I grew up watching movies from the 1930’s and 40’s with my mom. While I still enjoyed the newer films coming out, I loved to hear the banter between Nick and Nora Charles, or thrill to Errol Flynn’s daredevil heroics.
As I grew older, I began to notice a common thread amongst them – the women often had to be saved by the leading men.
I mean not always, and not in every film, but there was a lot of times that the women in the movie could not manage to help themselves in their time of greatest need with no other assistance in sight. The women that I grew up around were mostly very strong and capable, but these gals on celluloid always seemed to add a third option to what Mother Nature gave to most of us – fight, flight, or swoon.
I never really figured that was the case in real life, but, thanks in part to those old movies, I couldn’t help but have that idea rattling around in the back of my head.
As I did research for this week’s piece, I was very pleased to find rock solid evidence that this was definitely not the case, and that women, as they are today, have always been quite capable.
Hazel Anderson was walking alone that night. It had been cold that December, jumping back and forth over the 0-degree mark.
As she walked along through the residential neighborhood of 50th Street in Moline, Illinois, Hazel could probably hear her boots crunching in the snow. It was just after 10 p.m. on a Sunday evening, and the streets were dark and quiet. But Hazel had been born and raised in Moline, so she was probably confident of the area and her safety.
Walking along, bundled up warmly against the cold night, Hazel was probably more than a little surprised when a man walked up to her and demanded her purse.
The would-be robber, probably a little irritated now, again told Hazel to give up the purse.
Now the robber was just downright angry. He’s been standing there in the dark for who knows how long, and it’s cold. Really, really cold. This girl is supposed to just give up the purse and cower before his scariness, and he’s supposed to stride back off into the night, a successful criminal.
But that wasn’t happening!
This girl has to ruin the fantasy that he’s been using to keep himself warm in the dark, to keep him out there one minute longer to find a victim. His anger fuels him, and he’s determined to make his little dream a reality.
Drawing a pistol, the robber grabbed Hazel’s arm and put the muzzle of the firearm in her face, commanding her to release the purse.
But still no!
Hazel screamed for help while tightening her grip on her purse and trying to break free of the robber’s grasp. She made her free hand into a fist and brought it repeatedly down on the man’s head.
Suddenly, Hazel was free!
Without thinking, she ran onto the porch of the nearest house she saw. The robber gave chase, again catching her and trying his best to wrest it away from her.
Inside, Minnie Brown heard the commotion and, taking a revolver, Minnie went out to her front porch to investigate.
There, she could see Hazel Anderson and her robber struggling with each other. Minnie didn’t hesitate. She told the man to let Hazel go, but when he refused, Minnie raised the pistol and fired.
She didn’t want to take the chance of hitting Hazel, and she didn’t really want to shoot the robber, either. Minnie just wanted to scare the man off, so she just fired in his general direction.
The robber was probably even more surprised by this random woman shooting at him while he wrestled for the purse. He ran off the porch, then turned around toward the Brown home and started shooting back, but thankfully didn’t hit Minnie.
Enough was enough. Let them keep the purse. The woman had missed shooting him, and he wasn’t going to give her enough time to correct that.
The robber ran out into the street. He kept to the ruts carved into the snow by passing cars, and quickly covered ground. As Minnie and Hazel watched, the man was joined by a second, larger man about a block away, and then faded from view.
The women went inside and called the police. Five minutes later, two patrolmen were at the Brown residence. Despite a thorough search through the neighborhood, they did not catch the robbers.
A few nights later, another young woman, Helen De Pue, was walking home from her job at the Moline Plow Company when she noticed a man in a long overcoat and cap walking in her direction.
As their paths crossed underneath a bright street lamp, the man told Helen to give him her purse. Helen refused, and then immediately hit him hard in the face with a bundle of shoes that she was carrying.
The blow hit the robber hard, knocking him off-balance. The robber quickly found his footing and ran off into the night.
Helen went straight home, which was thankfully only a block away., and told her family about what had happened. They called the police a short time later. By the time the authorities arrived, however, the robber was long gone.
Both Hazel Anderson and Helen De Pue were young women walking alone at night. While it could be argued that they might have been vulnerable at that moment, neither of them proved to helpless in any sense.
None of the three robbers were ever caught. Police at the time thought that Hazel Anderson’s attacker was responsible for a robbery a few days after the attempt on her, but they didn’t think that De Pue robber was connected at all.
In 1920, the women of Hollywood’s silver screen may have been willing to wait for rescue, but the women of Moline, Illinois were more than capable of standing against their attackers – and winning.
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‘Gets $50 In Holdup of a Moline Store.’ The Daily Times, 12/28/1920
‘Girl Fights Off Thief on Moline Street.’ The Daily Times, 12/29/1920
‘Girl and Woman Rout Bandit in Daring Battle.’ The Davenport Democrat and Leader, 12/27/20
‘Brave Women Frustrate Plan of Holdup Man.’ The Rock Island Argus, 12/27/1920
US Census Records
US Immigration Records