Edna McCarthy and Leona Bell, alleged to have participated in several holdups, were held to the grand jury yesterday by Judge Richardson of the West Chicago avenue court. Bonds of each were fixed at $30,000. Both girls were companions of John Getzen, who was shot while he was attempting to rob Segt. Frank Cunningham of the North Avenue station on July 16.
— Chicago Tribune, August 29, 1925
The 1920s was well into its roaring phase when newspaper articles began to appear about young female offenders, often described as “girl bandits,” “bandit queens” or “flapper bandits.” For some members of the fair sex, getting the vote, shortening their skirts and bobbing their hair also unleashed law-breaking urges, resulting in a feminine crime wave.
Edna McCarthy, aged 26, and Leona Bell, 21, were two of the “girl bandits” wreaking havoc on the citizens of Chicago in 1925. After a number of successful robberies, the girls, along with Edna’s brother-in-law, John Getzen, made the fatal mistake of trying to “stickup” a plain-clothes police officer, Frank Cunningham. Leona stopped Cunningham and asked for street directions. After he got out of his car to help her, Getzen emerged from a hiding place and held a gun to his ear. Rather than cooperating, Cunningham grabbed Getzen’s gun and shot him four times. The fourth bullet was fatal. Getzen was “full of hop” at the time of his death.
Edna and Leona escaped in their stolen car and made a two-week jaunt through Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. The ladies were captured in Toledo and returned to Chicago, where they were charged with robbery, attempted robbery, concealing a felony and forgery. Apparently the girls got lucky and didn’t get prison time for the Chicago crimes. However Leona was convicted on an earlier forgery charge and was sentenced to two years in the Wisconsin State Reformatory for Women. But the ever-clever Leona soon escaped, along with another inmate, by sliding down a drain pipe and stealing a getaway car.
Crime among women is increasing. Cheap movies have glorified the girl bandit. There is many a girl today whose one ambition is to be queen of the underworld. Sometimes dope’s to blame. Sometimes it’s something more insidious than dope — the lure of silk stockings and finery.
— Policewoman Mrs. Mary Hamilton, New Castle Herald, January 26, 1924
Another bandit queen, Elizabeth Sullivan, 21, robbed Chicagoans at gunpoint with her pearl-handled automatic. She pulled the robberies to build a nest egg so she could marry her “sheik,” a man named Glen, who was also a bandit. “He was the cat’s ankles,” she exclaimed. The crime spree ended when Elizabeth and some of her gang were arrested in January 1923.
Two young sisters, Alice and Caroline Peterson, of Red Wing, Minnesota, read about girl bandits in the news and decided that crime life sounded exciting, so they formed a gang with two young men. Their victim was a taxi cab driver, who they bound and robbed, taking his money and his vehicle. The four were found the next day, asleep under a haystack, and arrested. Alice and Caroline got one to ten years each in the state prison. However young women were still, in certain ways, not equal to young men — the guys got five to forty years each in the pen.
“Why are there so Many Girl Bandits?” was the headline of an April 1924 article in the Baltimore Sun. The reporter tried to answer the question with explanations ranging from lack of moral training to indifferent “flapper” parents. Or perhaps, the author suggested, young women simply had too much economic independence or were oversophisticated for their age. Not to mention that age-old problem of young people choosing pleasure over discipline!
She’s more afraid of failing her sweetheart than she is of handling a gun. The fear may be born of his threats, but I believe that it is usually born of her affection for him; psychopathic love, perhaps, an infatuation, but a consuming one while it lasts. In short, the gungirl becomes a gungirl in order to win the approval of a man.
— Helen P. McCormick, Assistant District Attorney of Brooklyn, New York, 1924
So you see, guys, when it comes to crime, it’s all your fault!
Featured photo: Edna McCarthy, 1925 press photo. Collection of the author.