Nita, the Female Ferret
What do you do if you report a robbery to the police and they don’t believe you? You resign yourself to becoming a detective and solving the crime yourself. That’s how 18-year-old Juanita Henriques becomes the “female ferret” in Police Captain Howard’s 1885 dime novel, Nita, the Female Ferret.
When a plainly dressed young woman presents herself at the police station to report that she has been robbed of several pieces of diamond-studded jewelry, the superintendent and one of his detectives don’t believe her, even though she makes a strong impression on them. She tells the superintendent that if she knew who the thief was, she would not have come to him; instead, she says simply, “I would have received back my property, or else killed the robber” (2). The superintendent concludes that “she is a singular young woman . . . and has the sharpest eye I ever saw in a woman’s head” (3), and sends a Detective Mason to investigate. At the house where Miss Henriques boards, the landlady tells Mason, “She impressed me as a young lady of extraordinary strength of mind and will power. She is well educated, and as deep as the ocean” (3). In fact, Nita’s past is shrouded in mystery; the residents of the house find her quiet, well bred, and rather withdrawn. Mason is the first to admit to her, “Miss, had you been born one of my sex you would have made a first-class detective” (4). The landlady chides Miss H for not confiding her suspicions to him, but she says, “It’s a detective’s business to find a clew [sic]. If I had a clew I could follow it up myself, and would do so to save the expense of employing a detective” (4); after he’s left, she declares, “My suspicions are not a clew” (4). The next day she returns to the superintendent with a set of diamond earrings and brooch that were not taken in the robbery, and when she is told that the police detective “could see nothing to show that any robbery was committed there,” she responds, “Which shows that he was not much of a detective” (5). Enter Nita, the female ferret (“ferret” was one of many slang terms for a detective).
Her first act is to don a disguise: she tells the landlady that she will be away for a while and will send a friend, Nita Endicott, to occupy her room in her absence. Nita is very like Juanita in stature, but blond rather than dark-haired, and most importantly, lively and outgoing. In no time, Nita is captivating the household with her piano playing, singing, beautiful new dresses, dazzling diamonds, and especial kindness to the maid, Margaret. This is the first of two disguises Nita uses to gather evidence. Quite early, her suspicions fall on Margaret’s lover, Tom Nelson, and she adds a second disguise as a boy so that she can tail Nelson unrecognized and follow him into saloons. As the lovely and enchanting Nita, she dazzles Nelson, goes on carriage rides with him, and permits him to make love to her. As Randy Holland, she follows Nelson and even gets the better of him in a bar confrontation.
Mastery of disguise and role-playing was an essential trait to a dime-novel detective at a time when deceit was regarded as a serious moral failing in a well-bred young lady. Yet unlike some other female detectives who regret the necessity for masquerade, Nita quite enjoys her new persona. She tells herself, “This is the best thing I ever did” (10) and even muses,
“Oh, I wish I was not afraid of betraying my sex in a fine suit of clothes. I’d go to the theaters and operas and mash the girls just for the fun. But this detective business is fun enough just now, and it grows more interesting every hour, and I like it more and more every day.” (17)
But as if concerned that this kind of declaration might risk the reader’s disapproval of Nita, Howard follows immediately with an encounter that underscores Nita’s true sex: she comes to the aid of a weeping young woman because, we’re told, “Nita had a true woman’s heart, and this unmistakable sign of distress touched her deeply” (17). The young woman, Sadie, turns out to be one of many that Tom Nelson has “married” and abandoned; “Randy” reveals her true sex to Sadie and rents some rooms for her in his new role as Sadie’s husband. In fact, however, she plays Tom Nelson’s role of “masher” the next day when a young woman flirts with him, playfully doubting his strength, and he tells her, “I can take a much heavier girl than you are and hold her on my knee, and talk to her all the evening” (20). After a night (alone) in a hotel room, she reminds herself, “Oh, I came near forgetting that I have a wife down in Twenty-second street” (20). She wasn’t the first girl detective to discover the liberating power of cross-dressing. It permits her entry into some spaces that are generally off-limits to respectable middle-class women.
Once Nita has caught the culprit and explained all to her landlady and landlord, the landlord tells her of two “mistakes”: “First, that you were not born a man, that you might have been the greatest detective in the world” and “Second, that being born a woman, you did not go on the stage and become known as the greatest actress that ever lived” (27). The second compliment is sincere, but perhaps unintentionally backhanded, since actresses were considered of dubious moral standing at the time. Indeed, the liberties she permits Tom Nelson — embraces, kisses — are justified, but perhaps not justifiable, by the role she’s playing, and after reminding readers what’s at stake, the narrator observes: “The reader can readily understand then, the extraordinary will-power of our heroine, which enabled her to smile when Nelson kissed her in the carriage” (10). Indeed, Nita’s “will power,” mentioned here and in the previous quotation, set her apart from the feminine ideal, as does her willingness to spend time in cheap dives among disreputable company, where:
The men and women talked with a freedom of expression that made our heroine wish herself a thousand miles away.
But she stood it for the sake of her mission. (15)
As you might guess by now if you have been following this blog, Nita doesn’t rely solely on her acting skills and men’s clothing to keep her safe in dangerous places and situations. Her small pearl-handled revolver makes its first appearance in a wonderfully comic scene in a restaurant, where Tom Nelson picks a fight with Randy Holland for — wait for it — wearing his hat at the table. Insisting on his status as a gentleman, Tom menaces the offending Holland until s/he calmly draws “a tiny revolver” and aims it at him. Confident of his own shrewdness, Tom offers her ten dollars to relinquish the gun to a waiter, and when she takes him up on it and collects her cash, he springs at her again, only to be repulsed this time by “a long bright bladed dagger” (11). Slow on the uptake, Tom offers another ten dollars if she’ll relinquish the dagger, and when she does, the inevitable ensues: Tom lunges for her, only to be brought up short by “a tiny pearl-handled revolver” (12). Clearly, Nita is armed to the teeth. Later, Randy tells a gang of would-be assailants, “The man who comes up to pick a fight with me will get both steel and lead” (16), and she proves it by shooting their leader. Like other girl detectives, however, Nita also demonstrates that she has the physical prowess for the job when she pursues the escaping Tom across roof-tops, at one point leaping ten feet down from one rooftop to the next.
Nita’s “masculine” traits and abilities contrast sharply with the those of the other women characters in the story. Tom’s two female victims, Margaret and Sadie, are characterized by their tears, whereas we never see Nita cry. Both women are blinded by their love for Tom. Margaret refuses to heed Nita’s warnings about him up to the point when Nita reveals the other wife she has met. Then Margaret becomes a picture of female vengeance: “True, she thought of Tom, but only how she might avenge herself” (21). In the cheap dive mentioned above, two gin-soaked women engage in a catfight motivated by jealousy over Randy Holland. When Nita pursues Tom across rooftops later, he enters a house through a window and terrifies the women inside, who, after “raising a terrible racket,” demonstrate their panicked incompetence by running “screaming from room to room in the house, locking the doors to protect themselves, but in reality preventing him from getting out” (25). It’s difficult to see how Nita developed her strong will, her sangfroid, her intelligence, and her adventurous spirit if these were the kinds of female role models available to her. We know little about her background, except that she, like so many other girl detectives, is an orphan.
The ending of the novel is something of a disappointment, if perhaps an inevitability. Nita’s celebrity in the press makes her the talk of the town, especially after she testifies in court to the incompetence of the police, and she’s confronted by an importunate millionaire banker who wants her to investigate bank thefts and won’t take no for an answer. She cracks the case in very short order because she visualizes the theft in a dream! Delighted, the banker gives her a blank check in payment for her services, and when she threatens to take the whole bank, he insists that the banker himself would have to be included. Later, when she next shows him the check, she has filled in the amount to read “the banker himself” (29), thus strengthening our impression of Nita as a young woman who knows what she wants and goes after it. They are married immediately and live happily ever after, especially when the papers she has recovered along with her stolen jewels prove her claim to an English fortune that doubles her husband’s. So her unconventional story ends in a conventional way, and we are left to consider that it is, perhaps, just as well, since a professional detective could hardly rely on visionary dreams to solve the average case.
I’ve been unable to locate an online version of this text. According to The Dime Novel Bibliography published by the Edward T. LeBlanc Memorial Library, “Police Captain Howard” was a “pseudonym used by multiple people.”