Frechette met Dillinger, and traveled with him through a cross-country crime spree. The pair survived several shootouts.

She was later convicted for harboring a fugitive, and served two years in prison, during which Dillinger died. Upon her release in 1936, Frechette spun her criminal past into a new career, setting out on a lecture tour called "Crime Does Not Pay." She died of cancer 33 years later.

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Food
The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving
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Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. TURKEY

A roasted turkey on a platter.
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Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. STUFFING

Pan of breaded stuffing.
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Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. CRANBERRIES

Dish of cranberry sauce.
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Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. MASHED POTATOES

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
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Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. GRAVY

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
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Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. CORN

Plate of corn.
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Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. SWEET POTATOES

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
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In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE

Plate of green bean casserole.
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Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. PUMPKIN PIE

Slice of pumpkin pie.
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Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.
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Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

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Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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