In How to Get Away with Myrtle, Myrtle is surprised and overjoyed to meet a professional female investigator, fellow railway passenger Mrs. Bloom. We’ve discussed the literary history of fictional female detectives here, but what about their real-life counterparts? Were there any?
Contrary to what you may have heard on recent television programs from otherwise eminently respectable sources (coughMasterpieceTheatercough), there in fact were professional female private detectives working in the Victorian era in England and the United States. Quite a lot of them, too!
In England, private investigation became a booming enterprise in the middle of the 19th century, thanks in large part to 1857’s Matrimonial Causes Act. Prior to this, obtaining a divorce took an act of Parliament and was essentially impossible. Afterward, men could sue for divorce based on adultery, and women on adultery combined with abuse. Double-standard aside, this meant that unhappy spouses now only needed proof of their partners’ indiscretions—and there were all sorts of professionals lining up to provide it. It took both male and female operatives to observe their targets’ movements and get the goods. Female agents were lauded for their sensitivity and discretion, vital qualities in an era concerned with scandal and respectability.
Historians Clare Clarke, Nell Darby, and Lucy Worsley have individually uncovered some of the stories of these pioneering female sleuths. Among the most celebrated (or at least the most visible) of Victorian detective agencies, Henry Slater’s London agency boasted their female staff in 1890s advertisements:
If the advertisements are to be believed, Slater’s (sadly unidentified) agents “have proved a wonderful success… in preventing wrongdoings in business and domestic matters,” and “can arrange for… any character in life, from a crossing-sweeper to a princess.” (One suspects that the princess bit might be an exaggeration; they keep pretty good track of their royal family in England.)
American Pinkerton agent Kate Warne has become well-known for her role in preventing an assassination attempt against newly-elected President Lincoln in 1861. By that time, Warne had been a Pinkerton for several years, investigating everything from embezzlement to espionage to murder. From the first female Pinkerton agent, Warne went on to work as Superintendent of Female Detectives, coordinating the efforts of those who followed in her footsteps.
Official law enforcement agencies were slower to catch on to what female operatives had to offer. According to Nell Darby, Scotland Yard (the London Metropolitan Police) employed an “anonymous female detective” in the 1870s to pose as a nurse with families suspected of crimes, but women would not be hired on as full officers until 1919. The Old Police Cells Museum in Brighton has a splendid look at what police work was like for these early female coppers.
In America, the title of “first professional female law enforcement officer” is harder to pin down, with women from Chicago to California carrying badges in the late 1880s and ’90s. It’s telling that these opportunities opened up primarily in the Western U.S., where many people went to redefine themselves… and America.
Women worked as professional investigators in other capacities, as well. Cities employed health officers to investigate housing and environmental conditions that affected public health; insurance firms (some founded by women) needed to prevent fraudulent claims; hospitals checked up on discharged patients. Many of these roles were taken up by women.
Victorian women might not have worked side-by-side as constables with their brothers in blue—but there was nothing stopping them from setting up shop as private detectives, and making a thriving career as investigators.