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The Female Jiu-Jitsu Crew That Defended Women's Rights

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Image Credit: HistorieNet

Had the police known there was barbed wire hidden in the floral arrangements, things might have gone a little differently.

The officers had poured themselves into an assembly hall in Glasgow, Scotland, in March 1914 to arrest Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the loudest voices in the British feminist movement who had traveled from London to rally support for her cause. Women, she declared, deserved the right to vote, to ask for a divorce, or to inherit land.

Anticipating a fight, she arrived with an army of women—roughly 25 in all—collectively known as the Bodyguard. These “Amazons,” as the press breathlessly reported, were trained in the art of jiu-jitsu, club-fighting, and sabotage by Edith Garrud, one of the first female martial arts instructors in Europe. Unlike many who study self-defense, the women weren’t preparing for hypothetical threats. The police had pummeled them with their fists and sticks before, and wouldn’t hesitate to do so again.

Pankhurst had already made police look foolish by evading arrest at the entrance: She simply bought a ticket and walked in, presumed to be a spectator. As she stood holding court, the uniformed officers began to advance, outnumbering the Bodyguard by two to one. One of the women—dubbed “suffragettes” in newspapers— pulled out a pistol and took aim, firing. They were blanks, but it stunned her target. Other officers were tossed in the manner Garrud instructed, tumbling into razor-sharp bouquets. Indian clubs, which were shaped like bowling pins, emerged from the women's dresses and were used to batter their foes. The melee would later be referred to as the “Battle of Glasgow,” with Pankhurst finally being dragged away.

It was little wonder why she needed protection, or why Garrud was the woman for the job—despite the fact that she stood only 4 feet 11 inches tall.

The illustrated art of Edith in action. Image courtesy of Bartitsu.org.

Born in Bath, Somserset, in 1872, Garrud’s parents were unmarried, a shameful circumstance for the time. Sent to live with her aunt, she had difficulty fitting in at school and took to athletics as a means of busying herself. In 1893, she and fellow fitness enthusiast William Garrud were married; in 1899, the couple saw a demonstration by Edward Barton-Wright, a compact man who had developed his own blend of grappling and striking he dubbed Bartitsu—a style (misspelled as “Baritsu”) so well publicized it was name-dropped by Sherlock Holmes in a 1903 Arthur Conan Doyle story.

The Garruds went on to train with Sadakazu Uyenishi, a Japanese jiu-jitsu instructor affiliated with Barton-Wright. When Uyenishi left in 1908, they took over his dojo in Golden Square. Edith ran the women’s and children’s classes, demonstrating how even a small individual could overpower a larger foe using the leverage of jiu-jitsu (at the time often spelled as “ju-jitsu,” jujutsu,” or “jiujitsu.”)

Garrud had gotten some publicity for a short 1907 film reel that displayed her skills and was invited by Pankhurst to appear at a Women’s Social and Political Union meeting in 1909 after William got ill and couldn’t make it. The suffragettes were so impressed by her abilities that they asked her to begin regular training sessions. By December, Garrud was running the Suffragette Self-Defense Club. The idea of a physically domineering woman arming the feminists with combat techniques (even as they wore wide-brimmed hats and elaborate dresses) was something the press couldn’t get enough of.

A 1910 Punch Magazine cartoon of a capable suffragette cowering police. Image courtesy of Bartitsu.org.

Garrud’s responsibility was considerable: Pankhurst and her protestors were radicals, setting mailboxes on fire, throwing “flour bombs” at the Prime Minister, and smashing windows of shopkeepers that refused to support their cause. A visiting Mahatma Gandhi addressed the suffragettes in 1909, telling them their cause was just but their tactics unacceptable.  

While Gandhi simply shook his head, police response was brutal: a 1910 confrontation ended with several women battered. When women were arrested and refused to eat in protest, they were force-fed with rubber hoses. Those imprisoned sometimes saw Garrud climbing atop prison walls, singing and waving a flag; those freed were taught how to throw policemen through the air and avoid being bludgeoned by wrapping cotton and cardboard around their ribs.

The suffragettes didn't want to risk arrest for their secret weapon, and so Garrud rarely joined the fray—but she wasn't averse to being an accomplice. Once, after a group of women smashed over 400 shop windows, she instructed them to run back to her dojo, where they changed into grappling uniforms. She stashed their street clothes and weapons in a trap door under the mats. As Garrud told author Antonia Raeburn:

“They were all in their jiu-jitsu coats working on the mats, when bang, bang, bang on the door. Six policemen! I looked very thunderstruck and wanted to know what was the matter. ‘Well, can’t we come in?’ said one of the policemen. I said, ‘No, I’m sorry, but I’ve got six ladies here having a jiu-jitsu lesson. I don’t expect gentlemen to come in here.’…He didn’t see anything, only the girls busy working, and out he went again.”

As the fight dragged on and it became clear Pankhurst was not going to fold, authorities invoked a new law dubbed the Cat and Mouse Act. It stated that protestors who were arrested and refused to eat would be set free. Once they had returned to health, police would re-arrest them. Tempers flared on both sides; the Women’s Social and Political Union even took credit for blowing up a vacant house recently purchased by Chancellor Lloyd-George.

“We mean to have a revolt,” daughter Sylvia Pankhurst said at one rally [PDF]. “I and my friends are out to have a few riots.”

The Pankhursts decided the fugitives needed protection. Garrud was charged with training the Bodyguard, the squad of women who would serve as a barrier to deter cops. They were organized, swift with clubs, and seemingly fearless in the face of badges. Police, aware of Garrud’s tenacious skills, tried spying on their lessons from skylights.

Edith Garrud tosses a suffragette in training. Image courtesy of Suffrajitsu.com.

In February 1914, just a month before their rumble in Glasgow, the Bodyguard were faced with another bloody scenario. Emmeline was delivering a rousing speech from a balcony in a Camden Square home. Police were waiting below, eager to re-arrest the fugitive. When she declared she was coming down and dared authorities to stop her, they swarmed her protectors. After a protracted struggle, they finally managed to nab Pankhurst.

Stopping to catch their breath, police looked more closely. They had caught Pankhurst’s double. The real thing had remained inside, spirited away in the opposite direction.

The Bodyguard used wits and jiu-jitsu in equal measure, even knocking one policeman unconscious in front of Buckingham Palace. The only thing that could stop the Pankhursts in their tracks was the declaration of actual war. When World War I broke out, Emmeline decided that women’s rights wouldn’t be of much use if Germans occupied Great Britain and she decided to focus her efforts on keeping her country free.  By war’s end, women finally won their right to vote.

Edith Garrud with two of her children. Islington Tribune.

Having sold the dojo in 1925, Garrud was long out of the business of proving doubters wrong, as the times she had done so had left a lasting impression. After tossing one Daily Mirror reporter, he picked himself up and wrote:

“I rose convinced of the efficiency of Jujutsu, and, aching in every limb, crawled painfully away, pitying the constable whose ill-fortune it should be to lay hands on Mrs. Garrud.”

Fit and disciplined, Garrud passed away just shy of her 100th birthday in 1971.

Additional Sources: Bartitsu.org; Femininity, Crime and Self-Defence in Victorian Literature and Society; “Soft Power of the Soft Art: Jiu-Jitsu in the British Empire of the Early 20th Century,” 2011 [PDF]. 

This story originally ran in 2015.

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Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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