August 18, 2020 marks 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment, granting women in the US the right to vote. (Theoretically, this applied to all women. However, women of color, especially Black women, continued to be disenfranchised by racist voting qualifications that remained legal until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and disenfranchisement and voter suppression of marginalized communities is still happening today.)
In honor of this major milestone in women's rights, we're featuring some real-life lady detectives that blazed a trail in the male-dominated world of crime fighting and undercover work. Feeling inspired? Put on your best Kate Warne impression and join the Dainty Dames for a virtual murder mystery event! Email firstname.lastname@example.org to book tickets today!
Kate Warne - The Lady Pinkerton Who Saved PResident Lincoln
In 1856, the recently widowed Kate Warne showed up at the Pinkerton National Detective Agency asking for a job - to be the first female detective. Arguing that she could get information from places where a male detective would stand out, Kate convinced Allan Pinkerton to take her on, and quickly became one of his best detectives.
Right off the bat, Kate cracked an enormous embezzlement case by befriending the main suspect's wife. Through the information she gained, Kate recovered $40,000 in stolen funds, the equivalent of more than $1.25 MILLION today!
As if that's not enough, Kate also played a critical role in saving newly-elected President Lincoln from an assassination attempt on his way to taking office. By going undercover as a flirty Southern belle, Kate insinuated herself into secessionist circles in Baltimore, where she was able to confirm rumors and provide specific details to the Pinkertons as to the nefarious plot. Using that information, Lincoln avoided the would-be assassins by disguising himself as Kate's invalid brother on a train trip from Philadelphia to the capital, arriving safely under Kate's watchful eye.
Kate continued to crack cases during and after the Civil War, at times disguising herself as a fortune teller or confidante to gain critical intel. Allan Pinkerton regularly called Kate one of his top operatives, and placed her in charge of training a new generation of female operatives as head of the Female Detective Bureau.
Maud West - London's Lady Sherlock
Expert of disguise, larger-than life, self-promoting author, and fearless lady detective, Maud West founded her own detective agency in London in 1905, at age 25. For the next 34 years, Maud investigated countless cases of blackmail, abandoned wives, stolen inheritances, and missing persons. To assist in these cases, Maud used her top-notch disguise skills, posing as a lady of the night with "heavy earrings [that] make me look frightfully common," a degenerate gambling businessman, a harmless old lady, or a mysterious fortune teller.
Most of the details surrounding Maud's daring exploits come from Maud herself, as she wrote weekly accounts of her cases in tabloids of the time. While these accounts are of questionable veracity, she certainly knew how to tell a thrilling story! And whether or not she actually infiltrated an enemy spy ring or took down a Brazilian drug cartel, she certainly did run a successful detective agency for over three decades, forging a path to independence and adventure.
Frances Benzecry - the most doctored woman in new york
Like Maud and Kate, Frances Benzecry used the societal dismissal of women to gain information from unsuspecting criminals. Rather than focusing on blackmail, embezzlement, or even assassination, Frances had a different goal: to defend the public from medical malpractitioners - that is to say, from quacks! At the turn of the 20th century, New York City was filled with snake oil salesmen attempting to pass themselves off as licensed medical experts. At best, these fake treatments fleeced vulnerable populations, and at worst, they actively endangered people's lives and health. In 1905, Frances worked with the New York County Medical Society and the NYPD to gather evidence against unlicensed practitioners and regulate the medical profession.
How did she gather proof that unlicensed treatment was taking place? By receiving the treatment herself! For ten years, Frances went undercover as a patient suffering various ailments, getting dubious treatments all over the city. Once the treatment had been administered, she reported her experience to the Society and the police, who fined the offenders and officially labelled them "quacks." Frances' methods, and the media's fascination with this lady medical detective, earned her the title "the most doctored woman in New York."