Busting Out in WWII-Era Brooklyn

This piece by Emily Brooks is the first entrant into the Second Annual UHA/The Metropole Graduate Student Blogging Contest. We we invited graduate students to submit essays on theme of “Striking Gold,” whether lucre or archival treasures. Brooks’ interpretation of the theme hews to the latter, and she uses a memo discovered on a reel of micofilm to unspool a dramatic, cinematic story.

The nail file was a gift. Whether it belonged to Mary, Margaret, Estelle, Carmen, or Jean we will never know. What we do know, however, is that one of these 14 and 15-year-old girls acquired the file while on trial for juvenile delinquency at the Manhattan Children’s court in July 1944. This young woman then brought the nail file with her to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children’s Brooklyn shelter where the five white girls were imprisoned during the heat wave of early August 1944.[1]

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The four freedoms. Step right up folks, for the greatest ride in the world …“, Alfred T. Palmer, between 1941-1942, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

For these young incarcerated women, the nail file presented an opportunity. On the night of August 8, the five prisoners used the manicure file to scrape through a brass padlock securing the window in their dormitory. Once they had dispatched the lock, the girls crawled through the window and up a fire escape to access the roof of the building, carrying their bed sheets along. After reaching the roof, they knotted the sheets together and climbed down onto the roof of the Children’s Court building next door. The girls successfully evaded the court building’s custodian as he raised the flag on the roof the next morning, before escaping down the stairs and fleeing onto the street. They hailed a cab, despite lacking shoes and wearing white shelter uniforms. The quick-thinking young women informed the taxi driver that their clothing had been stolen while they were at Coney Island, and directed the driver to the apartment of a boyfriend on Madison Avenue.[2]

Mary, Margaret, Estelle, Carmen, and Jean’s dramatic escape created a number of public relations problems for New York City’s Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, Police Commissioner Lewis Valentine, and officials in the city’s court and police systems. The escape challenged the power of the state to control the behavior of young women during World War II, and forced city officials to reframe discussions around the necessity of this control. The superintendent of the Brooklyn Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children drafted a document for the head judge of the city’s Domestic Relations Court, innocuously-entitled “Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944,” which detailed the event and its subsequent irritations.[3]

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Mayor La Guardia speaks over WNYC on Grade A milk from Budget Room / World-Telegram photo by Fred Palumbo“, March 23, 1940, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Decades later, during another hot New York City summer, I found this memo on one of the hundreds of microfilm rolls dedicated to Mayor La Guardia’s records at the city’s Municipal Archives. I came upon the document, as well as a number of letters related to the escape, while performing research for my dissertation on the activities of the New York City Police Department (NYPD) during World War II. Exploring histories of policing in New York City presents challenges for historians since the NYPD often declines to share records with researchers, and sometimes even “misplaces” them.[4] Those records that do exist can provide insight into official police policies, but evaluating the impact of such policies or finding resistance to them can prove more elusive. The “Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter” provides a rare glimpse into the lives of five teenagers affected by the NYD’s wartime campaigns against juvenile delinquency, and an illustration of how they sought to resist this type of surveillance.

During the war, although the overall number of police officers decreased as men joined the military, young women came under increasing surveillance from the NYPD. Officers monitored the city’s streets, particularly around hubs of entertainment and transit, searching for teenage girls like the escapees. Once arrested, many of these young women shared the fate of Mary, Margaret, Estelle, Carmen, and Jean, whose offenses included staying out late and spending time with older men.[5] Girls had socialized with men throughout the twentieth century, sometimes coming into conflict with their parents and the state because of it.[6] For many women of all ages, however, World War II, introduced new employment opportunities, and for some young women the war brought reduced parental supervision. As a number of historians have documented, new sexual possibilities and anxieties emerged along with the economic and social disruptions of war.[7] Historian Amanda Littauer has argued convincingly young people seized on these opportunities to engage in premarital sex at higher rates than their prewar counterparts.[8]

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Cure juvenile delinquency in the slums by planned housing“, Federal Art Project, 1935, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

At the same time as teenagers like the escapees explored new social and sexual freedoms, Valentine and La Guardia called for intensified NYPD campaigns against prostitution, juvenile delinquency, and other crimes of “vice.” New York City’s leaders, responding in part to federal demands to monitor Americans during wartime, framed policing Gotham as an essential part of the war effort. [9] The NYPD needed, officials argued, to protect enlisted men from sexually transmitted infections and to maintain “order” in an increasingly interracial wartime city. Throughout the war, the department’s campaigns against juvenile delinquency focused on arresting boys of color for supposed crimes of minor violence or theft, and monitoring young women of all races for inappropriate social or sexual activities.[10] In the case of young women, officials argued that monitoring their behavior and incarcerating them for violations served to protect both arrestees themselves and their male potential sexual partners.[11]

Although officials held that Mary, Margaret, Estelle, Carmen, and Jean’s disappearance endangered both the young shoeless women, and their potential male paramours, interactions between the state and Estelle’s mother following the incident belied this claim. Estelle’s mother, Elisabeth, visited the office of the society that ran the shelter to seek more information about her daughter’s escape. The superintendent described Elisabeth as “belligerent” and “a high-strung, nervous person.” The shelter’s representatives reminded Elisabeth multiple times that her own daughter and the other girls had run away from home before. The officials argued, therefore, that “nothing too serious could happen to her at this point beyond what has already happened to her.” Elisabeth returned the next day, seeking more answers. She asked for her daughter’s possessions and inquired how it had been possible for the young women to flee without shoes or street clothing. The superintendent lamented that by the end of her second visit Elisabeth had become “extremely suspicious and doubtful about the good faith of the representatives of the Society.”[12] Estelle’s mother also lodged complaints with members of the NYPD and the mayor. The mayor expressed limited concern, proclaiming that “when five girls use such extreme means to escape, it is almost impossible to restrain them.”[13] The dismissive responses to Elisabeth’s anxiety about the whereabouts of her daughter demonstrated by the representatives of Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Mayor La Guardia suggest that the protection of teenage girls was not the paramount concern of these city officials. The city seemed more concerned with controlling “all the female problems we have prowling the streets today,” as Police Commissioner Valentine had articulated a few months before the escape.[14]

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Collier’s House at PEDAC, New York City. Girl’s room I“, Gottscho-Schlesnier, Inc., 1940, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What did Mary, Margaret, Estelle, Carmen, and Jean gain by fleeing the shelter’s confines to “prowl” the city’s streets? They gained freedom from the control of shelter employees and their families, as well as unsupervised access to the city, which they used to visit Harlem and Coney Island, among other places. What this freedom meant to the girls is difficult to say. For Jean, who lived with a foster family in New Jersey, it may have meant unrestricted access to the excitements of New York City. For Estelle, who sought out a boyfriend at Floyd Bennet Field in southeastern Brooklyn, perhaps these few days provided an opportunity to continue a prohibited relationship. For Margaret, who was the oldest of four in a working-class family, maybe the escape was a respite from familial responsibilities.[15] The “Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944,” provides a small window into a few days in the lives of five of the young women that police, court, and political leaders deemed so threating to the health of the city and nation in wartime. The details of their escape suggest that whatever a few days of unsupervised free time in the city meant to these young women, they went to great lengths to attain it.

Featured image (at top): Eggers & Higgins, 542 5th Ave., New York City. Six girls, Gottscho-Schlesnier, Inc., 1946, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

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Emily Brooks is a Ph.D. candidate in the history department at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her writing has appeared in the Journal of Policy History, processhistory.org, and the gothamcenter.org. She is currently working on a dissertation about anti-vice policing in New York City during World War II. 

 

[1] “4 Year Heat Record Set at 96.3” New York Times, August 5, 1944, 1. Throughout this piece I will use first names only to protect the identities of the young women and their families.

[2] From Wilson D. McKerrow, to Bruce Cobb, Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944. New York City Municipal Archives, Fiorello La Guardia Collection, Roll 111, Folder 37.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Joseph Goldstein, “Old New York Police Surveillance is Found, Forcing Big Brother Out of Hiding” New York Times, June 16, 2016.

[5] From Wilson D. McKerrow, to Bruce Cobb, Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944. New York City Municipal Archives, Fiorello La Guardia Collection, Roll 111, Folder 37.

[6] For discussions of the policing of young women in progressive-era New York see Cheryl Hicks, Talk with you like a Woman: African American Women, Justice, and Reform in New York, 1890-1935. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010) and Ruth Alexander, The “Girl Problem”: Female Sexual Delinquency in New York, 1900-1930 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995). For more on the development of juvenile delinquency laws governing girls see Mary E. Odem, Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the Unites States, 1885-1920, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

[7] John D’Emilio Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); Allan Berube, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two (New York: The Free Press, 1990); Leisa D. Meyer Creating G.I. Jane: Sexuality and Power in the Women’s Army Corps During World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

[8] Amanda Littauer, Bad Girls: Young Women, Sex, and Rebellion Before the 1960s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 19-20.

[9] For examples of how officials handled these federal demands and wartime exigencies in Virginia see Pippa Holloway, Sexuality, Politics and Social Control in Virginia, 1920-1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), particularly chapters 6 and 7.

[10] Luis Alvarez uses the zoot suit as a lens through which to explore racialized policing of youth during WWII in The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance during World War II (Oakland: University of California Press, 2009). Clarence Tayler discusses the efforts of the city’s Teacher’s Union to defend African American boys targeted by the police in Civil Rights in New York City: From World War II to the Giuliani Era (New York City: Fordham University Press, 2011), particularly chapter 1 “To Be a Good American: The New York City Teacher’s Union and Race during the Second World War.”

[11] For a discussion about federal support for criminalization of female sexuality during the war see Marilyn Hegarty, Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes: The Regulation of Female Sexuality during World War II (New York City: NYU Press, 2007) and for the different ways that women’s sexuality was mobilized for the war effort see Megan K. Winchell, Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses During World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

[12] From Wilson D. McKerrow, to Bruce Cobb, Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944. New York City Municipal Archives, Fiorello La Guardia Collection, Roll 111, Folder 37.

[13] From Mayor LaGuardia to Mrs. Elisabeth, August 14, 1944. New York City Municipal Archives, Fiorello La Guardia Collection, Roll 111, Folder 37.

[14] “Mayor Asks More Help for Wayward Girl,” New York Times, May 26, 1944, 12.

[15] From Wilson D. McKerrow, to Bruce Cobb, Memo: Regarding Escape of Five Girls from the Shelter, August 8, 1944. New York City Municipal Archives, Fiorello La Guardia Collection, Roll 111, Folder 37. Information on Margaret’s family from 1940 Census, accessed on ancestry.com, July 24, 2018.

 

 

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