By the turn of the 20th century, women were finally starting to be widely accepted as students of martial arts and combat sports. Lessons in Jiu-Jitsu, fencing, cane, savate, boxing and even kendo were now open to them. The reasons behind this shift would deserve a book of its own but to make a very simple generalization the advances in women’s rights and the increasing danger faced by city dwellers in an urban landscape which was larger and scarier than ever were most probably the biggest reasons for that change, but were these lessons profitable? It is very hard to say to what proportion they were, but for many of them… it worked.
The actress Ethel Intrapodi learning boxing with Jimmy Walsh, 1912
The villains of the day had several catchy names: plug uglies, cads, dudes, oglers, footpads but the one which was especially a concern to women was the “masher”. The masher could be considered today a sexual aggressor although as you will see the tolerance to unwelcome advances was very low around 1900 and self-defense was applied much earlier than is common today. By examining period newspapers, we discover many colorful altercations between would be victims and the poor mashers who probably never foresaw the dangerous situation they were putting themselves into.
Some women such as Miss Myrtle Byrnes had the fortune of being accompanied by the likes of Bob Fitzsimmons – former boxing World Heavyweight Champion – who quickly dispatched a would-be masher in the Saratoga Hotel in 1912 (The San Francisco call., April 02, 1912).
Others were more than capable of fending for themselves as Ms. Frank Gilbert one day demonstrated. Ms. Gilbert was a Chicago school teacher who apparently followed boxing classes when she was young. One day as she was riding the train coming back from the White City with her husband. She was accosted by a young fellow who repeatedly tried to get her attention before “pinching her arm so hard she could not possibly mistake his meaning and right there the trouble began”. Ms. Gilbert stood up and before the man could realize what was about to happen
“She gave him such a left-handed jolt under the chin that it was a second or two before he could catch his breath again. Ms. Gilbert never waited for him to come back so that he might strike her back, but gave him a beating he will remember for some time. Swiftly the blows fell on his eyes, his nose, his head and neck, about a dozen times did Ms. Gilbert strike him. It was all done so quickly that few people realized just what was going on, but when they did they cheered the plucky woman who proved herself capable of protecting herself. “(Plain Dealer, August 25th, 1905)
Another anonymous woman in Chicago became a celebrity when she successfully knocked out a serial masher named William Murphy who turned out to be a former boxing champion (“Torpedo” Billy Murphy?) and still a fighter of exceptional ability as was reported. The lady in question stood six feet tall and according to the police was quite athletic. She discouraged women from using a hat pin as the police advised which according to her could be too easily wrestled out of their hands and rather suggested to “hit out and then run”. (Duluth News Tribune, May 20th, 1906)
The woman who probably epitomized the whole phenomenon of young female boxers was named Ruth Helen Lang. Residing at the time in New York City at the luxurious Ansonia building, Miss Lang was originally from Victoria in British Columbia. According to her own testimony, shortly after arriving in New York Ms. Lang chose to take up exercise to maintain a colorful complexion instead of using “paint”.
The nineteen-year-old woke up every morning at 5:30 and went for a four miles walk and had to repeatedly defend herself against aggressors.
“I showed him if New York girls would take such insults without resentment, we who were brought up in British Columbia wouldn’t. I let him have my dog whip across the face. You ought to have seen him run.”
One of these altercations got the attention of reporters and she subsequently gave interviews about how she got a black eye but to use her own words “You ought to see the other fellow”. The policemen who took up Ruth’s declaration were quite taken aback as she reportedly wore “breaches that reach to her boot tops which are somewhat high.” She allegedly used a panoply of weapons to defend herself from dog whips to heavy canes and of course, her own fists, knees and elbows (Duluth News Tribune, May 20th, 1906).
Unfortunately, I was unable to find out more about Ruth’s undoubtedly colorful life. The following is a transcript of a text she wrote and which was published in the Plain Dealer on the 30th of May 1911.
To knock a man out hit him with the fist just outside the chin point.To drop him, hit him just beneath the ear. To put him out of commission, land him on the bridge of the nose between the eyes. If he comes up behind you, suddenly swing backward quickly with your elbow. This will catch him in the stomach and give you a chance. Don’t be afraid. Don’t hit a man unless you have to, but hit him hard. Follow these rules and you’re safe anywhere.
Miss Ruth Helen Lang, nineteen and possessor of an income of 1000$ a month astonished a New York masher recently by knocking him out in the first round. The masher had interrupted Miss Lang’s daily just-before-sunrise walk along Riverside drive, which she takes to improve her figure and complexion. The girl from the coast has knocked out quite a number of troublesome mashers in the last two years, and here she tells how any woman can do the same.
By Ruth Helen Lang
This is Miss Lang not in boxing dress
No woman who has any strength at all needs to be at the mercy of either cads, thugs or mashers, the last being a combination of both. And no woman needs to be without strength if she will only give herself an hour’s exercise a day. It’s up to women to stamp out the masher “nuisance”. Men can’t do it, because they can’t always be tagging around protecting us. The necessity for action is when the masher makes himself active and the resistance must be immediate.
The dangerous mashers are those who deserve the fist treatment. The dangerous masher is the creature who lay his hand upon you or who seems about to do so. When he does this a woman must lay him by the heels at once. The last dangerous masher I knocked out was last week. How I did it illustrates one of the methods of meeting the pest. This man was proud and vindictive. He showed his pride by resenting a girl’s refusal to speak to him. He showed his vindictiveness by giving me a black eye in return for the two I gave him. He could not have been a gentleman, for a gentleman will never change the color of a lady’s optic, no matter what she does to him. He was in fact, a villainous cad, and I hope he sees this.
It happened in one of my beforehand walks which I take along the Riverside drive for my complexion’s sake. When I came to New York a year ago all the girls I knew powdered their faces and I did the same. But one morning I rubbed off the powder and said: I’ll do no more whitewashing. I’ll get up at 5:30 every morning and walk four miles before breakfast. And that was how I came to meet him.
It was still dark. I heard footsteps close behind me. I turned and looked right into a face with red-trimmed, dissipated eyes. He insulted me. I let him walk close to me. He was watching my right hand. As he came close I swung at him. I caught him on the bridge of the nose. He nearly fell but recovered, came at me and landed on my eye. Then I gave him a blow behind the ear that sent him sprawling. Then he ran. Now observe that I hit him first between the eyes when he didn’t expect it. When I hit him the second time it was to fell him. I made a mistake.
I should have followed my rule and knocked him out first, but I didn’t think he was so dangerous. I would advise every woman to get a punching bag and to practice the swift upward swing of the fist known as the uppercut. The quicker and the harder she can make the hit, the better the chance she has of discouraging the masher.
The uppercut is good for close quarters. If the man is at one side, bring him up the arm with a swift circling swing and land on the ear. If the masher comes up behind you and catches your arm bring your elbow back as hard as you can against his stomach. Ten to one he will release you under the pain. Then turn quickly and give him the knockout on the point of the chin.
If by any chance the masher has not got in front of you and is holding both your hands, bring your knee up with all the force you can into his stomach. None of them can stand that. Usually, I carry a heavy cane. That is an excellent weapon under certain conditions. I always try to hit the masher upon the elbow. The pain gives him all he wants to think about for a few moments and while he is wrestling with that he is in your hands to knock out as you please.
A technique reminiscent of Irish stick
It is a fact that few of these creatures have as much strength as a woman, decidedly not as much as a well-cared for woman. They are usually weakened by dissipation or are puny. Where a woman makes her great mistake is in becoming frightened. She does not remember it. Instead, the fear she had inherited from thousands of cave women who had to be continually watching for too impetuous and club wielding males overcomes her even now. She faints, she becomes weak, she does not use her wits nor her strength. And that is just what the dangerous masher counts on.
Remember sisters, don’t lose your nerve. Hit and hit hard. He won’t wait for a second blow in nine cases out of ten. Get a punching bag and cultivate your muscle. Get out and walk and cultivate your health. Cultivate your nerve and your punch, and soon the race of mashers will be but a bruised and battered memory.