Movies are full of iconic imagery. From the majestic vistas of Monument Valley in John Ford’s westerns to the bleak future battles of James Cameron’s imagination, Hollywood has impressed amazing scenes on the human psyche for over one hundred years.
Perhaps amongst the most iconic of these is the image of the damsel in distress.
Although executed in different ways, the scene usually involves a sufficiently sinister villain who is holding an innocent and helpless woman hostage. Said woman is inevitably saved by a dashing hero before she meets a horrible fate.
Societal norms of early and mid 20th century America allowed this idea to seep into the collective social consciousness of the nation, lending support to the notion that a woman is helpless in the face of an attacker, and that they’ll have to depend on a man to fight for them.
But Hollywood doesn’t always make it’s money from reality. Even in supposedly historical dramas, movie makers have time and time again taken liberties with the truth, masquerading fiction as fact.
So were women of 19th and early 20th centuries incapable of self-defense? Did they simply swoon when faced with physical confrontation with the male of the species?
Robbery by Moonlight
Hazel Anderson was walking home alone on the night of December 26, 1920. It had been cold that month, jumping back and forth over the zero degree mark.
Just after 10 p.m. on Sunday evening, she was walking toward her home through the residential neighborhood of 50th Street in Moline, Illinois. Hazel’s footsteps thudded rhythmically as she made her way along through the dark streets.
The late hour and the quiet winter night might have been enough to unnerve anyone, but Hazel had been born and raised in the city. She was confident of the area and her safety. She’d done this before countless times, and never had any trouble.
But on that night, her fortune changed.
As she walked 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.
Hazel had just worked a full shift at the offices of the Deere Harvester Company. It was cold, and she was tired. She had worked hard for the cash inside of the vanity she carried in her purse, and hard earned every last dime of it.
So, Hazel refused.
The would-be robber, was probably not expecting this. A young girl alone on the streets was supposed to do exactly what he said. She was supposed to shake and cry, then give in to his demands. A little irritated now, he again told Hazel to give up the purse.
“No,” she said flatly.
Now the robber was downright angry. He’s been standing there in the dark for who knows how long, and it’s cold. Really, really cold. Didn’t this girl know how this was supposed to work? She should have been sobbing in a heap on the sidewalk, as he strode off triumphantly into the night. What was the matter with this girl?
Drawing a pistol, the robber grabbed Hazel’s arm. Putting the muzzle of the gun in her face, he commanded her to give up her money.
Although she was a little more anxious now, Hazel again refused.
Determined, she tightened her grip on her purse and began shouting for help as loudly as she could. Her screams pierced the still night like a battle cry as she simultaneously began to struggle against her attacker with all her might.
Making her free hand into a tight fist, Hazel began to punch the robber in the face and head with it as hard as she could. As he began to try and defend himself, he loosened his grip on her arm, and Hazel was able to break away.
Without thinking, she ran onto the porch of the nearest house she saw. The robber ran after her, grabbing her again within a few steps. Caught once again, Hazel grappled fiercely with her attack as he tried his best to wrest the purse out of her unyielding fingers.
Inside the house, resident Minnie Brown had heard the commotion. There was obviously something bad happening, and while she wanted to help, she definitely wasn’t going to take any chances. Taking a revolver, Minnie went out to her front porch to investigate.
There, she could see a man struggling to take a purse from a young woman. Minnie didn’t hesitate. She immediately pointed the revolver at the robber and told the man to let the girl go.
The robber had to be frustrated. Nothing had gone according to his plan. The girl had not only resisted him, but had fought back. Hard.
Now there was this do-gooding woman with a gun in her hand, threatening to shoot him! Enough was enough. This lady wouldn’t shoot him. She didn’t have the nerve. Defiantly, the robber refused.
So, Minnie Brown pulled the trigger and fired.
She didn’t want to take the chance of hitting Hazel, but 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 without taking aim.
Good God! the robber thought. The younger one was bad enough, but now he had the older one shooting at him! He ran off the porch, trying his best not to get shot. Suddenly he turned, raised his own pistol, and began to shoot back at the house.
The robber was running and under fire from Minnie, so he wasn’t aiming his shots, either. He just wanted to get away now, far away from these awful women. Enough was enough. Let them keep the purse. The woman had missed him, and he wasn’t going to give her enough time to correct that.
The robber ran out into the street, keeping to the ruts carved into the snow by passing cars. As Minnie and Hazel watched, the man was joined by a second, larger man about a block away. Together, they ran off into the night.
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. But, no one had been shot, and Hazel was safe.
Robbery by Lamplight
A few nights later, another young woman, Helen De Pue, was walking home from her job at the Moline Plow Company. About a block away from her house, 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 stopped and told Helen to give him her purse. She 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. He quickly found his footing, but had apparently had enough. The robber turned and ran off into the night.
Helen went straight home 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.
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.
The Dashing Heroine
In both instances, a violent male had taken advantage of what they thought was a weak and helpless female in a vulnerable moment. Helen and Hazel were alone, without a soul in sight to come to their rescue. Alone and faced with determined male robbers, both women were, in essence, damsels in distress.
In the Hollywood of that era, a strapping man would have run out of the dark to defend them. He would have fought off the robber, taken the swooning young woman into his arms, and then carried her off to safety.
But in the script of life, neither of them had a dashing male hero coming to their rescue. In the cold and dark of the night, Hazel and Helen had only themselves to rely on. They could have given in, but they refused. Both women had earned what they had, and weren’t about to give it up to some would-be robber who thought he had found an easy mark.
They fought, and they won. Although Hazel did have help, it was a housewife with a gun and not a brave male cavalry officer who came to her aid. When faced with adversity, these women – Hazel Anderson, Helen De Pue, and Minnie Brown – were all the dashing heroines of their own life story.
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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