The Magazine

Ms. Private Eye

Victorian women detectives in life and literature.

Dec 2, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 12 • By SARA LODGE
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The investigator is chasing a suspect, who has just disappeared through a secret trapdoor. Breathlessly, the private dick follows the masked figure down a ladder into a dark passageway: It turns out to lead from the Belgravia mansion into the vault of a nearby bank. Our hero can see the thief in the act of grabbing the gold and making off—but the trapdoor closes behind the crook, leaving the detective unable to leave the crime scene and about to be apprehended by security guards.

Emblematic scene from ‘Jack the Ripper’ (1959)

Emblematic scene from ‘Jack the Ripper’ (1959)

getty images

Nothing, perhaps, seems very unusual about this heist thriller—until you realize that it was published in 1864, and that both the thief and the detective are women. The first is a countess who has cross-dressed in order to perform her daring robbery. The second is a professional female detective who, in order to pursue her quarry underground, has quickly jettisoned her crinoline.

This year, the British Library has republished two rare and striking Victorian books, Revelations of a Lady Detective by William Stephens Hayward and The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester (a pseudonym for James Redding Ware). Both were published in 1864, and they make intriguing reading for anyone interested in the history of crime fiction. They introduce something categorically new for the 19th century: the woman who makes a profession of solving murders and cracking cases that foil less flexible minds, nabbing offenders ranging from ruthless Italian political conspirators to daring impersonators to mail robbers to female bigamists. 

Twenty years before Sherlock Holmes first puffed his pipe along the seedy streets of London, Mrs. Paschal was enjoying a quiet cigarette, confident that her unconventional methods would succeed where those of the male members of the Metropolitan Police failed. Neither of these books belongs to the politer realms of high Victorian fiction. William Stephens Hayward was the prolific author of titles that include Skittles, describing the racy life of a high-class London prostitute, and Skittles in Paris. Readers glimpsing the cover picture of Mrs. Paschal lifting her skirts and showing her ankles may well have hoped that Revelations of a Lady Detective would prove to take place in the bedroom. If so, they were disappointed. This isn’t a book about sex; but it is a book that blows gender conventions out of the water. 

Mrs. Paschal, a widow “verging on forty” whose husband left her without much money, confronts torturers and murderers without blinking: She regrets not having brought a Colt revolver to one crime scene. Equally at home in the low drinking dens of Vinegar Yard in London’s notorious St. Giles, in an aristocratic household impersonating a lady’s maid, and in a convent impersonating a nun, she orders about the six plainclothes policemen she sometimes handpicks to help her bust a joint. In the grand tradition of gumshoes, she is taciturn about her personal life: The thrill of the chase is her chief passion. 

Similarly, Mrs. Gladden in The Lady Detective—known to her police colleagues merely as “G”—teases us by making a mystery of her own character. Is she a detective because she has no other way of making a living or because she had an insurmountable “longing” for the business? Is she supporting her children or is she a single woman whose “only care is herself”? She won’t tell. Instead, her “memoirs” inform us that she wants to rescue detectives—and in particular, lady detectives—from the opprobrium that surrounds their trade: “The profession to which I belong is so useful that it should not be despised.”

“Detective” was still a relatively new job title in mid-Victorian Britain. In 1842, the Metropolitan Police (themselves only professionalized in 1829) appointed its first detective branch, at Scotland Yard. They were immediately an object of intense public interest. Charles Dickens reported on their activities in his magazine Household Words, and Inspector Bucket became a sympathetic character in Bleak House (1853). 

Not everyone, however, felt so positive. Some found the idea of a man who might belong to an inferior social class entering the domestic sanctum and prying into its dirty laundry extremely distasteful. Snoops were suspect. Their activities, and the kind of criminal behavior they uncovered in apparently respectable homes, fed Victorian anxieties about the slipperiness of class distinctions. Sensational novels of the 1860s—such as Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), featuring detective Sergeant Cuff—were thrilling precisely because you never knew whether the crime was an outside or an inside job: Was it the Indian thugs, the suicidal servant, the scientific houseguest, or the debt-ridden daughter of the family who was responsible for the theft of the eponymous jewel?

The writing in Revelations of a Lady Detective and The Female Detective (the weaker of the two books) lacks the finesse of that in Collins’s novels, but they offer similar pleasures. Mrs. Paschal, often posing as a servant, is able to discover her wealthy employers’ guilty secrets. The doubles, impostors, and outwardly respectable deceivers who people her memoirs highlight the potential fraudulence of all social appearances. 

Along the way, she introduces us to various elements that will become staples of the detective genre: There is the police lineup, which identifies the wrong man as a con man. There is also the morgue visit, where Mrs. Paschal uses forensic evidence (bruising on the wrists, torn clothing) to conclude that a young woman found drowned was a murder victim rather than a suicide. And there is the principle, which Sherlock Holmes would popularize, of coolly deductive reasoning based on factual evidence. Often, initial suspicion falls on the wrong person. The detective, like a magician working in reverse, shows that all is not what it seems.

This is a social truth, too. Both lady detectives reveal hidden injustices below the surface of the legal system. Frequently these involve women, property, and inheritance. In Revelations of a Lady Detective’s “The Lost Diamonds,” for example, we learn that the duke of Rustenburgh, obsessed with collecting sparklers, marries his wife only for her dowry and to make her a “butcher’s block” on which to display his jewels. When she inherits more money, he immediately spends it on new gems. It comes, thus, as no surprise to the astute reader to discover that the thief of his most costly rock is actually the neglected duchess. When Mrs. Paschal solves the mystery, she administers an implicit female rebuke—and tells us that the duke, henceforth, treated his wife more kindly. 

In these stories, it isn’t the law court but the undercover detective who enables the narrative justice that society so often fails to deliver. Although these “female detective” books were written by men, it isn’t an accident that both were produced during the period in which divorce became possible for ordinary middle-class couples—the first British civil divorce courts opened in 1858—when there was heated public debate about married women’s lack of legal power and their vulnerability to husbands who controlled their property and children’s custody. The characters of Mrs. Paschal and Mrs. Gladden exhibit a drive to right wrongs that might motivate any middle-aged matron.

Until recently, it has been widely accepted that these British female private detectives were purely fictional—and that London had to wait until nearer the turn of the century for real female gumshoes. Michael Sims in The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime (2011) claims that “not even Captain Nemo’s electrical submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was more futuristic than the representation of ‘lady detectives’ in 1864.” But my own investigation tells a different story. 

Donning my deerstalker to peruse the London Times for January 1875, I discovered two advertisements in the “small ads” section that make it clear that female private detectives were working in London at this time. The first advertisement, for the “Confidential Agency” of Leslie and Graham in Holborn, notes that they are assisted by “men of 20 years’ experience, and female detectives.” The second, for confidential agents Arthur, Cleveland, Montagu, and Company in Cornhill, offers “a large staff of experienced detectives, male and female.” These back-to-back advertisements suggest that women private detectives had been around for a while (if they were “experienced”) and that their services added value to the firms that could boast them.

The police, too, may not officially have employed women, but unofficial liaisons certainly occurred. In 1865, the Glasgow Herald carried a story of “A Woman Employed as a Detective.” She was Mrs. Lawton, the wife of a police constable, who proved both cool and effective in conducting a sting operation designed to catch thieves who had stolen clothes and jewelry. Mrs. Lawton found the suspects at the Hop Pole Inn and posed as a “fence,” a broker from Bolton looking to buy cloth. She paid a deposit on the stolen goods and accompanied the crooks, promising to deliver the rest of the money at the railway station—where the police arrested the gang. She must have been a brave woman, for the three suspects were armed with a pistol.

America was ahead of the game when it came to employing women to crack crimes. Kate Warne joined the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the 1850s and soon became its female superintendent. Allan Pinkerton described her as “a commanding person, with clear-cut, expressive features, and with an ease of manner that was quite captivating at times,” and a “brilliant conversationalist” who also understood the rarer “art of being silent.” Warne became famous for solving the Adams Express Robbery and for reputedly saving President Lincoln from an assassination attempt during the Civil War. After her death in 1868, admiring obituaries were published in Britain, ranking her as “the best female detective in the United States, if not in the world.” This doubtless helped to alert the public to the strengths a woman might bring to the role.

Indeed, the case of Jack the Ripper, the serial killer who convulsed London in 1888, might have been solved if the police had employed female detectives. So argued Frances Power Cobbe in a letter to the Times that year: 

A clever woman of unobtrusive dress and appearance .  .  . would possess over masculine rivals not a few advantages. She would pass unsuspected where a man would be instantly noticed; she could extract gossip from other women much more freely; she would move through the streets and courts without waking the echoes of the pavement .  .  . and, lastly, she would be in a position to employ .  .  . that gift of intuitive quickness and “mother wit” with which her sex is commonly credited.

In the absence of actual women, the police employed some male officers dressed as women to stake out areas of East London where the Ripper might strike again. Newspaper reports show that such transvestism didn’t necessarily succeed in preventing violence: One cop disguised in this way was stabbed.

Therefore, when Revelations of a Lady Detective and The Female Detective were first published, they were fanciful ripping yarns; but the new female profession they described was not as farfetched as later critics have often assumed. By the 1890s, women detectives had firmly established themselves both in fact and in fiction. Indeed, a musical farce from 1898 called Bilberry of Tilbury imagined a detective agency entirely run by and composed of women. Its director sings:

I’m the lady in command

Of this most distinguished band,

Whose experience has never come a

     cropper. 

Chorus: Come a cropper!

I can tell you if your hub

Spends his evenings at the Club,

Or another kind of place that’s not so

     proper.

Chorus: Not so proper!

If you fancy that your wife

Has grown tired of married life,

And begin to wonder where on earth

     she’s stopping––

Chorus: Oh!

I can tell you to a shade

All the visits she has paid,

And if she’s really spent her time in

     shopping.

Chorus: Ah!

We often still think of the 19th century as a period of poker-faced prudishness when ladies were confined to domestic duties. But in fact, Victorian women paved the path to modern professional life—through the factory, the office, and (sometimes) the secret passageway. These books are an enjoyable reminder that, beneath the petticoats, there might lurk a notebook, a Colt, and a cigar.

Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics