Woman with gun holds up six men — Brooklyn Eagle
It was a bitterly cold evening in January, the ?fth day of the New Year. It was the ?rst Saturday night of 1924. Ed Cooney left his wife, Celia, sitting at the kitchen table while he went to borrow a car just a couple of blocks away on Atlantic Avenue. They had big plans for the evening.
The young couple lived in a furnished room at 53 Madison Street in the Bedford section of Brooklyn. It was a mostly white, working-class neighborhood full of ?rst-, second-, and third-generation immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Germany, and England, sandwiched between what is now called Bedford-Stuyvesant and Prospect Heights. The couple had only moved to Madison Street three months before, but neither of them was new to the neighborhood. Now twenty years old, Celia had lived in the area since she was eighteen. And Ed, except for a stint in the Navy, had spent all of his twenty-?ve years in Bedford. Down the street from their little room was the Church of the Nativity of Our Blessed Lord, the Catholic church where they were married the previous spring. A few blocks south and west, over on Fulton Street, was the motion picture and vaudeville theater where the two had met the year before.
Celia remembered that meeting vividly. It was a Saturday evening and she was lonely. “I thought I’d blow thirty cents,” she later wrote, taking in a show and hoping to run into some friends. So she walked down to the Fulton Theatre and settled in for the night’s entertainment.
When the lights went up she spotted her friend Joe, a nice enough guy whom she had gone out dancing with a time or two before. But it was the man next to him that really drew her eye. He was a tall, blond, blue-eyed man who looked a little like the famous boxer Jack Dempsey. Celia herself was small and dark, with black hair and black eyes, barely over ?ve feet tall. “They say people fall in love with their opposites and I expect it’s true.” Celia was smitten.
She was also savvy enough to play hard to get. She walked over to Joe. “Oh, hello Joe, you here alone?”
“No, shake hands with my friend, Mr. Cooney.”
Ed smiled as he put out his hand. “He’s Irish,” Celia recalled, “you know, real Irish and he’s got a wonderful smile.” She looked over his sharp coat with the belt in back, his brightly striped silk shirt and “nifty cap,” and thought that he “carried himself swell.”
The three of them went out to a local chop suey place where they could eat and dance. Celia made sure to dance mostly with Joe; she didn’t want to overplay her hand, and Ed didn’t dance much anyway. But he did offer to walk her home. It was a pretty night. On her doorstep Celia turned to him and said, “Well, goodnight Mr. Cooney.”
“You haven’t said when I was going to see you again,” Ed replied.
“Just like that, as if it was all made up that I would see him again,” Celia remembered.
Celia and Ed “kept company” for several months, then Ed bought Celia an engagement ring with a solitary red stone. By May they were married and living together in a furnished room. Celia held a job nearby at the Ostrander Company, earning twelve dollars a week, and Ed took home thirty dollars each week working in a garage.
As Celia later recalled:
I had never been so happy in my life. But we weren’t saving a cent. Ed kept insisting on my buying myself some nice clothes. He took a lot of pride in my looks and the clothes he wanted me to wear cost money. . . . It seemed so wonderful to me to be loved and worried about. So we spent our money that summer almost as fast as we made it.
Their most extravagant purchase was a fancy sealskin coat. According to Celia, “Eddie wouldn’t rest” until she’d bought herself a fur coat for the winter. “I had always longed for a real fur coat,” Celia later explained, “and always known it was impossible. But Eddie was different than me: when he wanted anything, he went right after it.” As the weather turned colder the couple went over Manhattan, “to a big fur place on Fifth Avenue.” Celia remembered being scared: intimidated by the luxuriousness of the store. But with Ed on her arm, she walked right in, “like I was used to buying myself a swell fur coat every other day in the week”:
I came out wearing a sealskin coat that made me feel like a million dollars. . . . My weekly wages were spent for months in advance; but I didn’t seem to care. I was drunk — with the exultation of spending — of having nice things — with Eddie’s pride in me.
In September Celia and Ed found out they were expecting a baby. Celia was thrilled, but also worried: what kind of life were they going to give their child? She remembered looking around their solitary room and exploding: “I can’t stand this room!” Her husband “had never seen her hysterical before.” He assured Celia that they would move to another room, asking her where she wanted to live. The mother-to-be let him know that he was missing the point:
“I don’t want a room!” I cried wildly. “I want a home! I’m not going to have my baby raised in a little two-by-four hole like I was. He’s going to have a home — a decent home!”
Ed promised Celia that they’d get a real home for their baby. But how?
Ed worked as a welder for a man named Paul Horgan at his automotive repair shop on Atlantic Avenue. While the pay wasn’t great, the job had some perks. Horgan left a couple of cars locked up in the garage there. The Cooneys could not afford a car of their own, so Ed borrowed one of his boss’s motorcars from time to time — usually an old Oldsmobile. This was the car that Ed drove Celia around in while they were “keeping company” on Saturday nights.
The shop was Ed’s ?rst stop the evening of January 5th. He walked around the corner from their furnished room to 1057 Atlantic Avenue, a block lined with automobile repair shops, warehouses, and factories. Twenty years before, the garages had been stables. Ed had the keys to the garage; he was a trusted employee, having worked there for six days a week for almost twelve years. He went to work every morning at seven to open the shop and get the furnace going before the boss arrived. Mr. Horgan knew he borrowed the car sometimes, but not for what Ed had in mind this Saturday night.
Ed had prepared for this evening. He had used his welding skills to doctor up a couple of phony license plates to mislead the police. New York State alternated colors every other year: one year it was yellow on black, the next black on yellow. By cutting a couple of 1922 plates in half and then welding them to a pair from 1924, Ed created a set of plates with a 1924 stamp but a new number that couldn’t be traced back to Horgan’s garage. After bolting these on to one of the cars in the garage, he drove back to pick up Celia.
Back in their room Celia sat at the kitchen table with three guns laid out before her. One was a .25 automatic that Ed had owned since before they were married. She didn’t know where Ed had gotten it, but the fact that her new husband owned a gun hadn’t worried Celia. “Lots of fellows had pistols,” she reasoned. “There were lots of hold-ups in Brooklyn, and who knows when we might have got held up and robbed?” One small gun had been enough for protection but not for armed robbery, so Ed had made a visit to the Bowery to buy a couple more. He didn’t have any luck in any of the pawnshops that lined Manhattan’s skid row, but in one of the stores a “negro” overheard what Ed was looking for and followed him outside. Drawing him into a doorway, the man sold Ed two guns for three dollars each, and gave him a handful of bullets. Stuf?ng the guns and bullets into his pockets Ed came home.
“We staged a little hold-up that night,” Celia remembered:
I put on my hat and coat and put the little automatic in my pocket. We had made up our minds we’d try a store ?rst. So we moved the table over, and Ed stood behind it like he was a clerk and I pretended to walk in and ask for a dozen eggs, and he pretended to give them to me and as he was handing them, I backed off and pulled the gun out of my pocket and said “Stick ’em up quick!” Just like I’d read in a magazine.
Celia loved reading. And the scene, the gun, the language — it all seemed like something out of the detective magazines and cheap pulp novels she voraciously consumed. A story come to life. “I had been reading magazines and books about girl crooks and bandits and it began to seem like a game or play acting after Ed really came home with the guns. It was more exciting than anything I thought I’d ever do.”
Now the night they had planned for had come. She felt “all excited and happy and gay” and couldn’t sit still. She jumped out of her chair and danced, singing “a sort of song that had no sense to it, about pink leather shoes for baby and to —— with the laundry now. Wasn’t it silly?” But her mood swung suddenly:
And then I cried. I was all so happy and strange inside me, and warm, that I couldn’t help crying. And I picked up one of those big pistols and kissed its handle, where Ed’s hand had been.
Then all of a sudden I sort of slumped, and cold shivers went all over me, and I got plain scared, sitting there by myself. It seemed like it all wasn’t so. That it couldn’t be. It seemed like I didn’t know myself, like some other girl had promised to do this, and then gone off and hid, and left me to pretend I was her, and do it in her place.
I got up and screamed. I said “Ed, I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I am scared.” Of course Ed wasn’t there.
Celia felt better when her husband returned with the motorcar. Climbing into the car, they returned to Atlantic Avenue, cruising the major Brooklyn thoroughfare, “all ?xed up with guns and a car and everything, just like real bandits”:
Ed was driving and saying nothing. I was beside him on the front seat. I put my arm behind his shoulder and cuddled up close to him and he must have felt me sort of shivering.
He put one hand over on my knee and patted me and I said Ed, are you sure it’s alright?” and he said, “Sure, it’s all right, kid; you’re not losing your nerve, are you? And I said, “Of course not, Ed, you know I’d do anything with you.”
It was nine-thirty, dark and near freezing. Atlantic Avenue was busy with traf?c, but the cold kept people off the sidewalks. Ed and Celia ?gured that there would be a lot of money in the tills late on a Saturday night, and they had waited until there wouldn’t be so many customers in the stores. As they rode along, Celia began to “feel ?ne” again: “I was proud of Ed and proud of myself and ready for any- thing.”
Ed turned the car slowly onto Seventh Avenue, where they had spotted several grocery stores. Driving close to the curb, they peered through the windows looking for a nice quiet shop. There on the corner of Seventh Street and Seventh Avenue in Park Slope was the Thomas Roulston grocery, an outpost of one of the grocery store chains that were taking over mom and pop shops across the country in the Twenties. It was open late on a Saturday night.
The block was quiet, and through the big windows of the grocery store they saw that there were no customers, just the clerks in their white coats. Ed eased up to the curb, leaving the engine running. The Cooneys “had it all ?gured out like clockwork.” They had practiced at the kitchen table at home. Celia was to enter ?rst and ask to buy something, while Ed kept watch outside. If it was all clear, Ed would enter and Celia would start the holdup.
Ed looked up and down the street. As they got out of the car together, she thought she “looked pretty nice — seal coat, beaded grey dress, black shoes and stockings and a cunning tam. I had dolled up like I was going to a party in everything I had.” Celia Cooney wanted to look her best when she went out robbing. Now it was time to show herself off:
I walked into the store, cold as a cucumber, with both my hands in my fur coat pockets, and one hand holding the butt of the little automatic hidden in my pocket. The store was lighted up as bright as day, and there were six men, six clerks, in white coats, standing around or ?ddling around with the stuff on the counters.
The sight of the six male clerks gave Celia a shock. Some of them were as big as Ed, and their white coats in the bright light were an imposing sight. Celia felt “about two feet high.” She thought, “Gosh what a simp I am.They’ll laugh at us and throw us out on our necks in the street.” Inside, she was all nerves, scared, “but outside, I tell you, I was cold as ice, not scared cold, but cold like a person walking smooth and steady in a dream.”
Celia walked right up to the man at the cash register; she thought he was the manager because he handled the money. None of the other clerks paid any attention to her.
“Yes, Miss?” he said, “as nice as pie.” She asked him for a dozen eggs, please. The manager turned and walked behind the counter to ?ll her order. He returned with the eggs and began to wrap them up for her, tying the pasteboard box with string: “All of a sudden I had the funniest thought. I thought, ‘what am I doing; I haven’t got a nickel to pay for these eggs!’ Then I remembered.”
Ed walked in quietly, and Celia knew the time had come. Just as the manager was laying the package of eggs on the counter before her with both hands, she took two steps backward and pulled the gun from the pocket of her fur coat:
“Stick ’em up! Quick!” Just like that. For a second I thought he wasn’t going to do it. But it was only because he was so surprised and scared he couldn’t move. Then up they went, both arms together, like one of those monkeys you buy on a stick with a string at the ten cent store. I thought, “Gee, that would make a pretty toy for my baby.”
Celia snapped out of her little reverie. She didn’t know what to do next. She turned just a little to glance at Ed:
It was ?ne. There he stood ?at-footed with his legs spread a little apart, his cap down a little over his eyes, looking big and strong as Jack Dempsey, and a lot handsomer. A big gun was in each hand, held low, with his elbows bent a little, covering the whole back store.
“Get to the back, all of you, quick,” he calls, and it was a sight to see. Honest, they were exactly like sheep. They went where we told them, and they stood in a line, with their mouths gaping, and their eyes popping, looking so silly, it made me want to laugh.
As they moved to the back of the store, none of the clerks had their hands up; even the manager began to lower his. It didn’t matter; they weren’t going to do anything. When Celia “got wise to that,” she thought, “it gave me a grand thrill. For once in my life I was boss. Here were six of them, afraid to move, afraid to do anything except what I told them. And they were so big and me so little.”
Ed told Celia to “hold ’em back.” He had to work quickly. Sticking both guns in the pocket of his overcoat he “poked” at the register; “no sale” popped up, and the bell rang as the drawer sprang open. He grabbed the bills and stuffed them in his pants; he scooped the change into his overcoat pockets where it clinked against the guns. Ed noticed the corner of an envelope sticking out of a little safe under the counter; bending over, he grabbed it and stuck it in the breast pocket of his coat. It was full of ?ves, tens, and twenties.
Ed stood up. When he jerked the guns from his pocket, change fell out, quarters and pennies rolling on the ?oor as he backed to the door. He didn’t stop. “Don’t make a move!” he yelled; “if you want your head blown off just try to follow us out.” Celia went to the door and pulled it open, while Ed covered the cowering clerks. Out she went, followed by her husband. The sidewalk was clear, the engine was running; Celia hopped in ?rst, and Ed hopped in over her. He put his foot on the gas, threw the car into gear, “and off we went, smooth, without a bobble.”
Ed turned left at the corner and made two more quick turns without either of them speaking a word. They passed a cop, but he didn’t seem to notice, the ?rst of many that they would pass in their getaways. “Gee!” mused Celia, some nights the cops were “so close you could reach your hand out of the car and touch them, but they never guessed a thing.”
As they drove away, Ed was silent. “I wanted him to kiss me or something,” thought Celia, “but I guess that was foolish.” She whispered: “Was it all right, Ed?” “And he put down one hand from the wheel — Ed was a grand one-armed driver — just like he did before and patted me on the knee and said: “Sure kid, you’re a peach.”
That made Celia happy. “Ed, how much do you suppose we got?” Ed thought it might be more than a thousand dollars. There were “big bills in it,” he said, “that big envelope is thick, feel it.” Celia reached through his coat and felt the bulge; it was thick. They returned to Atlantic Avenue, driving back to Paul Horgan’s garage between Classon and Franklin Avenues. Ed parked the car and turned out the lights in the garage. Celia kissed him. She asked him again if everything was all right. They shut the door, locked it, and walked home.
Nervous and excited, they opened the door of their room on Madison Street. Before they even took off their coats, they locked the door and jammed a straight-backed chair under the knob. Ed shut the torn window blind, but there was still a hole where someone could peep through. Celia got an old shawl and pinned it up so that no one could see into their lair: “Then Ed listened at the door. Of course nobody was there, but now that it was quiet and all over, I think we were both more scared and nervous than when we were in real danger.” Satis?ed that they were alone, Ed walked to the bed and began to empty the contents of his bulging pockets:
Holy Cat! What a thrill when Ed dumped all that money out on the bed — nickels, dimes, pennies, quarters, half-dollars — like one of those pictures of a treasure chest opened by pirates you sometimes see on the front cover of a magazine.
I was glad that there were pennies, for some of them were bright and shiny like gold. And my the bills! Some greasy and old and torn, some crisp and new, some green and some yellow backs, all mixed together, except those in the envelope, which were sorted together and fastened in packages with thin strips of paper.
Ed started counting, got mixed up and started again. Celia had never seen so much money at one time; the most that she ever brought home in a pay envelope was ?fteen or sixteen dollars. Ed received only twice that every Saturday night for his week’s work welding at the garage. “Now we had hundreds!” recalled Celia.
When Ed ?nally ?nished counting, there were more than six hundred dollars stacked on the bed. Finding a hiding place was tough in their “little two-by-four room with nothing you could lock but the door.” Ed folded the guns in a shirt and stuck them under some clothes in the bureau drawer. All the silver went into the coffee pot, and the bills were stuffed between the pages of the three or four books they owned. One of the books was an old catalog. In her New York American confessional, Celia recalls that she used to pass the time looking wistfully at the pictures of cribs and baby carriages for the baby growing in her belly. Now she had money, big bills stuck between the pages of her Sears and Roebuck wish book.
With the money and guns safely squirreled away, Celia and Ed made ready for bed. “Ed got in bed ?rst.” It took Celia a little longer. She “rubbed some cold cream” on her face, “switched out the light and jumped in beside him”:
Excerpted from The Bobbed Haired Bandit by Stephen Duncombe and Andrew Mattson. Copyright © 2007 by Stephen Duncombe. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.