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The Most Notorious All-Women Criminal Gang in History

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Ravi loves writing within the cusp of relationships, history, and the bizarre where the boundaries are blurred and possibilities are immense

During the 19th century, the Forty elephants, an all-women gang became one of the most dangerous criminal organizations in London.

During the 19th century, the Forty elephants, an all-women gang became one of the most dangerous criminal organizations in London.

The World of Criminals Is Mostly Male Dominated

When we talk about gangsters and criminals, we automatically think about characters like Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel or John Gotti dressed in dapper suits, carrying huge weapons, and ruling the dark underbelly of a city with an iron fist.

Yes, the world of criminals has mostly been a male-dominated one and although women have been part of many gangs for centuries, the idea of a famous woman gangster or an all-woman gang has been a rarity. And one example of such an aberration can be the forty-elephant gang, an all-woman gang that terrorized London between the 19th and nearly half of the 20th century.

They were master shoplifters. Emerging from the poverty-stricken underbelly of London’s slums, these glamourous women plundered fashion stores, jewelry shops and even dabbled a lot in blackmail and extortion. Named after the district in which they operated, Elephant and Castle, the gang was known for their distinct “elephant-like waddle” when leaving the scene of the crime.

At their peak, they became one of the most organized gangs to operate in London under their leader Alice Diamond, aka “Diamond Annie” or “the Queen of the Forty Thieves”. Under Alice, the gang were renowned, and feared, as the country’s first all-female crime syndicate.

Police reports of those times mention thousands of pounds of clothing and jewelry being seized in a single swoop without even a single member of the gang getting caught. The detectives had a very frustrating time with no leads whatsoever to pursue.

The gang was finally beaten in the 1950s when the leaders got caught, but they left an indelible mark in history as one of the most ruthless and infamous women gangs of all time.

AL-Capone was declared America's Public Enemy No #1 at one point of time due to his notorious criminal activities

AL-Capone was declared America's Public Enemy No #1 at one point of time due to his notorious criminal activities

The Story of the Forty-Elephant Gang

The gang first appeared at the London crime scene in 1873. More than just a ragtag bunch of women, the forty-elephant gang was organized like a corporation with every individual having well-defined roles, responsibilities, and benefits corresponding to her experience and expertise.

The whole organization was controlled by a leader, often referred to as the “Queen.” Their main activity was shoplifting preferably at those fancy stores in London’s West End.

Their first leader was Mary ‘Polly’ Carr who firmly established the notoriety of the gang in London’s West End region. But it was under her charismatic successor Alice Diamond, the gang reached its zenith, expanding its operations across the country and entering into new businesses of blackmailing and extortion.

Alice ruled with military precision and was known for her fearsome fistfights arising out of her diamond-encrusted fistful of rings.

Alice, the leader of the forty-elephant gang ruled with military precision and was known for her fearsome fistfights arising out of her diamond-encrusted fistful of rings.

Alice, the leader of the forty-elephant gang ruled with military precision and was known for her fearsome fistfights arising out of her diamond-encrusted fistful of rings.

The Forty-Elephant Gang Were Meticulous Planners

Perhaps the one differentiating factor that led to the success of the forty-elephant gang over other gangs was the stupendous planning, the gang used to invest in before any robbery.

They operated in pairs inside the shop and outside the shop, they would have reinforcements readily available in case they are chased. They also had a battery of lawyers to assist them out of sticky situations. And for selling of goods of all kinds, they had an established network of receivers on a commission basis.

Inside the shop, each woman wore specifically created outfits with hidden pockets for pilfering goods easily without suspicion. Their clothes were designed with capacious pockets cunningly sewn into the layers beneath to hold almost any type of valuable item. In fact, the forty elephants’ gang was so organized that in some cases, they even designed special clothes for specific shops they wanted to rob.

As a detective tells about Alice and her gang in his records.

“They will descend like a gang of locusts in taxis and chauffeur-driven limousines, cleaning out a store inside one hour without giving any breathing space whatsoever.”

The Forty-Elephant Gang Were Meticulous Planners

The Forty-Elephant Gang Were Meticulous Planners

The Newspapers Went Gung-Ho Over Their Beauty

Newspapers described them as "good looking, well-dressed women having a fine stature" as they traveled across the country, stealing the finest silks, gems, and furs, and spending their ill-gotten gains in throwing lavish parties and to fund their extravagant lifestyles.

Besides shoplifting, they also forged recommendation letters to work for wealthy families and then rob them when they had gained their trust. Their other business was seducing high-profile, wealthy men only to blackmail them and get hush money.

As Brian MacDonald writes about them in his book Gangs of London.

“London was in the firm grip of the ruthless girl gang which, between the 1870s and the 1950s, was responsible for the biggest shoplifting racket the country has ever seen. They also dabbled in many other crimes like blackmail and kidnapping, and they thought nothing of dishing out beatings or exacting revenge on enemies with knives and metal bars.”

Their peak was in the 1920s and 30s when they started terrorizing shopping centers across the country. They also forced smaller gangs to pay tribute to what they had stolen and would punish criminals who did not obey their rules.

Detectives and police officials were helpless as they started using high-powered cars to outrun the police. They feared no one and their control over the London underworld was absolute.

Newspapers described them as ‘good looking, well-dressed women having a fine stature’ as they travelled across the country, stealing the finest silks, gems, and furs, and spending their ill-gotten gains in throwing lavish parties.

Newspapers described them as ‘good looking, well-dressed women having a fine stature’ as they travelled across the country, stealing the finest silks, gems, and furs, and spending their ill-gotten gains in throwing lavish parties.

The Gang Was Caught Finally

In 1923, one notorious member of the gang Maggie Hughes was finally caught while stealing a tray containing thirty-four diamond rings. Following her arrest, detectives stepped up their operations and stuck paid dirt in 1925 when they finally caught Alice Diamond. Alice was subsequently jailed for 18 months and the gang was left leaderless.

After Alice, their power and influence began to slip away as more and more members of their gang were either killed in encounters or imprisoned. The gang began to wither away and their robbery prowess drastically declined due to the hi-tech store security measures that began to be put in place by the 1950s. Their business thus became more dangerous and less profitable leading to a gradual exodus in the gang.

As for Alice, she contracted multiple sclerosis and died at the age of 55 in 1952. The forty elephants eventually faded away but left behind an infamous legacy of an all-women notorious gang that held their own in the cruel male-dominated world of London’s underworld.

As Brian MacDonald aptly sums up their entire story.

“The girls feared no one, they were all well-built and strong and could fight as well as any man.”

Sources

© 2021 Ravi Rajan

Comments

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on June 20, 2021:

Thanks DEvika

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on June 20, 2021:

You enlightened me and a well-written hub.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on June 20, 2021:

Informative and I had no idea of these women's characters.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 19, 2021:

Raviraja, Bill has made a little fun out of the story. Oh! What a grand jolly fello he is.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on June 19, 2021:

Thanks Chitrangada for your comments

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on June 19, 2021:

Thanks, Bill for your comments.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on June 19, 2021:

An interesting read about the notorious all women criminal gang. As always, you have provided information on a unique topic, which I wasn’t aware of.

Thank you for sharing.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 19, 2021:

What a great read. I had never heard of this gang. Thanks for the entertaining read. Only 18 months in jail? Almost seems worth it for all that wealth. LOL

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on June 19, 2021:

Thanks, Miebakagh for your comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on June 19, 2021:

rajaravi, I can hardly believe that such w6en gang ever exists in the thievy world! Women? Let alone men gang? I reason they must be something wrong with their genes. Otherwise, how come these girls can beat off men and the police? An interesting and thought provocating read indeed. Much thanks.

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