‘Dead Shot’ Mary Shanley: A talented 1930s NYPD officer you’ve probably never heard of

1930s New York police detective 'Dead Shot' Mary Shanley

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You’ve probably never even heard of her, but in her day, “Dead Shot” Mary Shanley was truly a legend. Shanley was a trailblazing female police detective who served in New York City during the 1930s.

Known for her sharpshooting skills and tenacious approach to solving crimes, Shanley broke down barriers for women in law enforcement during a time when the profession was largely male-dominated. Her legacy continues to inspire women in the field today.

Detective Mary Shanley of New York’s pickpocket squad (1939)

Panama City News Herald (Panama City, Florida) February 4, 1939

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.

1930s police detective Mary Shanley
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. (Colorized photo – Text from 1939)

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 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.”

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.

Old NYC police detective 'Dead Shot' Mary Shanley

‘Dead-Shot Mary’ quitting the police force

Burlington Daily News (Vermont) October 4, 1957

The word was out. It spread like wildfire through New York’s minor league underworld. And as the news sizzled along the grapevine, the face of many a pickpocket swindler and shoplifter lit up with a smile.

The good news? “Dead Shot Mary” is quitting the force. Dead-Shot Mary’s official title is Detective Mary A. Shanley of the New York Police Department. She is America’s answer to the Canadian Royal Mounties.

After 26 years of service with “New York’s Finest,” Mary Shanley is retiring. “I need a rest,” she says. Judging from her colorful history, she does.

Detective Shanley has been the nemesis of minor hoodlums since she became one of the city’s first lady cops back in 1931. She has arrested or helped to arrest more than 1,000 lawbreakers, and drew her nickname because of her willingness and ability to use her gun.

Her views on that subject’ are as direct as her Irish temperament. “If you have a gun to use,” she says, “you may just as well use it.”

Mrs. Shanley became a detective in the Special Frauds Bureau in 1935. Later she was promoted to first-grade detective, but was demoted in 1941 when she fired her revolver in a Jackson Heights tavern.

Manhattan’s upper Fifth Avenue was the main part of her beat. This area is comprised of plush department stores, theaters, and the famed St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Detective Shanley first began to hit the headlines in the 1930s. She arrested the notorious “Chinatown Charlie,” a nimble-fingered chap who made it his business to lighten the pockets of prosperous Fifth Avenue shoppers.

Her reputation grew. And so did her unpopularity among the world of dips and boosters, because she always kept an eagle eye on department store crowds. Especially during bargain sales.

Mary Shanley with Mayor La Guardia (1937)
Mary A. Shanley being congratulated by Mayor La Guardia, Deputy Chief Inspector John Lyons looks on (1937)

Detective Shanley insists that the department store beat had its drawbacks. She usually ended buying too much herself while still on the prowl for shoplifters.

She went to England in 1939, chasing a couple wanted for running a confidence game. On the way home, she stopped at County Leitrim in Ireland, where her mother was born. She even slept overnight in what she called “the little house.”

Quite recently, she arrested a woman pickpocket on the steps of St Patrick’s Cathedral. She fired two shots in the air to stop a fleeing suspect.

Detective Shanley claims she has been bitten, scratched, slugged, and generally abused by criminals more than any other woman on the force, despite her 160 pounds and five-foot, eight-inch frame. She has the scars to prove it, and she also has three police department citations.

“Dead-Shot Mary’s” future won’t be quite the same as her past. She’s heading for the life of a country girl in nearby Suffolk County, maybe to write a book about her career.

If she does, she’ll put Annie Oakley to shame.

ALSO SEE: John Dillinger: When the notorious gangster and most wanted criminal was killed in Chicago (1934)

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