“With Long Criminal Records”

“With Long Criminal Records”

Warrants charging larceny were issued yesterday by the Circuit Attorney’s office against three women arrested last week in their room in Hotel Statler for shop-lifting. Police reported finding the wallet of a victim in the room. The women, all of whom said they are from Milwaukee, Wis., are: Ruth Stehling, 34 years old; Louise R. Smith, 32, and Jean Miller, 34. In the room police found a wallet containing $14, some checks and personal papers belonging to Mrs. Katherine Rueckert, 3435 Halliday avenue. Mrs. Rueckert had reported that the wallet was snatched from her in a downtown department store.

— St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri), March 27, 1934

The Kusch family crime poster has the look of a kid’s school project, with the awkward placement of text, some of which was hand-drawn, and the amateurish attempt at a symmetrical layout. It was made by a St. Louis police officer in 1934 and photographed as a magic lantern slide, possibly for use as a lecture aid.

I suspect the point of the poster was to demonstrate how suspects might avoid being identified as repeat offenders by using aliases. The real names of the three ladies in stand-up mugshot were (left to right) Helen, Anna and Julia Kusch.

Another aim of the poster was to demonstrate that crime was a career choice that occasionally ran in families.

The mother of two of the three women in the photo was Mary Meka Kusch. Mary was a German immigrant to the United States who tutored her young daughters in how to steal ladies’ purses and forced them to become pickpockets. Mary’s husband, Michael, who was also born in Germany, was not involved in the “family business.”

In 1909 Anna Kusch was the youngest child ever arrested by the detective bureau in Buffalo, New York, after she was caught stealing shoppers’ purses in department stores. At the ripe old age of eight Anna was a suspect in many purse thefts.

Anna and her older sister, Helen, were serial pickpockets while they were still in grade school. The girls strolled the streets, stealing ladies’ purses as the opportunity arose, and hiding their loot in a baby carriage. Imagine the surprise of the beat officer who leaned over to give the “baby” a tickle on the chin!

In 1910 the Kusch sisters were taken into police custody for pickpocketing. Mama Kusch got three months probation for teaching her children to be thieves.

The following year Helen was arrested again for stealing cash from the purses of women shopping on the main drag of Buffalo. She told the police that her mother sent her out every day after school to steal money and if she didn’t do it she got a whipping. Mary was charged with receiving stolen property. Helen was sent to a detention home for juveniles.

Meanwhile the sisters’ older brothers, John and Albert Kusch, were engaged in robbing the poor box at a local Catholic church. They drank enough whiskey to put Albert and a friend in the hospital in critical condition with alcohol poisoning. Albert subsequently recovered. John went on to be convicted of burglary and sent to New York’s Elmira Reformatory at the age of 19.

As Helen and Anna blossomed into their teen years they continued to shoplift and pickpocket. Both were caught and earned themselves another stay in a Buffalo detention home.

The Kusch family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by 1920. The change of state may have been motivated by their notoriety in Buffalo because their crime careers continued in “America’s Dairyland.” When Helen was 28, in 1926, she was arrested for pickpocketing in Milwaukee. She jumped bail and forfeited her $1000 bond.

John was arrested for passing bad checks in 1931 when he was 38 years old. Over the previous 20 years he’d accumulated 16 arrests, including one for contributing to the delinquency of a minor after he’d picked up an underage girl and had sex with her. He was sentenced to five to seven years in a Wisconsin state prison on the bad check charge. John joined Albert, who was already in state prison, serving a three-year sentence for the attempted robbery of a pharmacy.

When the Kusch ladies were arrested for pickpocketing in St. Louis, Helen and Anna had 25 years of experience under their belts. They knew it would be a smart move to give the police false names to fool them into believing it was their first offense. Julia Kusch was not their sister but she may have been their sister-in-law because Albert was married for a while to a woman named Julia.

Helen was picked up in Green Bay, Wisconsin, for shoplifting an item worth $1.50 in 1935. Police there claimed she’d been arrested many times in the past. She was given a six month suspended sentence and a $100 fine. Anna was also arrested and later released without charge.

The 1935 arrests of Helen and Anna were last time any Kusch family members appeared in the police news. It’s impossible to know if the poster put an end to their criminal activities, however there’s an old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” That little proverb may have run through the mind of the police officer when he got out his glue and pen to make the Kusch Family crime poster.

Featured photo: St. Louis Police Lantern Slides, collection of the Missouri History Museum.

Her Sinful Slacks

Her Sinful Slacks

Evelyn Bross, 19 years old, 2754 Jackson Boulevard, charged with violating a city ordinance by appearing publically in men’s clothing, was placed under psychiatric supervision until July 15 at a hearing before J. M. Braude in Women’s court yesterday. Judge Braude explained that there could be no objection to women wearing slacks as long as the garb wasn’t used for impersonation purposes.

Chicago Tribune, January 16, 1943

Nineteen-year-old Evelyn “Jackie” Bross was part of the war effort on the home front — she worked as a machinist at a defense plant in Chicago. In her line of work it was practical to wear pants — blue flannel trousers were what she preferred — along with sturdy oxford-style shoes. In fact Jackie hadn’t worn a dress or even a skirt since 1937 when she was 13 years old. As for her short hair, well, it was comfortable and she thought it looked good combed back with a little hair oil. She’d never worn make-up and she wasn’t about to start now.

Bross goes to court in pants. Amendment offered. Pic. - NewspapeWhy should other people get to tell a girl what to put on in the morning and how to style her hair? Wasn’t the war effort all about keeping America a free country and helping other countries become free too? Questions like these burned in Jackie’s mind when the police hauled her in to the Women’s court for violating the “Public Peace and Morals” ordinance, a municipal code that “prohibited persons from wearing the clothes of the opposite sex in public.”

Jackie, who lived with her parents, Walter and Helen Bross, and  ten siblings in an apartment on Jackson Boulevard, vehemently denied the accusation that she was trying to impersonate a male. “If I dress like a girl I’ll look like a boy and I’ll be picked up more often for impersonating a girl,” she commented matter-of-factly.

Judge Braude was not unsympathetic to Jackie’s plight. “I think the fact that girls wear slacks should not be held against them when they are not deliberately impersonating men,” he said. “Styles are changing.”

Change was afoot in more than just fashion. With the majority of men fighting in World War II, women were indispensible workers in munitions factories.

RosieTheRiveter_RosieJust three months after Jackie was arrested, on May 23, 1943, the Saturday Evening Post published Norman Rockwell’s iconic illustration “Rosie the Riveter.” Rockwell depicted a muscular, Michelangelo-inspired woman taking a quick break from her factory work to munch on a sandwich. She has massive arms, a huge neck and sits gloriously atop a wooden post, dressed in (pause for sudden intake of breath) a pair of overalls! She looks entirely comfortable in her body and not the least bit feminine, though no one would mistake her for a man. But there was no outcry of protest about the fact that Rosie was depicted in pants when the illustration appeared. In fact the image was so popular that the magazine loaned it to the Treasury Department for use in war bond drives.

Judge Braude pointed out that another young woman, who was arrested for wearing pants at the same time as Jackie, looked “feminine” thanks to the cut of her pants and the styling of her hair. He let her go without a penalty. Jackie, however, was released on $25 bond and ordered be placed under the “psychiatric supervision” of Dr. David B. Rotman for six months. The judge also instructed her to cover up her short hair with a headscarf.

Americans from coast to coast supported Jackie’s cause. In her hometown, Alderman William J. Cowhey agreed that she shouldn’t be penalized for wearing pants. He offered an amendment to the municipal code, stipulating that wearing clothing of the opposite sex was illegal only if the person did so “with the intent to conceal his or her sex.” The city council immediately approved it.

In July 1943, Judge Braude put Jackie and a friend, Catherine Barcz, who lived in the Bross home, on probation on a “morals” charge. The women had met each other at the defense factory where they both worked as drill press operators. At the court hearing their boss testified that both were exceptionally fine workers. Regardless of their work ethic, Catherine was married and Judge Braude ordered her to move out of the Bross abode and return to her husband.

The morals charge was likely the result of Dr. Rotman’s “psychiatric supervision.” The implication was that the two women were lovers, so the court stepped in to separate and penalize them. The court’s interest in controlling what Jackie wore had evolved into exerting control over her sex life. Perhaps this was the purpose of the “Public Peace and Morals” ordinance from its inception.

Bross tells of her favorite film - Newspapers.comFast-forward 33 years to 1976. By then Jackie had moved to Elgin, a northwest suburb of Chicago. A news reporter interviewed her for a light piece about favorite films. Jackie said she liked Ingmar Bergman movies, with her favorite being the Swedish director’s latest film, “Face to Face.” The film, about a psychiatrist driven to the brink of insanity by unpleasant memories from her childhood, was an interesting choice given the court-imposed psychiatric supervision and penalty that Jackie endured in 1943.

By 1976 no one in America looked twice at a woman wearing slacks or pants of any type. Headscarves had become popular too. Decriminalization of homosexuality was still a ways off in the future.

Jackie Bross died in 2004 in Manteno, Illinois.

Featured photo: Acme Newspictures photo of Jackie Bross at the Women’s Court in Chicago, taken January 8, 1943. Collection of the author.