Bad Girls: Notorious and Dangerous Women Throughout History


History is filled with bad boys who pushed the envelope and are remembered because of it, but there are also some bad girls who defied boundaries and the social conventions of their time. These ladies certainly never played by the rules, but they were all powerful, driven and tough as nails.

Here is a list of six notorious and dangerous women throughout history who made a name for themselves through ambition and ruthlessness.

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Bad Girls, by Jan Stradling

4,000 Years of Uppity Women, by Vicki Leon

Bad Girls: Sirens, Jezebels, Murderesses, Thieves and Other Female Villains, by Jane Yolen


1. Mary Ann Cotton (AKA "Black Widow")

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Mary Ann Cotton was one of Britain's first serial killers and her weapon of choice was arsenic. She supposedly murdered 20 people including her mother, three husbands, her sister-in-law, a lover, eight of her own children, and seven step-children. Cotton would administer arsenic in cups of tea and various medical concoctions given to family members during illness.

Her ultimate goal was to collect the insurance money after the deaths of her "loved ones". Cotton believed that she deserved a rich and fulfilling life and killing her family in pursuit of that life made her feel that her actions were justified. 

Her killing spree lasted 20 years. Finally the authorities became suspicious and she was hanged in 1873, at the age of 42.


2. Chicago May (AKA "The International Queen of Crooks")

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Chicago May was a criminal, blackmailer and prostitute in the late 1800s. She pulled scams in Chicago, Cairo, London and Paris, and even assisted in a bank robbery. She was very skilled at her trade and could swindle just about anyone that she crossed paths with.

She would double team guys with her friend, Dora Donegan. One would have sex with a drunken man while the other would pick his pockets. She was also an expert at badgering, which essentially means that she would get a man to pose as her husband and he would intervene while she entertained "clients." He would barge in on them and demand money from them to keep quiet.

She had a tendency to take up criminal lovers, which ultimately ended up being her downfall. These men pushed her further into the criminal underworld and she frequently got into trouble for fraud, assault, brawling, drunk and disorderly behavior, beggary and pickpocketing. An altercation between May and two of her lovers, Eddie Geurin and Charley Smith, led to a jail sentence of 15 years her. By the 1920s, she was practically destitute and regularly got arrested for soliciting and prostitution.

She died in 1929 at the age of 59.


3. Matilda "Tilly" Devine

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Tilly Devine was feisty, to say the least. Her behavior was extremely risqué for the time and she refused to bow down to anyone or follow any type of conduct that was deemed appropriate. 

During her life, she was a madam of over 40 brothels and became a key player in the 1920s during the Sydney's Razor Wars, which was the bloodiest gang warfare in Australia. Tilly and her husband Jim were major players in Sydney's underworld and Tilly herself was arrested 75 times at least for whoring, obscene language, fighting and offensive behavior. This may seem like no big deal in today's world, but in the early 1900s this behavior was scandalous especially for women.

Tilly was known for instigating and would fight any man or woman who dared to oppose her. Sometimes she would even just fight for the heck of it. She was frequently caught fighting with both men and women on the streets. She even stabbed a guy in the face just for hitting on her. She served two years in prison for walking into a barber shop and slashing a man in the face with a razor for no reason. By 1921, she had already had over 79 convictions on prostitution-related charges.

Tilly and a woman named Kate Leigh were the leaders at the center of the Razor Gang Wars of 1927-1931. The weapon of choice during this time was a razor due to the laws restricting the carrying of an unlicensed firearm. This war left many dead, disfigured and serving jail time.

She was one of Sydney's wealthiest women in the 1920s-1950s, but her refusal to pay income taxes for many years sent her close to bankruptcy when the government finally came after her in the mid-1950s. She died in 1970 at the age of 70. 


4. Georgia Tann

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Between 1924 and 1950, Georgia Tann made an estimated $1 million selling more than 5,000 babies and small children on the black market. The big issue was that these children had been stolen from single mothers and poverty stricken families.

Tann was greedy, egotistical, power hungry, and truly enjoyed playing God with people's lives. She used various tactics to build her business, including luring children into her car and even convincing fathers of illegitimate children to claim that the mothers were unfit. She would also bribe nurses to tell women that their babies had been stillborn so she could steal them. She had doctors tell patients that their babies were "ill" and needed "special care." Once the mothers handed the babies over, the doctors were ordered to tell the mothers after a period that their babies had not made it.

The sad fact of the matter is that some babies did actually die due to abuse, lack of proper care and lack of accountability. Tann was a woman on a mission and nothing would stop her from carrying out her ruthless intentions. She even resorted to kidnapping children from playgrounds and their own yards. The problem was that these children did not always go to good homes. After being ripped away from their families, some were sold to people who used them as sex slaves and/or workhorses.

Tann was also known to majorly overcharge adoptive parents. Many were charged as much as $5,000 per child, which was astronomical for the time. Supposedly, $750 per child was the going rate for adoptions typically then.

Tann became a powerful woman with many connections, especially in Hollywood. She would use her connections to get her way and milk people for all they were worth. She had many accomplices who assisted her with her scams and helped to make her a wealthy woman including politicians, legislators, judges and attorneys. Joan Crawford adopted five children from Tann, as did other popular celebrities of the time such as June Allyson and Dick Powell.

Unfortunately, Tann passed away before she could be held accountable for her crimes. The scandal did however pave the way for adoption reform laws.


5. Amy Bock (AKA "Percy Redwood")

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Amy Bock was known as New Zealand's cross-dressing con-woman. She adopted the persona of Percy Redwood in 1909, claiming to be extremely wealthy. Her goal was to marry the unsuspecting and also wealthy Agnes Ottaway.

Bock went on to become one of New Zealand's most notorious criminals and was imprisoned for most of her life for fraud, petty theft and several other misdemeanors. Her specialty was adopting different personas to embezzle funds from unsuspecting dupes, and Ottaway was intended to be one of her biggest cons.

Bock was so unscrupulous that she even lied about her own mother being dead multiple times to scam money from each casket transaction. Over 22 years, she served 16 of them in prison. It is believed that her conning was meant to cover up the fact that she was actually a lesbian. She lived in a time when this would have been deemed deplorable, so it is highly possible that her behavior was intended as a cover up.

She scammed many in her time, but the Ottaways saw through her ruse and looked into her background. They were shocked to learn that Percy was actually a woman in disguise. She served two years in jail for her deceit.


6. Belle Starr (AKA the "Female Jesse James")

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Belle Starr was born Myra Maybelle Shirley, but later changed her name to fit her new gun-toting, foul-mouthed, temptress persona. She became known as the "Female Jesse James" due to her take-no prisoners attitude and her associations with other outlaws of the time, like Cole Younger and James himself.

Starr got into a lot of trouble in her time, particularly for stealing horses. She would ride around in an extremely tight-laced velvet riding habit with guns blazing. 

During the Civil War, she defied convention and carried intelligence across the lines, reporting the whereabouts of Union troops to the Confederacy. She would frequently use her feminine wiles to avoid suspicion. Her brother, Bud, was killed by Union troops while in the line of duty, and this sparked a desire for revenge. In fact, she was hell-bent on it and nothing was going to stand in the way, including the fact that she was a woman.

She aligned herself with outlaws who were also betrayed by the union, including Jesse James. Eventually, she joined forces with the infamous Starr Gang composed of a Cherokee Indian tribe and even married one of its leaders, Sam Starr. It has been said that she married him to gain power and to keep his land for her own.

She served a mere nine months in jail for horse thievery and, following Sam's death, she took company with others who were up to no good including Jack Spaniard, Jim French and Blue Duck. She later married a relative of Sam Starr, Jim July Starr, who was around 15 years younger than her so that she could keep the land she had lived on with Sam.

In 1889, she was shot to death at the age of 40. She had many enemies, but her killer remains a mystery to this day.

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