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The Demon Barber of Brooklyn

Jan 24, 2011 11:00 AM | 3 comments

He struck without warning, descending quickly upon unsuspecting adolescent girls and committing his dastardly deed with one efficient stroke.  Before the victims even had a chance to cry out, his evil work was finished, and the bandit disappeared deftly into the bustling Brooklyn street crowds with his prize in hand... a fistful of hair. 

In the late 19th century, the man who would be known as "Jack the Snipper" allegedly lopped off the braids and pigtails of nearly a dozen young girls in Brooklyn and Manhattan.  His bizarre crimes sparked a minor hysteria among the teenagers of the city who sang a new song on public school playgrounds that went, "Girls, beware, look out for your hair."  The saga played out on the pages of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle for the next three years, with prose and plot twists as gripping as those of Charles Dickens' own serial urban dramas.

This tale of villainy started innocuously enough, with the serial haircutter's first foray into criminality described by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle as merely an "unpleasant adventure" for its victim.  On the wintry afternoon of January 13, 1891, fourteen-year-old Lulu Hewitt was strolling to her classes at public school no. 15 when, seemingly out of nowhere, a strange man grabbed her, cut off her two long braids of hair, and dashed off.  It all happened so quickly that Lulu was unable to give the police much of a description of her assailant, saying only that he was "of medium height and wore a dark coat."  It could be anybody!  The incident may have been forgotten as one of the many random oddities of big city life, had it not been for a similar attack two days later:

It was a scenario unnervingly similar to Lulu Hewitt's experience only two days prior: seventeen-year-old Mamie McMurray was window shopping along Grand Street, near Leonard Street, when she felt "a slight tug at her locks, but paid no attention to it, as she supposed it was the mischievousness of some passing boy." She would soon discover that it was something far more sinister when, upon returning home, her sister cried out that Mamie's foot-long golden braids were missing.  Mamie grabbed at her hair, only to find that her beloved locks had been "ruthlessly shorn."

By the end of the month, two more girls reported attacks of a similar nature.  The Eagle catapulted the phenomenon into a full-blown crisis, and gave the anonymous criminal a catchy moniker, with their provocative January 28th headline:

The answer to that question, in fact, seemed to be "maybe not."  As the Eagle and police probed victims' testimony further, they found troubling discrepancies.  One girl in particular, Gertrude Breast, told a tale that was a bit too far-fetched to be believed.  She claimed that the Snipper had been following her for days before he struck, and that he had an accomplice; a woman who, after Gertrude's hair had been cut, gave the girl a ribbon that had fallen from her hair and told her to run along home.  Police searched every house in the neighborhood, but could find no such lady.  Gertrude also waffled on the appearance of her attacker, at one time saying he had no beard, then a black beard, then a light moustache.  Reports from friends and neighbors that Gertrude had been heard bragging about what she would do if the Snipper tried to cut her hair put the final nail in the coffin; the girl had cut her own hair!  Detective James Reynolds of the Tenth Precinct told Eagle reporters his conclusions--that a "hair-cutting mania has broken out among the school children," due to the recent crimes, and that, "a great number of them want to be heroines.  At this time, as the mania reached its height, Jack the Snipper (if there truly was a Jack the Snipper beyond the hyperactive imaginations of Brooklyn schoolgirls) appears to have taken a respite from his activities.  With little Gertrude Breast exposed as a fibber, the story lost the public interest even if it did live on as an urban myth on Brooklyn's playgrounds.  

Then came another complaint of braid-snatching some two years after the first attack in summer of 1893, this time from a young girl named Carrie Lund.  She went to the Twentieth Precinct to report the crime against her coif, but was largely dismissed by Captain Kitzer, who examined Carrie's hair and determined she'd done the cutting herself.  Her story would probably have been dismissed as another grasp at notoriety by an imaginative girl, had it not been for an exciting arrest made across the river just a month later:

This suspect was apprehended in Madison Square Park on July 6, 1893, after a Manhattan girl had reported her long blonde tresses stolen in a manner fitting the serial cutter's modus operandi. Police found damning evidence on the suspect, Frank Rogers:  a full set of hair-cutting utensils.  Rogers denied the charges, claiming that he was an out-of-work barber.  Rogers was eventually released, after none of his alleged victims would appear in court to identify him.  The story of Jack the Snipper would have most likely again sputtered out, had it not been for yet another arrest made just a few weeks later.  This time, the Eagle assured its readers, they really did have him:

The new Jack the Snipper was identified as Joseph Herzog, a married painter from Brooklyn whose mop of red hair was in keeping with recent descriptions of the Snipper from the numerous victims who were again popping up all over Brooklyn and Manhattan.  After being arrested as a suspect, he was positively identified by two young girls who had made complaints to the police.  It seemed that the puzzling case was finally wrapped up and that the girls of New York could again let their hair carelessly hang free... until the next day, August 1, 1893, when Herzog produced a solid alibi and sterling references from his boss and neighbors.  The real Jack the Snipper, if there ever was one, was still at large.  One last report came a year later, on June 6, 1894, when a Mary Zimmerman of Van Voorhis Street reported that a tall, sturdy man had accosted her at the Chauncey Street station of the Brooklyn Elevated railroad and snipped off a braid.  The Eagle reports that the girl didn't report the crime to the police or the railroad authorities.  Even if she had, it seems unlikely that anything would have been done, in light of the police's many thwarted attempts at catching a villain who may have been, after all that, a figment of the collective imagination.

And whatever happend to little Lulu Hewitt, the girl whose first report to the police ignited the Jack the Snipper legend?   


The Eagle published this sketch of the girl in February of 1896, when her divorce trial made front-page news.  At the tender  age of 19, Lulu was again a media sensation.  It had been five years since her first fifteen minutes of fame at the hand of Jack the Snipper.  That's plenty of time for her hair to have grown back, so we can only assume that she sported this hairstyle on purpose.



1/26/2011 9:50:16 AM #

Who knows?  Maybe to this day there is an attic in Brooklyn holding piles and piles of long braids!


1/27/2011 3:25:00 PM #

intense story! i'd like to read more of your stories. i will certenly come back. it is good for improving my english skills, too. thank you from germany

michael vergleich

4/3/2011 10:42:47 AM #

I enjoy reading your blogs and hope you keep them coming!

Foredi BLog.