In New York Nell, The Boy-Girl Detective: or, Old Blakesly’s Money (1880), by Edward L. Wheeler, the title character Nell Niblo swaggers onto the scene in the character of a newsboy selling papers on a street car in Philadelphia. We see her through the eyes of Redmond Blakesly, a bit of a rube who can be excused for his surprise at beholding this cross-dressed urchin at a time when cross-dressing was illegal. He strikes up an acquaintance with her to learn her story. She tells him she’s from New York, but “had to skip out, because I p’izened a butcher’s big ugly dog, an’ the cops was going to put me in the Tombs.” (Later, she returns to New York, and we hear no more of the impending arrest there.) When Blakesly criticizes her attire, she tells him, “I like the togs first rate, because a person can get around ship-shape, much better.” Moreover she confides that the newspaper sales are a sideline that brings in some money and helps her in her real business: “I’m a detective.” She is 17, a year younger than Nancy Drew was in her debut novel.
Blakesly scoffs, but it turns out that he is in need of a detective, though he doesn’t know it yet. He’s about to be targeted by an old enemy in a swindle involving a false claimant to his considerable estate, a young man who pretends to be Blakesly’s long-lost son. In one of the coincidences endemic to these stories, Nell meets Blakesly’s true son while she’s rescuing a young woman from a burning boat (she identifies herself to the fire patrol as “Nell Niblo of the N.Y.D.F.”). She undertakes to expose the false claimant and protect the older Blakesly, whom she regards as well-meaning but naïve. During the course of the case, she has occasion to dress in women’s clothing, and draws admiring glances to her amusement, saying to herself, “Oh my! What a figger I cut! S’pect half of my old acquaints won’t know me.” But like other girl sleuths both before and after her, she finds male clothing gains her entrance into places, such as saloons, where she can pick up useful information. In fact, she acquires a number of wigs and costumes to permit her to move about freely. But perhaps more importantly, she is well armed; just when two paid killers are about to murder the true heir, Nell intervenes: “About a half-score of feet away, stood New York Nell, with a pair of cocked Smith and Wesson’s [sic] in her gripe, the muzzles of which were turned menacingly upon the would-be criminals.” When the chief villain tries to hire someone to remove Nell permanently, his prospective henchman declines, saying, “There isn’t a sport in N.Y. who does not know her by sight, or hearsay, and respect her.”
At the end of the story, Nell has her moment to confront the villain and summarize the case, telling him, “Your hand is beat. You are fogged. I’ve got your full pedigree and future mapped down in my log-book.” And when old Blakesly tearfully thanks her, and calls her “my brave, noble child,” she responds, “No, don’t call me your gal, fer I ain’t no one but Nell Niblo, who wears trowsers in spite o’ fashion or famine.” Sadly, while she is not married off, like many others of her ilk, to the hero of the story, she is married off, in the last sentence, to “a noble husband, who is justly proud of his wife whose experiences in the detective business brought about such auspicious results!”
Thanks to the wonderful Edward T. LeBlanc Memorial Dime Novel Bibliography, links to many of these rare works can be found in one centralized location. To read the full text of New York Nell, click here. You can read more about Edward Lytton Wheeler on Wikipedia.
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