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Find more She Reads
Some might say that women aren’t as driven to violent crime as men. Then again, we just might be, well, better at getting away with it. Either way, here’s a review of a few of history’s most lethal ladies.
How can you not start with Bonnie Parker? The most famous photo of Bonnie (pistol cocked on hip, cigar dangling from sneering lips) made her a national sensation. In Go Down Together, Jeff Guinn tells the true story of Bonnie and Clyde and the Barrow gang. Turns out both Bonnie and Clyde were happy to let the media spin wild tales of their big-city bank robberies and love-on-the-run escapades, but in actuality, they spent a lot of their time breaking into gum machines and bathing in wooded creeks.
Some women turn to crime in pursuit of larger goals. Phoolan Devi was India’s Robin Hood. She murdered more than 20 men to avenge her own rape and then turned her righteous rage to seeking justice for other rape victims and abused low-caste women in India. Devi’s three-year crime spree became legendary and, ironically, led to her election to India’s Parliament. Devi tells her own story in The Bandit Queen of India, published just after her release from prison and before her election.
A colonial-era Philadelphia socialite was the true brains behind one of the first plots to betray the U.S. Peggy Shippen married Benedict Arnold amid whispers and gossip about his loyalties to the newly formed Union. One month later, she and her husband hatched a plot to overthrow the government. Treacherous Beauty shows readers how cunning Mrs. Arnold was. Upon hearing of Benedict’s defection to the British and desertion of his family, Peggy threw an Oscar-worthy fit of hysteria that convinced officials of her patriotism and compelled them to promise her a pension. Interesting discussion point: Would Peggy hold a larger place in American history had she revealed her subversive nature rather than opted for self-preservation and exile with her husband?
Perhaps Mrs. Arnold served as inspiration for Marita Lorenz, lover and failed assassin of Fidel Castro. Her autobiography, Marita, reads like an over-the-top spy thriller. After falling in love with Castro at the age of 19, Marita was betrayed by multiple members of his staff, who drugged and kidnapped her, then abducted her newly born child. Marita turned her anguish into determination to become one of the few female CIA operatives at the time. She went back to Cuba twice to assassinate Castro and either failed or refused to close the deal. But Marita was no angel. Other missions had her robbing armories, consorting with the Mafia, and running guns to Dallas with Lee Harvey Oswald and E. Howard Hunt.
There’s something about the term murderess that adds a level of shock and incredulity to the crime, which helps to explain our fascination with such women as Lizzie Borden and Mary Mallon, better known as Typhoid Mary, who didn’t wield an axe but did leave death in her wake. In Fever, Mary Beth Keane tells the story of how an Irish cook employed by numerous wealthy New York families managed to carry typhoid fever from one society manse to another for seven years until officials tracked the disease to her. An unwitting murderess, she denied until death that she was the carrier.
Sharon Kinne may be forgotten today, but in the 1960s, she was a world-class headline maker: tried but not convicted three times for murdering first her lover’s wife and then her own husband in Independence, Missouri. Then she ran off to Mexico with one lover and wound up killing a second one. Five years into a 13-year sentence for that second murder, she escaped from a Mexican prison and has not been heard from since. There is still a warrant for her arrest on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. Author James Hays attempts to tell Sharon’s story but can’t keep his thumb off the moral scales, passing judgment on his subject for her appearance, her lack of religious upbringing, and, of course, her sexuality. Readers will find themselves trying to determine Sharon’s true crimes—killing three people, bewitching the media, or denying an obsessed author the ending he craves.
The Bandit Queen of India. By Phoolan Devi. 2003. Globe Pequot, $22.95 (9781592280384).
Fever. By Mary Beth Keane. 2013. Scribner, $26 (9781451693416).
Go Down Together: The True Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde. By Jeff Guinn. 2009. Simon & Schuster, $27 (9781416557067).
Marita. By Marita Lorenz. 1993. Avalon, $22.95 (9781560250555).
The Sharon Kinne Story. By James Hays. 1997. Leathers, $19.95 (9781890622107).
Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, the Woman behind Benedict Arnold’s Plot to Betray America. By Stephen H. Case. 2012. Globe Pequot, $23.95 (9780762773886).
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