The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Female Detectives

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The literary history of the female detective is nearly as lengthy as that of the male detective and has not received nearly the attention it deserves. The female detective reflected that century’s literary trends more than its male counterpart and was more prone to ideology-based manipulation by authors than its male counterpart. In the twentieth century the character has been the subject of more inaccurate criticism than its male counterpart, especially with regards to the character’s basis in reality.

Although the modern conception of the detective genre is that it began with the work of Edgar Allan Poe, this is not the case (see: Detectives). The last decades of the eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth century saw a number of stories which have mystery plots and motifs (see: Proto-Mysteries). Several detectives appeared before the debut of Poe’s Dupin (see: The C. Auguste Dupin Mysteries), and among these were female detectives. Like most of their male counterparts they were amateurs and reflected the genres of the stories they appeared in. Hoffmann’s Mademoiselle de Scudéry (see: “Mademoiselle de Scudéry”) appeared in a kriminalgeschichte (see: Detectives) and plays a role similar to the male detective characters in kriminalgeschichtes (see: “The Caliber,” The Jew’s Beech Tree), involved with the mystery but not vital to its resolution. William Burton’s Mrs. L_____ (see: “The Secret Cell”) is the wife of a police detective and acts as one of his agents, no different from any of his other agents except that she is female. And Catherine Crowe’s Susan Hopley (see: The Adventures of Susan Hopley) is the problem-solving protagonist of a domestic novel, distinguished from countless other characters only because the problems she solves are crime-related.

Poe was responsible for creating the modern detective story, but his influence on other writers was not immediate, and in the decades following his death mystery writers were influenced by models other than his. The casebook mystery writers of the 1850s and 1860s created a new vogue for mysteries and established the idea of a serially recurring detective character. And in the 1860s the sensation writers (see: Sensation Novel) begin creating female characters who were independent, daring, and intelligent, and dramatists began writing plays with titles like The Female Detective. It was logical that other writers would follow the casebook and sensation writers and, using the real-life example of female detectives (see below), create professional female detectives. J. Redding Ware’s “G” (see: The Female Detective) and William Stephens Haywards’ Mrs. Paschal (see: Revelations of a Lady Detective) appeared in casebook collections and Charles H. Ross’ Ruth the Betrayer; or, The Female Spy appeared in a penny dreadful. However, none of these were particularly influential:

I want to suggest that the reason why female-authored crime narratives in Britain in the nineteenth century could not flourish is because of gendered literary conventions which dictated suitable subjects for the female writer and asserted that crime was, clearly, an unsuitable topic for a woman. A female author seeking publication had better present work that accorded with the conventions. Michael Sadleir commented that in the 1850s and 1860s ‘while editors, publishers and public wanted stories of high life and crime, they would not stomach highlivers and criminals as they really were,’ and, I propose, especially not when represented by women writers.1 

In the 1870s the rise of the dime novel detective (see: Detectives) and the presence of real-life female detectives in America (see below) inspired the dime novel writers to create distaff versions of the male dime novel detectives. In 1880 Edward L. Wheeler’s New York Nell (see: “New York Nell, the Boy-Girl Detective; or, Old Blakesly’s Mother”) appeared, with several others following in the next decade. There may have been other female private detectives—many others—who preceded New York Nell, but the “many cheap publications in which she [the female detective character—Jess] first appeared makes her history difficult to trace.”2 

More female detectives were created during the 1890s than in any other decade of the nineteenth century. There were several reasons for this. The New Women created new opportunities for women, socially and in the workplace, and writers were quick to create characters based on (and often exaggerating) these women who were assertive, educated, financially independent, and physically fit--all necessities for a credible detective character. In the 1880s London became a place where women could imitate the flâneur, the male urban stroller, and navigate the city without creating scandal or being endangered. Female private detectives became increasingly common in London. The failure of the male police and detectives to apprehend Jack the Ripper led to suggestions about the formation of female policemen, both in letters to the Times of London and in questions posed to Sir Charles Warren, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police by the press. And the 1887 debut of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (See: The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries) created an enthusiasm for detective stories in the 1890s, so that writers sought to created alternatives to Holmes who were similar to Holmes. Mystery writers began creating female Great Detectives. C.L. Pirkis’ Loveday Brooke (see: The Experiences of Loveday Brooke) appeared in 1893, followed by several more female Great Detectives by the end of the decade.

It is a piece of received wisdom in histories and criticism of detective fiction that because there were no policewomen in Britain in the nineteenth century, the creators of fictional female detectives made up the characters from whole cloth, usually for ideological reasons. It is true that the most New Woman female detectives were created as the embodiment of the New Woman ideology (see: Miss Cayley’s Adventures). But female professional detectives were a reality in America and England in the second half of the nineteenth century, years before female private detectives were a regular part of mystery fiction.

Although American women did not begin working as professional detectives in large numbers until the 1880s, they had predecessors of sorts in the 1860s and 1870s. Women began working as floor detectives in New York City department stores soon after the American Civil War ended, in 1866. These women had all the powers of ordinary police detectives and were capable of arresting thieves on the spot. The Pinkerton agency (see: The Great Detective) employed women as agents in the late 1860s. The Brooklyn Police Department made use of informal female agents at least as early as 1873, if not earlier.

The 1870s saw the rise of the professional male private eye, but women did not follow men into the profession in America until the 1880s. Women who became private detectives were not amateurs; they were licensed and possessed the same legal powers of arrest as male private detectives. Female private detectives often worked as agents of the police; one was employed by the Boston police to apprehend an abortionist in July 1879, and another did the same job for the Chicago police in December 1882. In April 1884 a female private eye in Chicago worked as a liaison in negotiations between the police and a professional grave robber for the restoration of the remains of a body. This private eye is described as “a female detective of New York and at one time connected with the Chicago force.”3 Concerning this case, The New York Times reported that Inspector Byrnes (see: The Thomas Byrnes Mysteries) was “offended because he was not consulted after the first visit” of the private eye to New York City.4 In December 1884 a female private eye, working for the New York City Police Department, visited opium dens to gather evidence for a case. By the mid-1880s female private eyes were operating in cities across the East Coast. One woman applied for a private detective’s license in Lewiston, Maine, in April 1885. Another, who already had her license, was hired by the Philadelphia Police Department in May 1885 to gather evidence in a divorce case.

By the 1890s female private detectives were no longer unusual in the United States. One worked with the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C. hunting smugglers in December 1893. Another, in April 1894, was hired by an insurance company to investigate a Connecticut fraud case. Several women were hired as special police agents in August 1897 to clean up the circuses on Coney Island in New York City. And in the summer of 1897 one was hired by the Hudson County Liquor Dealers to gather evidence against unlicenced storekeepers. This woman, Florence Lamphear, carried a revolver while working in order to chase off men who threatened her. In the course of her investigation of unlicenced stores she was caught by men employed by those stores and was beaten and her jaw broken.

There is also the case of Margaret Jane Thomas (c. 1845-1895). She and her husband ran a shirt shop in Brooklyn, New York. But it was as a private detective that she was best-known. She worked as a private detective from 1877 until her death in 1895, specializing in divorce and will cases. Her obituary in the New York Times described her as “well-known in Brooklyn as ‘The Female Detective.’”

The situation in England was similar to America. The first notable English “private inquiry agent” was Inspector Charles Field (see: Detectives), who retired from the police force and opened his own “private inquiry bureau” in what 1852. Other “confidential agents” were active in the south of England in the 1850s, and by the 1860s agencies and some police forces were employing them. Among these confidential agents and private inquiry agents were women:

As early as 1853, a brief news account described a Scottish woman’s determination and ingenuity in tracking down a fellow factory worker who had stolen her clothing. The clever way in which the woman pursued the thief prompted the headline “A Female Detective.” In this early instance, a woman demonstrates detective-like behaviors. In 1855, newspapers covered two events in which women were hired specifically to do the work of female detectives. The first was a criminal conversation case, Evans v. Robinson, in which a Mr. Evans employed ex-Chief Inspector Charles Frederick Field to collect evidence of his wife’s adultery. Field, in turn, employed several women to infiltrate the house that Mrs. Evans and her lover frequented; he gave them rudimentary training in spying and a special gimlet with which to bore holes in a door so that they could spy on the adulterous pair. As a result of “ocular testimony” these women procured (along with Field’s own observations), Evans v. Robinson led to Evans v. Evans. In its report on the divorce proceedings, The Daily News reminded readers of the earlier case, “in which a husband, suspecting his wife’s fidelity, hired the services of several female detectives, under the orders of Mr. Inspector Field” (June 11, 1857). Another female detective made news in 1855 when she was hired by the Eastern Counties Railway to halt luggage theft from the first-class waiting room.6 

In November 1865 the Dublin police used “female detectives”7 to track a Fenian agent (see: Anarchists). These women had all the powers of male detective. In April 1869 an “amateur female detective”8 helped the London police capture an embezzler. In February 1870 the Scotsman repeated without comment a Levant Times report that Ottoman “police authorities, at the suggestion of Tahir Bey, have added three women to the detective police force.”9 In August 1873 “female detectives”10 were hired to follow an adulterous wife in a divorce case in London. In March 1875 a confidential agency mentioned, in an advertisement of their services, that they employed female detectives. In a police report in the Times of London in August 1875 a judge said, of a female witness in a case against a crooked solicitor, that “it had even been suggested that she was a female detective in the City Police Force.”11 

In the House of Commons in early November 1884 M.P. J. Redmond alleged that men under the Chief Secretary of Ireland employed a “female detective”12 on some cases. A letter published in the Sligo Paper in February 1885 mentioned a woman believed to be a female detective active in Sligo. In November 1885 a “female detective”13 was hired to investigate children being sold for sex in London. In May 1887 a Glasgow “female police detective,” investigating a store’s food under the “Adulteration of Food and Drugs Act,” was attacked by the brother of the store owner. A letter to the Times of London in September 1893, complaining about tramps bothering respectable people, said “I believe a few sharp detectives in disguise, working with one or two respectable women detectives as decoy”14 would resolve the problem. In May 1893 two separate swindles involving a “celebrated lady detective”15 were reported to the police and mentioned without comment in the Times. In April 1895 an advertisement in the Times mentioned that female police officers were wanted in Newcastle-on-Tyne “to take entire charge of female prisoners when under the detention of the police.”16 In January 1896 female detectives were alleged to have been employed in election fixing. A business advertisement in the Times in April 1896 read, “Detective.—A Grievous Wrong has just been righted by Iona, the successful Lady Detective. Interviews by appointment, or on Saturdays, 11 to 2.”17 

And in the Law Report section of the Times of London in June, 1895, in the case of “Paulowna Apperly (Professionally Known as ‘Madame Paul’) v. Price and Wife,” the following questions were asked by the lawyers for the defense:

What sort of a woman was she who brought this action, and how had she got into Mrs. Price’s house? By a trick, posing as a baroness, whereas she was a common spy, not a police detective who hunts down criminals in the interest of the law, but a person who devoted herself to obtaining evidence of adultery &c., at 2 pounds a week.

Was it probable that such a woman, who was not a child, but a clever and unscrupulous female detective and woman of the world¼

What was this woman? A person who gained her living by spying on her fellow-creatures—not a very reputable calling. In the Divorce Court the evidence of such persons would not be relied on without corroboration, for the necessities of the work were apt to impair the veracity of the worker.

¼this was the woman who under the cloak of a high-sounding foreign title wormed herself into people’s confidences at hotels in the interests of her employers. It was far too common a thing for English ladies to be gulled by such people.18 

The degree to which these women were known to the American and English public cannot be determined, but based on the frequency with which they are mentioned in the New York Times and the Times of London, and based on the locations in which these women are described as working, by the mid-1880s most Londoners and most Americans in cities on the eastern seaboard must have heard of them, if not had more direct experience with them. It is significant that references to female private detectives was not commented on by either the press or by lawyers as somehow being extraordinary or unusual. There were comments about the propriety of a woman performing such acts, as in the comments in the case of “Madame Paul,” but the lack of surprise expressed at their existence indicates a degree of familiarity with the idea of the female detective, if not the detectives themselves.

It was these women who the American and English creators of female detectives used as examples in their stories. The fictional female detective was the victim of ideologues during the nineteenth century, used to support the New Woman or used as anti-New Woman propaganda, given independence and then victimized by the marriage plot (see: “The Lady Detective”). But the most victimized of all were the real women who worked as private detectives during the nineteenth century. They have been dropped from the historical record, overlooked by writers and ignored by critics. These women performed difficult jobs bravely and often with distinction despite the scorn of society, and deserve better than the oblivion to which they have been consigned.

For Further Research

Leroy Lad Panek and Mary M. Bendel-Simso, The Essential Elements of the Detective Story, 1820-1891Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017. 

Lucy Sussex, Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010. 

Kate Watson, “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle: British, American, and Australian Women’s Criminographic Narratives, 1860-1880,” PhD diss., Cardiff University, 2010.


1 Watson, “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” 35.

2 Lynette Carpenter, “A Sisterhood of Sleuths: The Gothic Heroine, the Girl Detective, and Their Readers,” in Charles L. Crow, ed., A Companion to American Gothic (Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2014), 204. Carpenter makes a convincing case for pre-New York Nell female detectives being transitional figures between the amateur female sleuths of the Gothics and the professional female detectives of the 1890s.

3 “The Theft of A.T. Stewart’s Body: A New Version of the Affair Given by a Chicago Paper,” The Washington Post (Apr. 7, 1884): 1.

4 “The Theft of A.T. Stewart’s Body,” 1.

5 “The Brooklyn Detective,” New York Times (Aug. 10, 1895): 9.

6 Bredesen, “On the Trail of the First Professional Female Detectives in British Fiction,” v.

7 “The Fenian Movement,” The Times (London) (Nov 16, 1865): 8.

8 “Law and Police,” Globe (Apr 17, 1869): 3.

9 “Law and Police,” Illustrated London News (Feb. 5, 1870): 19.

10 “Law and Order,” The Scotsman (Aug 7, 1873): 5.

11 "At the Mansion House on Saturday,” The Times (London) (Aug. 30, 1875): 11.

12 “Summary of News,” Cork Constitution (Nov. 5, 1884): 2.

13 “The Armstrong Abduction Case,” The Scotsman (Nov. 4, 1885): 7.

14 “The Manufacture of Vagrants,” The Times (London) (Sept. 30, 1893): 11.

15 “Police,” The Times (London) (May 5, 1893): 3.

16 “Report of the Prisons Committee,” The Times (London) (Apr. 24, 1895): 8.

17 “Personal, &c,” The Times (London) (Apr. 25, 1896): 1.

18 "Paulowna Apperly (Professionally Known as ‘Madame Paul’) v. Price and Wife,” The Times (London) (Jun 1, 1895): 6.