When this investigator and crimenovelistgot curious about female bank robbers, he fell down a rabbit hole—and created a mysterious Instagram account devoted to the subject. What can we tell from these grainy surveillance photos?
Do women rob banks?
I was lying in bed six months ago when that question passed through my mind. I’d been thinking about a character in a novel I’m writing. The character, a bank robber, happens to be male, and I was considering what it would be like if he (she) was female. I picked up my phone and typed in the phrase: "Female bank robber."
The images that popped up immediately grabbed my attention: They were part of a trove of surveillance photos, many of which appeared to tell a different story. The pictures evoked the normal things we associate with bank robbery, like fear, desperation and sadness. They also, unquestionably, showed images of strength and power.
I had many questions. What made these women do it? How did their lives get to this point? Some of the women looked like mothers and grandmothers. Some didn’t look bothered at all; a few seemed to be genuinely smiling. Some looked calm, some looked nervous. A few looked absolutely heartbroken.
I started the Instagram account right then. For the sake of consistency, I made the pictures black and white. I chose not to do any research about the women—how many banks they robbed, how much money they got, if they were caught. The images were so striking, adding details seemed to diminish their inherent mystery. Also, the idea of posting personal details, like names and locations, felt ethically complicated—all a bit too much for what is essentially a hobby.
In fact, because I didn't do research, I'm not even sure if any of these women actually robbed a bank. They should be considered innocent until proven guilty.
I’ve thought a lot about crime and criminals in my life. When I'm not writing crime fiction, I work as a private investigator. I specialize in criminal defense and civil rights cases. Over the last 14 years, I’ve worked for attorneys representing women who have been charged with all types of criminal acts: child abuse, domestic abuse, drug dealing, assault, burglary, and murder. I’ve never worked for a female bank robber, though.
Instead, I’ve had to make them up. My first book, The White Van, was about a woman named Emily who robbed a bank. In the book, she’s forced into committing the crime. I wonder sometimes how many of the real-world women were coerced into these acts.
Heists still have a kind of romance about them. Seven years ago I went to visit my grandmother in Ashland, Oregon. She was the friendliest Jewish grandmother in the world. She was dying at the time. She asked me what I was up to. I told her I was working on a book about a lady who robbed banks. My nana looked over my shoulder wistfully. Her eyes got a far-off look like she was remembering some great regret. “I always wanted to rob a bank," she confessed.
This article was originally published as part of our Off Topic newsletter, where you get an original story delivered to your inbox each and every week. Sign up now.