An Irish-born female cop who became famous in the 1930s will be the subject of an Off-Broadway production later this year.
For someone who so remarkably stood out from the crowd throughout her life, Irish immigrant Mary “Dead Shot” Shanley was determined not to when she dressed herself for work each morning.
With her red hair, dress, and elegant white purse secretly hiding her .32 revolver, she spent her days walking around Macy’s and Midtown Manhattan as part of the NYPD Pickpocket Squad, ever vigilant for a shady look across a passer-by’s face that could mean they were up to no good.
Featured in many newspaper of the time, she was the first policewoman in the NYPD to ever make an arrest using a gun but that didn’t mean she always relied on it. Rumor has it, the athletic detective, although only 5ft 8in and weighing just 160-pounds, once made an arrest with nothing more than her pocketbook and it was a brave thief who would ever refuse her stern orders.
One story tells of a 54-year old Shanley taking on a mentally ill 22-year old man who burst into Macy’s with a gun. As customers ducked for cover, Shanley appeared behind the man aiming her own pistol. Once she told him to “Drop that gun, boy,” it wasn’t long before he was taken into custody.
The fearsome reputation of the ruthless Irish crime fighter is now to be honored in a new Off-Broadway show set to open on September 9 at the Bridge Theater in the Shetler Studios, sharing the remarkable story of this pioneer in law enforcement.
The Irish woman, born in 1896, was one of the NYPD’s finest, and from the time she joined the New York police force in 1931 she shone, despite the extremely sexist work environment she was forced to function within.
Making 1,000 arrests throughout her career, Shanley was just the fourth female detective of the 1st grade in the NYPD and became something of a celebrity in the Big Apple for her success.
Despite her small stature, the Irish policewoman had never-ending confidence in her ability for the job, telling the Panama City Herald in 1939 that “I can usually tell in 20 minutes whether a suspect is legitimate or not.”
“Often when I have a hunch there is something phony about a woman, I trail her a whole day without seeing her try anything funny,” she told the newspaper.
“If that happens, I trail her home, and then look for her picture in the police files. If I find it, I keep after the woman until I catch her at work.”
“Detectives assigned to the pickpocket squad aren’t given leads,” she continued, “so I start my day by dressing to suit the neighborhood I have decided to work in.”
Among the hundreds of arrests Shanley made were 12 of the country’s slickest female pickpockets and she was often seen chasing a thief down Fifth Avenue.
“It’s exciting,” she told the Panama newspaper. “Right now, especially so. For I’m being sent to London this week. I’d die if I had to go back to working in an office.”
In reports of her heroics, the New York Times wrote: “Mary Shanley ordered two suspicious characters, neither of them weaklings, into the lobby of the Longacre Building in Times Square shortly after 10 o'clock last night.
“They complied, for everything in the policewoman's mien indicated determination-even the firm grasp of her right hand on her service pistol.”
It concluded: “Searching them in the lobby and finding imitation pistols, she arrested them on charges of carrying concealed weapons.”
It was just a decade into her famous career, however, that Shanley began to put her job in jeopardy. Firing a shot into the air while off duty and drunk in a bar in Queens, she was stripped of her role as detective, being demoted again to policewoman. Her ability meant she wouldn’t be down for long, however, and she soon earned back her detective status.
Although never married, Shanley was close with her niece and namesake Mary Shanley Mullins who tells how she used to act as a decoy when her aunt was on patrol, giving the appearance that they were simply a mother and daughter out shopping, not an undercover detective.
“She wasn't interested in a husband. She enjoyed her life. She had her freedom and her good salary. She was just different,” Mullins told the 2006 documentary "Sleuthing Mary Shanley". Created by Cherry Lane Productions, the award-winning documentary uses family snapshots, home movies and archival footage to tell Shanley's amazing story.
“She was very outspoken, very opinionated. She didn't fit in then as well as she probably would now. She was born too soon.'”
Living to a great age of 93 years old, “Dead Shot” Shanley died in in 1989 and is now buried in Long Island, New York.
The play chronicling her life runs from September 9 to October 15 at the Bridge Theater in the Shetler Studios.
Directed by Stephen Kaliski, it stars Rachel McPhee More information on tickets can be found here.