Lady Detectives from the Past
Thanks for having me over, Mysteristas!
In my new Quaker Midwife Mysteries series, which officially debuts today with Delivering the Truth, Rose Carroll is a midwife who solves crimes. She’s an amateur sleuth, as in any good cozy mystery (I write two contemporary cozy series, too). Rose is perfect for the role, because she can hear secrets in women’s bedchambers and during their prenatal visits that the police detective would never have access to. She also has a curious mind and is rather forthright for the era.
I got to thinking about real-life female sleuths from a hundred or more years ago. So far I’ve only come up with two, but I’m still looking!
Kate Warne was hired by the Pinkerton Detective Agency in 1856, and she became supervisor of their Female Detective Bureau. According to Wikipedia’s account based on the Pinkerton records, Warne walked into the Chicago office. Pinkerton “was surprised to learn Kate was not looking for clerical work, but was actually answering an advertisement for detectives he had placed in a Chicago newspaper. At the time, such a concept was almost unheard of. Pinkerton said, ‘It is not the custom to employ women detectives!’ Kate argued her point of view eloquently – pointing out that women could be ‘most useful in worming out secrets in many places which would be impossible for a male detective.’ A woman would be able to befriend the wives and girlfriends of suspected criminals and gain their confidence. Men become braggarts when they are around women who encourage them to boast. Kate also noted, ‘Women have an eye for detail and are excellent observers.’”
Warne apparently infiltrated Baltimore society in 1861, using several aliases and a strong southern accent, to uncover the secessionists’ plot to murder President Lincoln. She did undercover spy work during the Civil War, and continued to work for Pinkerton after the war until she caught pneumonia in 1868 and died at the young age of 38. I found a great article about her, which includes a picture that might have been her in disguise during the war.
Then there’s Cora Stayers. Historical mystery author Jennifer Kinchloe wrote a post about her recently, including this wonderful ad for Stayers’ agency. Jennifer references research done by Paul Reda. Cora sounds like quite the gal. She hangs out with much younger men, including one former lover who shows up and kills the current one; she goes on stakeouts and car chases; and in one case takes a Mrs. Harris on a trip, gets her drunk, and steals letters Mrs. Harris was using to blackmail a Mrs. Campbell, who had hired Cora.
Cora also formed the “First Volunteer Women’s Cavalry Regiment” to fight in the border war with Mexico, exhorting the following (from Paul Reda’s post):
“Do you want to wait until all the men are killed to do your duty, sisters? A woman that would stand and let a man do all the fighting and suffering for his country is not a soldier. She belongs in the effete ranks of those who hurry abroad when the trouble starts. Pooh! She is not even worthy of the ballot.”
Reda includes the fact that in 1930 Cora lists herself on the Chicago census as 61 years old, a widow, and can read and write. She pays $40 a month in rent. She is still working, owns her own business, and declares her profession to be “Investigator.”
I don’t think my Quaker midwife will be getting up to either Kate’s or Cora’s kind of adventures, but it sure is fun to read about these adventurous women from a century or more ago.
Readers, which unconventional women from the past do you admire? Have you heard of any other real female sleuths from the late nineteenth century?
Edith Maxwell writes the Quaker Midwife Mysteries and the Local Foods Mysteries, the Country Store Mysteries (as Maddie Day), and the Lauren Rousseau Mysteries (as Tace Baker), as well as award-winning short crime fiction. Her short story, “A Questionable Death,” is nominated for a 2016 Agatha Award for Best Short Story. The tale features the 1888 setting and characters from her Quaker Midwife Mysteries series, which debuts with Delivering the Truth on April 8.
Maxwell is Vice-President of Sisters in Crime New England and Clerk of Amesbury Friends Meeting. She lives north of Boston with her beau and three cats, and blogs with the other Wicked Cozy Authors. You can find her on Facebook, twitter, Pinterest, and at her web site, edithmaxwell.com.
For Quaker midwife Rose Carroll, life in Amesbury, Massachusetts, provides equal measures of joy and tribulation. She attends to the needs of mothers and newborns even as she mourns the recent death of her sister. Likewise, Rose enjoys the giddy feelings that come from being courted by a handsome doctor, but a suspicious fire and two murders leave her fearing for the well-being of her loved ones.
Driven by her desire for safety and justice, Rose Carroll begins asking questions related to the crimes. Consulting with her friends and neighbors―including the famous Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier―Rose draws on her strengths as a counselor and problem solver in trying to bring the perpetrators to light.