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The nuisance of private detectives
Some sleuths, the Victorian press argued, drove people to suicide
Brooklyn, 1886 (Library of Congress - public domain)
In 1886, Mrs Disbrow of Brooklyn, New York, attempted suicide, driven to it, apparently, by the tactics of her husband. Mr Disbrow wanted to prove that his wife was committing adultery, and so had employed private detectives to shadow her. This shadowing became persecution to Mrs Disbrow, and their 'hounding' of her turned her natural nervousness into 'a species of insanity'.
The Disbrow case resulted in discussion on both sides of the Atlantic into the use of private detectives, and their methods. Although the case was an extreme one, it was not seen as unique. In another, unnamed, case, a private detective had exposed the methods of 'systematic sponging and blackmail' employed by some in his line of work. It would start with a husband engaging a private detective to prove his wife's infidelity, for which the detective would be paid a fee.
The detective would then either find evidence, or create it, and then blackmail the wife - if she paid him, he would keep quiet about that evidence. But he would then tell the husband anyway, adding that the wife had tried to keep him quiet - this would give the impression that she had committed adultery and didn't want her husband to know about it. For providing evidence to the husband, the detective would get paid again. In short, the transaction consisted of 'blackmail, perjury, scandal, divorce, tragedy.' And the private detective who had detailed this made clear that 'this sinuous, unscrupulous practice was quite the common thing.'
Some papers stressed that this was a sign of America's inferiority to Britain; that this 'great and mighty land' was actually home to particularly unpleasant people such as the private detective who had hounded Mrs Disbrow. Yet the papers also contained stories of British private detectives engaged in less than scrupulous activities - in both countries, there were good and bad eggs. However, when there was a chance of promoting Britain's supremacy, the actions of private detectives were there to be used to score a point.