The Female Barber Detective
The cover illustration shows an attractive young woman with lace at her collar and cuffs watching two men face off with pistols. She appears to be playing the stereotypical female role of passive observer. But she’s holding an open razor in one hand, and wait — is that a dark stain on the blade? Could it be — no, surely not — blood? This is just the kind of sensational, even titillating, image the dime novels were so fond of. In fact, the female barber detective in question never bloodies her razor in the story, but she threatens to do so and the cover illustration appears to back up that threat. The subtitle of the story, published in Beadle’s New York Dime Library in 1895, is “Joe Phenix in Silver City,” promoting it as a spinoff of Albert Aiken’s popular Joe Phenix detective series, even though Phenix himself never shows up in the narrative, which is not set in Silver City.
Before the titular detective, Mignon Lawrence, even arrives at her destination, a mining town called Bearopolis (I couldn’t make this stuff up), she undermines in spectacular fashion her cover story as an “unprotected female” (2) on her way to meet her uncle after the death of her father. A “road-agent” (a common term for a highway robber) attempts to rob the stage, and she coolly relieves him of his pistol, knocks him over the head, and announces her intention to take him with her and hand him over to the proper authorities. Since the authorities are bribable, they allow the robber to escape, giving Lawrence one of several enemies to contend with throughout the story. SPOILER ALERT: she always comes out on top.
Shortly afterward, we are privy to a conversation between two miscreants who are apparently expecting a detective to be following the trail of one of them from New York, but the other, who has attempted to ingratiate himself with Lawrence, observes: “It does not seem to be at all likely that the New York sharps would select a woman to do such a job as this” (2). He’s wrong, of course.
With no male relative in sight to protect and support her, Lawrence sets herself up as a barber and in no time is doing a land-office business. To explain her fortuitous possession of a collection of razors and shaving accessories, she tells the woman hotel-keeper that she possesses a “horrid mustache” (5) she must shave regularly. This is only the first overt reference to gender-bending, but there are more to come. In explaining her success as a barber, the narrator tells us that “she possessed the light touch and dexterity common to womankind, coupled with the strength of a man” (6) — a seemingly gratuitous observation since shaving and cutting hair are not usually thought to require strength. Later, when a customer gets fresh with her and tries to steal a kiss, she delivers two hard slaps to his face and throws him out: “He was as powerless in the grasp of the muscular and agile young woman as though he had been a half-grown boy” and an onlooker comments, “A professional pugilist . . . could not have delivered two better slaps” (17). Earlier, she has executed a “right-hand swing” (15) that enables her to escape from a female captor. All things considered, it might seem contradictory that she insults this same female captor by calling her “more a man than a woman” (15), but this story is filled with contradictions.
Eventually, the female barber disappears, supposedly on a mission to restock her supplies, and a young Mexican cowboy appears on the scene, “a well-built stripling of twenty or thereabouts, wearing the gaudy costume usually favored by ‘cow punchers’ of Old Mexico” (20). This is Lawrence in disguise. While she is awaiting an arrest warrant for her quarry, she has taken an interest in the affairs of Margaret Vanderbilt, “a real lady” (11) who is the target of a plot by the two miscreants mentioned earlier. They are corrupting her father with drink and gambling, drawing him further and further into dissipation and debt, so as to force a marriage with his daughter and get their hands on the mine he owns. The owner of the local gambling establishment is in love with Vanderbilt and, suspecting the plot against her, asks Lawrence for her help. When Vanderbilt’s father dies suddenly, Lawrence’s Mexican disguise is intended to entrap these two, insure that the mine ownership remains in Vanderbilt’s hands, and leave the two plotters with nothing for their efforts. This ploy succeeds.
Lawrence often lays claim to that most Emersonian of virtues, self-reliance. When the road-agent holds her at gunpoint, she tells him, “Though I am a woman, I am not one of the fainting kind, and am, as a rule, usually able to take care of myself” (14), and the narrator tells us that “she felt a strong inclination to give the rascal a right-hander which would knock him heels over head” (14). To her gambler ally, she confesses that she’s tired of the sneak attacks she’s been subjected to and plans “to put a stop to it”: “I have always been able to paddle my own canoe pretty well” (17). Every time she’s attacked, she attests to her fearlessness, as when she protests to the road-agent: “Oh, I am not at all frightened” (3). We later discover one reason for her sangfroid when she draws “the revolvers which she always carried in her breast” (15). (No, gentle reader, I cannot explain the physics of this feat, not even if the revolvers were derringers.)
We know little about Lawrence’s background, except that she is fatherless (13); we might suspect that she is motherless as well, given the high mortality rate of women in the 19th century. What we do know is that she is a professional — so skilled at her job that her male boss would send her alone to a Western mining town. In order to be good at her job, she must be an accomplished liar and as adept at disguise as she is at gunplay and fisticuffs. Since Albert Aiken himself was a popular actor as well as an author, he was presumably well acquainted with women skilled at masquerade. According to the Albert Aiken entry in the Edward T. LeBlanc Dime Novel Bibliography, he wrote under several female pen names, including A Celebrated Actress, Adelaide Davenport, and Sara Delle.
You can read The Female Barber Detective here.