The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

"New York Nell, the Boy-Girl Detective; or, Old Blakesly's Mother" (1880)

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

“New York Nell, the Boy-Girl Detective; or, Old Blakesly’s Mother” was written by Edward L. Wheeler and first appeared in Beadle’s Half-Dime Library 7, no. 161 (Aug. 24, 1880). Edward L. Wheeler (1854/5-1885/6) was short-lived and only wrote for eight years, but during that time he produced around 100 dime novels, introduced the cowgirl heroine character, and created Deadwood Dick (see: The Deadwood Dick Adventures).

New York Nell is a female detective. She was for a time a street person in New York City, selling newspapers for a living. At one point she began solving crimes and was made a member of the “New York Detective Force.” But in the course of a case she was forced to poison a vicious dog. The police pursued her for the crime, forcing her to leave Manhattan to escape imprisonment. She moved to the Western frontier and begins work there as a private detective. She tells her clients, “If you want help and want to pay for it, I’m ready for biz—New York Nell, at your service, perfeshional detective, an’ ef I can’t win a case I take hold of, I don’t charge a cent.”1 During “New York Nell, the Boy-Girl Detective,” she is instrumental in reuniting a separated family and making sure that three separate couples are able to live happily ever after. At the end of the story’s events she is an independent detective, but Wheeler then adds this epilogue:

Materially rewarded, for the services she had performed, the authoress of much of the happiness radiating those Western homes went back to New York, and since then has made a happy choice in a noble husband, who is justly proud of his wife whose experience in the detective business brought about such auspicious results.2 

Like most of the female detectives in dime novels, she is given autonomy and freedom through most of her story and then, at the story’s end, has it take away from her—not through the organic growth of the plot, but through clumsy authorial intervention. But until the insertion of the marriage plot (see: “The Lady Detective”), New York Nell is a capable professional detective. She accurately describes herself:

Professionally, heretofore, I have been a detective and a newsgirl, the latter serving me in the former capacity. Professionally, henceforth, I am a detective. I tell you this because I would rather battle with an armed villain than an unarmed one. The victory is keener, the satisfaction keener. Look at me. I am a mere chit of a girl—seventeen years of age only—and never had the advantage of a common school education. Still, there is a heap of sense and understanding in my curly head, and I have eyes like a hawk.3 

She does not lack confidence, introducing herself in this way: “My name is Nell Niblo, alias New York Nell, news girl, spotter, detective and hard crowd, generally.”4 Events justify her high self-opinion. She is excellent at disguise and at tracking criminals. She is more at ease as a street Arab than among middle-class men and women, but she is naturally feminine and attractive despite her customary filthy appearance. She does not describe herself in those terms, however, and adopts a more aggressive and stereotypically masculine attitude: “But I ain’t a woman; I’m only a gal. They call me a little cuss over in York, ‘cause I allus hoe out my own row, and keer fer No. 1.”5 

New York Nell is of interest because she is the first professional female detective in American literature, preceding The Clarice Dyke Mysteries by three years and “The Lady Detective” by five years and following The Dead Letter by only fourteen years. In real life the number of women working as detectives had been increasing since the end of the Civil War (see: Female Detectives). On stage, as LeRoy Lad Panek notes, “from Richmond to Sacramento and from St. Paul to New Orleans audiences from 1860 onward watched plays featuring women detectives.”6 But fiction, both in novels and in dime novels, was slow to respond to this development,7 perhaps because of the disrepute in which Newgate Novels (see: Proto-Mysteries) were held.

Print Edition

Print: Edward L. Wheeler, New York Nell, The Boy-Girl Detective. Cleveland: Arthur Westbrook Co., 1908.



1 Edward L. Wheeler, “New York Nell, the Boy-Girl Detective; or, Old Blakesly’s Mother,” 7, no. 161 (Aug. 24, 1880): 5.

2 Wheeler, “New York Nell,” 14.

3 Wheeler, “New York Nell,” 5.

4 Wheeler, “New York Nell,” 4.

5 Wheeler, “New York Nell,” 3.

6 LeRoy Lad Panek and Mary M. Bendel-Simso, The Essential Elements of the Detective Story, 1820-1891 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2017), 131.

7 Fiction writers for newspapers, however, were quick to seize on detectives as useful narrative devices and interesting characters. The Westminster Detective Library website ( ) is a handy list of more than 1,500 stories featuring detectives published between 1818 to 1891, with hundreds appearing before the publication of “New York Nell” in 1880.