A couple of days ago, I mentioned one of the greatest fences of all times, Marl Madelbaum. Today I’ll introduce you to a counterpart of hers, “Deadshot” Mary Shanley, an early 20th century undercover supercop. Hadley Meares of Atlas Obscura has unearthed the story of this fascinating woman.
“Deadshot” Mary Shanley was born in Ireland in 1896. Her family immigrated to America, and in 1931, Mary joined the NYPD. This was an unusual step for a woman of her time, though not unheard of.
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,” wrote the New York Times.
For most of her career, Mary would be assigned to the NYPD pickpocket squad. By the time of her retirement in 1957, she would be a first-grade detective, with over 1,000 arrests under her belt.
Mary cut her teeth on the force working undercover to catch fortune-tellers (an illegal profession at the time) who set up storefronts in buildings all across Manhattan. 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 headset 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.
The 1934 revolution
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.
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.
Mary enjoyed giving interviews, in the hope that this would encourage more women to pursue law enforcement careers. In 1938, the NYPD offered the first civil service exam for aspiring policewomen. Some 3,700 women took the exam, and 20 were accepted into the Police Academy the next year. There’s little doubt that Mary’s media presence contributed to the high number of applicants.
Speaking with the Panama City Herald, Mary described her typical day searching for crooks:
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 would wander through department stores, stand in theater lines, and push her way into crowds. Five times a day she reported to the department by telephone. When anyone looked suspicious, she followed them.
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.
“She could smell them I tell you,” niece Mary Shanley Mullins remembered in a 2006 documentary. “Macy’s loved her. That was a great spot for pickpockets.”
Sometimes, the policewoman would take her niece to work with her: “I would be a decoy for her. She didn’t look like a detective looking for a pickpocket, she was a mother out with her daughter.”
In August 1939, Mary was promoted to the rank of first-grade detective, only the fourth woman in the history of the NYPD to receive this honor.
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.
You can read the rest of her story in Atlas Obscura.