A wonderful blog post by Paul Reda has been making the rounds: a brief history of Cora Strayer, a Chicago woman who was not only a longtime, prominent private investigator,* but also the leader of the First Volunteer Women’s Cavalry Regiment, 200 strong, in the Border War:
“Do you want to wait until all the men are killed to do your duty, sisters? A woman that would stand and let a man do all the fighting and suffering for his country is not a soldier. She belongs in the effete ranks of those who hurry abroad when the trouble starts. Pooh! She is not even worthy of the ballot.”
Strayer’s story reminded me of one of her contemporaries, one of the most fascinating and inspiring figures in early 20th-century Chicago: an early feminist, an outspoken woman who could be as tough with her ex and judges as she was with criminals, and an entertainingly canny self-promoter who was, for a brief period, a public figure of considerable reknown—yet almost completely unsung today.
Like Strayer, Alice Clement was a gumshoe, but Clement spent her life working for the Chicago Police Department as the city’s first female detective.** And like Strayer, she made headlines; when I came across Clement’s name—she doesn’t have much of a legacy on the Web—I read through her press clippings, enthralled. And there were many: Clement was a woman of great integrity and intellectual independence, but she had a P.T. Barnum streak in her as well. Which is why I was surprised that very little had been written about her since her death.
The definitive piece on her is Bryan Smith’s 2003 Chicago profile, “The Detective Wore Pearls,” which was not, when I first discovered Clement for myself, online; Smith found that Clement had all but disappeared from history, a shame since her story is so entertaining, and extraordinary.
Clement was feminine, and a feminist—a flashy, elegant dresser, a pretty woman who could play the part of an ingenue in the midst of dangerous men. Even before she was officially appointed to the police department in 1913, she was not only working as a detective, she wrote up her undercover work busting a gambling ring in the first person for the Tribune in 1912:
I walked out of the office with a good deal of a load in my heart, for I knew that here was a case where I would need all the pluck and all the ingenuity that was in me. And so I went home to my children for inspiration.
They were all at the door to meet me, and some way, as I took the youngest into my arms, there came the idea that I wanted. I would go to the dive at midnight, not as an actress or a woman of the streets, or as a “rounder,” but as an innocent country girl.
She played these roles off each other in the press as well, as Smith writes:
Born in Milwaukee to German immigrant parents, she could be traditional—"Dean of Chicago’s Policewomen Divides Her Time Between Catching Thieves and Making Dill Pickles, read the headline of a Chicago Daily Journal profile—but also radical, advocating for women’s voting rights and the repeal of Prohibition. She took pride in her femininity but slept with a gun under her pillow and could flip a brute on his back if the situation arose.
A keen example of her independence came with the collapse of her first marriage. In an age when the word “divorce” was barely spoken, and virtually never initiated by women, Clement sued her husband, Leonard H. Clement, in 1914 for “desertion and intemperance.” Four years later, the divorce granted, she married Albert L. Faubel, the head barber of the Hub, a chain of tonsorial parlors. The ceremony, naturally, was performed by a female pastor.
Clement also brought her approach with the gamblers to one of the beats that made her famous. She was a scourge of “mashers,” a wonderfully dusty word for what we now know as sexual harrassment,” going to theaters and busting the men who tried to get fresh with her. In 1925, she received a giant headline in the Chicago American for her work: POLICEWOMAN USES JIU-JITSU ON MASHERS, accompanied by step-by-step photographs of her getting a lech’s arm behind his back, dropping him to his knees, and pinning him against a wall.
In the 1920s, a female cop handcuffing harassers was bound to run into trouble, and she got it in the form of a judge who thought her methods were tantamount to entrapment—you know, because she was asking for it. And Clement fought back against him, just as she’d fought her husband for a divorce:
Judge William N. Gemmill of the municipal courts was one. He tried two of Clement’s “masher” cases, and he made it clear that he did not enjoy her tactics. In one trial, the judge applauded a jury verdict exonerating R.P. Manard, charged by Clement with flirting in a movie theatre. During the trial, Manard claimed that it was Clement, not he, who had been the annoyer. Gemmill himself cleared a second alleged masher, a man named Charles Moy, citing the earlier acquittal. In his ruling, the judge acknowledged that he had “made up [his] mind” about Clement’s “tactics” in that trial, and thus believed the accused over the detective. In fact, he went so far as to say that he believed Clement went into theatres “for the sole purpose of finding a man who will rub knees with her.”
Clement was “as indignant as a ruffled policewoman who has been called a ‘knee rubber’ knows how to be,” a June 1917 newspaper reported. So displeased was she that she slapped the judge with a $50,000 lawsuit for defamation of character, declaring that her reputation as both an officer and a mother of three young girls was at stake. “I will not rest until I have received a public apology from Judge Gemmill,” she said. “The politicians are protecting the mashers. They are trying to get my job. But they’re not done with me. I was put here to guard the girls of Chicago and I intend to do my part.”
Another of Clement’s beats was that of young runaways; she penned a series of front-page articles for the Chicago American, “Woman Sleuth Bares Lives of Girls,” concluding “Men Not the More Wicked Sex.” As police historian Dennis Bingham told Smith, the “fairer-sex detail” was instituted because the male-dominated Chicago Police Department had no idea how to deal with girl stuff, so the new enlistments were brought in for the women’s work. But her job wasn’t limited to it; Clement earned her sobriquet “the female Sherlock Holmes” with timeless detective work:
One case solved by Clement, the murder of a Chicago girl, rivaled the tales of the new sensation of the mystery novel, a woman named Agatha Christie. Titled “The Dulcimer” by the newspaper in which it appeared, the story involved the slaying of “Little Miss Perry,” a destitute young woman who lived in a “rickety building on lower Clark street.” Stricken with typhoid, the girl appeared to have died by chance—a conclusion reached by Clement’s male investigative partner and accepted by the city’s other detectives. Clement, however, suspected foul play and began to look more deeply into the sad story. Her hunch paid off. The young girl had indeed been intentionally poisoned, infected by typhoid germs placed on the strings of a dulcimer she had bought from a pawnshop on Wabash Avenue.
You’ll have to read the article to find out whodunit, but it’s practically ripped from the pages of Arthur Conan Doyle, part of “a career that would give a Hollywood screenwriter envy.”
In that, Clement was well ahead of the times as well, producing a movie to “deliver a moral message to the world,” Dregs of the City. Starring was Alice Clement, playing Alice Clement. This was too much for the CPD; their movie censor board banned it from the city because it “exaggerated life in the vice dens of Chicago and ‘thereby tended to give strangers false impressions of the city’s dregs.’”
With the ban of Dregs in 1920, Clement had hit her ceiling, as remarkably high as it was. Then in her 40s, she began to slip out of the papers. In 1926, she was demoted out of the detective bureau; by the end of the year, she died at 48 from diabetes. Her legacy quickly faded as well, though not among her family, as Smith found when he tracked down her great-grandson, a Streamwood cop. The case of the vanishing female detective is something of a mystery; it’s far too good a story to just disappear.
* Not the first female PI in Chicago, by a longshot. That would be Kate Warne, right-hand woman of Allan Pinkerton, who used her feminine wiles to pose as a Southern belle while helping uncover the Baltimore plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. She died not long after the Civil War, and was buried in the Pinkerton plot in Graceland Cemetary; the author of this post claims to have a possible picture of Warne standing behind Pinkerton at a war camp.
** Probably not the first female cop in Chicago, and America, which is an interesting story in its own right.
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