Mother’s Day is here again. The air is filled with purple prose from Hallmark, florists are exhausted from non-stop deliveries, and if you’re planning on eating out, better bring a lawn chair so you can relax during the long wait for a table.
Most people think they have the best mother of all time. (They’re mistaken; my mom was the world’s best.) But this post takes the opposite view. Let me introduce you to the Five Worst Moms in History.
Before we begin the countdown, a word about the mothers who didn’t make the list.
It’s not fair to rate someone a terrible mom based solely upon her child’s misdeeds. For example, by all accounts Klara Hitler was a kind and loving mother. So Adolf must assume personal responsibility for becoming history’s worst monster. Having a drunken lout of a government bureaucrat for a husband who beat her kids (and probably her, too) was bad enough; but poor Klara can’t be blamed for the Third Reich. When Germans shouted “Heil Hitler!” they meant the son, not the mom.
And it’s just not sporting to go after easy targets such as actress Joan Crawford, whose maternal shortcomings were chronicled in her adopted daughter’s tell-all expose “Mommie Dearest” (and who forever changed the way we view wire clothes hangers, too).
Finally, there are the freaks, such as Nadya Suleman, who will live in tabloid history as the “Octomom” after bearing a litter of eight test tube babies in a single delivery, and who went on to dabble in adult entertainment, welfare fraud and debating parenting skills with Lindsay Lohan’s dad. (The woman has been punished for her self-inflicted stupidity far beyond anything I could add here.)
My bottom line criteria for making the list was this: did the woman intentionally do something horrible in her role as mother that negatively impacted her children? So without further ado, I give you the Five Worst Moms in History:
5) Mary Ball Washington, George’s mom
He may have been the Father of our Country, but George Washington sure had a miserable Mom. While he was working day and night to keep the Revolution alive when it was hanging by a thread, she was badmouthing the American cause to anyone who would listen. In fact, French military officers stationed in Virginia where she lived claimed she was an outright Loyalist supporter of England’s King George III. And despite enjoying a comfortable lifestyle (George bought her a very nice house which still stands in Fredericksburg), she whined about being poor and consistently hounded Virginia’s legislature for what we know today as welfare support, claiming she was destitute. She embarrassed George all the way to the presidency, whereupon she died at age 80. (She even looked like George in drag.)
4) Arizona Donnie Barker, aka “Ma Barker”
As a native Missourian, it shames me to admit this Show-Me State girl made the FBI’s Public Enemies list during the notorious 1930s crime wave. J. Edgar Hoover called her “the most vicious, dangerous and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade” – and she turned crime into the family business. How’s that for bad parenting?
Sons Herman, Lloyd, Fred and Arthur Barker became criminals the minute they got out of diapers. Murder, car theft, kidnapping, armed robbery, bank holdups … the boys did it all. And Ma was right there with them. Things came to an abrupt end in a rented rural Florida hideout on January 16, 1935. A shootout with FBI agents straight out of a gangster movie ended with Ma and Fred going down in a hail of bullets. A Thompson machine gun was found at their side. Their bodies were put on public display, then stored unclaimed for eight months until poor relatives scraped up the cash to bury them in Oklahoma next to Herman, who had shot himself eight years earlier to avoid capture after a bungled bank robbery. At least the family was consistent – they were rotten right up to the end.
3) Mary Ann Cotton
Her name may not ring a bell in the U.S., but it’s still scandalous in the U.K. Because this 19th Century nurse, dressmaker, and housekeeper had a secret hobby: she poisoned and killed 11 of her 13 children, all four of her husbands, two lovers, plus two other people. All for their insurance money. Arsenic was her murder weapon of choice. She racked up a body count of 21 before Scotland Yard finally caught up with her. The London Times reported, “After conviction the wretched woman exhibited strong emotion but this gave place in a few hours to her habitual cold, reserved demeanour … she harbours a strong conviction that royal clemency will be extended towards her.” But that didn’t happen. When Mary Ann Cotton was hanged on March 24, 1873, she died not from her neck breaking but by strangulation caused by the rope being cut too short, possibly deliberately. A bad ending for a truly Bad Mom.
2) Zerelda Elizabeth Cole James Simms Samuel, Jesse James’ Mom
Admittedly, Zerelda Cole (she was blood related to the notorious Cole Younger Gang), had a lot of tough breaks in life. Her father died when she was a small child, forcing her to live with her grandfather, a saloon owner, until her mother remarried. Zerelda hated her stepfather (a common occurrence, to which I can personally attest as stepfather), and got married at age 16 to get out of the house. Husband Robert James was a hemp farmer and, ironically, a popular Baptist preacher. They eventually moved to Missouri, where Frank was born, followed by Jesse four years later. Robert left home during the California Gold Rush, where it’s believed he died.
She quickly remarried, but it was an unhappy union. Husband #2 disliked Frank and Jesse and allegedly treated them cruelly. The problem was soon resolved when Husband #2 was thrown from a horse and killed.
Zerelda then married Husband #3, “a quiet, passive man, widely described as standing in the shadow of his outspoken, forceful wife.” Read: she was a tough old biddy who wore the pants in the family. She had four more children; Archie, the youngest, was moderately retarded.
Then the Civil War came. The James-Samuel blended family was fiercely pro-Southern. Frank joined Confederate guerrillas; when pro-Northern militia came looking for him, they hanged Husband #3 in the front yard of the family farm (seriously injuring, but not killing him), which prompted Jesse to also join the guerrillas, which in turn led to his post-war life of crime.
When the Pinkerton Agency sent detectives to northwest Missouri to catch the gang, they were warned: “If the boys don’t kill you, the old lady will.” On the night of January 25, 1875, they raided the James farm and threw an incendiary device into the house. It exploded, killing innocent 8 year-old Archie and blowing off one of Zerelda’s arms. That’s when she really got bitter.
Jesse was eventually murdered (by one of his own men) in 1882, and Frank surrendered to authorities (and was later acquitted at trial and then went straight). Zerelda spent her final years turning the James farm into a tourist trap. For 50 cents a head, she gave guided tours of the place, charging extra for photos to be taken. In a final bit of larceny, she played on visitors’ sympathy by offering to sell old, rusted, unusable guns that she said had belonged to Jesse; in reality, she bought them cheap at second hand shops and charged a small fortune for them. Which is why dozens of private gun collections today still boast a firearm that once was “carried by Jesse James.” Truly Bad Mom material from start to finish.
Which brings us to the recipient of the title History’s Worst Mom:
1) Mama June, from “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”
Thanks for reading, and be sure to do something nice for your Mom today. After putting up with you for all these years, she’s earned it.
Happy Mother’s Day 2015, everybody!
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