“A Subject for the Morgue” : Umbrella defense in Philadelphia  

A photographic montage was found in 2011 by researcher Tony Wolf which was identified to the Philadelphia Institute of Physical Culture in 1908. Nothing more was known of the subject or techniques shown in these photographs, but it appears that they were published in the same year in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 26th.


The instructors are not mentionned by name, but further research reveals two individuals associated with the school who might very well be the ones pictured. Prof. William Findlay is mentionned in the magazine Science in May 9th 1890 under an ad he published:

“PROF. WILLIAM FINDLAY, of the Philadelphia Institute of Physical Culture, is open to engagement in summer school to teach Free Movements, Wands, Clubs, Dumb-bells, Fencing and Sparring.”

While Ms. Miriam Findley (which might be a typo) is mentionned in an article as an assistant at the Philadelphia Institute of Physical Culture (Cambridge Tribune, Volume XV, Number 18, 16 July 1892). There is a good chance that Ms. and Mr. Findlay are indeed the ones on these photographs.

The techniques presented are quite original for the time, especially for the fact that they teach a certain escalation of self-defense, even to “kill if necessary”. The readers are warned of this fact and are told to be careful in their application.

Umbrellas as a means of defense against elements and men

In the first part of the 19th century, high quality umbrellas were made of whalebone while common ones were made of split cane. These umbrellas were not known for their durability and would not have been of much use in a fight.  Umbrellas in the mid 19th century had become much more solid thanks to the widespread use of steel in their construction.

These umbrellas, the “Paragons”, were developed by Samuel Fox in England in 1851. Fox was the owner of a wire drawing factory and later developed a new type of umbrella The Paragon system was much more robust than its competitors and soon became a reference in the field thanks to a London based company.


The Fox umbrella company (curiously not related at first to Samuel Fox) which opened in 1868, started to sell this Paragon steel frame in 1880 at its London shop. The Fox umbrella became quite popular: Winston Churchill was known to carry one as well as John F. Kennedy, but perhaps more interesting to us it was also the weapon of choice of the famous John Steed of the Avengers series (Patrick Macnee was himself trained in La Canne by Roger Lafond).


Unfortunately the shop closed down in 2011, but its impressive facade is now protected as a cultural heritage. That said the company still exist and you can still buy their British hand made umbrellas online.


On to our article.

Teaching Women to use the Umbrella as a Deadly Defensive Weapon


How to maim, disable or even kill a two-legged brute with an umbrella. This is the brief description of a course of instruction just begun in a Philadelphia school of Physical culture. The necessity for such teaching grows out of the constantly recurring attacks on women by tramps and hoodlums, the number of such outrages growing as the streets and byways become overrun with men whose worst instincts are uppermost through inferred idleness.

The ever-increasing number of women, too, who are compelled to join the army of wage earners, or do so from choice, brings into the streets, sometimes late at night, girls who have no protection but their own feeble physical powers. The hatpin has been named as the natural weapon of a woman attacked in the street, and it has its value in skilled hands, but the umbrella is far superior to it in many ways. With the modern umbrella, which is not a slender wooden stick, but a wire rod, as deadly almost as a rapier, the girl who must rely upon her own arm to protect herself from attack in the street is armed with a weapon, the terrible nature of which few realize. But she must learn how to use it skilfully and quickly so as to put a quietus at once upon her opponent’s dream of easy conquest. The classes at the physical culture establishment referred to are especially organized to make women competent to kill if necessary the man who attacks her while she is armed with an umbrella.

There is, it seems, such a thing as a solar plexus blow with an umbrella that will place the strongest man hors de combat. But the most deadly blow of all is one delivered at the neck of an opponent, driving the sharp steel ferrule straight for the spot an inch or so below the Adam’s apple. In one of the accompanying photographs, posed especially for this paper at the establishment referred to, this blow is illustrated and the proper way to hold the umbrella so as to impart to the blow the maximum amount of force is shown.


The umbrella should be held in both hands and driven forward with the full weight of the body following it. If the blow lands on the right spot, that is on the neck, past below the apple, it is very likely to make the party attacked a subject for the morgue. The umbrella could be driven right into his neck with the force exerted by even a delicate girl if her weight follows the blow.


The girls who attend this new self-defense class are taught to jab at the eyes of a man who attacks them. All is fair in a case of this kind, for the man who attacks an unprotected woman in the street is deserving of no pity. The girls are also taught to defend themselves against the attacks of two men who come at them simultaneously, stabbing at the face or neck of the nearest and giving the other a back handled blow with the butt. Apart from the usefulness of teaching a girl how to take care of herself if attacked, it may be said that the students derive great benefit from the exercise they go through in the daily drill   .


A variation of the blow at the neck is taught. The position is shown in one of the photographs. The girl attacked steps back quickly, grasps the umbrella in both hands, one hand near the handle, the other about a foot from the end, and drives full force, bayonet fashion, at the stomach of her enemy. If this blow, deftly delivered, does not cause a man to become an inmate of an hospital ward fro several weeks following its delivery then the student has not learned the lesson taught at the umbrella defense class. Even a light blow given as it is taught with the impetus of a quick step forward and the weight of the body thrown into a drive for the thug’s solar plexus is pretty sure to leave him gasping and helpless, while the same blow, given with the full power of a fairly strong girl, will probably result in driving the steel rod into the man’s body, in which case he will, of course, be more in need of help than his intended victim.

Of course, the first criticism that will suggest itself is that, the man will not be likely to stand placidly by while the girl drives an umbrella through his neck or onto one of his eyes. He will of course be very likely to grasp the umbrella as it is thrust at him, and with his superior strength he would in that event have the girl at his mercy. This is not overlooked by the teachers of umbrella self-defense. Quickness of the hand is, of course, most desirable, and much depends upon the skill of the woman in using her umbrella as a swordsman does his weapon, feinting and fooling her opponent until he leaves himself open to a great extent to place the man at the mercy of the girl with the umbrella.


The women are taught at these classes to first smash the hat over the eyes of the hobo, blinding him for an instant. With his sight temporarily obscured beneath a smashed Derby hat (and the girls at these classes seem very quickly to attain skill in this particular blow) the man is helpless for just the length of time necessary for the umbrella to get in its deadly work.


In the classes one of the instructors assumes the character of the attacking thug, and the girls, dressed exactly as they would be if walking in the street, go through the drill as taught by the instructor. So proficient and skillful are the advanced students in the use of the umbrella as a means of defense that the spectator is impressed with the fact that such a weapon is far adapted to a woman’s self-protection than a club would be in her hands. The umbrella seems especially adapted to a woman’s natural method of attack and is even more to be feared than a revolver would be, for the thug could prevent the drawing of this weapon from the elusive feminine pocket, while the umbrella would be in hand ready for use as a weapon would not suggest itself. Of the deadly nature of the weapon few would be cognizant.


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