Gertrude Lythgoe (1888-1974) played a huge role in a male-dominated corner of the crime world: bootlegging. During an era filled with some of history’s most notorious gangsters and crooks, she made her mark with mystery, intelligence, and quality. For those of you tuning in for the first time, welcome! Here’s the deal: Every weekday, we highlight the stories of iconic women in history you may not know about, but definitely should. We’re talking about women from around the world and throughout history. Each month is themed. This month we’re talking about troublemakers–from women who made “good trouble” to women who thrived in illicit industries to villains in the truest sense of the word.
This month, we're talking about troublemakers–from women who made “good trouble” to women who thrived in illicit industries to villains in the truest sense of the word.
History classes can get a bad wrap, and sometimes for good reason. When we were students, we couldn’t help wondering... where were all the ladies at? Why were so many incredible stories missing from the typical curriculum? Enter, Encyclopedia Womannica. On this Wonder Media Network podcast we explore the lives of inspiring women in history you may not know about, but definitely should.
Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Educators, Villains, Indigenous Storytellers, Activists, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.
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Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Womanica.
This month, we’re talking about Troublemakers and Villains. We’re covering stories across the spectrum of women who made “good trouble”, to women who thrived in illicit industries, to villains in the truest sense of the word. All of the women we’re covering had a major impact on the societies in which they lived.
Today’s troublemaker played a huge role in a male-dominated corner of the crime world: bootlegging. During an era filled with some of history’s most notorious gangsters and crooks, this Womanican made her mark with mystery, intelligence, and quality.
Let’s talk about Gertrude “Cleo” Lythgoe.
Gertrude Lythgoe was born in 1888, in Bowling Green, Ohio. She was the youngest of 10 children. When Gertrude was young, her mother passed away. Her father was unable to care for her and her siblings, leaving them essentially orphaned.
As a young adult, Gertrude worked as a stenographer in California and New York, before taking a job at the British Scotch Whisky wholesaler, Haig and MacTavish. The position was based in New York City.
At first, this seemed like a lucrative business. After all, by 1830, the average American over 15 years old drank three times as much alcohol per year as we drink today -- that meant seven gallons annually! But these wild numbers spurred a temperance movement that worked nonstop to get alcohol prohibited.
Eventually, temperance succeeded. The 18th Amendment was established in 1917. It banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol. The National Prohibition Act, enforcing this amendment, came into effect in 1920 -- officially making Gertrude’s job illegal.
But many alcohol manufacturers kept producing -- including Gertrude’s employer, Haig and MacTavish. So the sale of alcohol fell to bootleggers willing to work outside the law.
Haig and MacTavish saw how sharp Gertrude was. They put her in charge of their operation in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas. Though bootlegging was a male dominated industry, Gertrude excelled at seeking buyers and brokering liquor sales.
She would meet ships coming from Europe and oversee the liquor being offloaded. Then, she would cut deals with “rum runners” -- the people responsible for bringing that illicit alcohol back to the States.
Business was booming. The year after prohibition took effect, Nassau’s alcohol sales grew 400 times!
High sales meant lots of money floating around the city. Gertrude lived in the Lucerne Hotel -- the bootlegger’s headquarters. There, she consorted with crooks and fellow bootleggers who regularly paid their tabs with $1,000 bills.
At first, some of Gertrude’s customers were suspicious of her gender. They were used to working with other men. But Gertrude won them over with her clear intelligence and the quality of her goods. If anyone questioned her position, she’d quickly put them in their place.
In one case, Gertrude caught wind of a man badmouthing the quality of her liquor. As the story goes, she marched into the barber shop where he was being shaved and made him come to her office. She later recounted, “I told him I’d put a bullet through him as sure as he sat there. He went away mighty quick.”
Before long, Gertrude came to be known as “The Bahama Queen.” Her tall, slender appearance, dark hair, and regal features made many people compare her to Cleopatra. She earned the nickname “Cleo.” By the mid 1920’s, she was basically a celebrity in the United States.
Though Gertrude operated successfully for several years, she was eventually arrested in New Orleans for smuggling 1,000 cases of whisky into the city. She was cleared of the charges -- but that close brush with the law left its mark.
By 1925, Gertrude felt that she was “jinxed,” and at risk of being murdered. She decided to quit bootlegging and focus on writing a memoir.
Gertrude lived the rest of her life out of the limelight, bouncing from one hotel to another in Miami and New York. Eventually, she settled down for 25 years in the fancy Hotel Tuller in Detroit.
She released her memoir in 1965, called “The Bahama Queen: The Autobiography of Gertrude ‘Cleo’ Lythgoe”.
Gertrude Lythgoe passed away in 1974, at the age of 86.
All month we’re talking about troublemakers and villains.
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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.
As always, we’re taking a break for the weekend.
Talk to you Monday!