Women As Detectives

From quite earl;y on in the Jack the Ripper investigation, there were suggestions in the press that female detectives should be employed and put on the trail of the perpetrator of the Whitechapel murders.

However, journalists had been quite intrigued by the idea of women as detectives long before the ripper murders brought this suggestion into the mainstream, and they continued to be intrigued by the concept long after the murders had finished.

On the 3rd of August, 1889, The St James’s Gazette published the following article about the subject:-


“The female detective has not existed long enough in real life to have gone into fiction or the drama as a stock character. But she lives and moves and has her being among us to a larger extent than most people imagine, and her career appears to offer considerable fascination to some natures.

A few weeks ago one of the leading “Private Inquiry” offices advertised for a lady to undertake some detective work, and received no fewer than seventy replies.

The majority of the volunteers would, of course, have been wholly incapable of doing the work required of them; for, on the testimony of those who direct this field of labour, the detective’s calling seems to be the present goal of the amateurs, male or female, who would edit a daily paper, take the part of Hamlet, or conduct a balloon ascent, with equal alacrity.


Still, it is a fact to note that Scotland-yard employs no women directly, save in the Convict Department.

Some years ago a great outcry arose about the hardship inflicted upon women trying to earn an honest livelihood and retrace past errors, when, during their ticket-of-leave period, they were liable to supervising inspection by obvious police officers.

The result was the appointment of three women for these duties, who wear no distinctive uniform and who can make their calls and reports without attracting the least suspicion.

From all points of view this was a right and wise proceeding.

If a Scotland-yard detective needs female assistance, he is permitted to obtain it; but the Criminal Investigation Department has no special staff of women for this purpose.

An illustration of the convict office at the Metropolitan Police Headquarters.
The Convict Office At Scotland Yard. From The Illustrated Police News, 29th September 1883. Copyright, The British Library Board.


It is by the “Private Inquiry ” offices that the employment of women is made a particular feature.

“Diplomacy,” remarked Mr. Moser, the late superintendent at Scotland-yard, “always recognises woman’s skill; and detective work is, after all, only another branch of diplomatic service.”

It is curious to learn that women are only employed in divorce or breach-of-promise cases to a very limited extent.

Out of twenty-five cases which one firm was recently engaged in investigating, it was mentioned as an unusual occurrence that it had two divorce suits on hand in which women were employed; and that one of these was altogether exceptional, as the wife had run away from her husband on the third day after her marriage.


With our complex social machinery it is difficult to assign any one sphere of inquiry especially to female brains. It may be deemed advisable to set a man to watch a woman or a woman to “shadow” a man.

A will may be in dispute, there may be suspicions of misappropriated money, or a shop-keeping firm may be desirous of knowing how its employees spend their evenings; and it is entirely according to circumstances whether a man or a woman is entrusted with the task of obtaining the necessary information.

But, for inquiries concerned with intricate domestic relations women are almost always selected.


Not long ago a Nottingham firm had reason to believe that the designs for their next season’s novelties were being shown to a rival house.

A woman came down from London, worked at the looms, and soon ascertained who was the culprit.

There is a huge manufactory in London which employs a woman detective for no other purpose than to be on friendly terms with all the officials through whose hands money has to pass, in order to report on the style of living and class of society which they affect.

In yet another instance the inventors of a patent article made from india rubber prepared in a particular manner had suspicions that their patent was being infringed; and it was a woman who was selected to find out how the very similar productions of the competing firm were manufactured.


From what class of life are women detectives drawn?

From no one class in particular.

There is a Russian Princess whose services are in frequent requisition when it is thought that bogus companies are being formed, or that swindling is being carried on over commercial transactions.

A lady who took a high degree at Cambridge is on the staff of one firm in London, and her reason for adopting a calling certainly not usually associated with university honours, is (ostensibly at least) an anxiety to see more of human nature than can be acquired from books.

It was an original school to enter for this purpose; but her education has been turned to account by putting her to investigate a case requiring great scientific accuracy, as well as to obtain some delicate information about certain educational institutions.

In conversation the other day with the lady who knows perhaps more on this subject than any one else in London, the remark was made that it was difficult to understand how any woman could become a detective unless she were utterly declassee and saw no other occupation open to her; to which the expert replied, “That is as unjust and as wrong a thing to think as was the assertion the other day that all ballet-girls were immoral.


Most people run away with the idea that all the work done by women detectives must be of the dirtiest and basest nature.

But it is not necessarily or always so.

Suppose an innocent woman has been slandered. Well, is it not pleasant work to vindicate her character?

Not infrequently, some wealthy lady is appealed to for charity. She would willingly bestow it, if she thought the object was worthy; so she obtains the services of a female detective to make inquiry for her.

Again, imagine that shop-girls are pilfering little objects. Is it not kinder, really, to save them before they embark upon a career of crime?”

The mere watching or “shadowing” of suspected persons seems to be a branch of the art despised as the lowest by the fair followers of M. Lecoq.


They like the finesses and the difficulties of more complicated transactions; and it is somewhat amusing to an outsider to hear the testimonies which they will bestow upon one another’s special abilities.

“Ah! Miss So and-so,” says one, “is simply unrivalled, if it is a case in which servants must be got at.”

“Yes,” chimes in another, “but Mrs. Chose was very clever over that anonymous letter business.”


Absolute trustworthiness and discretion are necessary for detective operations, and before a woman is entrusted with any work she must prove herself possessed of these attributes.

Hence it follows that a woman of loose character is rarely employed.

There are, no doubt, instances when none but such will be of use. But for the usual run of work a well organised inquiry office has its myrmidons, from a charwoman to a lady or two “in society” – not merely acting counterfeits, but the actual persons.


It is, in truth, a strange phase of present-day society; but there it is, as a reality in our midst.

It is difficult to understand the feelings which impel a woman to undertake the work; but as many of them do so from honest interest in it, it is pleasanter to think that the fields in which they labour are not invariably degrading and in fact are often of real public utility.

But they are a strange class altogether, these female detectives, and it is rather curious that the novelists and the dramatists have not discovered them.

Perhaps that is because they are so reticent.

Female detectives arc not given to flaunting their profession before the eyes of the world.”