“Strong as an ox and quick as a cat”: Nina Lemon sword fights with a burglar

I recently found this article that I had stored away on my computer a few years ago and rediscovered the remarkable account of a young California woman fighting off a wannabe burglar in her home with a sabre in hand. The woman, Nina Lemon, was apparently trained in fencing, and described by her fencing master as “Strong as an ox and quick as a cat”.

The description of the encounter is extremely precise, owing perhaps to the skill of the journalist, the famous Jack London (who was probably not the original author, see the update at the end of the article).  That said, London cannot help but put his own spin on the story by emphasizing the “softness and tenderness” of Lemon, which ends up sounding at times a bit prejudiced to say the least, even for an article written in the early 1900s. For different ways of describing women’s self-defense in the same era, see this article.

Nevertheless, I have copied here the whole article, published in the San Francisco Examiner on July 21, 1901.


A Girl Who Crossed Swords With a Burglar

Tender and soft! So we delight to think of our womankind, we Anglo-Americans. Workers and fighters and empire builders to the ends of the earth, to whom the harshness and rawness of life are not distasteful, we none the less desire that our women have all the tenderness and softness of the sex feminine. Intensely and elementally male, we abhor masculinity in our women. Tender and soft they must be and, moreover, they must also possess all of our sheer grit and nerve or a sort of sublimated or spiritualized ferocity, as it were.

And this being so, Miss Nita Lemon of San Bernardino certainly approximates very close to the highest sex ideals of the race. Barely a fortnight gone this young girl, alone in a big house on the outskirts of San Bernardino, fought a desperate duel with an unknown man. Saber and sword were the weapons and without help or hope of help, solely by strength of her own right arm, with the indefatigability of her spirit, she subdued her antagonist and left him half-dead from the pain of her saber blows. That she could easily have killed him is patent; that she did not is the truest token of her tenderness and softness. With the man thrusting again and again at her heart, with his sword point cutting the sleeve of her dressing jacket to shreds and sinking into her shoulder, she steadfastly refrained from giving him the edge of her blade, preferring, rather, to beat him down with the heavy back — forsooth, because she had a “horror of breaking the skin.”

It reads like a romance, this adventure of this seventeen-year-old girl. Her father Mr. C. S Lemon, was away from home, being out on his run as a passenger conductor for the Santa Fe. Her mother had been hurriedly called away to San Francisco to attend upon her son who had fallen ill. So Nita Lemon found herself alone in the big house. One morning, after several uneventful days, she drove a neighbor to the station, lost the door key on the way, and on her return scrambled in through the dining-room window. A few minutes later, loafing easily on a couch, a slight sound came to her from an adjoining closet “A man” was her first thought. And her second, “wouldn’t it be jolly fun to lock the door on him and make him prisoner?”

But, on reflection, she decided the cause of the noise to be a rat. Whether it was because her housewifely instincts were aroused or because there stirred within her the primitive passion for the hunt of the wild thing, she does not say; but be that as it may, she climbed out through the window, gathered up the cat and crawled in again. Opening the closet door she stooped to thrust the cat inside and her eyes encountered a pair of masculine legs.
The discovery was mutual. A startled scream left her lips, but the next moment she was perfectly cool, her mind working smoothly and clearly. The robber, a well built, sturdy fellow, stepped boldly out into the dining-room. Nita backed away warily for the window, but the stranger cut her off. There was a dangerous light in his eyes and she read therein the seriousness of the situation.

Still facing him, she retreated into the back parlor. The man followed after her, step by step, the confident smile on his lips advertising how lightly he regarded the task of subduing this frail-looking guardian of the house. Still facing him and at the same time backing away, she managed to pass a couch upon which she remembered a heavy saber in its sheath had been left. Hope returned to her as the hand closed over the weapon, for slender Nita Lemon was no novice in the fencing art “Strong as an ox and quick as a cat” she had been summed up by her old fencing master and now was the time of times for her to vindicate her skill and the long hours spent with the foils.

Drawing the blade, she feinted a threatening stroke at the robber, expecting to see him intimidated. But he seemed to be somewhat of a hand at the game himself, for he seized a sword from the table, laughing, and cried, “Oh, that’s your game, is it, my lassie?”

There was a moment’s pause, during winch they eyed each other carefully. “I was not scared a bit,” she said afterward in telling of it, “but I felt a trifle faint and leaned one hand against the wall while awaiting the fellow’s next move.”

What a picture for the back parlor of a modern dwelling in this first year of the twentieth century! On the one hand a man, big and burly and menacing; on the other a girl, young and slender and delicate, and between the twain two naked blades of steel across which their eves countered. Ay, and she was tender and soft, this girl, and she stood there tense and steady and unafraid.

And well might she feel faint. Very much like the sickness that gripes the medical student who witnesses an operation for the first time is the shock that comes to even the skilled fencer who for the first time lays aside the close-meshed mask and big-buttoned foil and gazes at the sharp point and down the keen-cutting edge of an adversary’s blade. And so Nita Lemon felt, and leaned for a short moment with one hand against the wall.

The robber fell into “position,” and she came instantly to “guard”. The saber, having no sharp point was useless for thrusting, but she nevertheless held it as she had been taught to hold a rapier, the point well up and the blade in perfect line with hand and wrist and half-extended arm. With feet apart and bent knees perpendicularly above toes she crouched in the old familiar way, her left arm curved and elevated and her body swaying slightly to the perfect balance and to the spring of her knees.

The man lunged fiercely for her left side, but she parried “in quarte,” and when he disengaged and returned took him off “in tierce.” It is fair to presume that he opened his eyes at this defense, clever as it was unexpected; but its only apparent effect was to make him angry. Taunting and jeering, punctuating each attack with scathing remarks, he thrust and lunged faster and more viciously. That he was in earnest is evidenced by the fact of his constant efforts to reach her heart. Time and time, and time again, with straight thrust, beat and cut-over, he drove his point in, and just as often, with keen eye and swift wrist, she deflected the deadly point.

“Loose play” is something that winds many a man in five minutes; but when five minutes had come and gone the robber still attacked with unabated vigor. And she, what with his attempts to beat aside or bear down her guard by sheer strength and weight, was growing tired. He was taking a cruel advantage of her slight frame and disinclination to attack, and was brutally wearing her out by virtue of his superior muscle.

Though her eye was keen as ever in following the flashing blade, her wrist was losing its speed and the fraction of a second’s loss in time was sufficient to permit him to get in now and again, just the least bit by her guard. The dressing-gown sleeve of her sword arm was being cut to ribbons and more than once had she felt the biting caress of the steel as it plowed along the surface of her arm.

Still she doggedly refused to attack, and with wonderful coolness and control continued on the defensive. The long minutes passed slowly as they swayed backward and forward with stamping feet and panting lungs. But never once did the man’s blade escape her vision. She followed it everywhere in its vain quest over and under and around her guard; nor did she lose it in the dizzy glides and double disengages, as her lagging wrist attested. With a sharp hissing his blade would play tremulously against hers for a space, and then, leaping away and around in dazzling circles, culminating in a thrust and lunge which carried the whole weight of his body behind it. But always she followed its flashing flight and parried, though her parries were growing slower and weaker.

Ten minutes of the heart-breaking toil were gone, and fifteen almost up, when she was driven in desperation to attack. Her breath was short and labored and her heart pulsing madly, when he lunged in tierce, came in over her failing guard, and drove his point into the tip of her shoulder. Then she attacked.

She suddenly changed position. Her left arm came down and was bent behind her back. Her sword arm was thrown up until elbow and hand were above her head, and the saber, point down, was poised perpendicularly before her body. It was the saber guard, and she was ready.

Parrying a startled thrust on the part of the robber, her saber leaped outward and upward in a great sweep, and fell with stunning force on his shoulder at the base of the neck. But such was her restraint and coolness, and all because of her horror at breaking the skin – she had given him the back. Tender and soft! Otherwise the edge would have well nigh severed his head from his body.

The robber staggered, and before he could recover the saber had described a second great singing sweep and landed again at the base of his neck. She smote with the last remnant of her strength, but she had done it well. He cried out in his pain, dropped his weapon and cursed. Then it was, and not until then, that she turned her back on him and fled. And by the time she had reached the next house, an eighth of a mile away, as she confesses, she was thoroughly frightened.

And so we cannot but delight in you, brave little Nita Lemon, for the grit you have shown, and the deed you have done; and not alone for that do we delight, but for the real woman in you, which remained through all the clash of steel and clang of battle. As for the robber, he owes his life to you just because you were tender and soft, after the manner of the best of our womankind.


Update: It seems like Jack London may have simply republished this article originally penned by a correspondent from the St. Louis Post Dispatch based in San Bernardino. There are a few differences, first of the description of the girl is much different. Instead of emphasizing her calm and tender character, the St. Louis journalist rather notes that she is renowned in her family as a fearless girl who more than made up for her frail disposition through her energy. According to her mother, she had never known fear and was not afraid to be alone at night in the house. She had apparently learned fencing in Los Angeles (perhaps through Louis Tronchet?) who noted that her onslaughts were sometimes so vicious she had him drop his foil.

Apparently, her assailant torn the shoulders of her gown to shreds with his thrusts and managed to leave a scar after she parried a thrust coming to her heart that deviated to her shoulder which she proudly showed the journalist. As she fled the house, she jumped over a fence as he pursued her before cutting off in another direction. The weapons used in the fight showed marks of the encounter.

The article is not quite as expertly written as London’s version, but it does show Ms. Lemon in a very different light.

1 Comment

  1. The compliment Lemon received from her fencing teacher reminds me of one of the opening lines from the TV series Kung Fu: “Strength of the dragon, speed of the tiger.”

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