Monday, March 21, 2016

Cora Strayer, Lady Detective: Guest Post by Jennifer Kincheloe

Today I welcome Jennifer Kincheloe. Jennifer is a research scientist turned writer of historical mysteries. She won the Colorado Gold contest for emerging writers and was short-listed for the Lefty for Historical Mystery.

Jennifer Kincheloe:
Mickeys, car chases, and younger men—The life of Cora Strayer, lady detective

Jennifer Kincheloe
During the Progressive Era, Miss Cora Strayer (1869 – 1932) ran her own detective agency in the Windy City. I discovered her while researching my debut novel, THE SECRET LIFE OF ANNA BLANC, set in 1907 Los Angeles. My book tells the story of a mischievous young socialite who buys off her chaperone and secretly gets a job as a police matron with the Los Angeles Police Department. Naturally, she solves crimes, as real police matrons did sometimes.

So, I’m all about lady detectives, and I love women who defy society’s prescribed roles for them in order to tackle the seamy side of things.

Imagine my joy when I ran across a 1908 ad for Miss Cora M. Strayer’s Private Detective Agency. 

"Ladies, when in need of legal or confidential advice, why not confer with one of your own sex?" 

I had to know more.
Thankfully, Paul Reda had already done the legwork. His website ( features an entire page with links to newspaper articles, census data, and vital records about Cora Strayer as well as a timeline for her life. (Thanks Paul!)

In her role as a detective, Cora tackled the seamy side.

Cora married at sixteen. Her husband died when she was twenty-five. She lost her only two children. Maybe this contributed to making Cora the badass that she was. It’s hard to piece together Cora’s life because, like Anna Blanc, she could be loose with the truth. But here are some highlights.

In the early days, Cora ran her private detective agency out of a cheap, four-room apartment located above a dodgy tavern, which was frequently raided by the police for illegal poker and bookmaking operations. Cora thrived there.

Cora claimed to have practiced law for several years prior to becoming a private detective. She also claimed to have started her agency in 1890, when she was only twenty-one. So she was either a teenaged lawyer, or …

I don’t blame her for telling tales. It wasn’t easy being a lady detective—establishing credibility in man’s world. She did what she had to do, and she did it well.

In 1909, the Chicago Sunday Tribune featured Cora in an article entitled “Women Who Have Made a Success at Bossing Men.” In it, she described her success.

“At first I worked alone. But after a while I had so much work that I could not attend to it myself. Then I hired a man to help me. Shortly I promoted him to the office of superintendent. Gradually, I engaged others until I had a regular staff . . . I always superintend the work myself, too. I study out each case and give my instructions on how they are to work on it. Keeps me busy but I like the work.” 

Cora was also successful with the superintendent of her criminal department, George S. Holben—that is, they moved in together. Holben was seven years her junior (and an alleged jewel thief, but never mind.)

In 1907, a Mrs. Harris blackmailed a Mrs. Campbell, forging love letters from her husband to Mrs. Campbell in order to make it look like they were having an affair. Mrs. Campbell came to Cora for help. Cora did what any good detective would do. She got Mrs. Harris good and drunk, slipped her a Mickey, and stole the letters. Unfortunately, Dr. Harris actually was having an affair with Mrs. Campbell. Her husband found out and shot him dead.

With romantic affairs, jealous shootouts are always a risk. Cora knew this well. Three years later, a former employee named Stephen Ayers showed up on the agency’s doorstep and shot Cora’s lover, Holben, in a dispute over her affections. The agency’s maid, Mary Myers, threw herself on Holben’s assailant and wrestled him for the gun (another badass lady). Holben died from his wounds. Ayers was later sentenced to 15 years in prison, escaped, and got recaptured. Cora denied her love affair with Ayers, who was fourteen years her junior.

But Cora couldn’t deny that she went for younger men, which was sensible, given the short lifespan of her lovers. (It’s what I would do.) In 1912, she married Robert Fortune. She was forty-three, he was twenty-four. He died a year or so later from cancer of the mouth.

Cora rebounded by forming the First Volunteer Women's Cavalry Regiment to take up arms in the Border War with Mexico. Her regiment had two hundred women. Here’s a Colonel Cora quote.

"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." 

Cora’s regiment was never deployed, but that left her free to do more detective work.

The last story I have about Cora involved a showgirl, a high-speed car chase, and a “love beyond the law.” (i.e. extramarital affair). As Cora soon discovered, it was no mere love triangle she investigated—it was a love pentagon. The drama culminated when Cora drove her black car, full of police detectives, in hot pursuit of a redheaded “girl of mystery” in a red car and a lavender dress. But those are all the seamy details you’ll get from me.

Here is how the Chicago Sunday Tribune described Cora.

“She has keen eyes that take in everything without seeming to notice anything: a smile that is fascinating and a manner that encourages confidences. In her voice there is an undercurrent of decision that says plainly, “I mean what I say—understand?” 

 I’ll leave you with these words from Cora herself.

“Mine is a difficult business, wearing on the nerves and depressing. At times I have gone to pieces completely and had to get away from the town. But in a few days, letters and telegrams arrive and the old eagerness to be up and at it returns. Suddenly I feel entirely recovered and come back to begin again. . . I can recommend this profession to other women who have any adaptation for it . . . It’s wonderful whatever renewing interest one can get out of work if she only puts enthusiasm into it. I certainly have a big opportunity to study human nature, but if I were to write some of the strange things that come under my eyes they would not be believed. 

I believe you, Cora.


hedgewitch said...

Loved this--both the subject and the write-up by Jennifer Kincheloe. Thanks.

Triss said...

This was fascinating. Thanks so much for sharing it.

Edith Maxwell said...

Fabulous details, Jennifer! Thanks so much. I'm going to quote you in a Mysteristas guest post I'm doing in a couple of weeks. ;^)

Jennifer Kincheloe said...

Thanks, you all!

kk said...

Fascinating post. Talk about badass!
Loved Jennifer Kincheloe's debut novel, The Secret Life of Anna Blanc.

Jennifer Kincheloe said...

Gee, thanks KK! I'm just putting the finishing touches on Anna Blanc #2