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Saturday, June 12, 2010

Mary Ann Mitchell and Elmo Smith

I have neighbors who like to say, “Be careful” whenever I leave my house and head into Center City. The cautionary words annoy me. They annoy me because they seem to suggest that, unlike the brawny home improvement contractor around the corner, I need to take special precautions whenever I travel city streets, as if my legs were made of paper Mache and I had a collapsible bone structure like a mouse.

Since I’m normally polite, I accept these words of caution while realizing, on a deeper level, that anything at any moment can happen to anybody, whether male or female, brawny contractor, Mouse, thug, or Popeye without his spinach.

The tragic murder of Northern Liberties waitress Sabina Rose O’Donnell, 21, brought this home to me in a big way. Here we have a well-liked city girl riding her bike home from a friend’s house late at night, and she’s attacked and killed outside her stepfather’s home. The random senselessness of this act leaves one speechless. No words, no collection of candles or teddy bears, no flower gardens in the victim’s honor, can ever begin to get the mind to understand why someone would do this to another human being.

The act, in fact, is so far “out there” as to fit in with one of Malachi Martin’s case scenarios of demonic possession in Hostage to the Devil.

Besides reminding us that truly evil people exist, the O’Donnell tragedy is a reminder that hip, gentrified areas of the city are not immune to crimes of this nature. In fact, there are still many undeveloped, unlighted and rather dilapidated looking back lot areas of Northern Liberties where even a brawny contractor type wouldn’t venture. It’s also true that gentrification, which is a slow patchwork process at best, comes with a price: these neighborhoods offer more lucrative targets for crime.

In this post-feminist age, when nobody questions a woman’s right to come and go like a man—riding a bicycle after midnight or walking alone at night down a deserted street--we sometimes forget that while society may have made equality leaps “on paper,” the reality on the street is much different.

“During the first suffragette wave in this nation, women were possessions, like a table or a chair. So violence toward them was quite condoned,” Gloria Steinman once wrote. While this type of violence is no longer officially condoned, there should be no false sense of security that random violence against women is a thing of the past.

One has only to read the story of Natalee Holloway and Joran van der Sloot, or the Kimberly Ernest/ Center City jogger murder of 1995, to understand why, in the city at least, life can be a little different for women than it is for men.

On my own street, there are women who choose not to venture out alone at night, even if it is to go to the local Wawa. If a walk outside is a necessity after a certain late hour, women here will buddy with a friend or family member.

As a man, it’s hard for me to relate to this kind of “confinement.”
So, here’s the question: Has the world changed? Has it really become more dangerous? I think it has, but violence against women is nothing new.

I’m reminded of one of Philadelphia’s most horrendous murder stories.

In 1959, the city was rocked by the murder of a sixteen year old Manayunk schoolgirl, Mary Ann Mitchell. Mitchell, a sophomore at Cecelian Academy, had just left friends where they’d gone to see the movie, South Pacific. Mitchell was standing on Henry Avenue waiting for a bus when she was apprehended by a handyman named Elmo Smith. The next day, Mitchell’s body was found by a roadside in Montgomery County just outside the city limits. Smith was convicted of raping and murdering Mitchell and spent a couple years on Death Row in Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary before execution in the electric chair on April 2, 1962.

Mitchell’s murder sent a shiver throughout the city. Young women were suddenly afraid to walk alone or even wait for a bus. As an elementary school student, I was so affected by the murder that I listened by the radio as Smith’s electrocution hour approached.

Perhaps the words “Be careful” aren’t so annoying after all, even if all the care the world is sometimes…not enough.

Thom Nickels

1 comment:

  1. i went to ESP to today and I got shivers looking at elmo smiths cell..I have to admit he is creepy


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