Criminal Families in History

Crime, whilst not exactly running in families, does have multiple examples that prove the ‘family business’ often passes from one generation to the next. Looking back over history we can go back to the Roman Empire and see examples of this and today there are plenty of ‘crime families’.

Today we tend to think of criminal families as being from poorer economic backgrounds and from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ but this is not always the case. Rich and poor alike can be involved in the ‘business’ of crime. Perhaps this speaks to the argument that it is nature rather than nurture that turns someone into a criminal.

Going back in time we have an excellent example of a well documented, wealthy family who were all, to one degree or another, involved in the ‘family business’. The emperors of Rome were well known for their family ties and for letting nothing stand in their way when it came to the business of ruling the empire. The infamous Caligula (Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus) attained power by, allegedly, smothering the Emperor Tiberius, and then executing Gemellus, the rightful heir.

Caligula had three sisters, Agrippina, Livilla and Drusilla. Keeping it in the family took on a whole new meaning as it is alleged that all three had an incestuous relationship with Caligula. He showered his sisters with public honors, taking nepotism to extremes. Agrippina was perhaps the most ambitious, at one point hoping to have her child named by Caligula in an attempt to get the child adopted as heir.

Disillusioned with their brother, both Agrippina and Livilla are said to have offered sexual favors to Lepidus, who was Caligula’s interim successor. It is likely that they were planning some means of removing Caligula from the scene and hoping for favors from Lepidus if they helped him. The scheming sisters gained no benefit because Caligula heard the rumors about the liaisons with Lepidus, had Lepidus executed and sent both sisters into exile.

Caligula was assassinated, having reigned for less than four years. A conspiracy was hatched by the Praetorian Guard and is thought, in some quarters, to have been backed by the emperor who replaced Caligula, Claudius. Claudius was Caligula’s uncle and had been favored early in Caligula’s reign and very close to his nieces. Extremely close, as Claudius eventually married Agrippina, his niece and the cycle continued. Agrippina was later accused of murdering Claudius, by poison, as she maneuvered her way to the top.

Another infamous family of criminals was the 15th century Borgias. This family is seared into the public consciousness as one of the most ruthless and treacherous ever seen. Alfonso Borgia became Pope in 1453 and his family soon held positions of power and influence.

Rodrigo, his nephew, became Pope in 1492 and fathered two famous children, Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia. It is suggested that, over the years, Cesare assassinated his brother Giovanni (who stood in the way of his career), drowned one of his enemies during a military campaign, imprisoned and executed many who stood in his way or defied him and fathered at least eleven illegitimate children over the course of his life.

His sister, Lucrezia, is either seen as a political pawn, used by her father and brother to make advantageous marriages or a scheming femme fatal. There is no doubt that she was indeed married to influential and useful men. Her first marriage was annulled amid rumors of incestuous relationships with her father and brother and the secret birth of a child that was possibly Cesare’s.

Cesare had Lucrezia’s second husband strangled and the reasons are vague. He may have been jealous of Lucrezia’s happiness with this new husband or it may have had political motives. Another political marriage followed and Lucrezia is known to have been unfaithful on many occasions and rumors persist about the father of her children (often Cesare is mentioned as are other lovers including her bi-sexual brother-in-law). She is said to have worn a hollow ring which she used to poison the drinks of those she wished dead.

Moving from families who, despite their wealth and privilege, or perhaps because of it, turned to scheming and murder, we jump forward to the criminals of recent history. Families from poor backgrounds but is that what drove them to a life of crime?

Ma (Kate) Barker and her sons became famous enough to have a disco song written about them. Perhaps not the memorial these hardened criminals would have wanted but fame of a kind. Ma Barker was a hard woman. At an early age she saw Jesse James ride by and was said to be devastated when he was later shot and killed (1882). Was there something in her nature that drew her to crime and criminals, to the thrill and excitement of a life of crime? We will never truly know.

Ma had four sons, Herman, Lloyd, Arthur (Doc) and Freddie and from an early age they took to crime and Ma was in there with them. When her young sons were in trouble with the police, she often played the upset mother to get her sons out of the situation. Her husband, George Barker, left in 1927 and Ma ruled the roost from then on. Fred was in prison for killing a cop during a car theft when he met Alvin Karpis and the Karpis-Barker gang was born soon after.

During the 1930’s the gang committed many bank robberies and robbed the mail, never shy of shooting anyone who got in their way. In 1933 the gang turned to kidnapping and their first two attempts earned them $300,000 in ransom money. The gang made a mistake when they left evidence at the crime scene when they silenced George ‘Shotgun’ Ziegler who had been boasting about the gangs exploits. ‘Doc’ was arrested and eventually shot to death by guards in Alcatraz during an escape attempt. Ma and Freddie died during the course of a four hour shoot-out at a cottage in Florida.

Was it Ma’s fascination with the outlaw lifestyle, fuelled by her early encounter with Jesse James that sent her on the path or was it the poverty and hardship of her life and her son’s that forced them into a life of crime as a family. There are some accounts that claim Ma was nothing more than a mother to the gang, admittedly one who enjoyed the benefits of the gang’s activities. Whatever the truth, this was one family that believed ‘The family who raids together, stays together’.

From the Emperors of Rome to the Mafia crime families, the Krays and the Richardsons in London to today’s gangs with their family style bonds, keeping crime in the family has always been with us and probably always will be. The question is why this happens, not if it will and the answers are as complex and varied as the families themselves.