Why you should care
Because while law-abiding citizens were struggling during the Depression, crime paid very well.
It was the Roaring ’20s, and Sydney Thomas Thornton Corke, a confectioner in Sydney, Australia, was visiting a friend’s shop in search of some good conversation. Hearing shouts and the sound of fighting coming from outside, Corke raced to the door, where he saw Tilly Devine. Their eyes locked, and Devine ran toward him, one arm raised. Corke shielded his face but “felt a sting” on one hand. “And when I looked at it,” he later said, “the blood squirted in my face.”
Corke had been attacked by a woman whose rap sheet would have made Al Capone’s look tame. Offensive behavior? Check. Assault? Check. Prostitution? Definitely. Devine had “accomplished” all this by 1925, when she was in her mid-20s. “She is a prostitute of the worst type and an associate of the worst type …,” one police report read. Given Devine’s history, she received a shockingly light sentence for the violent scene above — two years’ “light labor.”
Sparks often flew outside of Devine’s three-bedroom home, the site of parties … and shoot-outs.
By the 1930s, Devine had moved on to bigger crimes: running a gang, managing a brothel network and dealing drugs. In many ways, the 5-foot-4, 110-pound Devine was the most powerful female gangster in history, and she wore her toughness for all to see: She had a scar over one eye and always carried a razor, her signature weapon of choice in Sydney, where carrying a concealed gun was a punishable offense.
Born in 1900 in London, Matilda “Tilly” Devine was raised in the slums but dreamed of being rich. She succeeded, by becoming one of the wealthiest self-made women in her adopted country, says Larry Writer, author of Razor: Tilly Devine, Kate Leigh and the Razor Gangs. After meeting and marrying Aussie Jim Devine, the teenage Tilly moved to Australia. Although she began making money in her new home as a prostitute (Jim chauffeured her around), Tilly quickly found a more lucrative, entrepreneurial calling: serving as a madam.
During a Christian-piety wave, politicians in Australia cracked down on the sale of cocaine and the operation of brothels, causing owners to retreat further underground. But Devine exploited an ingenuous loophole. The law declared that no man could run a brothel; as a woman she was well-positioned to take advantage of the poor and desperate, skimming off a percentage of their earnings. As in the U.S., there were very few jobs Down Under for soldiers returned from World War I, which drove many to lives of crime. During the Depression, Devine’s business boomed, and she ended up running more than 30 brothels. She “had fortunes in the equivalent of millions of dollars today,” Writer says.
But she wasn’t without competition. Her chief rival, Kate Leigh, was an even smaller woman (5-foot-1), as well as more lethal (Leigh committed murder; Devine didn’t). Leigh rose to prominence in Sydney by running “sly-grog shops” — the Australian equivalent of speakeasies — ensuring people had access to booze. By the late 1920s, tensions were bubbling, and there wasn’t enough room for the two women. Sparks often flew outside of Devine’s three-bedroom home, the site of parties … and shoot-outs. Though attack dogs and hired guns guarded the house, it was still approached by Leigh’s henchmen one night after they had shot one of Devine’s men earlier in the day. Jim, Tilly’s husband, picked up a gun and lay in wait, shooting the would-be intruders dead.
There was also a glamorous side to the crimes: As Devine’s notoriety grew — the press dubbed her “The Worst Woman in Sydney” — she began holding expensive parties, often bedecking herself with furs and diamonds. She even dispensed with husband Jim when she no longer needed his help, kicking him to the curb over his reputed abuse.
With so much attention, the good times couldn’t roll forever. “The taxman came much like [he did for] Al Capone,” Writer says — Devine’s and Leigh’s possession were confiscated for unpaid taxes. At the same time, younger, more ruthless male hoodlums began to emerge. In the 1940s, after the middle-aged Leigh and Devine had lost their money, they found solace in their mutual poverty. Later, a cancer-ridden Devine even attended Leigh’s funeral. Not everyone made it into Devine’s good graces, though. While she didn’t personally murder anyone, others did her bidding. “Many of the male gangsters thought they could take Tilly’s empire,” Writer says, noting how they were swiftly killed.