Five historic mothers for Mothers’ Day…

Were you smugly congratulating yourself in December for getting off the Christmas card merry-go-round? Perhaps you thought an email to loved ones would cover things on that occasion. Or you might have avoided the financial haemorrhage known as Valentine’s Day, when a card, a few flowers and (dare I even mention it…) a meal in the local restaurant can prove particularly bruising on the wallet.

Maybe you’re one of those people who refuse to be suckered into the emotional maelstroms of ‘big’ occasions. Well, don’t be feeling so smug with yourself because you’re not out of the woods yet.

In this part of the world, today is the moment card manufacturers salivate over all year round – the day when the emotional blackmail barometer soars to dizzy heights. It’s the day that none but the coldest of hearts would dare ignore – yes, Mothers’ Day in all its violet-tinged, floral glory is upon us, and God help anyone who forgets.

Of course, mothers are great, and there certainly have been plenty of them down the years. Some, though, lifted themselves higher than others…

I can hear those cries of protest already. When I say ‘some’ I mean the ones that took the moniker of ‘mother’, or one like it, and made it their own.


Mary Harris Jones aka 'Mother Jones'

Mary Harris Jones

I mean women like Mother Jones – that stalwart of the American labour movement, who galvanised calls to action, marching on Washington to protest over the plight of the working class. Cork-born Mary Harris Jones was a union organiser, who (from the 1870s to her death in 1930) campaigned for workers’ rights through her long career, which was peppered with prison terms and court appearances.

She marched and protested for railroad workers, miners, and even minors – the ‘March of the Mill Children’ in 1901 was part of a campaign to secure adult wages for child workers. Although unsuccessful, Jones’ actions did lead to an improved situation for young workers.

And don’t forget another great mama – Cass Elliot. Mama Cass’s velvet tones brought huge success to her and her group, The Mamas and The Papas in the Sixties. Songs like California Dreamin’, Monday, Monday and (her solo) Dream A Little Dream of Me showcased her talent – a talent which was augmented after an accident that occurred while she was holidaying in the Virgin Islands.

Elliot claimed that an iron bar from a construction site fell on her head, giving her concussion. Her misfortune proved to be the music industry’s gain because, two weeks later, she found herself able to sing three notes higher.

Mama Cass

Mama Cass

Elliot, a large lady, is said to have been unhappy with the moniker ‘Mama’, particularly after the group split. Her subsequent solo career was plagued by drug abuse, which led to a disastrous opening night in Las Vegas in 1968. By all accounts, it was a car crash of an evening, not helped by the fact that she had injected heroin just prior to going on stage.

Cass Elliot died of heart failure in 1974. She was just 32. It was a life cut short too soon, but the name ‘Mama Cass‘ – and her music – lives on.

There have been other celebrated mothers – Mother Teresa, for instance. The Albanian nun and her Order, the Sisters of Charity, have been celebrated for doing sterling work fighting poverty in India. Well, that’s how some would view the saint…

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa

Others saw the wizened nun’s actions as being far from saintly. The conditions in her Order’s hospitals were lambasted, her use of huge donations questioned, and she was accused of being more interested in growing the Catholic faith than in alleviating poverty.

But let’s push that to one side and reflect on another woman who set the bar high for Mothers’ Day. I refer to Grandma Moses…

I must admit, I had heard of her name before but had no idea how she had become so well known. The more I read of her now, the more I like what I see. Anna Mary Robertson Moses achieved fame as a painter. She was born in 1860 and would live to the ripe age of 101.

A house servant and later a farmer’s wife and mother of ten, her art was inspired by bygone times – ‘old timey’, as she called it.

Grandma Moses

Grandma Moses

Initially selling for $3-$5, her works rose in price to between $8,000 and $10,000 as her fame grew. In 2006, one of her paintings, The Sugaring Off, sold for $1.2million – not bad going for someone who only took up painting at the age of 78.

Moses certainly made up for lost time, though. She was a prolific artist, painting 0ver 1,500 works of art in her lifetime – and she was feisty, too. The character Daisy Moses in The Beverly Hillbillies is said to be based on her (and I can see the resemblance).

These were all remarkable women in their own way. But, for me, there’s one who sticks out more than most – Arrie Barker, that much-maligned matriarch to four sons whose crimes had the family name plastered over newspapers throughout America in the 1920s and ’30s.

Ma Barker‘s boys were trouble with a capital T. Hermann, Lloyd, Fred and Arthur ‘Doc’ Barker were involved in a whole series of crimes that escalated from petty thieving to robbery and murder. Hermann killed himself in 1927 following a botched robbery and shoot-out with police.

For almost three years, Arrie lived alone – her husband had left and her three surviving boys were all incarcerated. Then, in 1931, Fred was released from prison. He immediately hooked up with criminal Alvin Karpis and set about doing what they did best – committing robberies and murdering police officers. The pair became Wanted men, and Arrie, rather than be alone again, decided to join them on the road.

Ma Barker

Ma Barker

‘Doc’ Barker was released from jail the following year and joined Lloyd and a few others to form the Barker-Karpis gang. The siblings’ mother, now known as ‘Ma Barker’, was still in tow, but now she had a price on her head for being an accomplice to her sons’ depredations.

The gang hid out in various houses in and around the town of St Paul, Minnesota, where they undertook two kidnappings, which netted them $300,000 in ransom money.

These were the days of J Edgar Hoover’s FBI when criminals became celebrities. Bonnie & Clyde, John Dillinger, Baby-Faced Nelson… their names filled column inches in newspapers throughout the country. Added to that lurid list were Ma Barker and her boys.

The reign of terror came to an end two years later when Ma and her son Fred were cornered in a house in Florida. After a firefight that lasted several hours, both were killed. A ‘Tommy’ gun was found on the ground between their bodies in the upstairs bedroom. Fred’s body was peppered with bullets. Arrie (aged 62) died from a single shot.

Ma was dubbed by the FBI as being the criminal mastermind of the Barker-Karpis gang. However, all those who knew her, including members of the gang, found this claim laughable. They all said that Ma had been a handy cover for her boys – an ageing woman with her sons in tow carried less suspicion than if they crossed the highways and byways by themselves.

There’s something terribly sad about a mother trailing after her marauding sons, living in hotel rooms and rented houses while they went out and did their worst – a woman still trying to protect her brood, no matter what their actions.

Ma Barker no doubt had her faults, but she stood by her sons come hell or high water, going on the run with them and even being with one until the bitter, bloody end. There’s nobility in that.

A mother’s love is a blessing but a bad son can be a curse. Arrie Barker had four bad sons, but she tried to do good by them all, no matter how misguided her actions might have been… and isn’t that all any mother could do for her brood?

To all mothers out there, take a pat on the back.

About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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4 Responses to Five historic mothers for Mothers’ Day…

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this, David. A fun antidote for all the Mother’s Day schmaltz.


  2. Glad you liked it, Denise!


  3. David, I take the pat on the back for the times I have been through and I thank you for a great post x


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