In 1924 New York, a young woman and her husband went on a short robbery spree, holding up grocery stores and drug stores in Brooklyn. The woman, Celia Cooney, had dark bobbed hair. She was pregnant, and she and her husband Ed wanted more of the good life for themselves and for their baby. The robbed ten stores before fleeing to Florida, where they were caught and returned to face a trial. The pled guilty, avoiding a sensationalized trial, and were sentenced to 10-20 years. They served seven, and went straight afterwards.
Not a very gripping story, and certainly not an unusual one. Yet this 2-month crime spree gripped New York and the rest of the country as the “yellow press” spun the story into a year’s worth of frenzied newspaper accounts that made Celia the biggest celebrity of her day–with crowds of tens of thousands of people trying to catch a glimpse of the Bobbed Haired Bandit wherever she appeared in public after her arrest. Poor Ed got no coverage at all, except to suggest he must be a “cake eater” or a “nancy-boy.” After all, no “real man” would be bossed by a woman.
In 1924, a woman bandit was unthinkable. Women simply didn’t commit violent crimes unless they were insane, and sassy, self-confident Celia was definitely not insane. She enjoyed her crimes and the power the gun gave her over a group of cowering men. She enjoyed what the money bought her. Widespread opinion equated bobbed hair with sin and mental illness–fathers and husbands forbade their women from cutting their long tresses, lest they be driven to a life of crime.
The newspaper’s reaction to the crime spree, such as it was, mightily embarrassed the New York police. Tough cops couldn’t catch a tiny young woman? How humiliating! Jobs were at stake; the newspapers screamed insults at the police, but the Cooneys remained at large and active. The police, said the newspapers, were either incompetent or on the take–either way they deserved firing. Then Celia and Ed were caught, and the pitiful story of her childhood emerged, turning her into a poster child for society’s failure to care for the most vulnerable.
All in all, The Bobbed Haired Bandit is a great book if you are interested in a comment on the times, which of course I am. Since my mysteries take place in 1924 and 1925–although not in New York–I found the authors’ use of primary sources helpful because they revealed the language of the day, words I can work into my own stories. Words like nifty and simp (simple or stupid). Mentally impaired people were known (politely) as morons or feeble-minded. I can also use descriptions of what people were wearing at the time. This book was a hit for me!