Syndicate Women: Gender and Networks in Chicago Organized Crime

Author: Chris M. Smith
Publisher: University of California Press, 2019. 208 pages.
Reviewer: R. V. Gundur ǀ June 2022

The historical role of women in organized criminal enterprise is frequently overlooked in both popular and academic accounts. Depictions of the American illicit entrepreneurs of the first half of the twentieth century focus on a few notable European-American men. In Chicago, notable mobsters include Bugs Moran, Dion O’Bannion, John Torrio, and, Torrio’s protégé, Al Capone. The absence of women with comparable name recognition diminishes any recognition of the roles they played in illicit enterprise, and renders their contributions invisible. Chris Smith remedies this shortcoming in her book, Syndicate Women: Gender and Networks in Chicago Organized Crime. This well-presented and well-researched work puts faces to significant women of the era, and shows how the dynamics of the relationships between men and women influenced the roles that women could access in illicit vice in Chicago.

Smith’s concise tome expertly highlights some of the most important women players of the era, and indicates how they were linked to the criminal syndicates that made organized crime in Chicago nationally well-known. Smith describes her methodology and presents two time periods for analysis: The Progressive Era, which occurred from 1900 to 1919, and Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 until 1933. She describes the geography and mechanics of vice businesses in Chicago, and the role of gender in each era.

While a chapter on method, rather than a methodological appendix, may be unusual, Smith’s account of how she painstakingly built this data set is important. Over a period of seven years, Smith collected data through an intensive scouring of various archival sources. She then connected the people identified using social network analysis, which connects actors who might not be obviously linked within a criminal network, and which illustrates their roles and relationships. As a result, Smith was able to incorporate bit players, whose names and social connections were sometimes the only information available, into the equation. Thus, the author was able to move beyond the accounts of a handful of well-known personalities to provide a fuller picture of the networks through which illicit businesses operated in Chicago. This chapter on method is a fantastic contribution in itself, as it demonstrates the kinds of inputs required to yield meaningful results in a way that is accessible to novices in both archival research and social network analysis.

The descriptions of both the Progressive Era and Prohibition provide the reader with clear, accurate accounts of criminal enterprise. While much of this description illustrates the behaviors of men, this context is necessary to understand how women navigated these male-dominated spaces. Moreover, Smith supplements the words on the page with maps and network maps that illustrate place and relationships and photographs that put faces to the names of the most significant women she discusses. She shows that during the Progressive Era, while vice was overwhelmingly concentrated in Chicago’s Levee district, control over organized crime was decentralized, and lacked the bosses who would come later and who would consolidate power.

These circumstances, which began at the turn of the twentieth century as Chicago rapidly expanded, allowed women to have significant roles in managing vice, specifically sex work. Nearly nine out of ten women who feature in Smith’s sample were associated with that business. Providing a larger picture, Smith tells us that thousands of women sex workers worked during the Progressive Era. Remarkably, roughly two out of every five brothels were managed or owned by women. While men still dominated organized crime during the Progressive Era and ran the protection rackets that women entrepreneurs had to pay in to, they drew on the connections that women had to access the sex work economy and to expand their business portfolios.

Furthermore, many of these co-offending relationships were not driven by romantic or familiar relationships. Several of the few women who did have links with criminally connected men married those men after they were well established. Women clearly had a say in selecting the partners with whom they advanced their criminal interests. Smith notes that the attributes women looked for when selecting male co-offenders (masculinity and criminal competence) differed from the attributes they looked for when selecting women co-offenders (trust, opportunity, and access).

Importantly, the author does not stop her analysis of the Progressive Era’s sex market with gender; she also notes the role of race. These observations constitute one of the most important contributions that Syndicate Women makes. Typical organized crime depictions of the early twentieth century focus on White actors and usually fail to consider an entire market of Black actors and customers. Black Americans were a significant and increasing population as they moved to Chicago with the Great Migration that began in 1916. However, this population was excluded from the vice spaces and services offered by White organized crime. At various times throughout the twentieth century, historical Black criminal entrepreneurs, like John “Mushmouth” Johnson and Pony Moore, made their fortunes running the Policy game, an illegal numbers game popular within Chicago’s Black community. Black criminal entrepreneurs, however, were never as famous as White gangsters (Lombardo 2002). Smith elucidates the role of a largely invisible population—Black women—who successfully established sex work businesses that catered to the population of Black customers. Though this exposition is a brief part of the book, its importance cannot be understated.

The author shows us that two developments changed the relationship between men and women in criminal enterprise in Chicago, and ultimately reduced the role of women in organized crime: the closing of the Levee district and all of its brothels, and the prohibition of alcohol in 1920. These developments contributed to the emergence of mob bosses, who consolidated their power and capacity to impose protection and who squeezed out women from their positions in the sex industry by preferencing male co-offenders. Moreover, the male-dominated criminal networks created significant barriers to women wishing to enter the centralized criminal networks. For instance, the closing of the Levee district meant that many of the madams and women who traded in sex were displaced and forced to move to less profitable areas, as one Vic Shaw did. Some of the most successful madams, like the Everleigh Sisters, left the business altogether.

With fewer lucrative entry points to the sex marketplace during Prohibition, fewer women had the requisite capital to own or manage brothels. Consequently, the percentage of women who were nodes—points that connected to other criminal actors—within Chicago’s organized crime networks was significantly reduced. Women went from being nearly 18% of nodes during the Progressive Era to about 4% during Prohibition. Importantly, most women who participated in organized crime during Prohibition did so based on their personal connections (e.g., relatives or romantic partners) to male organized crime figures, marking a significant departure from the largely independent criminal entrepreneurs of the Progressive Era.

Prohibition provided different opportunities for vice, with alcohol service coming to the forefront. Although Prohibition was another mechanism for mob bosses to accrue and to consolidate power within their criminal networks, organized crime did not own a monopoly on alcohol. The sale of alcohol provided women an opportunity for criminal entrepreneurship, even though it did not necessarily provide entry into organized crime. Notably, purveyors of alcohol were mostly migrant women, like “Moonshine” Mary Wazeniak of Poland and Cigarette Mamie of Ireland. Such women established, often in their own homes, small-scale establishments, that catered to their countrymen. However, these women illicit entrepreneurs can hardly be called “organized criminals,” as they never expanded their businesses beyond their homes or linked into the larger criminal networks. Nonetheless, although they did not participate in the city’s illicit networks, they do represent women who operated outside Chicago’s legal norms.

The quibbles with this work are minor. Perhaps a more accurate description of organized crime, particularly in the contexts canvassed in this book, would be illicit enterprise. One can run an illicit business with few inputs — the stories of the independent alcohol entrepreneurs illustrate that point. Smith makes her arguments in the contexts of relatively far-ranging connections. Also, readers may be left wanting more stories of and details about the women who operated in Chicago’s organized crime networks, but there is nothing more that Smith could have done to flesh out those stories in an honest way. The author stays true to the data she uncovered, and does not embellish; the limitations of the book mirror the limitations Smith faced in collecting archival research. Unlike men, women were not chronicled in the journalistic record, and, by avoiding arrest, women did not generate the criminal records which men generated. These documentary shortcomings have persisted over time, and indicate a need for better recordkeeping as well as a need to ask questions that are relevant to understanding criminal phenomena.

Ultimately, Syndicate Women’s central mission is to illustrate how analyzing relationships can enhance our understanding of the formation and evolution of organized crime and co-offending. On this count, Chris Smith succeeds, and produces a book that will age well and continue to be useful to students of historical criminology and innovative methods for years to come.


Lombardo, Robert M. 2002. “The Black Mafia: African-American organized crime in Chicago 1890–1960.” Crime, law and social change 38 (1):33-65.

R.V. Gundur, Senior Lecturer, Flinders University

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