Dorothy of Oz fame wasn’t the only adventurous girl hero created by L. Frank Baum. Often writing under pseudonyms, Baum loved to put girls and young women at the heart of a mystery. Writing as Edith Van Dyne, Baum published four novels in the Mary Louise series beginning in 1916; a fifth book was completed after Baum’s death by Emma Speed Sampson, who continued the series with three additional books. The series was intended to focus on the titular character, Mary Louise, but for many the true center of interest was the detective Josie O’Gorman, which Sampson and the publishers recognized by giving Josie her own book, Josie O’Gorman, in 1919. Josie is one of the candidates for the title of first modern girl detective, in part because her books were written for girls, not adults (though sadly, not illustrated).
In the first book, Mary Louise, 15-year-old Mary Louise Burrows discovers that her mother and her adored Gran’pa Jim, with whom she and her mother live since her father’s death, have disappeared in the middle of the night, and that he is wanted by the government for giving state secrets to the enemy. Before this happens, her grandfather has told her to write to him care of his attorney. After a brief interrogation by a blustering Secret Service agent, she leaves school and travels on her own to see the attorney, an old family friend named Conant, but she is followed. The detective who follows her turns out to be the famed John O’Gorman of the Secret Service, who speaks kindly to her, pays for a hotel room, and treats her to breakfast, telling her that she reminds him of his own daughter.
The Conants invite Mary Louise to spend the summer with them at Hillcrest Lodge, their rented summer place, which they hope will be remote enough to discourage the government’s unwanted attentions. Their new neighbor is a fashionable single woman, accompanied by a secretary, whom Mary Louise and her new friend Irene Conant come to know and like. When a dull-witted Irish girl shows up at the door claiming to have been offered employment by the house’s owners, the Conants hire her for the summer. In fact, the plan to avoid government agents fails because the woman neighbor and her secretary are crack Secret Service agents, and the dull-witted Irish girl is none other than Josie O’Gorman, John O’Gorman’s daughter, who has been trained in detective work from her infancy. It is Josie who brings back Gran’pa Jim and establishes his innocence to the astonishment of the two women agents. They have heard of Josie, but never met her: “Everyone who knew O’Gorman had often heard of his daughter Josie, of whom he was accustomed to speak with infinite pride. He always said he was training her to follow his own profession and that when the education was complete Josie O’Gorman would make a name for herself in the detective service” (1st World Library edition, p. 181).
In subsequent books in the series, Mary Louise continues to encounter various mysteries that need solving, and to engage Josie, now a good friend, to solve them. In fact, after the death of her father, Josie moves to the same town to be close to Mary Louise, even though her increasingly busy detective career often takes her away. We learn more about her training, carefully supervised by her father, and her passion for her work: “Josie O’Gorman loved mysteries for their own sake. She loved them because they required solutions, and to solve a mystery is not only interesting but requires a definite amount of talent” (Mary Louise Solves a Mystery, 1917, Echo Library Edition, p. 74). Published during the war years and soon after, these books are often patriotic, even jingoistic.
Nancy Drew and my own girl detective, Dizzy Lark, are direct descendants of Josie O’Gorman, and students of girl detectives will be interested in both similarities and differences. Most notably, Baum does not make Josie beautiful, like Titian-haired Nancy Drew: “Josie O’Gorman was small and ‘pudgy’—her own expression—red-haired and freckle-faced and snub-nosed. Her eyes redeemed much of this personal handicap, for they were big and blue as turquoises and as merry and innocent in expression as the eyes of a child” (Mary Louise and the Liberty Girls, 1918, Biblio Bazaar edition, p. 52). Like girl detectives who came before her, Josie is a master of disguise, with a talent for deception not generally encouraged in girls and young women. And Mary Louise and her friends are referred to as “chums” (Mary Louise and the Liberty Girls, 1918, Biblio Bazaar edition, p. 40, for example)—a word that I will always associate with Nancy, George, and Bess.
Some of the Mary Louise books are available from Project Gutenberg:
Mary Louise in the Country, 1916
Mary Louise Solves a Mystery, 1917
Mary Louise Adopts a Soldier, 1919 (with Emma Speed Sampson)
Josie O’Gorman, 1919 (Emma Speed Sampson)
Mary Louise at Dorfield, 1920 (Emma Speed Sampson)
Mary Louise Stands the Test, 1921 (Emma Speed Sampson)
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