Bobbed Haired Bandit Celia Cooney was portrayed as the representation of everything bad about the modern girl.
In 1924, a young woman walked into a Brooklyn grocery store. She made a seemingly innocent request for an item, but when the cashier turned around, he saw the girl now was pointing a gun at him. A tall man, with two guns was now standing behind her, covering the other clerks in the store. The woman said "Stick 'em up!," and all the men followed orders. The couple emptied the register and then made their getaway. The story was in the papers in the morning. The tabloids quickly named the girl the "bobbed-haired bandit," after the very modern short haircut the grocery store clerks had noticed on the gun girl, and a celebrity was born.
"The Bobbed Haired Bandit: A True Story of Crime and Celebrity in 1920s New York," by Stephen Duncombe and Andrew Mattson tells the story of Celia and Ed Cooney, a young couple who saw the full flowering of American consumer culture racing past them, leaving them frustrated by their lower-class standing. They decided that the best way to get the money they needed to live the kind of middle class life they wanted for themselves and their baby (Celia was pregnant) was to start robbing small stores.
Hold ups were not novel, but a hold up where a girl wielded a gun and seemed to be running the job was something new. The fact that Celia had bobbed hair made her both an object of fascination and horror. She was obviously a symbol of the modern world and the destruction of society--she was a woman who didn't know her place and was acting like a man (her male accomplice, the tall, strapping Ed who Celia fell for because he looked like boxer Jack Dempsey, was often inaccurately described as a "cake-eater," or an effeminate man). She also stood for the shallowness of modern young people--surely she was stealing to fuel a materialistic desire for more short flapper dresses, fur coats, and make up. Of course the stolen money probably also supported a habit for wild parties, drinking, and jazz.
The crimes also put the New York City police department under scrutiny--newspapers began to ask how could they not catch a girl robber? To make the case even more difficult, a number of copycat bobbed haired stick up crimes began to take place. In response, Brooklyn police officers began to stop, and in some cases arrest, numerous innocent bobbed haired girls. One girl was turned in by a disgruntled ex-boyfriend and held in jail long after the evidence fell apart, just because the police were trying to save face.
In the end, Celia and Ed were done in by their own mistakes, as is often the case with petty criminals. Their first robbery had netted them well over a hundred dollars (I don't have the exact amount as I read the book about two months ago), but none of their subsequent ones came close to that. In order to keep up with the new, expensive apartment they'd rented and the payments for their new furniture, they had to commit more and more robberies. And the due date for the baby was getting closer. They decided to pull off one last big job, then run off to Florida where they'd use the money for Ed, a mechanic, to buy a garage. There was a Nabisco warehouse near where Ed grew up; they decided to hold up the office when the payroll money arrived. They bought tickets for a ship to Florida, then booked themselves into a Manhattan hotel, so they would cover their Brooklyn trail. They hired a car and driver to tour the neighborhood in Brooklyn (I think their story was that they were a couple out house-hunting). They eventually stopped the driver, tied him up and put him in the back of the car, then set out to do the robbery.
Things went wrong--Celia got into a scuffle with one of the employees, and when Ed tried to defend her, his gun went off and he shot the man. The two made a run for it to Florida as planned. However, they didn't have any of the money they'd thought they'd have to support themselves, and they also had to consider that if the wounded Nabisco employee died and they were caught, they'd be in serious trouble. They lasted for a little while in Florida, moving to worse and worse rooming houses. Celia gave birth, but the sickly baby died in one of their rented rooms after they had to leave the hospital because of their inability to pay. When they were finally tracked down, they didn't put up much of a fight, although the New York tabloids portrayed it as a dramatic shootout between cops and the desperate couple.
Fascinated crowds greeted the couple when they were transported back to New York, and the trial provided plenty of fodder for the tabloids. The confused couple kept changing their plea from guilty to not guilty, as they were surrounded by people trying to give them all kinds of legal advice, including an intrepid lawyer who kept on offering his services (and kept being turned down). Reporters found Celia's parents and sister, expecting a tearful reunion, but barely got that; Celia wanted nothing to do with her family. As the story of a Dickensian childhood of neglect and destitution came out, Celia became a symbol of another societal problem--a poor child who slipped through the cracks in the city as her parents drank away the little money that could go towards feeding and clothing their children. No wonder she turned to crime, many of the papers wrote.
In the end, Celia and Ed went to prison for seven years each. Ed lost an arm while working in one of the prison's machine shops and successfully sued the state for a fairly large sum of money. It was enough to set the couple up in a nice suburban house on Long Island where they began to raise two sons. But the money ran out, and the job the state had promised Celia never materialized. Complications from his accident made Ed too sick to work, and he died only a few years after their release. Celia worked hard to support her children, and never told them about her past. They didn't find out until some of her deathbed ramblings made them do some research, where they discoverd Celia's past as a 1920s celebrity criminal.
Duncombe and Mattson's book is very entertaining. They excel at digging up the different versions of Celia's story that the newspapers raced to put out to demonstrate how she was represented by the press; much of the book is made up of quotes from contemporary newspaper accounts, and Celia's own story that she dictated in prison and sold to a magazine. The book is good, but not quite great, though. I enjoyed reading it but felt frustrated that it wasn't better, or at least my definition of better. I love nonfiction books that are focused on one subject but also present studies of other related subjects--the history of a place or people, biographies of supporting players, information about social behavior in a certain place or time. In "The Bobbed Haired Bandit," Duncombe and Mattson do an excellent job of discussing the various portrayals of Celia in the press, but only provide a sketchy bit of context (it's the 1920s and the postwar boom was on! Prohibition hurt more than it helped! Women were becoming more independent!). They could have covered things like the popular images of women at the time, such as the newly minted movie stars of the time. They could have talked more about Brooklyn, or discussed the impact and reasons behind the fashion revolution of the 1920s, even the prisons of the time (so...was it really like "Chicago?" I'm guessing not). There are a lot of related topics that would have added substance and texture to the story. But it's still a fun read. You'll like it.