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Monday, April 25, 2011

Slim Stiletto: The Hatpin

An assortment of vintage hatpins.

Among the items women have carried for self-defense over the years the hatpin stands out as a unique dual-purpose implement. In the late 19th and early 20th century it was the fashion among women to wear really big hats secured to the hair with really big hatpins, which had a jeweled or decorative head and a pointed steel shaft that might be as long as 15 inches. Due to the small diameter of the shaft, as weapons hatpins were better suited to inflicting pain than serious injury, but there were cases in which they inflicted mortal wounds.

In 1900, the Chicago Tribune published a tabulation of the different weapons used by women in the previous year's assaults. The broom handle topped the list with 186 instances, and a baby bottle held last place, wielded as a weapon only once. Involved in 55 assaults, hatpins were ranked between thrown plates (73) and hair brushes and hand mirrors (48).

Legislation was eventually passed prohibiting excessively long hatpins, not only for their deadly potential but for the proverbial "you could put someone's eye out with that" problem. The pointy end of hatpins often extended well beyond the hat and, unless capped like a fencing foil, posed a risk to everyone nearby. In the end, it was mostly the change in women’s fashions that removed these slim stilettos from the streets.

Here are some reports of the hatpin’s employment as a weapon:

Daily Star, 1898:
Sadie Williams, of this city [Chicago], vindicated the reputation of the hatpin as a woman's most efficient weapon, and drove two robbers from a Blue Island avenue car, preventing them from robbing the conductor. Miss Williams then promptly went into hysterics of the usual sort.

At 8 A.M. recently she and another woman were the only passengers in the car when two men jumped upon it. Conductor Symington went inside to collect the women's fares, and while he was taking the money one of the men grabbed him around the waist while the other began rifling his pockets.

Miss Williams started up and drawing a long hatpin from her hat rushed to the rescue. She stuck the pin into each of the robbers, one of whom turned upon her and knocked her down, trying at the same time to seize her purse. She recovered herself and flew at him, sticking the pin into his neck.

With a yell he sprang back, and the plucky girl turned to the other man and plunged the long pin as far as it would go three times into the robber, and then flew at the first man again, stabbing him in the face.

The robbers retreated, still pursued by Miss Williams who struck them at every step until they finally took to their heels and escaped.

Symington says he surely would have been robbed if it had not been for the plucky girl. After the men had gone and the conductor went to congratulate Miss Williams she was found to have collapsed and had become hysterical, but she soon recovered.
San Francisco Call, 1905:
OAKLAND, July 24.— A courageous woman armed with a hatpin put a cowardly man to flight last night just as effectively as a policeman's club could have done. Miss Lillian Lundquist, a searcher of records, who lives with her mother at 2132 Adeline street, is the heroine. She was returning home from the theater last night and had left the car at Thirty-fourth and Adeline streets when she was accosted by a man, who, after following her for a few steps, caught her by the arm, exclaiming as he did so: "Now I have you; you are the one I want." With a scream the girl attempted to tear herself from the man's grasp, but he was too strong. Then she reached up and drew a hatpin from the back of her hat and drove it into the man's side. With a cry of pain the fellow released the young woman and ran down the street.

Miss Lundquist on her arrival home told her brother, Theodore J. Lundquist, of what had taken place. The latter at once started out to find the man who had made the attack, but after a long search he was forced to give up the quest.

Miss Lundquist is certain that she inflicted a severe wound on her assailant.
Big hats need big hatpins.

Middletown Daily News-Signal, 1907
Chicago. --A hand-to-hand battle, in which an 18-year-old girl fought off a man who attacked her, took place on a lonely bit of railroad track between Indiana Harbor and Clarke, Ind. The heroine of the occasion was Miss Grace Stults, daughter of P.M. Stults, general superintendent of the Illinois Steel company yards at South Chicago. The villain was a heavy-browed, bewhiskered individual. When attacked the girl brought her hatpin into play, stabbing her assailant in the face and stomach. The man slipped and, striking his head against the rail, was stunned. Realizing her advantage, the girl knelt on his chest and, seizing the man by the throat, repeatedly bumped his head on the steel rail. He became unconscious and she fled down the track.
New York Times, 1908:
With a hatpin in each hand Mrs. Mary E. Markey of 117 Sands Street, Brooklyn, stood off four men who attacked her in East New York last night in a lonely street. She stabbed one of them several times and each of his companions received at least one thrust of the woman's weapons.

The woman was returning home when, in Vesta Avenue, near Glenmore Avenue, the men attacked her. They demanded her purse and whatever jewelry she wore. One of them seized her by the arm with a grasp so strong that his fingers bruised the flesh.

The rough treatment and her peril suddenly inspired the victim with daring. Like a flash she drew two hatpins and drove the shaft of one deep into the shoulder of the man who held her. The other men endeavored to hold her, but she was too quick for them. Her attack on the four with the hatpins was too much and they ran. Policeman James Brown of the Brownsville Station heard her shrieks and ran up. Three of the men escaped. The fourth, Andrew Antrun, 29 years, of 753 Liberty Avenue, was locked up in the Brownsville Station charged by Mrs. Markey with assault and attempted robbery.
Clifford Griffith Roe’s Panders and Their White Slaves (1910) tells the story of a 15-year-old immigrant in Chicago who was lured into the den of a prostitution ring:
She was taken into a levee resort and when her companion escorted her into a room, where there were five men, rough of aspect and powerful of stature, they leaped at the victim and bore her into an inner room. The girl struggled violently and finally freed one arm. She drew her long hat pin from her hat and with it stabbed two of her captors, who released their hold sufficiently to permit her feet to reach the floor. She sprang towards the door. The men followed. Again the girl faced them with the uplifted hat pin, and they stood back and cowered in fear. She sprang for the door and escaped, screaming.

Upon reaching the street she ran into a policeman and fell into his arms, but as she could speak no English he could not understand. Finally detectives were found who could speak her language and they hunted down the panderess, who was well known to the police, and also caught two of the men.
One of the most interesting stories I came across in which the hatpin was featured as a weapon involved German-born singer and movie star Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992). According to a new biography of Dietrich, at the onset of World War II she told fellow actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. of a plan she had to seduce and assassinate Adolph Hitler. She claimed she did not pursue the idea because she couldn't figure out how to smuggle in a murder weapon, although she did consider using a poisoned hatpin. Her plan was to agree to make one film in Germany, on the condition that she could have a meeting with the Fuhrer alone. She told Fairbanks, “I would gush over how I feel about him, intimating that I am desperately in love with him. I've heard Hitler likes me and I'm certain he would agree.”

Realizing she would be searched, she was prepared to go into Hitler's bedroom naked if necessary, armed only with a poisoned hairpin. Not certain that would be adequate, she asked Fairbanks if he had a better idea. “I never thought of anything,” he said.

I can't really see this plan working out, but still, a Hitler assassination plot, a naked Marlene Dietrich, and a poisoned hatpin. . . sounds like box-office gold!

There is more information on hatpins as weapons at the Bartitsu website.


  1. get stiletto knife or you then it is important for you to know the size that would fit the best for your requirement.

  2. There is an Agatha Christie short story in which the victim was stabbed with a hatpin. The detective is sure that the asslant was a woman, but his wife pointed out that cloche hats, which pulled on and didn't require hatpins, were the style, and that therefore it was more likely that it had been a man who wanted investigators THINK a woman had done it.

    1. I'd have got away with it if it wasn't for that pesky milliners convention next door!