The New York Housewife Who Was Too Pretty To Walk In The Streets In 1902 – She Had To Use A Gun and A Knife To Protect Herself

Ellen Emerson, So Beautiful, Lecherous Men Kept Accosting Her On The Streets Of New York In 1902

To Fight Them Off She Once Used A Gun, Another Time A Knife

But There’s A Twist At The End Of The Story

She could stop traffic, that is all male pedestrian traffic. Imagine being so attractive that every time you left your home you were the recipient of unwanted stares, comments and in the  worst case, groping.

In 1902 at 60 West 98th Street lived Ellen Emerson, who when she went out in public, men would constantly ogle her.

The undesired attention from men was so bad that she brandished a gun at one of her pursuers and a knife another time to protect herself from being accosted.

Within a space of four weeks Joseph Pulitzer’s Evening World did two stories about Mrs. Ellen Emerson. The first story which ran on November 8, 1902 told about Mrs. Emerson’s dilemma; “attractive and blonde and long the victim of ‘mashers.'”

Ellen told an unnamed reporter, “My life has been made a perfect burden for me  by these obnoxious men. I don’t know what there is about me. I am not a loud dresser, but I scarcely ever go on the street without being pursued.”

Ellen lamented, “I have stood these outrages for several years and sometimes I have felt like jumping on my pursuers and scratching their eyes out. On Saturday I was driven to desperation and simply became frantic.

I had just left my husband’s place of business at Ninety-ninth Street and Columbus Avenue and was walking home when a man stepped up and began to smile and ogle me. He followed me for nearly a block and I stood it just as long as I could. As I neared Ninty-eighth Street he stepped up to me and took my arm. Then he whispered something in my ear and I was furious.

My husband had given me an old revolver to carry home and I had this under my jacket. I have never carried firearms and it was only by accident that I had one that evening The revolver was old and broken and wasn’t even loaded, but I thought if I pulled it on the brute  it might frighten him. Heaven knows that New York women need some means of protection of fighting off the advances of persistent men. When I snapped the revolver in the man’s face he looked frightened to death and immediately ran away. I was so nervous that I could scarcely  stand, but I was not left alone very long. All the time I was being annoyed by this man there wasn’t a policeman in sight, but the minute I drew  out that old revolver one appeared on the scene. He informed me that I was violating a city ordinance and arrested me.”

Mrs Emerson ended up spending the night in jail and was released the next day. Her husband Earl Emerson was indignant over his wife’s treatment. Mrs. Emerson related how her experience with mashers and low men accosting her could “fill a book.”

Four weeks later on December 5, 1902 Ellen Emerson was in the news again. The headline read:

FOUGHT MASHER WITH A DAGGER

Pretty Mrs. Emerson Whose Beauty Makes Her a Prey to the “Oglers” Defends Herself With Vigor.

SCARED THREE OF THEM.

This time the reporter attempted to sum up what made Mrs. Emerson so irresistible to the masses:

All women love to be admired for their beauty, but there are some whose delicately modeled features, beautiful dreamy eyes and deliciously graceful figures possess that peculiar subtle charm which is a source of continual distress to them in that it attracts the individious attentions of those pests of society who feel it their duty to annoy every woman who fascinates them.

Probably there are few if any women who possess this strange power to fascinate all who behold and who have suffered more from its possession than Mrs. Ellen Emerson of No. 60 West Ninety-eighth Street. Mrs. Emerson is one of those dainty little blondes who looks as if she had just stepped from the canvas of some famous delineator of beautiful faces. From the tip of her foot to the coil of her golden her she is an alluring charm.

When she passes along the street every one turns to watch her and of course the masher annoys her.

The story goes on to describe how three men had followed her up to her apartment door. When grabbed by the waist by one of her pursuers, they then tried to push their way in. Screaming for help, neighbors opened their apartment doors as Mrs. Emerson  surprised her would be attackers by slashing at them furiously with a knife she ahd on her for protection.  She inflicted a dozen wounds to the face of the man that grabbed her. Blood was all over the place and the assailants grabbed their wounded companion and fled. Somehow the men escaped capture.

Mrs. Emerson had the final words in the story “…I can’t understand why it is that I am so persistently persecuted. I am sure I never gave these men the slightest encouragement. But it doesn’t seem to make the least difference. Whenever I go unaccompanied I am made miserable by some masher’s attentions. When I walk along the street the first thing I know I feel that some one is following me. I know it by the way whoever it is keeps step with me. When I slow up to let them pass they come alongside and nudge my arm or stare into my face until I could cry out, if it were not for my fear of attracting attention. It is the same way when I ride in a a street car; always some one ogling or nudging me, until my very life is a burden.”

The end of the story right?

Not so fast. After these two news stories there was not another mention of Ellen Emerson or her husband Earl Emerson in any publication that I could find. That wasn’t so peculiar. Everyone has their 15 minutes of fame they say.

But something didn’t seem right. What became of Ellen Emerson?

The fact that the only New York newspaper that covered Mrs. Emerson’s ordeal was the Evening World, seemed odd. There was also a peculiar lack of details in both stories. Each account identifies Ellen Emerson’s home address, but they neglect to give husband Earl Emerson’s exact address and type of business he was in. No one was interviewed for either story but Mrs. Emerson. As a good reporter wouldn’t you interview Ellen’s husband, a neighbor or the policeman that initially arrested Ellen when she took out the gun? There was no follow-up on the man who was stabbed in the face. Wouldn’t he have been treated by a doctor or hospital and eventually caught?  The photograph of her is poorly lit and her features are not really distinguishable. None of these things would prove anything on their own.

So, it was time to check census records. In the 1900 and 1910 United States censuses and 1905 New York State census there is no record of either Earl or Ellen Emerson. Anywhere in the United States. Maybe the name was spelled incorrectly in both accounts?

No, since the address was listed I was able to check the occupants of 60 West 98th Street through the census. No one lived there by that name or anything close to it.

Could it be the Emerson’s weren’t living on 98th Street or moved between the time the censuses were taken or the census enumerator missed them completely. That is always possible.

Before telephone books, there were directories. Annual books containing the name of every man who lived in New York City with their address and occupation. If a woman was a widow or had an occupation she was listed in the directory. We know Earl Emerson worked on Columbus Avenue and 99th Street. Yet Earl is not listed in the 1901, 1902, 1903 or any New York City directory.

Finally, checking the New York City marriage records, there are none for the Emerson’s. They could have been married outside of one of the five boroughs. The last thing that could be checked was the New York City Death Index and the Social Security Death Index. Neither index has a match with an Emerson of the approximate right age.

The conclusion is this – the Evening World made up the entire story, something akin to the “fake news” of today. In that era of yellow journalism, fabricating news would not be an unusual occurrence as newspapers frequently tried to outdo each other with titillating stories.

Who is in the woman in the photograph illustrating both articles, Ellen Emerson? I believe she was probably an anonymous beautiful woman paid a few dollars to pose and told to keep quiet. We’ll never know for sure.

Here are the original November 8 and December 5, 1902 stories if you want to read them for yourself. (click to enlarge)

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