Scamming to Sleuthing: Brief History of Detectives

Life is full of mysteries: which of your flatmates ate all your peanut butter? How much did you drink the night before? Is the colour I see as blue, the same colour you see? We ponder and puzzle over these riddles of daily life, easily imagining ourselves as amateur sleuths. We do this because detectives are the heroes of so many of our novels and movies that they have become an identifiable archetype for our daily and imaginative lives. Be it Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, or John Luther—as they try to solve a mystery and figure out the world around them, so do we.

Detectives—both the fictional and real kind—are professional solvers of mysteries, a comfort of civilisation assuaging our existential dread that life has no meaning at all. Yet, somewhat unbelievably, this crucial profession is less than two hundred years old.

Police and detectives are a relatively modern phenomenon. In 17th and 18th century England, there was no government-controlled body that prevented or solved crimes. There were individuals known as “thief-takers” that could be hired to hunt down thieves and return stolen wallets and other goods. Only problem was that these thief-takers were usually criminals themselves, most often working alongside the very pickpockets they were hired to hunt down. Suspicion and distrust of these men, led to the creation of the Bow Street Runners. Founded by Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones as well as a Bow Street magistrate, the Bow Street Runners were the first organised body of criminal investigators. They worked for the government as well as private citizens. They became less popular as their methods of both brutality and striking deals with criminals became more and more apparent. The government couldn’t stand by the Bow Street Runner’s methods and so the group was disbanded and the London Metropolitan Police emerged in their place.

Interestingly though, in 1829 when the Metropolitan Police were formed, there was no detective branch. It took a few years for the force to recognise that more than trying to prevent crime, they needed investigators to deal with crimes that already occurred. So in 1839, the “Detective Branch” was formed. The branch came to prominence and caught the attention of the public in 1849 when the branch solved the murder of Patrick O’Connor. The man’s body was found hidden underneath the kitchen floorboards in the house of Marie Manning and her husband. It was the first time in over one hundred and fifty years, that a husband and wife were executed together by hanging. The case was a sensation, labeled the “Bermondsey Horror” in the press. Charles Dickens wrote about the hanging in The Times while Wilkie Collins referenced the murderers in his classic book The Woman in White.

As suggested above, writers and the public alike were enthralled by the idea of the detective. They became heroes in stories, both journalistic and fictional. Dickens described detectives as, “[…] respectable-looking men of perfectly good deportment and unusual intelligence.” Dickens goes on praising their ability to perceive and observe, illustrating an infatuation with this new figure of public life. All of this good press was crucial for the Metropolitan Police, who recognised that good public perception was important to cementing their profession and preventing any disbandment like the Bow Street Runners and Thief-Takers. In other words, it wasn’t just the imaginations of Dickens, Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle that created our perception of the detective, but the detectives themselves. Because, I mean, who wouldn’t want to be seen as a bad-ass pipe-smoking genius?

From the Victorian era onwards, detectives evolved and so did the rules around them. Paperwork and written reports became a requirement due to a detective’s work day being relatively autonomous. Soon a university degree in criminology became a requirement to become a detective. In fiction, the role of the detective changed from actual policemen to amateur crime solvers like Miss Marple or G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. Such a change suggests that maybe people’s fascination with detectives has a lot less to do with gritty and horrendous crimes but more to do with the sensation and wonder of a good mystery. The detective story was simply the best fictional template through which to explore mysteries and peculiar puzzles. The shift in who a detective could be also meant that suddenly anyone could be a detective. Including me or you. Now if only we could solve how much you drank last night? Probably too much. No shit, Sherlock.

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