Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Female Private Eye: One Woman's Story

A longish account by May Storey, billed in the 1920s as "the female Sherlock Holmes." That's her on the right, on card #42 of the Imperial Tobacco Company's 50 Churchman Tobacco Cards of 1938. She acquired an unusual amount of fame for a private eye, in part because she was a woman (unusual though hardly unknown in the 1930s) and in part because she wrote articles, like the one below, which were widely reprinted.

I think this article is interesting on a few levels: what the life of a private detective during the pulp era was really like, how similar the English p.i. was to the American, and how popular stereotypes of rising crime and lawlessness were played to by law enforcers. (Crime wasn't nearly as bad in the 1930s as it was thought to be, and was a lot better than crime had been in the 1890s).

The following appeared in a London paper in 1932; I read it in the 17 April 1932 issue of the Straits Times of Singapore:


By May Storey, the well-known woman detective, who, in an unofficial capacity has been responsible for the arrest of many famous criminals
Gangster Battle in Harlem
It is a strange paradox that my life as a woman detective has been a singularly quiet one, while my life as an ordinary citizen has been a thoroughly exciting one.

Everyone has heard of the Harlem "child massacre," where little children fell victims to the murderous machine guns of battling gangsters in a New York Street. Well, it was only by a lucky chance that my bullet-ridden corpse was not taken to the mortuary alongside the murdered children.

I was in New York on a pleasure trip, which was also intended to be a "rest," as I had been working very hard prior to my sailing, and I was visiting Harlem with a woman friend. We were strolling quietly through the busy streets, when suddenly the air was thick with gun smoke, and hideous shouts rang in our ears.

With bullets flying everywhere, we rushed for the shelter of a near-by shop, and before our eyes saw enacted the drama that was to make the law of the United States a by-word to the world.

Bullet-Ridden Car

We heard the screams of the dying children, and saw the bullet-ridden car of the slayers racing down the street. Then we saw the shrieking police car, spitting flame and death, as it opened fire on the fleeing gangsters.

I think we stood in greater danger of death from the police than we did from the crooks, as the men in blue fired at everything, and didn't seem to care very much whether they hit the passing citizen or not.

Bullets had ploughed their way into the walls just near where we had been standing, and, had it not been for the presence of mind of my friend, I should have been in the position of a man standing just near us at the time the shooting commenced.

He was carried into a nearby-shop, and carried out again a few minutes later--in a coffin. They apparently keep them in readiness for such emergencies in gangster-ridden America.

Only a few years previously I had had another narrow escape in New York. It was at the time they were extending the subway, and a portion of the roadway of 11th Street collapsed with great loss of life.

"Lifted" Property

We were strolling casually through the street at the time, when an ominous roar warned us of the crash. In a matter of seconds the roadway within a few feet of us was a mass of shattered ruins, wreathed by clouds of dust, behind which we could see people actually falling amidst the crumbling concrete.

Having related some of my own narrow escapes, I will describe the escapes of well-known shoplifters from me. It forms the most unpleasant memory of my life to think that a woman whom I once trailed from a Liverpool store, with a large quantity of "lifted" property in her bag, got away because she boarded a bus and when I went to do so I found that it could take no more passengers.

A similar thing happened when I waited for over an hour for a male thief I was after, only to see him board a bus that moved off only a "split" second before I could get aboard.

It has been with women, rather than men, that I have had to struggle when making arrests. I do not mean arrest in the proper sense of the word, of course, as all we can do is to hold a suspect and draw the attention of the police.

Unpleasant Movements

In this we have only the same rights as ordinary citizens, who have power to apprehend suspected persons.

On one occasion I laid hold of a woman, who turned and showed fight. It happened that the neighborhood was a pretty tough one, and within a few minutes the woman had a host of sympathisers, who readily joined in the fray.

I managed to retain my hold on my "prisoner," but I was subjected to a really rough time, being kicked and struck with a bottle, before my shouts and the general disturbance brought a policeman on the scene.

I shan't forget one little scene with a man. He was one of the nastiest men I have ever met, and I wanted him on behalf of a wife whom he had deserted. Why she wanted him is more than I can imagine, for he was the ugliest piece of work imaginable.

He had formerly been a prize-fighter, and his profession had not improved what few good looks he had. I found him in a vile public house somewhere in the East End, and quietly went up and asked him if he were so-and-so.

His answer was a torrent of abuse, followed by a violent blow, which caught me behind the ear and nearly stunned me. I recovered myself, however, and as he struck again caught his wrist and flung him over my head with one of the best-known ju-jitsu holds.

He hit the floor with tremendous force, to the utter amazement of the loungers in the bar, who quickly divided themselves into partisanship. Some cheered to Bill to get up and lay me out, others took my side, but Bill had had enough.

At least, I thought he had, until a heavy spittoon crashed through the glass doorway as I was leaving. He came after me, but stopped when I turned grim-faced and ready for him.
I have never been employed to detect drug-runners, which is, of course, a matter for the regular police, but during the course of a longish trip, taken on behalf of a wealthy client, I nearly became embroiled with a big gang of smugglers.

I was aboard a big liner between Sydney Vancouver [sic], when I made the acquaintance of a very charming, middle-aged woman. Now, I have never ceased to marvel at the credulity of people and the ease with which they are taken-in by the consummate swindlers.
Nevertheless, good judge of character as I have reason to believe myself to be, I never dreamed of suspecting this delightful lady acquaintance, and when, at Sydney, she asked me if I would take a small parcel back to Vancouver for her I readily agreed.

The contents of the parcel, she told me, were letters and private papers entrusted to her by her son. He had wanted to read them on the voyage, and to return them by post. However, she thought it safer to trust them to me.

On the way back to Vancouver--for I had completed my inquiries in Sydney in a few days--I happened to examine the exterior of the package, and was suspicious of its weight. For a long time I fought against my suspicions, but finally common sense overcame sentiment and I opened it.

Inside I found cocaine that was, at that time, worth many thousands of pounds. The charming traveler had been a drug-runner, and had realised the impossibility of getting it ashore at Sydney, and so wished to return the valuable drug to Vancouver.

I dropped it overboard, and carefully avoided the "son" when he boarded the ship at the Canadian port.

No comments: