At the turn of the 20th century, Central Park was a dismal place. The predominant political power, Tammany Hall, took no interest in it, and thus it became a place of unseeded lawns, party detritus, and men so hungry that officials worried they'd slaughter the sheep that grazed there.
The Central Park of 2015 is much improved, a crown jewel filled with budding romances, green gardens and summer picnickers. Yet we've all seen enough Law and Order: SVU episodes and grizzly news clippings to know that, like our favorite sexy werewolves, it changes when the sun sets. Walking through Central Park after dark is not something you do today and it wasn't something you did in 1900—unless you were the "notorious Poillon Sisters."
The Katherine and Charlotte Poillon moved to New York City at the turn of the century. The imposing pair, described as "Amazonian," were around six feet tall, sometimes wore men's clothing, and didn't shy away from a fight. The Milwaukee Journal reported they moved to New York City "about the turn of the century" from Troy, NY, to get away from one: Katherine's manipulative ex-husband, Joseph T. Smith.
Shortly after, in 1900, they beat up two "mashers" (a term for men who do what men have always done: make unsolicited advances on women) during a nighttime stroll in Central Park. They knocked the men out cold.
The incident was reported widely and recounted in the Milwaukee Journal upon Katherine's death. Little did these mashers know that Charlotte was unofficially—because female boxing wasn't recognized as an actual sport until the 90s—one of the best female boxers in the world.
The Central Park incident left the sisters embittered and vengeful; New York City, and the men in it, was the enemy. The Chicago Tribune reported that upon moving to New York, Charlotte took lessons with former world heavyweight champion Jim Corbett; soon after moving there, Katherine wooed wealthy playboy and socialite William Gould Brokaw. According to the New York Times, Brokaw, living off an inherited fortune, spent his time gallivanting about with New York high society: the Guggenheims, the Whitneys, the Vanderbilts, etc. It is said that Brokaw was the inspiration for the titular character in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
If designing men can prey upon young and unsuspecting girls—is it possible that women may be clever enough to outwit these men of the world and make them pay handsomely for their impudence?
In 1902 Katherine sued Brokaw for $250,000, claiming breach of promise to marry. The St. Louis Republic reported there were over 250 love letters between the two, and thanks to Brokaw's notoriety, the case made headlines. In an effort to sweep things under the overpriced rug, the pair settled out of court, with Brokaw agreeing to pay the sisters $17,500. In an article reporting on a separate incident, the New York Times wrote that, on her way out of court that day, Katherine had "thrashed" a newspaper photographer who tried to take her photo.
In 1908 the Poillon sisters were back in court. The New York Times reported they were sued by the Men's Hotel Association for allegedly owing four hotels what amounted to $434.94. The Poillon sisters had an interesting manner of living in New York: They would rent expensive hotel rooms, often seducing a bellboy or hotel clerk in the process, and then skip out on the bill.
For her defense, Katherine claimed that respected Magistrate Peter T. Barlow had promised to pay their hotel bills, which is why they hadn't. Katherine met Barlow when she first moved to New York and was looking to finalize her divorce from Smith. In a 1924 article for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Katherine claimed that as he walked her to a taxi after that meeting, Barlow kissed her wildly. They maintained some form of ongoing relationship for the next few years, the details of which are murky.
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During the 1908 case, the sisters refused legal counsel (something they often did) and chose to represent themselves, and it became a rather histrionic whirlwind of accusations and press. The New York Times recounted a particularly dramatic exchange from while Katherine was on the stand: "Judge Barlow caused my divorce. I have known him for ten years, and he has been persecuting me," said Katherine. The judge overseeing the trial (a friend of Barlow's) banged his gavel to silence her.
"I'm going to be heard!" she shouted. "I will be heard. All people are equal in a court of law!"
Despite their fervor, the Poillon sisters lost the case. They were sent to prison for three months on Blackwell's Island (situated on what is now Roosevelt Island). While in prison, Katherine and Charlotte made a promise: They swore that from this point on when they encountered a man of money, they would use their powers over him to repay the debt they believed society owed them.
"If designing men can prey upon young and unsuspecting girls—is it possible that women may be clever enough to outwit these men of the world and make them pay handsomely for their impudence?" wrote Katherine Poillon in a 1924 article for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, titled "Revelations by New York's Most Skillful Vamps."
When they were released, the sister's returned to their antics, dating wealthy men and renting hotel rooms they never paid for. First they ran up a tab at a boarding house in Harlem. Then, in 1911 they made headlines for being ejected from Hotel Willard on 76th and West End Avenue in Manhattan. The New York Times reported that the hotel manager had a bellboy bring the sisters their breakfast tray. As soon as they opened the door, he busted in and demanded they leave. The sisters, who'd been lounging in kimonos, leapt up.
"How dare you…" said Charlotte.
"We will have our breakfast and then we will get out," said Katherine.
After leaving Hotel Willard, the sisters went to the Hotel St. Andrew for lunch, claiming they would sue the manager of Hotel Willard. When they went to the police, the fact that Charlotte had recently been arrested for punching a bellboy discouraged them from pursuing the matter further.
But their legal troubles didn't stop there. In 1912, Charlotte sued the Rector Hotel for $25,000 after she'd been ejected from it; according to the Milwaukee Journal the hotel's defense was that Charlotte had been dressed as a man. The case fizzled away, but Charlotte did end up suing her lawyer—something the sister's often did if they lost a case they weren't arguing themselves. In 1915 the Evening Independent reported that the sisters (who had finally purchased their own apartment on Riverside Drive) were housing alleged German spy Raymond Ralph Swoboda, who was accused of starting a fire aboard the steamship La Touraine. He was later arrested in Paris but never convicted. Nothing much came of the rumors—except perhaps the fortification of the sisters' already festering image.
They have matched their wits against sophisticated men who pursued them.
In 1920, the sisters uncharacteristically came to the aid of police, though there was money involved and they didn't exactly follow instructions. Valuable jewelry had been stolen from the East Hampton estate of Metropolitan Opera tenor Enrico Caruso. The New York Times wrote that the thief, looking to sell the stolen goods, had contacted the Poillon sisters; they, in turn, went to the police hoping for a monetary reward.
The sisters arranged to meet the thief at their Upper West Side apartment. Police strung a series of dictographs (a telephonic device with a small microphone attached) from the sister's apartment to the one above so they could record the meeting. The New York Times noted that the dictographs were tested to make sure they could pick up the sound of a revolver clicking, in case anyone brought a gun.
When the thief arrived, the sisters soon abandoned the script police had prepared for them, but they managed to get the thief to admit to the heist and reveal the stolen goods. The sisters received a $10,000 reward.
The Poillon sisters' swell of civic duty was short-lived. In 1923 the Evening Independent reported that the sisters were pulled from the comfort of their UWS apartment in the middle of the night and arrested on charges of grand larceny. This time they'd duped 73-year-old Charles H. Dusenburg.
Dusenburg alleged that Katherine, who was 51 years old at the time, agreed to marry him but first wanted proof that he could support her. Dusenburg produced a series of stock certificates. The sisters claimed they wanted to take the certificates upstate and show them to their parents before the nuptials—but their parents had died long before they moved to New York. Dusenburg never saw his certificates again, and the sisters managed to wriggle their way out of the lawsuit.
According to the Chicago Tribune, in 1929 Charlotte sued the wife of an American tobacco company president for $10,000, claiming the woman had beaten her at a restaurant. Shortly before, she'd sued an antiques dealer for withholding a valuable car she claimed to have lent him. In 1932, Charlotte brought charges against the attorney Dudley Field Malone. He had promised her $5,000, which he never paid, in exchange for compromising information—unclear—she had on him.
That same year, the sisters sued Gene Fowler, the author of The Great Mouthpiece, a biography about lawyer William Fallon, asking for $100,000 for damaging statements he'd made about them. They didn't get it. In 1933, the sisters executed their final lawsuit together. It was against Stephen Clow, the former editor of the newspaper Broadway Brevities. They also lost that.
In 1935, the last headlines to contain Katherine's name were sprayed across the papers. "Katherine Poillon, Milder of 'Terrible Sisters,' Dies," wrote the Milwaukee Journal. The piece doesn't say how Katherine died, only that she did so in "a furnished room." "New York Death Parts Famous Poillon Sisters," wrote the Chicago Tribune. "Their name was known and dreaded by the city editors of every newspaper in New York," the article went on. Katherine was 62 years old at the time of her death.
Charlotte's death didn't make the papers, or at least none that can be found online. It seems somehow appropriate that the sisters made headlines as a pair, forever notorious as a single entity, the Poillon sisters. Perhaps the best summary of their tale comes from an editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who wrote the introduction to Katherine's 1924 multi-part article "Revelations by New York's Most Skillful Vamps."
"Usually the simple little country girl who comes to the wicked metropolis is victimized by designing men of money who entrap her, and the girl is the only sufferer. And so, indeed, were the Poillon sisters victimized. But the Poillon sisters, embittered by their experience, made a vow to be avenged against the wolves of New York's white light district, and they have matched their wits against sophisticated men who pursued them; and they have usually won."