On a November morning in 1919, Manuel and Bessie Brown were dining at a restaurant in Oakland, California, a few miles from their Haight Street home in Alameda.
Mrs. Brown looked up and gasped. “Look!” she said to her husband. “That woman has on my hat and shirtwaist and suit.” A week earlier, on November 9, the Brown house was robbed of apparel and jewelry, including Mrs. Brown’s hat and shirtwaist and suit, amounting to $550. That’s $9,500 in 2023.
Manuel Brown’s gaze flickered to the young couple a few tables away. He saw in an instant his wife was correct. There was no mistaking Bessie’s distinctive hat, with the tell-tale blackbird perched atop the brim. Bird hats were quite the craze in the early 1910s.
Manuel Brown signaled to the waiter and paid their check. The two quickly left the restaurant without attracting the notice of anyone.
A few minutes later, the Browns reappeared with two Oakland policemen in tow. They pointed to the young couple and Officers Sheoft and Gannaw closed in at once. The young couple were arrested without incident.
The couple’s home at the Coronado apartments was searched and the police found more items stolen from the Brown home. When the police questioned the Browns, they discovered neither of them had seen the girl before but they knew the man. He was Bert Garrett. He had struck up acquaintance with the family shortly before Mrs. Brown’s clothing and jewelry was stolen from their home.
The police knew Bert, too. He had a long record of committing burglaries, stretching back to at least 1913. He was currently wanted by police for escaping from Folsom Prison a year ago.
Officer Sheoft suspected there was a bit more to the story. Something about that hat bothered him. Sheoft spoke to the Acting Captain of Inspectors, Lou Agnew, about the case, including how Mrs. Brown tipped off the police because the woman was wearing her suit and distinctive hat.
Agnew, startled, pulled out his notebook and flipped to a page filled with scrawled notes. “Has she got a blackbird on that hat?” he demanded. Sheoft confirmed it.
Unfortunately, I could not find a picture of the hat, but here’s an example of a model wearing a similar hat.
Agnew shook his head in amazement. Could this couple possibly be the two that every police force in the Bay Area was searching for?
A few hours later, a middle-aged man with a slight build entered the Oakland City Jail. Virgil Reed was a professional photographer from Richmond, a city about 12 miles north of Oakland.
Reed had gotten the scare of his life a few days earlier when a young couple appeared in his studio unannounced. The young woman, who wore an alarming hat with a blackbird on its brim, brandished a .45 caliber revolver. She told Reed to lay down on the ground. He complied. She bound him before rifling through his pockets and relieving him of $36 and his gold watch. She backed away, eyeing him warily. “If you make any noise before we’re out of sight, I’ll kill you,” the girl promised.
“Is this the couple that robbed you in your studio last Saturday night?” the police asked Virgil Reed. The photographer examined the couple. “Yes,” he replied. He noted the young woman had been wearing the same hat when she robbed him.
The girl, who identified herself as Irene Johnson, age 23, admitted she had pulled this particular job all by herself.
“Did you threaten to kill Mr. Reed?” a detective asked severely.
“I would have certainly shot Reed to protect Bert and myself,” Irene replied. She had committed the heist, she said, because she intended to marry Bert Garrett and she had to prove her bravery.
The detectives were puzzled but they were in no way prepared for the crazy story the young woman in the blackbird hat was about to tell them.
Go to the second part of this tale: The Girl Bandit Confesses