Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn't Contain
Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain

Khalid Elhassan - September 28, 2021

Dangerous bandit queen Belle Starr began life as a literal Southern belle. She grew up in luxury, and attended a finishing school for young ladies where she was taught the social graces, piano, and the classics. She also happened to grow up around Jesse James and other members of the James-Younger Gang. Shortly after the Civil War, she married a horse thief, and went on to become an outlaw in her own right, whose criminal misdeeds eclipsed those of her husband. Following are thirty things about her and other dangerous women from history.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Belle Starr, as depicted in the National Police Gazette. Library of Congress

30. A Dangerous Southern Belle

Crack shot Old West outlaw Belle Starr was a fashionable criminal who paid attention to style. She rode her horse sidesaddle while clad in a black velvet riding habit, a plumed hat atop her head, and a pair of pistols with cartridge belts across her hips. An associate of the James-Younger Gang, which featured the notorious Jesse James and became infamous for a series of bank, train, and stagecoach robberies across ten states, Belle became a dangerous criminal in her own right.

Born Myra Maybelle Shirley in 1848 into a well-off family near Carthage, Missouri, Belle grew up in relative comfort. She attended Missouri’s Carthage Female Academy, where she was taught the day’s feminine refinements, learned piano, and received a classical education. That should have put her on the typical Southern belle path of a proper young lady who aspired to marry a prosperous man, raise a family, and do nothing interesting, let alone controversial, in her life. As seen below, this belle took a different path.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Belle Starr’s childhood and adulthood friends, the brothers Jesse and Frank James. St Louis Dispatch

29. A Belle Who Preferred to Ride and Shoot Instead of Take Refinement Lessons

In her early years, Belle Starr led the life of a coddled wealthy girl. She was reportedly a bright student at the Carthage Female Academy, and a polite young lady who excelled at playing the piano. However, she liked to rub her “rich girl” status in the face of her peers, and went out of her way to become the center of attention. Unlike typical Southern belles, Belle loved the outdoors. She preferred to ride and shoot with her brother Bud, instead of stay cooped up inside her all-girls school.

Belle probably got her wild streak from her father, John Shirley. Although a prosperous farmer and businessman, Shirley was nonetheless considered the “black sheep” of a wealthy Virginia family that had moved out West. He married and divorced twice, before he wed Belle’s mother Elizabeth Hatfield, a relative of the Hatfields of the Hatfield and McCoy feud. Growing up in Missouri, Belle became acquainted with future dangerous outlaws Frank and Jesse James, and the Younger brothers Cole, Jim, John and Bob, who went on to form the infamous James-Younger Gang.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
A young Belle Starr. Interesting Things

28. From Criminal Groupie to Dangerous Wild West Outlaw

When the Civil War broke out, Belle Starr’s family were Southern sympathizers, and her brother rode with Confederate guerrillas. He was killed in 1864, and between that and the dangerous war conditions as both sides’ forces crisscrossed Missouri, Belle’s family upped stakes and moved to Texas. In 1866, her childhood acquaintances the James and Younger brothers, now joined together in the James-Younger Gang, robbed a Missouri bank and fled to Texas, where Belle’s father often sheltered such fugitives in his house.

Among their number was a former pro-Confederate guerrilla turned horse thief named Jim Reed. An associate of the James and Younger brothers, Reed had been Belle’s crush ever since she was a teenager in Missouri. Soon after they renewed their acquaintance in Texas, the duo got married, and eventually had two children. The family eventually fled to California to avoid an arrest warrant for Reed because of an Arkansas murder. Not long after, Belle graduated from criminal groupie to Wild West outlaw in her own right.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Belle Starr and Blue Duck. Wikimedia

27. The Belle Who Got a Kick Out of Being a Bandit Queen

In 1869 Belle Starr, her husband, and two other outlaws kidnapped and tortured an elderly Creek Indian until he told them where he had hidden about $30,000 in gold. With their share of the loot, she and her husband then returned to Texas, where Belle relished playing up the role of dangerous bandit queen to the hilt. Her hubby tried to walk the straight and narrow for a while and took a stab at farming. He soon grew restless, however, and returned to his outlaw ways.

The couple resumed their social and criminal ties with the James-Younger Gang, and fell in with the Starr clan, a Cherokee Indian family infamous for dealing in whiskey and stealing cattle and horses in the Indian Territory, today’s Oklahoma. The outlaw life finally caught up with Belle’s husband in 1874, when he was killed in a gunfight with one of his criminal associates. The widowed Belle got into a relationship with a Cherokee outlaw named Buford “Blue Duck”, before she finally married another Cherokee criminal named Sam Starr, and settled with him in the Indian Territory.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Belle Starr. City of Carthage

26. A Dangerous Wild West Fence, Bootlegger, and Protector of Fugitives

Belle Starr and her husband Sam lived in a ranch north of the Canadian River that she named Younger’s Bend, in honor of her childhood friend, the notorious outlaw Cole Younger. In the Indian Territory, Belle finally came into her own as a dangerous outlaw. She bootlegged illegal whiskey to Indians, exhibited a talent for the organization of cattle rustling and horse-stealing raids, and mastered the intricacies of fencing the goods stolen by other outlaws. When fugitives were on the run from the law, Belle often arranged shelter for them until the heat died down. Jesse James was among those whom she harbored under her roof.

Belle’s growing wealth from her criminal ventures enabled her to bribe officials to look the other way, and to free her associates whenever they were caught. That corruption caught the attention of the straitlaced “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker in nearby Fort Smith. He grew determined to lock her up and had her hauled up before him on various occasions to face various charges. In 1883, she and her husband were tried in Judge Parker’s court on horse theft charges, were found guilty, and received a nine-month sentence behind bars.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
The always dangerous Belle Starr. Dallas Gateway

25. An Unsolved Murder

After her release from prison, Belle Starr resumed her outlaw ways, and Judge Isaac Parker resumed his quest to put her out of business. In 1886, the dangerous bandit queen narrowly avoided another conviction, this time on robbery in addition to horse theft charges, but it still turned out to be a bad year for her. On December 17th, her husband Sam Starr got into a gunfight with a lawman cousin of his named Frank West, and both were killed in the exchange of bullets. Belle’s right to live in the Indian Territory had been based on her marriage to a Cherokee husband. To continue to use the Territory as a base for her criminal ventures, she married another Cherokee, a younger relative her deceased husband named July.

It proved to be a stormy relationship, and on at least one occasion, July offered an acquaintance $200 to murder his wife. On February 3rd, 1889, Belle was ambushed while riding home from a neighbor’s house, blasted off her horse with a shotgun, and finished off with another blast while she was on the ground. The murder was never solved, but there were quite a few suspects. Within her immediate family, they included her husband; her son whom she routinely whipped and whom rumors speculated she might have had an incestuous relationship with; and her daughter, whom she had prevented from marrying the father of her child. Another suspect was a fugitive murderer who sharecropped on her land, and feared that she might turn him in.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Madagascar movie poster. Pinterest

24. Madagascar’s Dangerous Ruler

To most people today, Madagascar is best known for the lighthearted DreamWorks Animation franchise of the same name, and its bevy of anthropomorphic wildlife. In the nineteenth century, though, the island was better known for darker reasons: as the realm of a psychotically dangerous ruler. She was Queen Ranavalona I (1778 – 1861), who had a tongue twister of a birth name, Rabodoandrianampoinimerina, and ruled Madagascar from 1828 until her death in 1861. Nicknamed “Ranavalona the Cruel“, she was a tyrant at best, and possibly a certifiably insane madwoman at worst.

Whatever her deal was, Ranavalona’s 33-year reign was a complete and utter disaster for her people. She cut off Madagascar from the outside world, pursued a policy of isolation and self-sufficiency, made heavy use of forced labor, and crushed all opposition, real or imagined. Between murder, massacre, mass enslavement, repression, and the resultant famines, millions of her subjects perished. During the craziest stretches of her reign, it is estimated that half the population of Madagascar died, either directly according to her orders, or as a result of her disastrous policies.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Queen Ranavalona I carried on a litter. Fine Art America

23. A Queen Who Kicked Off Her Reign With a Massacre of all Potential Rivals

The rise of Ranavalona began when her father informed Madagascar’s King Andrianampoinimerinandriantsimitoviaminandriampanjaka (they went for ludicrously long names in Madagascar) of a plot against his life. So the king showed his appreciation by selecting the informant’s daughter to marry his son and heir. The marriage proved loveless, however, and produced no issue. When Ranavalona’s husband died childless in 1828, she engineered a coup and seized power. Her first goal was to clear the path of all potential rival claimants to the throne, in order to proclaim herself Queen Ranavalona I.

In a bloody start to what proved to be a bloody reign, Ranavalona kicked off her rule with a thoroughgoing massacre that claimed just about every member of the royal family she could get her hands on. It was taboo to spill royal blood, so she did them either by strangulation or by locking them in a cell and starving them to death. Having secured her throne against domestic challengers, she turned her attention to foreign threats and encroachments from European colonial powers. As a first step, she killed or expelled nearly all foreigners.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
The dangerous and deadly Queen Ranavalona I. Her Storie

22. When Madagascar Was a Hermit Kingdom

To ensure that her realm had no potentially dangerous foreign contacts, Queen Ranavalona nullified all treaties with Britain and France, and banned Christianity. She effectively isolated Madagascar from the outside world and turned it into a hermit kingdom. On the domestic front, in lieu of a legal system, she introduced trial by ordeal. The accused were fed poison and three pieces of chicken skin. If they vomited all three pieces of skin, they were innocent. If they did not, they were not, and were accordingly executed.

Ranavalona introduced widespread forced labor, whereby Madagascar’s poor – the majority of the population – were made to work on her projects in lieu of high taxes they could not afford to pay. De facto slaves, they were used to build houses and palaces, clear lands and maintain roads, carry nobles and royal dependents in litters, serve in Ranavalona’s army, and carry out any other tasks set them by the queen. They were unpaid, poorly fed, if at all, and they died in droves.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Spiked heads lined the beaches of Madagascar after the failed Anglo-French expedition to overthrow Queen Ranavalona I. Badass of the Week

21. The Failed British and French Expeditions Against This Queen’s Realm

The era’s European colonial powers, especially Britain and France, were unhappy with being shut out of Madagascar, where they had been welcomed by previous rulers. Queen Ranavalona’s abrogation of the treaty with Britain cut her armies off from their main supply of modern weapons and left them vulnerable. The French, who held some small islands off Madagascar’s coast and were interested in spreading their influence to the mainland, immediately took advantage of that vulnerability. In 1829, in Ranavalona’s first year on the throne, a French expedition attacked some of her forts but was repelled.

France’s efforts to expand into Madagascar were usually opposed by the British, who did not relish the prospect of a French colony athwart their trade route around the Cape of Good Hope to India. However, their mutual dislike of Queen Ranvalona’s policies got them to temporarily set aside their differences. So they mounted joint punitive expeditions against Queen Ranvalona’s realm, but the attempts ended in failure. When the Europeans retreated, the dangerous queen beheaded the corpses of their dead, put the heads on stakes, and lined them up on Madagascar’s beaches, facing the ocean.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Victims of Queen Ranavalona being dropped from cliffs to their deaths. Historic Mysteries

20. The Queen Who Enslaved a Third of Her Subjects

Having fought off foreign interference, Queen Ranavalona unleashed her armies against her subjects. Forced conscription and mass forced labor enabled her to establish and support a standing army of around 30,000 men. She sent them on numerous punitive expeditions into those parts of Madagascar that were suspected of any resistance to her rule, or that expressed anything less than unabashed enthusiasm for her overlordship. The queen’s soldiers engaged in scorched earth policies, and devastated the regions that resisted or whose people were suspected of harboring any thoughts about resisting her rule.

By way of object lessons, Ranavalona’s soldiers routinely massacred the inhabitants of towns and settlements viewed as disloyal. Those spared from the mass executions were enslaved and brought back to the heart of the dangerous queen’s domain, where they toiled away the rest of their lives away as forced labor on her projects. Between 1820 to 1853, over a million slaves were seized, and the percentage of slaves rose to one third of the population of Madagascar’s central highlands, and two thirds of the population of Antananarivo, Ranavalona’s capital.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Queen Ranavalona I. Wikimedia

19. One of History’s Deadliest and Most Dangerous Rulers

Queen Ranavalona I went down in history as a cruel and xenophobic tyrant. Contemporaries, especially foreign ones, condemned her policies in the strongest terms, and viewed them as the acts of a psychotically dangerous madwoman. Modern historic revisionism has toned down the madwoman narrative, and placed greater emphasis on the astuteness that enabled her to protect Madagascar from European encroachment. Nonetheless, there is ample ground to consider Ranavalona an exceptionally dangerous and deadly ruler. Between massacres, mistreatment, forced labor, and widespread famines caused by her scorched earth policies and heavy handed repression, Madagascar’s population crashed.

During a six year stretch from 1833 to 1839, the island’s population is estimated to have declined from 5 million to 2.5 million inhabitants. In Ranavalona’s own home district, the population took a nose dive from about 750,000 in 1829, her first year on the throne, to a mere 130,000 by 1842. Those are genocide level figures, comparable to those inflicted by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge on the people of Cambodia a century later. Unlike Pol Pot, however, Ranavalona was not chased out of power. After a reign that lasted for thirty three years, she died in her sleep of natural causes when she was eighty three years old.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
An artistic rendering of Anne Dieu-le-Veut. Piracy and Sea

18. A Dangerous French Buccaneer

During the Golden Age of Piracy from the 1650s to 1730s, few outlaws of the sea were more dangerous than Anne Dieu-le-Veut (1661 – 1710). A female French buccaneer, she earned a reputation for courage in combat and ruthlessness. Her name means “Anne, God Wants It”. It was reportedly earned because her determination and willpower were so strong, that whatever she wanted seemed to have been what God Himself wanted. She arrived in the Caribbean as one of the so-called “Filles de Roi”, or “King’s Daughters” – impoverished women, many of them convicted criminals, deported from mainland France to far-off colonies.

There, they were expected to turn a new leaf and start a new life, settle down, and marry French colonists. Anne ended up in Tortuga, off Haiti’s northern coast. There, in 1684, she married a buccaneer named Pierre Lelong, and had a child with him. When Lelong was killed in a fight in 1790, she married another buccaneer, Joseph Cherel. Anne became a widow once more, in 1693, when Cherel was killed in bar fight by another buccaneer, Laurens de Graaf. So Anne challenged de Graaf to a duel to avenge her husband.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Anne Dieu-le-Veut. Gouezou

17. A Marriage Proposal in the Face of a Drawn Pistol

Laurens de Graaf drew his sword on Anne Dieu-le-Veut when she challenged him. However, when she pulled out a pistol, cocked it, and took aim, he had second thoughts, and remembered that chivalry forbids men from fighting women. He also proposed to her on the spot, supposedly because he admired the dangerous woman’s courage. That could well have been true. But it was also true that she had a cocked pistol aimed at his chest, and the quick thinking romantic gesture might have saved his life. Either way, Anne accepted. She accompanied him on his buccaneering, fought by his side, and shared his work and the command of his ship. Unlike other female pirates, Anne did not try to conceal her sex, but went about openly as a woman.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Anne Dieu-le-Veut. Agni

Despite the superstition that women aboard ships were bad luck, Anne was considered a kind of mascot and lucky charm by her ship’s crew. In 1693, she and her husband attacked the English in Jamaica, and in retaliation, the English in 1695 attacked Port-de-Paix in Haiti, where Anne dwelt when ashore. The English captured and sacked the town, and took Anne and her children prisoner. They were kept hostage for three years before they were finally released in 1698. After her release from captivity, Anne Dieu-le-Veut disappeared from the historic record. Unconfirmed stories claim that she and Laurens de Graaf settled in Mississippi or Alabama, but the last reliable mention of her simply states that died in 1710.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
A colorized photo of Rozalia Zemlyachka in 1925. Flickr

16. The Dangerous Revolutionary Who Was Labeled “History’s Deadliest Woman”

Rosalia Samilovna Zalkind (1876 – 1947), a Russian revolutionary and Soviet politician better known as Rozalia Zemlyachka, was one of the organizers of the First Russian Revolution. More infamously, she was a key player in the Red Terror in the Crimea during the Russian Civil War in 1920 – 1921. Because of the latter feat, she has often been labeled “history’s deadliest woman“. Yet, for somebody with such an infamous accomplishment, relatively little is known about her. For one thing, most of Zemlyachka’s notoriety can be traced to a period of upheaval, during which record keeping was spotty and ad hoc, to say the least. On top of that, many of the records that did exist were destroyed in the turmoil that engulfed Russia and the Soviet Union during her lifetime.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Lenin delivering a speech. The Moscow Times

For another, as a woman, neither her own party, the Bolsheviks, nor English-speaking Soviet scholars and historians, put that much effort into documenting or digging up information about her. What is known from the records that do exist and from the available historical evidence is that Rozalia Zemlyachka was one of the key figures who helped organize the abortive Russian Revolution of 1905. Twelve years later, during the Russian Civil War, she emerged as one of the main organizers of the Red Terror after the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917. Particularly from 1920 to 1921, when she was one of the overseers of the Red Terror in the Crimea.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
A young Rosalia Zalkind. Wikimedia

15. A Fifteen-Year-Old Revolutionary

Rozalia Zemlyachka played a key role in mass executions that claimed the lives of tens of thousands at the low end of estimates, and hundreds of thousands at the high end. Her background had set her on the path to revolutionary activity from early on. She was born Rosalia Samilovna Zalkind into a Jewish family in 1876, in what is now Belarus. Given the Tsarist government’s antisemitism, it was unsurprising that her parents had revolutionary tendencies. Years later, the future killer recalled that one of her earliest childhood memories was of her parent’s approval of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by revolutionaries in 1881. While still a young girl, she was introduced to peasant populism by an older brother. She left school in 1891, at age fifteen, to dedicate her life to the revolution.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Rozalia Zemlyachka. Wikimedia

She was arrested by the Okhrana, the Tsarist political police, soon thereafter. By 1896, hardened by prison stints, Rosalia had moved from populism to Marxism. In 1902, she joined Lenin’s faction of the Communist party, the Bolsheviks. By then, Rosalia had adopted the revolutionary name Rozalia Zemlyachka, and had become a tireless party organizer. In that capacity, she spent most of her time on travels between Saint Petersburg, Odessa, and various cities abroad to meet with exiles. She was a prominent radical figure in Moscow during the 1905 Russian Revolution, and played a key role in the organization of that city’s barricades. As a known radical, Zemlyachka came in for a rough time in the subsequent Tsarist crackdown. It only hardened and made her even more dangerous.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Rozalia Zemlyachka, circa 1919, when she was involved in the Red Terror. Wikimedia

14. A Tireless Revolutionary

Rozalia Zemlyachka’s advocacy of revolution and prohibited political activism got her jailed numerous times by the Tsarist authorities, and she caught tuberculosis and developed a heart disease behind bars. She finally fled Russia in 1909, her health broken, to join Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders in exile. She returned to Moscow in 1914, seemingly a spent force, only to spring back to life during the 1917 Russian Revolution. As a founding member of the Executive Committee of the Moscow Soviet, she was on the ground floor of the Bolshevik hijacking of that revolution.

Indeed, Zemlyachka played a key role in securing Moscow for the Bolsheviks during the October Revolution. In the ensuing Russian Civil War, she split her time between Moscow and various Bolshevik field armies, where she bucked up the troops as an electrifying speaker and political agitator. Lenin made her chief political commissar for the 8th Army in the Ukraine, then for that of the 13th Army. Her most famous – or infamous mark – however, in which she established her cred as one of history’s most dangerous women, was made during the Red Terror.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Former anarchist and socialist revolutionary Fanya Kaplan’s failed attempt to assassinate Lenin, which triggered the Red Terror. Pinterest

13. A Revolutionary Whose Extremism Alarmed Even the Head of the Soviet Secret Police

The Red Terror was a period of extreme repression and mass killings carried out by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. It began in 1918, after a failed attempt at Lenin’s life. Rozalia Zemlyachka was involved in the repression campaign from the start, advocated for the annihilation of class enemies, and took part in carrying out the first batches of executions in Moscow. Her zeal and methods alarmed even Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the Cheka (forerunner of the NKVD and KGB).

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
A 1918 propaganda poster in St Petersburg, which reads ‘Death to the Bourgeoisie and its Lapdogs – Long Live the Red Terror’. Imgur

Considering that Dzerzhinsky was known among his circle of hardened revolutionaries as “Iron Felix“, it must have taken quite some doing to alarm him. Yet, that is just what Zemlyachka did. So in 1920, she was bundled out of Moscow and sent to the Crimea, as Secretary of the Crimean Regional Committee of the Russian Communist Party. When she arrived, that peninsula was one of the last remaining enclaves of the Whites – those opposed to the Bolshevik Reds. She took care of that in a ruthless fashion.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
A Cheka execution squad during the Red Terror. Pinterest

12. This Dangerous Revolutionary Figured Out a Way to Economize on Mass Murder

Rozalia Zemlyachka was determined to stamp out all traces of opposition to Bolshevik rule in the Crimea, once and for all. In 1920, during the course of the Russian Civil War, the Red Army in the Crimea defeated the Bolsheviks’ White Russian opponents, and eventually got about 50,000 of them surrender with the promise of an amnesty. Zemlyachka was not a big fan of honoring promises to opponents of the Bolshevik Revolution, whom she deemed dangerous, detestable, and beyond the pale. So she set out to exterminate them.

Say what you will about her, but Zemlyachka was conscientious about her job, and about the need to economize on mass murder to ensure that it was done as cheaply as possible. At a time when the hard pressed Bolshevik forces faced severe ammunition shortages, she decreed that to waste bullets on captives slated for execution was unreasonable. One of her cost cutting measures to conserve ammunition was to not shoot people, but to tie rocks to the legs of the condemned, then toss them off barges into the sea.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Rozalia Zemlyachka. Prabok

11. An Underwater Forest of Swaying Corpses

Rozalia Zemlyachka had tens of thousands executed by drowning with weights tied to their legs. When the waters were calm and visibility was good, rows of standing bodies off the shores of the Crimea could be seen at the bottom as they swayed like a horrific underwater forest, and gently moved back and forth with the currents. The author of the macabre executions returned to Moscow, and was awarded the Order of the Red Banner – then the highest Soviet military award.

She spent the rest of her life climbing the Communist Party’s rungs, and joined the Central Control Commission – the organization that kept a watchful eye on the party. Zemlyachka worked closely with the NKVD during the Great Terror, and so impressed Stalin with her ruthlessness that she was made head of the Control Commission in 1939. That made her the only woman in the USSR’s highest administrative body, the Council of People’s Commissars. She died of natural causes at age 71 in 1947, and was honored with a burial in the Kremlin.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Jeanne de Clisson. Famille Bretet

10. The Dangerous Medieval Pirate Queen

Jeanne de Clisson (1300 – 1359), also known as the Lioness of Brittany, was one of France’s most dangerous female outlaws. A Breton noblewoman, she was born in the town of Belleville-sur-Vie into a prominent family, which had ruled the area for centuries. She was married at age twelve, and bore her husband two children before he died in 1326. She remarried in 1328, but that marriage was annulled two years later, so she remarried once more, this time to a wealthy Breton named Olivier Clisson. When the French accused her third husband of being an English spy and executed him as such, the widow Clisson went on the warpath. She turned pirate, preyed on French ships in the English Channel, and tortured and executed every French nobleman she came across.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
‘Execution of Olivier IV de Clisson’, by Loyset Liedet. Wikimedia

In 1342, during the Hundred Years War, Jeanne’s husband was military commander of a town that was captured by the English, and he was taken prisoner. They released him soon thereafter in a prisoner exchange – the only Frenchman who was freed. Between that and an unusually low ransom requested by the English, Olivier Clisson was suspected of treason. He was tried and convicted by a court of French aristocrats, and beheaded in 1343. Jeanne viewed her husband’s execution as a cowardly murder, took her young sons to see their father’s head mounted on a spike, and vowed revenge. She sold her estates, used the proceeds to raise a force of armed followers, switched her loyalties to the English, and began to attack the French.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Jeanne de Clisson. Illustration X

9. A Savage Predator of the Sea

Jeanne de Clisson was not taken seriously at first. Then she attacked and captured a French castle, and massacred its entire garrison, except for one man whom she let live to tell the tale. The dangerous widow was taken seriously from then on. Aware that her forces were too small to withstand a determined French counterattack, Jeanne retreated across the Channel to England. There, she bought and outfitted three warships, and as a signal of her intent, painted them black and dyed their sails red. She led her black fleet into the English Channel, fell upon French shipping, and soon gained a reputation for savagery. Among other things, she routinely massacred nearly all who fell into her hands, except for a few survivors spared so they could spread the tale.

French nobles in particular were in serious trouble if they were discovered aboard any ship captured by the widow Clisson. Although there was serious money to be made ransoming them, as the was custom of the day, she wanted none of that. Instead, she tormented the nobles, then personally chopped off their heads with an ax, and finally tossed their corpses overboard. She continued her murderous rampage against the French wherever she could find them, for thirteen years, before her blood lust was finally sated. Eventually, in 1356, Jeanne Clisson gave up the life of piracy and retired to her estates in Brittany. She remarried for a fourth time, and settled into a castle on Brittany’s southern coast, where she died peacefully in 1359.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Bust of Sichelgaita of Salerno. B&B Peter Pan

8. A Dangerous Warrior Princess

Few women of the Middle Ages were more dangerous than Sichelgaita of Salerno (circa 1040 – 1090), a Lombard warrior princess and the Duchess of Apulia in southern Italy. A six-foot Amazon, she met and married Robert Guiscard, an equally dangerous Norman adventurer who turned Sicily and southern Italy into a Norman domain. Sichelgaita rode armed and armored and went into combat at Guiscard’s side, or led men into battle on her own. Between them, the power couple roiled and terrorized the Mediterranean for decades during the second half of the eleventh century.

Sichelgaita was born into the ruling family of the Duchy of Salerno, and from an early age, she exhibited a passion for swordsmanship and horseback riding. After her father the Duke of Salerno was murdered in a palace coup, she helped her brother regain the duchy, and she regained her place as the duchy’s most privileged woman. Brother and sister then had to deal with encroachment from Normans to their south, who had settled in Italy after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Sichelgaita’s husband, Robert Guiscard, being invested by the pope in 1059 as Duke of Apulia, Calabria, and Sicily. Amazon

7. A Dangerous Medieval Power Couple

In 1058, Sichelgaita met the Normans’ leader, Robert Guiscard, and the two fell passionately in love. Guiscard, a Norman knight who had settled in southern Italy in 1047, was widely known as the Wily or the Weasel, and was impressed by the six foot Amazon who went into battle, fully armed and armored. He divorced his wife and married Sichelgaita, and the duo became one of the medieval era’s most dangerous power couples. For the next eighteen years, she was the Weasel’s constant companion, both on and off the battlefield.

Sichelgaita helped Guiscard consolidate his and her family’s hold on southern Italy, and one of those consolidations was of her birthplace, the Duchy of Salerno. In 1076, clad in shining armor and mounted astride a stallion, she rode up to the walls of Salerno, which was ruled by her own brother, and demanded the city’s submission. When her brother refused, Sichelgaita and Guiscard put the city under siege, and starved it into surrender. She then took command of Salerno, and sent her brother into exile.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Sichelgaita of Salerno. Wikimedia

6. A Woman Who Not Only Fought, But Led Men in Combat

Sichelgaita did not only fight at her husband’s side, but also led men on her own in independent commands. An ambitious couple, she and Robert Guiscard attempted to take over the Byzantine Empire by marrying one of their children into the imperial household. A palace coup in Constantinople foiled those plans, however, so the duo decided to take over Byzantium the hard way, through straightforward conquest. In 1080, while her husband attacked Taranto in southern Italy, Sichelgaita led a siege against Trani on Italy’s Adriatic coast.

Her greatest exploit came a year later at the Battle of Dyrrhachium on the Albanian coast, on October 18th, 1081. There, the dangerous warrior princess, clad in full armor, led an advance force ahead of the main body. She ran into a powerful Byzantine army that offered fierce resistance. Sichelgaita determined to press the attack and keep the Byzantines pinned in place until Guiscard arrived with reinforcements, but her men faltered, and some fled. As seen below, Sichelgaita turned the tide with a bravura battlefield performance.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
The Battle of Dyrrhachium. Pinterest

5. A Medieval Amazon’s Greatest Battlefield Performance

As a near-contemporary wrote of the Battle of Dyrrhachium: “Directly Sichelgaita, Robert’s wife (who was riding at his side and was a second Pallas, if not an Athene) saw these soldiers running away. She looked fiercely after them and in a very powerful voice called out to them in her own language an equivalent to Homer’s words “How far will ye flee? Stand and fight like men!” And when she saw that they continued to run, she grasped a long spear and at full gallop rushed after the fugitives; and on seeing this they recovered themselves and returned to the fight.” She was badly wounded, but held part of the battlefield until reinforcements arrived to turn the tide and win the hard-fought engagement.

Despite the victory, the plans to conquer the Byzantine Empire had to be discarded because of developments back in Italy, when a conflict broke out between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1084, Sichelgaita and her husband Guiscard resumed the attempted conquest of Byzantium. The dangerous power couple won some initial victories. One of them was a ferocious naval battle against a combined Venetian-Byzantine, that gained them the islands of Corfu and Cefalonia. Soon thereafter, however, Guiscard took ill and died in 1085, and the campaign fizzled out. Sichelgaita retired to Salerno, where she died five years later, in 1090.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Phoolan Devi, in film and in real life. Times of India

4. India’s Dangerous Bandit Queen

Famous – or infamous, depending on whether viewed from the perspective of admirers or detractors – Indian bandit queen Phoolan Devi was born in 1963 in Utter Pradesh, India, into a lower caste family that ranked barely above the Untouchables. The lot of lower castes – especially of impoverished lower caste girls like Phoolan – was no bed of roses, as she learned all too soon. She did not simply accept it, however, and from early on, Phoolan gained a reputation for her willingness to stand up to oppressors and resist injustice.

When she was ten-years-old, Phoolan defied an uncle who wanted to cut a tree on her father’s tiny land plot, and organized her village’s girls to conduct a sit-in. They resisted efforts to remove them by force, and their sit-in only ended when Phoolan was knocked out unconscious with a brick. At age eleven, Phoolan’s family married her to a man in his thirties, who abused her physically and sexually. She fled several times, but her family kept returning her to her husband until the marriage finally ended when Phoolan was sixteen.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
A younger Phoolan Devi. India Today

3. A Social Outcast Turned Bandit

For a wife to leave her husband was a major taboo in Phoolan Devi’s neck of the woods. So when she ditched her abusive husband, she became a social outcast. Her prospects grim, the teenaged Phoolan fell in with and joined a gang of rural bandits. She was the only female in her outlaw outfit, and the gang’s leader decided to take advantage of her and make her his concubine. He took to assaulting her, until another bandit stepped in, killed him.

Her assailant’s killer took over the gang, and soon, he and Phoolan became lovers. Once she had established herself as a bandit in her own right, one of her first acts as an outlaw was to visit vengeance upon her abusive ex. So she swept into that unworthy’s village at the head of a group bandits, to exact payback. She dragged her ex out of his house, gutted him with a knife, and pinned a note to him, in which she warned men not to marry little girls.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Phoolan Devi. Roar Media

2. India’s Female Robin Hood

After she took care of her ex, Phoolan Devi became known as more than just a dangerous outlaw. She earned a reputation as a Robin-Hoodesque figure, who robbed from the upper castes and shared her loot with the impoverished. That phase of her life ended when an internal gang struggle ended with the murder of her lover, and his replacement as gang leader by two upper caste brothers. They seized Phoolan and imprisoned her in their out-of-the-way home village, Behmai. There, she was assaulted by many men, and was subjected to sundry humiliations such as being paraded naked around the village.

She eventually fled, but vowed to come back and pay her tormentors back, with interest. She formed a new bandit crew, this one exclusively of lower castes like her. On the evening of February 14th, 1981, several months after her escape, Phoolan returned to Behmai at the head of her gang. She demanded that the villagers produce the brothers who had imprisoned her, but they could not be found. So she demonstrated just how terrible a mistake the villagers had made to mess with such a dangerous woman, with an epic vengeance that rocked India.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
Phoolan Devi at her surrender. India Today

1. A Dangerous Bandit Queen’s Epic Revenge

Phoolan Devi lined up about two dozen of the village of Behmai’s young men, whose numbers included some who had assaulted her, and ordered them killed. What came to be known as the Behmai Massacre rocked India. A massive manhunt was ordered, but Phoolan evaded her pursuers, helped by the region’s poor, who saw her as a heroine. Two years after the massacre, tired of life on the run, Phoolan negotiated a surrender for herself and the remnants of her gang.

Dangerous Women in History that the Law Couldn’t Contain
After her release from prison, Phoolan Devi went into politics and became a women’s rights activist. India Times

As more than 10,000 people watched, she and her followers laid down their rifles, and were taken into custody. A villain to some, a heroine to others, Phoolan was kept in pretrial detention for eleven years, until the charges were finally dismissed and she was released in 1994. She became a women’s rights activist, and in 1995, one year after her release, she was elected to India’s parliament. Her eventful life was cut short in 2001, when a man who sought vengeance for the upper caste men killed by Phoolan assassinated her as she exited her Delhi home.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

History Collection – The Life and Mysterious Death of Old West Gunslinger Belle Starr

All That is Interesting – How Female Pirate Jeanne de Clisson Terrorized the King of France

Badass of the Week – Ranavalona the Cruel

Clements, Barbara Evans – Bolshevik Women (1997)

Devi, Phoolan – I, Phoolan Devi: The Autobiography of India’s Bandit Queen (1996)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Ranavalona I

Futurist Dolmen – Rozalia Zemlyachka: An Incomplete Biography

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe, Volume III (2002)

Head Stuff – Jeanne de Clisson, the Bloody Lioness of Brittany

History Collection – The Lawmen and Outlaws Who Built the Old West

James Adams Historic Enterprises – Jean de Belleville, Pirate or Politician?

Laidler, Keith – Female Caligula: Ranavalona, the Mad Queen of Madagascar (2005)

Legends of America – Belle Starr, the Bandit Queen

Owlcation – 10 Famous Female Outlaws of the Wild West

Prabok – Rosalia Samilovna Zemlyachka

Rayfield, Donald – Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed For Him (2004)

Shirley, Glenn – Belle Starr and Her Times: The Literature, the Facts, and the Legends (1982)

Wikipedia – Anne Dieu-le-Veut

Wikipedia – Phoolan Devi

Wikipedia – Sikelgaita