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 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