There was an epidemic of mashing at the turn of the century, and it was an offense worthy of hundreds of news articles, civic leagues, and sermons. Masher was a slang term that loosely referred to a man who took advantage of women who appeared alone in public. The caricature of a masher was a well-dressed man leering at an alarmed Victorian lady.
In practice, mashing could encompass a wide variety of behavior from speaking to a woman without first being introduced to sexual assault. Mashers could be alone or they could work in gangs and cities from San Francisco to Toledo put in place strict laws to prevent mashing.
The penalties were severe. In Omaha, a man convicted of making an unwanted overture would be fined a minimum of $5 (about $140 in 2018). Calling a woman a “turtle-dove” would cost him $15.
One Houston law even fined men $100 who “stare at, or make what is commonly called goo-goo eyes, at any female person on the street.”
Newspapers across the country were replete with masher stories for years. In October of 1900 a remarkable story was published about the working-class girls of Paterson, New Jersey who were organizing a league for their own protection against mashers. Some young women said they simply sweep past the mashers in a majestic silence, others might jab at them with hat pins, but Miss Minnie Cohoon of Paterson, New Jersey was not one for subtlety.
Miss Cohoon said she had was riding her bicycle home one night the week before at dusk. “In a lonely part of the road, flanked on both sides by large fields, I was accosted by a well-dressed young man.” He tried to speak to her, but Miss Cohoon abruptly shifted the course of her bicycle and rode “full tilt at him.” He had tried to grab her but she escaped. When she arrived home that evening, her brother and his wife advised her to carry a revolver.
Sure enough, just a few days ago, she again encountered the masher on her way home. “He laughed and made a rude remark. As I tried to pass him he put his arm around my waist. I ran from him, screaming, but as he ran swifter than I there was nothing for me to do than use my revolver. I fired twice at the man, and although I missed him, he turned and ran away.”
Women could never be safe from mashers because they were so wily. They had clever lines such as, “Aren’t you Miss So-and-so?” or “I believe you dropped something.” The thing to do, women were assured, was to jab at them with hat pins or use self-defense techniques. At one point, hat pins were used more often as a weapon or a self-defense mechanism than for actually pinning a hat in place.
There was a noticeable drop in enthusiasm for prosecuting the mashers after an international incident in New York, when the famous Italian tenor Enrico Caruso was arrested for “pressing against a woman” at a zoo. He’s lucky he didn’t run into Minnie Cohoon.
Since the definition of mashing depended very much on the situation and the people involved, it’s incredible that laws were passed and enforced. Given the stricter standards of behavior at the time, I imagine many men had hilarious arrest records.
San Francisco was apparently a hot bed of illicit mashing behavior, but it was not tolerated by the citizenry as this illustration of an actual incident explains: