Beware The Masher: Sexual Harassment On The Streets Of Old Cincinnati

Although she wrote in 1905, Jessie M. Partlon’s newspaper column about sexual harassment sounds like it could have been written yesterday with a #MeToo hashtag:

“One of that species of imitation man – who can not conquer the belief that every pretty woman is just waiting for a chance to throw herself in his arms – attempted to flirt with Mrs. Gilbert . . . He knows that most women would rather bear the humiliation of his brazen attentions than to call for assistance.”

They had a word in 1905 for pesky, would-be Lotharios who spoke to women on the sidewalks or in the streetcars. They were called “mashers.” A masher was any man who addressed a woman to whom he had not been formally introduced. The only women who tolerated such outrages were common streetwalkers. Consequently, every respectable woman approached by a strange man, no matter how politely or discreetly, considered herself insulted.

Cartoon of woman punching a masher

From Cincinnati Enquirer 6 October 1889 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand


What sorts of utterances counted as “brazen attentions” or “insulting remarks”? Few newspapers gave the sordid details, but one story quoted a masher asking a woman outside a theater, “Waiting for me, darling?”

No masher in his right mind would have dared shout at or catcall a woman walking past him on the street. Such brazen offenses would have been suicide. Any man within earshot would have rallied to defend the woman’s honor by attacking the catcaller. Such was the impetus that inspired Joseph Mayer, Covington Fire Chief, to soundly thrash a masher on Madison Avenue one summer evening. An unidentified young lady was looking at the Covington store windows, according to the Cincinnati Post [13 July 1897] when she was approached by an impudent young man.

“She paid no attention to the fellow, who persisted in accompanying her. At Sixth Street, she accosted Chief Mayer and told him that the man was annoying her and asked his protection. The Chief attacked the fellow, knocking him sprawling into the street. A few well administered kicks completed the task, and the masher limped away. The young lady thanked the Chief and continued on her way.”

There’s an old saying among newspaper folks, that if a dog bites a man, it’s not news, but if a man bites a dog, that’s news. Women who took justice into their own hands made national headlines. Jessie M. Partlon’s quote at the beginning of this post referenced a 25-year-old Cleveland housewife, Alta Gilbert. who “landed a neat upper-cut” on the chin of a masher who dared to speak to her on a crowded streetcar. The Post asked Partlon, its only female reporter, to comment on the case. Ms. Partlon observed [6 September 1905]:

“Every modest, self-respecting woman can appreciate the courage required to inflict public chastisement on a masher. We have all longed to do the very same thing, lots of times. But the dread of public opinion and the unavoidable notoriety had held us back.

Vaudeville actress Mildred Devere (1884-1964) suffered the unwelcome attention of rude mashers every time she exited the stage door, and demonstrated for the Cincinnati Post how she would like to treat them.

From Cincinnati Post 16 February 1903 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand


Actress Mildred Devere, in Cincinnati for a 1903 vaudeville show, told the Post [16 February 1903] how she wanted to respond to mashers who annoyed her at the stage door:

“Then I’d simply pick that scoundrel up and shoot him toward the trolley wires so fast that he would think he was electrocuted, dead and buried before he got half way there.”

Another national story, reprinted in the Cincinnati Post [20 August 1904] described the response of a young lady in Philadelphia who was approached by “a fresh young fellow with better clothes than manners.”

“Her manner of checking his flow of oratory was decisive. Picking up her skirts, she left fly a daintily clad foot, catching Mr. Masher on the point of his chin, with the speed of a French boxer. The foot was small, but it landed like the business end of a Missouri mule and knocked the masher down.”

Similarly, a masher unwisely sauntered up to a group of young ladies about to embark on a steamboat cruise from the Public Landing, according to the Cincinnati Post [25 June 1895]:

“Approaching them, he made an insulting remark, and posed for the answer, which he was convinced his stunning appearance would command. But he had reckoned without his host, for a moment later blows were raining down on his worthless carcass from a cane skillfully wielded by the plucky little lady, and with the assistance of her companions that lovely pongee coat and vest were in shreds and a dude’s hat missing.

Cartoon of woman kicking a masher

From Cincinnati Post 20 August 1904 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand


Fists, canes, umbrellas all figure into reports of women defending themselves, and many a masher learned painfully that hat pins can do more than secure millinery to the feminine hairdo. In some deliciously antique slang (and oddly placed capital letters), the Cincinnati Post [7 December 1901] outlined the situation:

“As soon as a Man bills himself as a Girl-Tamer, the whole Sorority wants to get out and stab him to death with Hat Pins. For some Reason, the latest variety of New Woman resents the Suggestion that she is a Soft Mark for the curbstone Masher who stands in front of Cigar Stores and does the Ogle.”

Not all “mashing” was committed in public. The term, “masher,” came to refer to any man who attempted to seduce almost any woman. Set aside for particular opprobrium were married men who presented themselves as unattached bachelors. The Ohio General Assembly passed a specific law outlawing these cads in 1894. It was known as “The Married Masher Act.” Cincinnati prosecuted a man named George Partlow under this law when he seduced a young Newport woman and “maintained improper relations” with her for a week while leading her to believe he was unmarried.

Eventually, jerks and creeps graduated to more modern nicknames and “masher” became sort of quaint and obsolete. Still, a 1922 Cincinnati Post story by the great Al Segal reported on a new anti-masher technique adopted by Miss Olga Emrick of Cincinnati: Jiu Jitsu!

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.

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