It's commonplace to blame the mother for her children's behavior. The criminal Krays were spoiled as children, while the Barkers were beaten. Mother Kray was addled and didn't really know what her sons were doing. Ma Barker was corrupt and participated fully in her children's crimes. Or so the stories go.
Each of these mothers produced children who were criminals by any standard. Both mothers seem to have participated, at least to a degree, in the crimes of their children. Whether this was because of the natural tendency of a mother to protect her offspring or whether these parents had criminal tendencies of their own is hard to say.
Arizona Donnie Clark, who became Ma Barker, was born into a conservative Christian family in southwest Missouri around 1873. She seems to have shared her family's values as a child. In 1892 she married George Barker. They had four sons and three daughters. Eventually, she may have thrown George out as a drunk. At any rate, he left the family after the birth of the youngest son, Fred. Arrie raised her children alone, essentially in poverty, and the boys were frequently in trouble with the law.
As adults, they formed a violent gang. Arthur, called Doc, got life for shooting a night watchman in 1935. He was killed trying to escape from Alcatraz in 1939. Herman committed suicide in 1927 during a shootout with the police. Lloyd, called Red, did nineteen years for mail theft, but was paroled and served honorably in the army. After his discharge he worked at a bar and grill in Denver until his wife shot and killed him in 1949. She died in an insane asylum.
Fred and his mother died at a lakeside cottage in Florida. After Arthur's capture, police found a map on his body that led them to Lake Weia, near Ocklawaha. They surrounded the hideout and demanded that the Barkers surrender. They apparently refused. Photographs were later released of the bodies, including a picture of Ma Barker holding a tommy-gun. Some say that J. Edgar Hoover framed her, and blackened her name to justify killing an old woman.
Alvin Karpis, long-time associate of the gang, later wrote two books about his life in crime. He claimed that Arrie Barker was no mastermind. She traveled with the gang, which helped them look like a normal family, but she had no real part in their misdeeds. They sent her to the movies when they committed crimes. "Ma saw a lot of movies," he said.
In England in 1933, Ronald and Reginald Kray were born to Violet Lee and Charles David Kray Sr. Charles Kray worked as a dealer in scrap gold, and became a draft dodger when he was called up during World War II. Violet was a housewife, which was the usual occupation for women at the time.
As the children grew, they did well in school. They became boxers in their teens. Boxing was favored sport in the East End, and the twins were quite good at it. In 1952, though, they were called up for England's mandatory National Service. Both deserted several times.
When they were locked up for this, Ron began to act irrational. His behavior seemed beyond the bounds of rebellious youth or ordinary criminality. In fact, he was probably already insane, although he was not diagnosed at the time.
The Krays were released with dishonorable discharges, and began to build a criminal empire. They owned bars and nightclubs, and also had ventures in protection, arson, armed robbery, and murder. They were always extremely violent, and ruled their empire through fear. At the same time, their nightclub in the West End was popular with the celebrities of the day, and their pictures appeared in high-fashion magazines. Their mother had visitors to tea, from both her children's worlds, and appeared to genuinely know nothing of their illicit activities.
When they were finally arrested in 1968, 16 other members of their gang went down with them. The underworld apparently feared them no longer, and many people with dark reputations testified against them. Each brother was sentenced to life in prison for murder.
In prison, Reginald became a born-again Christian. Such jail-house conversions inspire skepticism, but Reggie must have known he would not be released easily. On the other hand, Ronald married while in prison, although he had been a life-long homosexual. He died in Broadmoor Hospital, a high security asylum, in 1995. Reginald died at a hotel in 2000, in his sleep, having been released on the compassionate grounds of his terminal cancer. Large crowds attended each twin's funeral.
They had both been permitted to go to their mother's funeral in 1982, a week after her death from cancer. They were not allowed at the graveside service however, because of security concerns. Violet Kray's funeral was attended by many celebrities of the day, as well as by figures from the criminal underworld. When her husband died, seven months later, neither twin attended.
It is hard to imagine a mother who would want her children to be criminals, or who would willingly admit that they were. Facing clear evidence though, a mother might still try to protect her children, in spite of their crimes. Her maternal feelings might overcome her conscience. Another kind of mother might work very hard at pretending that all was well with her children, and at staving off the knowledge that her children were not as they should be. As horrifying as these men's crimes might have been, their mother's lives can only inspire compassion.