The first female detectives

Growing up in Dublin’s inner-city northside, my childhood was filled with crime.

Ironside, Mannix, Banachek, The Rockford Files, Hawaii Five-O, The Streets of San Francisco, Cannon, Kojak, Columbo, McCloud, Petrocelli, Quincy M.E… I watched them all.

They were cops and private detectives mostly, armed with snub-nosed Smith & Wesson’s, screeching around corners in Buicks, Chevrolets and Dodges, hubcaps flying off as they frantically pursued the bad guys.

Sometimes the cars got cooler – like Jim Rockford’s Firebird, or, later, Starsky and Hutch’s white-striped Gran Torino. One thing that was a given, though, was that all crime fighters were men. Then the female detectives Cagney & Lacey came along, and a small blow was struck for feminists. To teenage me, though, that last one seemed a bit, well… contrived.

Am I really expected to believe that these women can haul the killers off the street and lock them in the clink, I would tut as I scanned the newspaper’s TV schedule for more fitting crime-fighting fare.

Had I known then about two real-life crime-fighting female cops I would never have dared entertain such a thought.

Lilian Armfield became Australia’s first female detective as long ago as 1915.  To say she had things stacked against her is an understatement.

For one, Armfield had to sign a waiver agreeing that the New South Wales police department she served was not responsible for her safety and welfare, and that no compensation would be provided for injuries sustained during her duties.

Then there was the fact that she wasn’t given a uniform and had to pay for civilian clothes worn on duty. She couldn’t marry either. To top it all, she had to go about her business unarmed and, er, was not allowed to arrest criminals.

Detective Lillian Armfield

Detective Lillian Armfield

Ah, yes… the spinster policewoman with no uniform, no weapon, with no powers of arrest… All they were short of doing was painting a target on her back, saying ‘Assault me’.

But Armfield was not to be deterred by such minor details. Adorned with pearls but no handcuffs, she took on some of Australia’s most dangerous ‘razor gangs’ of the Twenties and Thirties armed only with her handbag.

Armfield investigated everything from opium trafficking to rape and murder. Her main beat was in the tough neighbourhoods around east Sydney, where she would often work undercover in the city’s brothels. Women police were also used to search female suspects and to interrogate witnesses.

‘We are free to go anywhere and make what investigations we think wise,’ Lillian said in an interview with The Sun newspaper, at a time when the number of female detectives had risen to eight. ‘We are likely to be called out at any hour of the night. Normally we work eight hours a day, with one day off each week and twenty-eight days holiday in the year. We cover the city and the country. If a policewoman is wanted for a female investigation in the country, one goes from the central staff in Sydney.’

When the reporter suggested she arm herself for her duties, Armfield replied: ‘We carry no weapons. A warrant card explains who we are. Handcuffs! Oh, no, we never handcuff a woman.’

But lest anyone think she was some sort of dainty Miss Marple, it’s worth noting that one of her colleagues described how Armfield ‘swore like a trooper’. She could hold her own, too, in any of Sydney’s low-life haunts, having to detain suspects until armed male officers arrived with cuffs and those all-important powers of arrest.

Lillian Armfield was clearly an extraordinary woman, and her story is told in an eponymously titled book by historian and writer Leigh Straw. She has also found fame as part of Australian TV series, Underbelly: Razor.

But Lillian wasn’t the only ground-breaking female detective. Over in the United States, Mary Shanley – or ‘Dead Shot Mary’ as she was known – also made a name for herself.

Born to an Irish mother in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Mary joined New York’s Finest as their fourth female detective in 1931, and it soon became clear that she wasn’t afraid to use her weapon.

Detectiive Mary Shanley

Detectiive Mary Shanley

Throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s the New York Times is full of stories about the gun-toting policewoman. Mary, weapon in hand, chasing down a pickpocket on Fifth Avenue; Mary firing two rounds into the air while chasing a larceny suspect; Mary (5ft8) arresting two burly men by herself; Mary firing as she chased a suspect from a cinema. In that episode, one newspaper reported…

‘The suspect accompanied Detective Shanley–she was in her Sunday best, with a pale blue hat and bright earrings lending a gay touch to her gray hair–to the rear of the orchestra. But before she could complete the arrest, the man punched her, broke away and headed down the center (stet) aisle. It was at this point that the shots from the Detective’s service revolver slammed harmlessly into the floor…’

But that gun of hers also got her in trouble, when Mary got drunk one night in a bar in Queens and fired her revolver.  She was demoted from first-detective to patrolwoman, but it wasn’t long before she regained her old rank.

Mary’s grit and determination to uphold the law never wavered. At the age of 54, she was still tough enough to take on and arrest an armed 22-year-old man who was brandishing an automatic pistol in Macy’s department store.

Thanks to her colourful antics, Mary was a media darling of her day.

‘I can usually tell in 20 minutes whether a suspect is legitimate or not,’ she told the Panama City Herald in one interview.

When asked about her career, she told a reporter: ‘I’d die if I had to go back to working in an office.’

Luckily for New York City, that never came to pass. Mary retired in 1957 as a first-grade detective and with over a thousand arrests to her credit. Her escapades would later be celebrated in the documentary, Sleuthing Mary Shanley.

‘Dead Shot’ Mary Shanley died in 1989, aged 93, and is buried in Long Island. Lillian Armfield died in Sydney in 1971, aged 86.

Lillian and Mary, two extraordinary trailblazing women, who took on the criminals, not to mention society’s misconceptions, and proved that ‘the fairer sex’ could be just as tough, or tougher, than their male counterparts.

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About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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41 Responses to The first female detectives

  1. Love these women, David. If you haven’t come across “Miss Fischer’s Murder Mysteries,” I urge you to look for it. Miss Fischer is the fictional equivalent of Lillian Armfield. And she carries a gun in her garter.

  2. Fascinating post David. Hope you’re good. Haven’t seen you around much for a while.

    • Hi Shehanne. I’ve been off the blog and social media for a good while and am only beginning to come back to it. I only noticed recently that you’ve included me in some of your tweets. Really appreciate that and sorry I haven’t reciprocated. I’ll make it up to you.

  3. PaulAndruss says:

    What a great article. Thanks I really enjoyed it!

  4. srmallery says:

    Fascinating! 🙂

  5. srmallery says:

    Reblogged this on S.R. Mallery's AND HISTORY FOR ALL and commented:
    From David Lawlor, a fascinating article! Check it out…

  6. Reblogged this on writerchristophfischer and commented:
    Excellent post by David Lawlor

  7. olganm says:

    Great post. I’m sure they must have been tougher than the men around them to make it in their world. They do deserve to be remembered and celebrated. Many thanks!

  8. Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    Great post from David Lawlor 🙂

  9. Clodagh Finn says:

    Really interesting piece, Dave, and beautifully written as always. It’s so good to see these fascinating women getting an airing. Hope you’re well.

  10. Great article David. By the way, loved The Rockford Files, Homicide: Life on the Streets and dare I say it, Miami Vice.

  11. literaryeyes says:

    Reblogged this on Mary Clark, Writer and commented:
    A little Hell’s Kitchen history (and some Australian) of female detectives

  12. Thanks. Fascinating as always.

  13. Thoroughly enjoyed this blog, David. It resonated with me especially as, ahem, I’m writing my memoirs at the mo.

  14. Pingback: Thursday Link Dump | Clever Manka

  15. jazzfeathers says:

    Great article!
    I’m always quite surprises at this kind of ‘firsts’. I mean, one wouldnt’ think that women were already doing this kind of stuff at that time… few as they were. Sometimes I think we are more conservative then they were 😉

  16. Annika Perry says:

    David, your starting list of TV shows were some of my staple viewing … I was addicted to American tv programmes like these! When Cagney and Lacey came along I was over the moon … the starting music alone was terrific! I loved reading about Lillian and Mary in this excellent summary of their lives! Wow! Formidable characters and even tougher in those days. Well done to these trailblazers!

  17. thealvarezchronicles says:

    Excellent post! Petrocelli? Who the hell remembers Petrocelli? Ha! lol. Having worked with a few female detectives I can tell you that even today they don’t get the respect they deserve in law-enforcement. Great stuff. – Robert

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