A fictional moll was the deadliest, sexiest pal a man could have. If you were Dashiell Hammett’s3 Continental Op, Perry Mason, or a G-Man, you might want to bed her. You certainly didn’t want to find yourself between her and her fictional bandit “Daddy.” That girl-sized pistol she kept in a clutch bag? She knew how to use it. Bonnie Parker’s pose4 next to Clyde Barrow, a tommy gun slung at her tiny waist, worried Texas Ranger Frank Hamer enough that even though he “hated to bust a cap on a woman,” he did it. Hamer’s posse gunned Bonnie and Clyde down from a hideout as they drove down a Louisiana dirt road.
But who were gun molls really? Were these women as brash, deadly and independent as they seemed?
Their very name suggests dependence on men, contradicting the vision of female power5 cultivated by pulp6 writers. Most of the women who partnered with bandits disliked the name: many insisted that they were the wives of criminals they traveled with, even though in most cases no wedding had occurred—at least not with that man. The name “moll”7 suggested sexual shame, not pride, and was derived from “molly,” Victorian slang for a woman, or an effeminate man, who traded sex for money in slums and red-light districts. Sex was part of the bargain for the twentieth century gun moll too, but with a twist: going on the road, or underground, with a fugitive bank robber, hit man or thief, and living off the cash he earned with his crimes.
Fantasy gun molls usually came to a bad end, but had fun doing it. They flamed out under their own terms, exchanging one man for another when they needed to move on. But history tells a different story. Real-life molls paid for a little bit of fame with a lifetime of hardship, regret, a prison record, and a pervasive fear of being killed as a “stool pigeon” if they told what they knew to save their own skins. Because of a few months, or years, spent as a fugitive, they became the object of public fantasy and speculation that cost them dearly.8 Long after they had paid for their crimes, the women who traveled with Dillinger, the Barrow gang, the Barker brothers and Alvin Karpis, were left without money, reputation or privacy.
Like many people in the 1930s, the women who joined bandit gangs began life among the working poor, making bad decisions with the few choices they had. Their histories can be culled from interviews conducted with friends and family members by the FBI, people who were often torn between their fear for a loved one in danger and their shame from police scrutiny.
FBI files also suggest that poverty and the tenuousness of respectability among the poor made young women vulnerable to sexual exploitation and false promises. Fugitive gun molls had often been married in their teens to undependable, sometimes violent, men, who abandoned them in some fashion or another. At 14, Bonnie Parker dropped out of school to marry her first boyfriend, who drank, cheated on her, and deserted her for other women, leaving her penniless and heartbroken. She fell for Clyde Barrow—who had already served one prison sentence—on the rebound, and became a fugitive rather than lose another man. Evelyn “Billie” Frechette and Pat Cherrington, whose first husbands had both been sent to Leavenworth for armed robbery, fell in with the Dillinger gang while drowning their sorrows at a Chicago nightclub. When invited to go on “a little vacation” they leapt at the chance. It was only later, the women claimed, that they learned the real identities of their new boyfriends. But it was too late: they were already in love.
Although artistic renderings of molls suggested a Hollywood sophistication, these were (to borrow from Walter Benjamin) images with no original. Sometimes they wore slacks, just then coming into fashion, and probably practical for the long car trips typical of bandit gangs. More than one gun moll was captured in riding gear, suggesting flirtation with high-society style. Photographs, often taken while in police custody, reveal molls as fairly ordinary women whose dress and hairstyles imitated the film and true crime magazines they eagerly consumed—not the other way around. Flight and capture also took a toll. In these pictures, their faces were puffy from crying and all-night interrogations; their hair frizzy from home dye jobs and perms; their expressions frightened and resentful.9
When hideouts were raided, police and federal agents often found clothes and lingerie from the finest department stores; this meant glamour to eager newspaper audiences. However, gun molls were usually experiencing a brief period of prosperity bought at the cost of anxiety and the uncertainty of a life spent living under assumed names in hotels or furnished apartments. What they had, they had as gifts from men, earned in part by jobs they did for the gang that resembled keeping house. They shopped, cooked, cleaned, and bought clothes to disguise men like John Dillinger, Fred Barker, Homer van Meter, and “Pretty Boy“ Floyd, whose images were too well known for them to linger in a store.
Gun molls were housewives without homes. Many were not even really urban: they had migrated from rural areas, or smaller cities, in hopes of improving their prospects. Evelyn Frechette grew up in poverty on the Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin, making her way to Chicago to find wage work. But like most women who became molls, she had never finished high school, and had no skills that might translate to a secretarial or factory job. Divorces, husbands who had gone to jail, or illegitimate children caused other women to slip from respectable working class lives to sleeping on a friend’s couch or becoming dependent on family. Before they became molls, many of these women held jobs that paid only in tips. Some sent money home for a child being raised by relatives; and, like many poor women, they probably traded sex for gifts and a little cash.
The future moll was a bad luck girl who made the best of the choices she had when she got to the city: she became a hatcheck attendant, a cigarette girl, a taxi dancer, or a coffee shop waitress. She kept her eye open for the main chance, and for a select few, hooking up with a bandit seemed to be it. In the Great Plains cities dominated by organized crime syndicates—Chicago, Kansas City, and St. Paul—that handsome man checking his coat had a lot of money to spend. So what if he was on the lam, had a police record and an addiction to the fast life, and the cash was hot? The city was full of men like that.
And sometimes a woman didn’t ask those questions until later because she was on the run too, from a man, or a life, that hadn’t worked out. Gun molls often told the story of entering the criminal life as a traditional romance: It was love at first sight, and they were blinded by it. As Evelyn Frechette later told True Confessions about that first meeting in October 1933: “There was something in those eyes I will never forget,” she admitted to the ghostwriter. “They were piercing and electric; yet there was an amused, carefree twinkle in them too.” Less than a year later, she was in jail and he was dead. By 1936, a veteran of the federal penitentiary at Milan, Michigan, Frechette was earning a skimpy living in a vaudeville show, telling her story of true love gone wrong to small-town audiences around the Midwest.
The gun moll was a real-life fiction whose fortunes rose—and quickly fell10 on the bad men she loved. It wasn’t a happy life. This may be why it’s the fantasy moll we remember, the one who looks at us from the cover of a noir thriller with angry, daring eyes. A tiny gun held expertly in a pretty hand, perfectly manicured blood red nails and painted lips, bobbed hair, and pert breasts nearly leaping out of her gown, the gun moll entices and warns with the tools of her trade. Perfectly balanced on stiletto heels, with legs akimbo and her stocking seams perfectly straight, she wreaks havoc on the men who displease her. She is a moll by nature, not by accident. And she is a star because the most dangerous men in the country—and we—want her to be.
1“There was some good stuff being done but if you were [a] good [illustrator] and you were coming in you ended up in the paperback. RA Maguire, he and Robert McGinnis, and James Avati, they’re the three major illustrators; they had to do paperbacks and those who could do women excelled. What you get from him, from Maguire, is an ordinary girl. A good-looking girl who could have been a [neighborhood] girl,” says illustrator Jim Silke, who authored Dames, Dolls, & Gun Molls.
2James Cagney, who played Cody Jarrett, points to the infamous Ma Barker and her sons as the model for the mother-son relationship in the film. Author Ellen Poulsen says of the mobster, “She was killed with her son in a hideout in a blast of FBI bullets and the FBI created the myth of the criminal mastermind Ma Barker and she was more or less just the mother of these men who were committing crimes for politicians in St. Paul, Minn. They didn’t have any real intelligence, they were kind of just puppets for political people who wanted crimes committed.”
3“H.L. Mencken was a great critic, [and] intellectual New Yorker. He had a partner and they had a magazine called Smart Set, which had the high elite brains writing. To support it they made a magazine called Black Mask. Dashiell Hammett, James Cain, Raymond Chandler and they’re the geniuses of the 20th century. We know that now but at the time it was just crap. They felt they could write honest literature and they did. Now it’s called hardboiled. Then they started to make those stories into movies in the ‛40s and we get film noir,” says Silke.
4“She loved being photographed with guns but there was an article written in Playboy in 1967 which was an interview with a teenager who had run with a gang for a while. His name is W.D. That’s William Daniel Jones. He revealed in 1967 that Bonnie was a good loader. Like she would load the guns but she was not someone who would shoot with them. She was actually implicated in a murder of two police officers [but] it has since been established that she did not shoot them,” says Ellen Poulsen of the most notorious gun moll.
5As Silke puts it, referencing the paperback covers, “Put a gun in her hand and she’s better off.”
6Silke explains the origins of the term pulp: “When you make paper, regular paper, you run it through and it separates and presses and the crap goes to the bottom, the junk. It’s got wood and chips and crap. Then they take that and they run it through the [machines] and you get a very thick, very absorbent paper. They made the [paperbacks] out of that and usually when they folded it and cut it, you have that rough edge on the outside. They leave it. It’s different lengths. Everything is done cheap and they could only print on it in black ink. It couldn’t take any kind of color and only in a broad way, heavy blacks and nothing intricate. That’s a pulp.“
7“Some say it fit well into a headline, Molls Hide Pretty Faces, when they hid their faces because they’d just been arrested. It fit well, but traditionally the word has always been gun moll. What they got out of it is you know, depending on the time or place. There are really different points of view on that. A gun moll could be anything from a prostitute connected with the mob, to a wife of some desperado,” says Poulsen.
8“A lot of them had really suffered in the relationships. They had children or they had families, and if their name got in the newspapers that was the end of the reputation of the entire family,” says Poulsen.
9Poulsen explains, “When you get into these women who got into drug addiction and alcoholism, […] some of them looked terribly dissipated.”
10“The smart ones had a way of surviving and getting past the bad experiences because the boyfriends didn’t last, they were killed or, if you’re talking about organized crime figures, they went to jail for you know, ten years. These organized crime figures would go to prison. This whole big idea that anybody took care of these women? Not really [true]. I mean maybe for a while but they were always left high and dry if something like that happened, and a lot of the women who were involved with organized crime figures ended up murdered,” says Poulsen.
Illustrations by Robert A. MaGuire from Dames, Dolls & Gun Molls, Courtesy Dark Horse Books and Jim Silke.