Meet New York Detective Mary Shanley (1939)

Detective Shanley of New York’s pickpocket squad

When Mary Shanley mingles with the well-dressed shoppers in a Fifth Avenue store or with the pushing housewives in a 14th Street bargain basement, she is one of them. If she stood out from the crowd, she wouldn’t be any good at her job.

For she is Detective Mary Shanley of New York’s pickpocket squad, who always carries a .32 revolver in her bag and is the only woman in New York police history ever to reach the rank of second grade detective.

Tools of the trade

“Detectives assigned to the pickpocket squad aren’t given leads,” says Detective Shanley, who has red hair and hazel eyes and looks as though she might be a college physical education instructor, “so I start my day by dressing to suit the neighborhood I have decided to work in.”

All day long, she wanders through department stores, stands in theater lines, and pushes her way into crowds. Five times a day she reports to the department by telephone.

When anyone looks suspicious, she follows him or her, as the case case may be. Usually it’s a her, for Detective Shanley does her work where there are crowds of women.

“I can usually tell in 20 minutes whether a suspect is legitimate or not. Often when I have a hunch there is something phony about a woman, I trail her a whole day without seeing her try anything funny. If that happens, I trail her home, and then look for her picture in the police files. If I find it, I keep after the woman until I catch her at work.”

Christmas gifts from the kitchen: Classic homemade candy and cookies (1936)

Many arrests made

Detective Stanley has, among the arrests to her credit, the names of 12 of the country’s slickest female pickpockets.

Arrests aren’t always made without a chase or a struggle. Just a few weeks ago shopping crowds were startled to see a woman, pistol drawn, chasing a man in and out of Fifth Avenue traffic. It was Detective Shanley, after a criminal of many arrests. She got him, too.

Detective Shanley likes her job. “It’s exciting,” she says. “Right now, especially so. For I’m being sent to London this week. I’d die if I had to go back to working in an office.”

It’s the first time a woman detective has even been sent to Europe on a case, and Mary Shanley is as excited as any woman would be over a trip abroad.


Photos from 1938: Detective Mary Shanley is a sure shot, as two pickpockets who tried to get away from her know to their sorrow… Miss Shanley can smile with the best of them though and doesn’t think cops should look like cops.

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