“Sherlock Holmes in skirts”: the world’s first policewomen

In the late 19th century, the New York Police Department added a new weapon to its investigative armoury: women. Elizabeth Evens reveals how the world’s first female detectives snared everyone from murderers to crooked fortune tellers – and made some powerful enemies in the process

A policewoman gives directions to tourists in London in the 1920s.

On a crisp New York morning in September 1906, a brewery watchman was patrolling a warehouse in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, when he happened upon an unusual cloth sack. He gingerly opened the bag. Inside – to his horror – he found a decapitated torso.

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The city had been abuzz with tales of what Pennsylvania’s The Morning Call dubbed the “darkest murder-mystery New York has faced”, when the New York Police Department (NYPD) received a tip about strange comings-and-goings in a tenement house near the brewery. Three brothers lived in one of the tenement rooms: a 10-year-old child and two men, but one of the latter was mysteriously missing. Newspapers detailed how, despite many “revolting murder clews [sic]” incriminating the other adult brother, the police lacked definitive proof.

Officers entrusted the young boy to the care of Ada Murray, a female matron at the local police precinct. One report described how the child “hadn’t been talking to her a minute when he blurted out: ‘I saw my brother tie up my [other] brother’s head in paper and take it out.’” Thousands of New Yorkers reportedly gathered to watch the police wagon take the murderer downtown. They caught the culprit thanks to the matron, with reports from the time implying her intimidating feminine moral presence led the boy to sing like a canary.

The police caught the culprit thanks to the intimidating matron, who had caused the boy to sing like a canary

Ambitious matrons

Ada Murray, an Irish immigrant, belonged to the first generation of women in policing. Nineteenth-century feminist and temperance organisations had long campaigned to introduce female police officers, arguing they would protect women from the injuries of the criminal justice system. In 1889, New York State legislature answered their calls with a law introducing matrons to all precincts.

Matrons were responsible for the care of the stationhouse and the women and children detained there. During their long shifts, they searched the bodies of arrested women, managed rough sleepers and intoxicated arrestees, responded to medical emergencies and tended to lost children. The NYPD hired mainly working-class white women – as the civil service entrance exam discriminated against African-American applicants – and many matrons were widows with a family connection to policing.

Immediately, policemen began to arrest more women knowing they would enter another woman’s custody: matrons were seen as more suited to understanding, handling and questioning female detainees than male officers. In the sixth precinct, for instance, the number of arrests that involved women increased by almost 8 per cent in two years.

Ambitious matrons proved adept at earning the confidence of female or young detainees and assisted on tough investigations. While many enjoyed these opportunities to flex their investigative prowess, those arrested were often less fond of women’s new policing role. Mary Sullivan, who joined the NYPD in 1911, claimed “women prisoners very much resented my presence” because she ruined the “coquettish role which feminine prisoners and witnesses often like to assume and which the men usually encourage”.

By the early 20th century, women had proved themselves skilled investigators. The most celebrated included: Kate Warne, an American Civil War Union spy and one of the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency’s best sleuths; Mary Holland, a fingerprint expert and the Chicago police department’s top advisor; and Nellie Bly, who went undercover for “Ten Days in a Mad-House” to become the New York World’s most famous reporter.

To catch fortune tellers, irregular healers and abortionists, who all commonly catered to female customers, the NYPD relied upon the testimony of female witnesses. Yet, female perpetrators or victims of these crimes often hesitated to testify for fear of incriminating or embarrassing themselves. Enter the policewoman. She could extend the police’s reach into female spaces that were beyond male officers’ grasps.

Using costumes, telling stories or adopting accents, matrons went undercover to conduct covert surveillance

Using costumes, telling stories and adopting accents or foreign languages, matrons went undercover to conduct covert surveillance. Mary Sullivan investigated hundreds of fortune tellers – palm readers, clairvoyants, numerologists, hypnotists, and astrologists – who she claimed swindled $125m out of customers every year. Posing as a client looking for answers, Sullivan visited one seeress – the ‘Famous Zelia’ – whose elaborate headdress concealed a telephone that her colleague used to feed her clues about her customers. She encountered another who searched through the customers’ jackets in the waiting room (the matron soon learned to carry her police badge in her purse).

In her autobiography, My Double Life, Sullivan revealed that she had a personal connection to these cases. As her mother was sadly betrayed by false predictions, this “made it doubly pleasant to me to flash my badge before an astonished seeress and tell her she … [was] about to depart for a ride”.

The NYPD certainly benefited from policewomen’s ability to go incognito. As one 1915 newspaper reported, a criminal “may be remarkably successful at playing the man’s game and thereby evade arrest for months and even years, but when he has to match his wits with a woman detective who has a highly developed faculty of concealing her identity, and who possesses a spirit of dauntless courage, he finds himself reckoning with the postulary perfection of the century-old axiom: beware of skirts”.

Florid quotes such as this were typical of a press that soon saw in the emergence of female sleuths the opportunity to titillate its readers. In reporting on the arrest of a conman, one newspaper concluded that the investigating matron’s “Love Lure Led to Prison”. When policewomen testified in trials, lawyers often asked them questions such as “Are you married?” and “How many children do you have?” to scrutinise their morality. It goes without saying that they did not pose the same questions to male officers.

Enemy number one

Historians often refer to early 20th-century New York City as a “melting pot”: home to more Italians than Venice, more Germans than Hamburg, and more Irish people than Dublin. In their investigations, police matrons focused on the neighbourhoods in which the city’s immigrant populations lived.

In the 1910s, the NYPD assigned a number of experienced matrons to ‘Special Squad 2’ under the command of Lieutenant ‘Honest Dan’ Costigan. Investigating abortion was a key duty of the squad. They rarely attempted to arrest the rich white doctors on the Upper West Side who cared for the city’s elite women. Instead, their targets were immigrant midwives from eastern and southern Europe, who served immigrant and working-class communities.

Although midwifery itself was not illegal, midwives represented traditional, feminine and self-taught skills that physicians – mainly white Anglo men – saw as a threat to their medical monopoly. Doctors were therefore keen to associate midwifery with abortion, which was outlawed, to brand it ‘dangerous’ and ‘illegal’. Like many of the healers or fortune tellers whom policewomen investigated, midwives too represented ‘foreign’ traditions that the police sought to control. As nurse and reformer Lillian Wald wrote: “Perhaps nothing indicates more impressively the contempt for alien customs than the general attitude taken toward the midwife.” Policewomen posed as impoverished mothers who needed abortions because they struggled to care for the children they already had, and approached suspected abortionists. One matron, Adele Priess, was a native German speaker and used her language skills to build trust with immigrant midwives – trust that she then betrayed.

On the one hand, this first generation of women in policing were exploited by NYPD leaders who wished to use their bodies as tools of surveillance but paid them less than stationhouse doormen. But on the other, policewomen claimed a unique authority to oversee women marginalised by class, ethnicity and immigration status.

When policewomen tried to expand their role and arrest the city’s elite men, they faced a significant backlash. Inspired by the passage of the suffrage amendment in 1918, New York’s mayor hired the first woman to police leadership: deputy commissioner Ellen O’Grady, who led the NYPD’s first female unit. She did not last long in post.

In December 1919, O’Grady learned that a pair of millionaires had apparently forced two teenage girls into their car, taken them to their apartments and sexually assaulted them. Immediately, she sent Adele Priess to arrest the suspects. But when she arrived at their apartments, she came across a member of police commissioner Richard Enright’s staff, who blocked the arrest. O’Grady wrote to Enright, declaring “it is high time that these millionaires [are] punished for taking pretty children into their apartment for immoral purposes”. The alleged rapists never faced charges.

From then on, the commissioner obstructed O’Grady at every turn. A year later she quit, saying: “I could not stay and retain my self-respect and independence. I was forced to resign. There was nothing else I could do.”

Cracking down on vice

In the US, as in Britain, the First World War sparked the introduction of uniformed women to police forces across the country, amidst a moral panic about wartime vice and as men vacated roles to fight in the war. The New York Police Department recruited “patrolwomen” to work alongside matrons with investigative duties, who were officially awarded the title ‘policewomen’.

The recruitment drive caused by wartime expansion was also a catalyst for the appointment of the first African-American women to policing. In July 1916, Georgia Ann Robinson joined the Los Angeles Police Department as a volunteer and became a permanent officer in 1919 – the same year that the NYPD appointed Cora Parchment. Police leaders assigned Parchment to watch black communities in Harlem – particularly those residents who had recently moved from southern states to northern cities as part of the Great Migration. However, she resigned after just a few months. While her reasons are unknown, her departure suggests a tension between policewomen’s own wishes and the aims of the institution.

During the First World War and then throughout the 1920s, uniformed patrolwomen toured recreational venues such as dance halls, cinemas, beaches, and amusement parks, including New York’s Coney Island, to try to stifle unseemly courtships between young couples. Similar patrols of uniformed policewomen began touring recreational spaces in England, too, in an effort to control young women’s affection for soldiers, known as ‘khaki fever’.

Patrolwomen toured dance halls, cinemas, beaches and amusement parks to stifle steamy courtships between young couples

The 1920s also saw the metropolitan police contracting lay women to serve as “decoys”, but undercover work did not become a regular duty of English policewomen until the following decade.

When the International Association of Policewomen formed in 1915, it adopted the ethic of “protection and prevention”, and this new cadre of policewomen in Britain and the US pitched themselves as “friends to girls” or “municipal mothers”. One newspaper expressed high hopes for the modern female officer, who “slips into a crowded dance hall or skating rink at night… and the moment when she sees foolishness about to assume the deadly aspect of vice, glides into the arena with a few quiet words”. Apparently, “in nine cases out of ten”, the young woman was glad to be “saved from her own folly”.

But as these policewomen went around “breaking up flirtations and escorting the young women back home to their mothers”, as one American newspaper reported, did these women feel protected? Or did patrolwoman enable the state to interfere in young, working-class and immigrant women’s lives in new and controlling ways?

For veteran NYPD officer Mary Sullivan at least, “the excitement, the danger, and the business of matching wits with the criminal element” was the job’s main allure. In her autobiography, she echoed her joy at catching dishonest fortune tellers when she wrote: “I’ve found few things in the world more thrilling than the moment of revealing myself to a trapped and startled crook as a woman detective.” The policewoman would “live it all over again if I had the chance”.

Elizabeth Evens is a historian at University College London. She is working on a book entitled Regulating Women that looks at the first women in medicine and law enforcement in the US

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This article was first published in the November 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine