Monday, October 25, 2010

The Barnard College Locker Mystery

Amateur intrepid detectives at a woman's college, some mysterious goings-on at the lockers
and a fascinating, rather sympathetic villain: all elements of an amazing true story from 1913 worthy of an American Dorothy Sayers.

Barnard College was (and still is) an all-female college, associated with Columbia University, in upper Manhattan; it was founded in 1889. The Teachers' College and Arts Building at Barnard had a problem in the winter of 1913. There was a mysterious thief who was stealing things out of the school lockers. But instead of hiring an outside, male detective to scope things out, the students decided to form a detective patrol themselves. Some of the women made rounds outside the buildings, and some staked out the locker areas. They blended into the everyday crowds of Barnard students. They were patient, too. It took them a full 30 days to find a suspect. Two of the detectives, Margaret Byrnes and Dorothy Fitch, both from Queens, told the court that they had watched the suspect try six different lockers before they reported her to school authorities and "sent to the West 125th Street Police Station for a policeman."

That suspect was Elsie L. Schmidt, "a schoolgirl from Brooklyn," according to the New York Times. She told the court that she had graduated from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn in 1905.* She lived in a boarding house in Brooklyn, on Lincoln Place. The landlords didn't know anything about her; they said that Miss Schmidt had only been living there for a month. Elsie said that she was hoping to attend Barnard College to study German, and that she'd picked up the neckpiece by mistake while visiting the college. She said she'd been looking for an open locker - these were probably wood lockers back in 1913 - to leave it in for its owner. The Times noted that students now put locks on their lockers and maybe they even went so far as to find  lockers for sale that were extra-sturdy.

The Harlem Police Court was so impressed with the detective students' testimony that they held Schmidt for $500 bail - a huge sum of money in 1913. When Schmidt was arrested she was carrying a large purse, empty except for a "fur neckpiece, which was said to be the property of a Barnard student." I wish I knew what had happened to Elsie, but the New York Times does not seem to have published a follow-up (they seem to have done this a lot back a century ago, this is not the first time I've longed to know what happened).

It did not look good for Elsie, but I feel rather sorry for her - wandering around Barnard, wishing she was going to college there, maybe taking things to make herself feel, in some strange way, like she belonged there. Yet I also rather like those girl detectives prowling around the hallways and household arts lockers and gym lockers. And though I've given up fiction for the time being - it makes me want to turn this into a story of some kind.

*She was probably Elsie Louisa Schmidt, born September 15, 1892 in Brooklyn, see here.

Source: "Girl Captured By Barnard Detectives," New York Times, March 29, 1913.


vanilla said...

Certainly contains all the elements of a good tale. Like you, if I were a writer, I might find the idea of turning this into a novella intriguing.

Tori Lennox said...

Nancy Drew eat your heart out! :)

spinninglovelydays said...

Very fascinating. I would have loved to find out what happened too. And there's definitely a short story/novel there somewhere. I hope you go for it. :)
Spinning Lovely Days