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Dead Shot Mary Shanley

New York?s Greatest Man Catcher

?It’s exciting. I’d die if I had to go back to working in an office

-Mary Shanley, 1937

Mary Shanley, nicknamed ?Dead Shot Mary? for her frequent use of a gun while on the job as a New York City detective in the 1930s, only the fourth woman in the detective squad, was a media ?superstar. There were dozens of articles written about her in tabloid newspapers and her photo, usually large, frequently accompanied them. She worked on the force for nearly thirty years and made over 1,000 arrests, a staggering number.

In 1934, the New York Police Department?finally let women officers carry guns. The first female cop to fire one in the line of duty was undercover officer Mary?Shanley (born Ireland 1896 ? died New York 1989), who shot?her Colt Official Police revolver to warn a suspect on 53rd Street to stop running or else.

?You have the gun to use, and you may just as well use it,? she said.

On June 20th, 1938, pedestrians near bustling Herald Square in Midtown Manhattan were treated to a scene right out of a dime store novel. A well-dressed middle-aged woman was fighting with a man, attempting to subdue him. He pushed her in the face, and she retaliated, knocking him into submission with a swing of her long strapped pocket book. The man was lucky she did not use the gun tucked carefully into the folds of her dress.

The man was a suspected jewel thief, and his captor was an undercover policewoman with the press sobriquet of ?Deadshot? Mary.??Well, I got him,? she told two patrolmen who had rushed to the scene to help, ?and I can take him in myself.?

During the first half of the 20th?century, policewomen in America often?worked undercover, on so-called ?women?s beats.???They are called upon regularly to trail or trap mashers, shoplifters, pickpockets and fortune-tellers; to impersonate drug addicts and hardened convicts, to expose criminal medical practice, find lost persons, guide girls in trouble, break up fake matrimonial bureaus and perform special detective duty.

Meet ?Deadshot Mary,? a 1930s Undercover Cop Superstar.?How one NYC policewoman became a media sensation. IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

1845: The NYPD hired its first female jail matrons.

Shanley was born in Ireland in 1896, and after immigrating to America with her family, made the bold choice to join the NYPD. Along with a handful of other woman cops, she went to work on undercover beats.

Though she never married or had children, she would sometimes pose as an innocent mother by bringing her young niece along with her, recalled a relative, Patrick Mullins.

In an interview, Mr. Mullins said that his mother, Mary Shanley Mullins, was that very niece. She used to tell him that Detective Shanley ?had this sixth sense, that she could smell a crook,? he recalled. ?She could go into a crowd and know who to tail.?

Detective Shanley grew up in Hell?s Kitchen, with little money but plenty of street savvy, he said. She was a spirited storyteller and loved cocktails and big cars, and often showed up unexpectedly with presents for his family.

?She was a more-than-life-size figure, and a lot of fun,? said Mr. Mullins

According to Mullins, Mary ?was not interested in a husband. She enjoyed her life. She had her freedom and her good salary. She was just different. She was very outspoken, very opinionated. She didn?t fit in then as well as she probably would now. She was born too soon.?

You learn a lot of history about the police through Mary?s story, including the fact that the first women cops were hired in 1918 to replace men who left the force to go into the army in World War I. Later, in the 1920s, some more women were added and several promoted to detective.

Detective Shanley escorts pickpocketing suspects James Conti and Jack Greenberg to court. IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

1891: As a result of legislation passed in 1888, the first four police matrons were hired to search and transport female arrestees.

The story of women in the NYPD begins in 1845 women were employed as jail matrons, and in 1891 when women are hired as Police Matrons.? Their duties included searching female prisoners ?and supervising their care, as well as taking care of lost children.? The role of women increased to assignments as investigators in ?1903 and in 1912 Isabella Goodwin was promoted to First Grade?Detective.? Investigation of Vice and Gambling was added to women?s duties.

In 1917 under the war emergency powers of the Police Commissioner, women were appointed as Protective Officers.? On January 28, 1918 Ellen O?Grady was appointed the first female Deputy Commissioner of the Welfare Bureau.? The function of which was the protection and prevention of crimes against women and children.? In August 1918 the first six Policewomen were appointed, they were paid $1,200 per year and carried a revolver, handcuffs and summonses, but did not were a uniform.

In 1921, Mary Hamilton was appointed Director in charge of the new Women?s Police Precinct, which was changed to the Women?s Bureau in 1924.? Also, in 1921 the Policewomen?s Endowment Association was?founded by Mary Sullivan, Rose Taylor, Ada Barry, Mary McGuire and Minnie Ernest.? In 1934 women have pistol practice with male officers.? On February 7, 1935, Police Commissioner Lewis J. Valentine establishes the first uniform for women.? In 1935, Mary Shanley aka Dead Shot Mary was assigned to the Detective Bureau Pick Pocket Squad and was later promoted to First Grade Detective with more than 1,000 arrests.

Before Mary Shanley, the New York police women?s reserve, 1918. Photo: Library of Congress.

1895: Minnie Gertrude Kelly became the first woman to work at HQ – in the capacity of Secretary to the Police Board.

In December 1934, a change came to the NYPD. The 140 or so female police officers on the force were now required to carry guns (the practice had been voluntary before) when they prowled department stores, shopping centers, and crowded entertainment areas. They were issued 16-ounce revolvers, which were half the weight of the guns policemen carried, and were required to take target practice.

?On the practice range in headquarters? basement some of the women have proved more gun shy than others,? a reporter patronizingly wrote. ?But none has figured in an ?I didn?t know it was loaded? mishap. Neither has any hit the bullseye ten times in a row for a perfect 100, though several have broken 80.?

A few years later, Mary became the first policewoman in the history of the NYPD to use a gun during a capture and arrest, when she fired into the air while pursuing a racketeer on 53rd Street. Around this time, local papers began to report on her exploits, amazed that a five-foot-eight, 160-pound woman had the strength to subdue grown men, sometimes two at a time!

A few years later, Shanley made history when she became the first woman in the NYPD to use her gun in the line of duty, firing a warning shot into the air to halt a suspect fleeing on 53rd Street. (The warning shot would become something of a signature for her throughout her career.)

She became a media darling, sometimes posing for pictures where she looked like a respectable middle-class matron, except for the gun she was pointing directly at the camera. In the Sunday series ?Heroines of Today,? illustrator Nell Brinkley depicted an idealized Shanley shooting her gun, capturing criminals, and tucked into a stylish bed reading a mystery novel and eating crackers.

Mary also gave many interviews. She told the?New York World Telegram?that she respected stick-up men, because ?at least they pick out places that can afford to get robbed.? Overall, she ?never felt sorry? for any of the people she arrested.


1917: Two unknowns were issues special patrol woman’s badges.

Aside from pickpockets, Shanley was also quite skipped at apprehending ?seat tippers? ? thieves who would situate themselves in theaters, usually behind a woman, and tip back the seat on which the unsuspecting victim had deposited a bag. During the show, the bag would then fall to the ground unnoticed and the clever thief could make off with its contents.

When Shanley saw seat tippers in the act, she would often creep up behind the would-be thief in the darkened theater and place her hand on their shoulder, whispering in the person?s ear: ?This is a pinch, honey.?

?Deadshot Mary?, joined the police in 1931 and by 1939 had risen?to?the rank of Detective First Grade ? she became?only the fourth woman to make the rank.

The?New York Times?wrote of her in?1938:

In more than seven years on the police force Miss Shanley has had considerable experience with man-catching. Sometimes she has had to use her .32-caliber revolver. Once she used her leather pocketbook to knock down her quarry? Mayor La Guardia once praised her for demonstrating ?not only keen intelligence and fine police work but also courage at a moment when courage was needed.?

Shanley was a highly regarded who was assigned to undercover work in a large division of cops who chased the thousands of pickpockets who preyed on New Yorkers during the Depression. She dressed like every other woman and sported a snappy hat and hid her revolver in her purse.

Officer Shanley was promoted in 1935, earning a third-grade detective?s shield, then rose steadily until she earned the first-grade rank in 1939, at age 43. She was the fourth woman in the Police Department?s history to do so. She was also perhaps the first policewoman in New York to use a gun in the capture and arrest of a suspect.

One article called her an ?Annie Oakley? of the department, and quoted her as saying, ?You have the gun to use, and you may just as well use it.?

Mary cut her teeth on the force working undercover to catch fortune-tellers who set up storefronts in buildings all across Manhattan.?Fortune-telling was illegal at the time, partially because of prejudice against the immigrant communities where it was popular, and partly because it was seen as a swindle most likely to ensnare lonely, vulnerable, white women.

Undercover policewomen would visit the fortune-tellers, and after paying for their readings, arrest them. In 1931, the?New York Times?reported on Shanley?s arrest of a certain ingenious soothsayer named Princess Juniata Flynn:

Policewoman Shanley?unwrapped a striped bandanna handkerchief from the head of the ?Princess,? revealing a telephone head set resting snugly against her ears. The basket into which written questions were put revealed a false bottom which led to an assistant who telephoned the inquiries to the seer, who would repeat the questions, amazing her clients.

Detective Shanley in her typical plain clothes uniform. IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

1919: The title of “policewoman” was changed to “patrolwoman.”

There was the time she collared one Chinatown Charlie, a notorious pickpocket who preyed on shoppers along Fifth Avenue.

Then there was the arrest during a Mass at St. Patrick?s Cathedral. Dressed as any other worshiper in a black suit, black jeweled hat and glasses, Detective Shanley saw a female pickpocket take cash from a woman kneeling in prayer. She fired two shots to stop the woman from fleeing.

In 1935, she was hospitalized after being thrown down a flight of stairs by a ?masher? she was trying to apprehend at the Savoy Theater, The Times said.

In 1937, she arrested two stickup men by firing a warning shot in the air, and was?promoted to second-grade detective. During the ceremony, Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia told her he considered it an honor to be ?pinning a badge on you,? The Times reported.

La Guardia called Detective Shanley ?a credit to the Police Department of the city,? and said that women on the force ?can be used for very effective police and detective work.?

There were shootouts. An article in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in June 1937 described Detective Shanley ?nabbing two hardened criminals, after a hot pursuit through subway trains and a volley of pistol shots in the Times Square area.?

She was on patrol in a smart gray wide-brimmed hat and polka-dot green dress in June 1938 when she confronted a suspect outside Macy?s in Herald Square. He pushed her in the face and ran, but was felled by a swing of her leather pocketbook, The Times reported.

By the time two nearby officers arrived to help, she had her badge in one hand and was holding the suspect by the collar in the other.

?Well, I got him,? she told them. ?I can take him in myself.?

Mary Shanley would co-opt civilians into her efforts, often taking along her niece to pose as a?mother-daughter team while browsing for shoplifters in Macy?s department stores.

She posed as a worshipper during Mass at St. Patrick?s Cathedral. Dressed in black suit, black hat and glasses, Detective Shanley saw the light:?a female pickpocket had taken cash from a woman kneeling in prayer. Shanley?fired two shots to stop the woman from fleeing.

The?Panama City News Herald (Panama City, Florida) profiled her work on?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.

?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.?

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.

1921: Mary Hamilton became the director of the Women’s Police Precinct, with 20 women assigned to it.

Mary Shanley?was such a common?presence in the newspapers it?s a wonder every villain in the city didn?t know her face. Here are some reports on her work:

Patrolwoman Mary Shanley ordered two suspicious characters, neither of them weaklings, into the lobby of the Longacre Building in Times Square shortly after 10 o?clock last night. They complied, for everything in the policewoman?s mien indicated determination ? even the firm grasp of her right hand on her service pistol.
? New York Times, 25 Sep 1935

Policewoman Seizes Two Men Without Aid; Arrests Two Sturdy Suspects on Broadway.

Detective Mary Shanley of the pickpocket squad added another ?pinch? to her record yesterday. This time, however, she had to fire two shots to accomplish the deed. Detective Shanley, who is a brunette weighing 150 pounds
? New York Times. 12 Apr 1936.

Shopping crowds on Fifth Avenue in the lower-Fifties were treated to the spectacle of a woman, pistol in hand, chasing a man down the avenue yesterday afternoon. They were unaware that the woman was Detective Mary Shanley of the pickpocket squad, performing :her regular duties.
? New York Times. 10 Jun 1937.

And in the?Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

?Gypsies welcome, says court, if they stop fortune-telling? ??Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 26 October 1933.

This report from the?Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 7 Mar 1950 stands out:

?Woman detective captures youth on rampage with gun?

The 54-year old Shanley took?on a mentally ill 22-year old man who had burst into Macy?s with a gun. As customers ducked for cover, Shanley appeared behind the man aiming her own pistol. She told him ?Drop that gun, boy.? His revolver clattered to the floor.

A Daily Eagle story from 1950 described Detective Shanley, at age 54, apprehending a 22-year-old man ?evidently embarked on a homicidal jaunt? inside a Macy?s store in Jamaica, Queens.

Revolver raised, she sneaked up behind him and said, ?Drop that gun, boy,? the paper reported.

A 1955 article in The Times described her firing a shot while?pursuing?a ?seat tipper? ? a criminal who tips back a folding seat to nab a purse ? in a theater. Wearing a pale blue hat and light earrings, she was punched by the man, but he was apprehended anyway.

Once, having spied a crowd in pursuit of Grace Kelly while the actress was out shopping, Detective Shanley broke up the crowd. Then she escorted Ms. Kelly for two hours.

1924: Mary Bembry became the first woman shot in the line of duty.

Mary Stanley?s record was not unblemished. There was a scandal that enveloped Detective Shanley in 1941, which began with a barroom altercation near her apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens.

According to a Times article, Detective Shanley and her bulldog, Jiggs, had dropped in to the Spanish Rail saloon around 3 a.m., but the barman refused to serve her, even after she displayed her detective?s shield.

A man, drinking at the end of the bar with some friends, insulted Detective Shanley and her Irish ethnicity. She brandished her gun and shot in his direction, narrowly missing him.

She was arrested and charged with ?conduct unbecoming an officer and overindulgence in intoxicants?.

Mary claimed she had been under a doctor?s care after surgery for a job-related injury. She had felt dizzy, ordered a whisky to steady herself and blacked out. Whatever the truth of the story, she was quickly reinstated to her beat.

She was hospitalized, perhaps for a mental breakdown, and temporarily demoted back down to the rank of policewoman and placed under suspension, but returned to duty after only a month. She was promoted to detective again later.

Detective Shanley is congratulated by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Deputy Chief Inspector John Lyons. Mary A. Shanley was commended by Mayor La Guardia at City Hall, ?following her promotion from third to second grade detective for having arrested two men about to commit a holdup on April 11. IMAGE: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

1934: Female police officers enjoyed their first pistol practice alongside male officers.

Three years later, she was casing St. Patrick?s Cathedral, trailing a woman and man who were stealing pocketbooks at the church altar. When she attempted to arrest them, the woman began to pull and claw at Mary so her partner could get away. Mary fired warning shots to stop the man, terrifying shoppers on Fifth Avenue. This was a signature Mary move?firing her service weapon into the air instead of maiming a fleeing person. (This was before firing into the air became illegal in most states.)

In 1955, a group of matinee theater goers were treated to a vintage Mary arrest. At a screening of a movie called Vera Cruz at the Capital Theater, an undercover Mary noticed a known seat-tipper (a thief who ? sees a handbag on an empty seat, tips the seat from the rear with his foot and loots the bag?) attempting to steal a woman?s unattended purse. At first, the arrest proceeded smoothly:

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 aisle. It was at this point that the shots from the Detective?s service revolver slammed harmlessly into the floor. Meanwhile, the fugitive did not get far. A retired patrolman, John Duffy?sized up the situation. Dropping the role of spectator, Mr. Duffy grappled with the man and brought him down with no great difficulty.

After a medical check, Mary brought the perp to the station to be booked. ?It?s exciting,? Mary told a reporter in 1937, when asked about her career. ?I?d die if I had to go back to working in an office.?

Mary retired from the NYPD in 1957, after more than a quarter-century on the police force. She spent the rest of her life in the state where New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia had singled her out for demonstrating ?not only keen intelligence and fine police work but also courage at a moment when courage was needed.?

Policewoman ?Deadshot? Mary Shanley died at the age of 93, and is buried in Long Island.

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