Wild Women

Chelsie Preston Crayford as Tilly Devine in Underbelly: Razor

How come men are always the ringleaders in crime shows? In many of the most celebrated crime movies and television series – The Godfather, Goodfellas, A Clockwork Orange and previous Underbelly seasons included – the boys are running the show.

Danielle Cormack as Kate Leigh in Underbelly: Razor

About to hit our TV screens, Underbelly: Razor is a story that shows we females can be just as felonious as the next man. Set in 1927, this Underbelly series tells the hair-raising tale of Sydney’s fierce razor gangs and competing vice queens Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine. It’s all true and all happened long before Women’s Lib, but the only thing you would have found this pair slaving over in the kitchen would be putting a sharper edge on their blades.  And talk about equal opportunity: Kate Leigh came to big city underworld notoriety from tranquil Dubbo in rural NSW while Tilly, like many of our wildest women of convict times, came from England.

The real Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine

A casual pick through history shows that these two crime bosses weren’t the only ferocious femmes to make it in a male domain. Womankind has a rich past of wicked and wild behaviour. Pirating is one profession usually seen as a man’s game. Not so for Anne Bonney and Mary Read – the most infamous female pirates. Tricky too. They disguised themselves as men to get aboard ships and both were known for their fierce tempers and bloodthirsty natures. They also had the hard heart required for the job. Before her lover’s execution, rather than consoling words Anne simply told him, “Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog.” After they had been rounded up by the British Navy, the women escaped death themselves as they were both conveniently pregnant. It was against the law in England to kill an unborn child – now that’s something a man couldn’t have got away with.

Anne and Mary may have taken on British Navy, but Boudica, a fearsome ancient Briton, defied the might of the Roman Empire. And quite rightly so too. The Romans had promised her husband they would not move into his kingdom. When he died they broke their word. There’s nothing like a broken promise to get a girl up in arms and that’s exactly what Boudica did, leading an uprising against the occupying forces.

Bonnie and Clyde

Not all of history’s wild women worked alone. An outlaw immortalised in popular culture Bonnie Elizabeth Parker is best recognised as one half of the criminal couple Bonnie and Clyde. Though she was present at many of the gang’s holdups and shootouts, it is doubted that she ever fired a gun at an officer.

Lizzie Borden

This raises the question whether some supposedly wild women have come by their murky reputation because people simply want to believe the worst. Lizzie Borden, the 32-year-old home-girl of Fall River, Massachusetts, USA, is right at the cutting edge of this unfortunate habit. Lizzie was accused of hacking her father and step-mother to death with an axe 119 years ago. She was acquitted at her trial but lived another 42 years surrounded by doubts and innuendo and taunted by such popular ditties as …

Lizzie Borden took an axe

And gave her mother forty whacks.

When she saw what she had done

She gave her father forty-one.

Lucrezia Borgia is another case in point. Lucrezia, cast as the ultimate femme fatale of Renaissance Italy, had an extravagant reputation for incest, serial wedlock and murder, with poison slipped from a hollow ring the preferred weapon of choice. According to popular history, it was a brave man who sat down at the Borgia table without a back-up of food and wine tasters. But look into it and there’s no hard evidence against Lucrezia and even from this distance it seems very likely she was used by her brother Cesare and father Rodrigo in their machinations to make pop the Pope. Just another fall girl of history.

Whether these girls were genuinely scapegoats, there’s no denying that wild women come in all shapes and sizes; there are no boundaries of age, epoch, nationality, faith or geography. We’re not condoning criminal activity, but let’s point out that, though we may sit pretty, when push comes to shove we ladies can push and boy can we shove.  As Kate and Tilly will demonstrate with aplomb throughout the Underbelly: Razor series.


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