"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Adventures of Miss Cora Strayer, Private Detective

While browsing Pinterest last week, I came upon the above ad. I was curious about what a female private investigator in early 20th century Chicago must have been like, so I went off to the online newspaper archives in search of more information about the "legal or confidential advice" offered to the ladies by Miss Cora Strayer.  And, oh, boy, what I found was beyond my wildest dreams.

She seems to have gotten into the detective line sometime around 1899.  This interview, which appeared in the "Chicago Tribune" on August 16, 1903, gives a bit of background information:

Women detectives there have been for a good many years, successful ones, too, despite the old fiction of women and their secrets being soon parted, but in Miss Cora M. Strayer Chicago has the first to take the direction of an agency and employ others.

She tells the story of her work forcibly and earnestly, and it carries conviction of her enthusiasm.

"I drifted into the work without deliberate choice," she said. "An attorney asked me to do a little investigation on a case for him. I had studied and practiced law for several years, but had been forced to give it up on account of ill health. The lawyer thought I had some ability in the investigating line, and I found quickly what a demand there was for this kind of work.

"A woman with her quicker sympathies and intuition has a great advantage in winning confidence. Although I am usually fortunate in this respect, still I often have people come to me and tell me a story which I can perceive immediately is but half truth. I ask them to wait until they have thought the matter over and then come and tell me everything. Sometimes an hour will elapse, again several days or weeks.

"Mine is a difficult business, wearing to the nerves and depressing. At times I have gone to pieces completely and had to get away from the town, but in a few days letters and telegrams arrive and the old eagerness to be up and at it returns. Suddenly I feel entirely recovered and come back to begin again. The work is terribly confining. I can scarcely get out for sufficient exercise. I am like the switchboard of a telephone, constantly in touch with all my subordinates.

"My observation led me to believe that most people get into difficulty from a failure to distinguish between right and wrong. In most cases it is a lack of training in youth. Many times I am able to make the person see this, and that is one reason why I can recommend this profession to other women who have any adaptation for it."

Despite the general depression of having to deal so constantly with wrongdoing and foolishness, the comedy side will turn up now and then. For instance, an elderly couple living in the country received information concerning a young man engaged to their daughter stating that he was a married man with three children. The poor parents were almost frantic. It took the young man's solemn oath and Miss Strayer's subsequent investigations to convince them that their future son-in-law was a straight a young bachelor as the city afforded.

In comparing men and women operatives, Miss Strayer said: "I have about an equal number of men and women under me. The women are better in some things, but, of course, men are absolutely necessary in others. Some of them have been in my employ for years, and to them I often confide all the details of a case. To others I merely give their instructions for the day. What I demand of my people is the truth. Failure I am willing to pardon and assist, but if a man or woman will lie to me he will lie under any conditions, and is liable to betray my client. For the faithful and skillful there is always good pay and confidence.

"It's wonderful what ever renewing interest one can get out of work if she only puts enthusiasm into it. I am constantly drawn to mine by the opportunities I find for helping people. Even above pecuniary reward I place some of the grateful hearts which I know thank me for what I have been able to do for them.

"I certainly have a big opportunity to study human nature, but if I were to write some of the strange things that come under my eyes they would not be believed."

Oh, if she only had written them down.

I was able to find a few more details about Miss Strayer. The following year, newspapers reported that she was in St. Louis, where she was organizing an all-female detective bureau. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell this plan came to nothing.

In 1907, our Cora played a part in a juicy murder trial. From the Chicago "Inter-Ocean," September 13:
Despite the declaration in court of. the defense of Amasa G. Campbell that no appeal will be made to the unwritten law to save him from the gallows on the charge of murdering Dr. Benjamin F. Harris, developments yesterday showed that the chain of evidence which is prepared in his behalf will seek to prove that the dead physician was another Stanford White.

Campbell, claims the defense, was insane whew be shot Harris, and was suffering under the delusion that Harris had wrecked his home and induced his wife, Mrs Campbell, to become untrue to him. To bear out this statement it is promised that a Iong list of scandal in the society life of Antlgo, Wis., the city from which both the Harris and Campbell families come, will be dug up. "Many homes in Chicago, St. Paul, and Antigo may be shattered by the revelations which are promised" by the defense in its endeavor to prove that Campbell was insane when he shot the physician, in the Stock Exchange building.

Most of the sensational testimony bearing on the  scandals is expected to come from the lips of the Rev. C. C. Campbell of Plymouth Congregational church of St. Paul. He is not a relative of the prisoner, but was pastor of the Congregational church of Antigo ten years ago and admits that he himself left the city because of a scandal in which his own wife's name was mentioned. 

This and other scandals in which the dead man is said to have figured will be dragged before the Jury, that their rehearsal may prove the frantic condition of the man who believed that his wife had received too marked attentions from Dr. Harris.

The prosecution won what it considered a victory yesterday when it succeeded in putting in evidence the papers in the divorce case in which Mr. Campbell was freed from his wife. In this connection there was presented an affidavit of Cora B.[sic] Strayer, a woman detective at 2104 Cottage Grove avenue, who told of enticing Mrs. Harris to Milwaukee at the instance of Mrs. Campbell to secure from her letters which Mrs. Campbell had indiscreetly sent to Dr. Harris. It was charged that this service cost Mrs. Campbell $1500 besides a liquor bill of $123. [Ed. note: Cora got Mrs. Harris roaring drunk, and while that lady was incapacitated, stole the letters!] Attorney James Hartnett opened the case for the defense yesterday afternoon, declaring it would be based on insanity and self-defense. In his address he said: 

"The defense in this case will be entirely within the lines recognised and authorised by the statutes. We will appeal to no higher law and we repudiate any so called 'unwritten law.' We will show that at the time the defendant killed Dr. Harris he was laboring under an insane delusion caused by the very man he killed.

"And It is our contention that after Dr. Harris had made the defendant insane he compelled that insane man to defend his life. Gentlemen, there were too many shots in that office to have come from a revolver with only five chambers."

Dr. Harold N. Moyer testified for the defense that he believed Campbell was suffering from paranoiac dementia at the time he killed Harris.

Campbell was eventually found guilty of manslaughter by a sympathetic jury and sentenced to one year in prison.

A 1909 "Chicago Tribune" article described Cora as possessing "keen eyes that take in everything without seeming to notice anything; a smile that is fascinating and a manner that encourages confidences." The writer added that in her voice "there is an undercurrent of decision that says plainly, 'I mean what I say--understand?'"

I'm guessing she also had what Damon Runyon once called "one of those marble, you-bet-you-will chins."

Cora was again in the news late in 1910, when George S. Holben, superintendent of her agency, was fatally shot at her home/workplace by a recently fired employee named Stephen Ayers. (Ayers probably would have also shot Strayer and one of her brothers, who were in the house at the time, but Ayers' gun was wrestled from him by Mary Myers, who was alternately described as Strayer's maid and one of her operatives.)

Ayers blamed Holben for his dismissal. However, Ayers may have been more than just a disgruntled ex-employee--he claimed that the two men had been romantic rivals for the "fair detective." "The trouble is over Miss Strayer," Ayers stated after his arrest. "She loves me and we were going to be married, but she was afraid of Holben." Ayers claimed he shot Holben in self-defense when the other man appeared to be pulling a gun on him.

Cora and George Holben

Cora called Ayers' story of a love affair "a fabrication from beginning to end," and it must be said that at least one part of his statement is incredible. I don't believe for a moment that Cora was ever afraid of anybody. She stated that he had been dismissed for "inebriety" after only six weeks at her agency.  In any case, the jury did not buy Ayers' defense, and he was convicted of murder.  He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison.  Sometime after this incident, Strayer wed a Robert Fortune.  The marriage was short-lived, as her husband died in February 1913.

Chicago Examiner, December 5, 1910

Feast your eyes on this story from the "East Oregonian," August 6, 1912:
Five years of waiting by a lonely fireside for her husband to leave his convivial companions and return to her caused Mrs. Otto W. Henssler, wife of Dr. Otto Henssler of 3618 Indiana avenue, to attack her husband and a woman companion in front of 124 East Twenty-second street and later to sue for divorce.

The attack came after Mrs. Henssler, with a woman detective named Cora Strayer, had followed Dr. Henssler and several companions in a "joy ride" about the city, during which stops were made at several cafes. The joy ride ended in front of the apartments at 124 East Twenty-second street.

Mrs. Henssler hid in a taxicab and waited for her husband to leave the place. About 3 o'clock in the morning the party broke up, and Dr. Henssler and a woman companion started toward the automobile which was awaiting them.

Mrs. Henssler jumped from her hiding place and upbraided her husband for being seen "with such companions." "They're just as good as you are." replied the doctor, and a moment later the battle was on.  Mrs. Henssler struck her husband across the face several times with her hand, and with a small whip which she had carried. The woman who was with Dr. Henssler attempted to interfere, and Mrs. Henssler turned upon her in all her fury, pulling her hair and striking her several times with the whip.

At length Miss Strayer succeeded in pushing the irate wife into the taxi cab, and they returned home. Dr. Henssler returned home, packing some clothes in a suitcase, and left the house.

Three women were named in a divorce bill filed by Mrs. Henssler in the circuit court. The names of Rose Maschlk and Marie Wychodil with that of "Katie Doe," whose real name is not known to the plaintiff, appear in the bill.

In her bill Mrs. Henssler says that her husband has $50,000 in personal property, including an automobile, stocks and bonds. She also charges cruelty and claims that he choked and beat her on July 1 and July 20.

I was a bit surprised to learn that in 1913 Strayer filed for bankruptcy. It seemed a strange twist in fortune for such a dynamic woman. I then found this alluring item from the Chicago "Day Book," dated from that same year:

I found out more details of "Cora vs. the Clairvoyants" from the "Chicago Examiner" for May 18, 1913:
As the grand jury was voting the indictments the most amazing story of the clairvoyants' trust yet revealed was given to State's Attorney Hoyne by Miss Cora L. [sic] Strayer, head of a private detective agency.

The most important piece of information contained in Miss Strayer's expose related to an $18,000 swindle upon Miss Esther Alexander of Fond du Lac, Wis. Miss Alexander, while in Chicago a few months ago, according to Miss Strayer, visited a clairvoyant known as "Madame Graham." A bond scheme, according to the woman detective, was the means of obtaining the money. The peculiar feature of the Alexander swindle lies in the fact that, though reported to the police and listed at the time of the "investment," there is today no record of it upon the police files...New names, included in Miss Strayer's list of clairvoyants, opened up new lanes of investigation.

In 1914, our heroine, described as "one of the best horsewomen in the country," was
training a female cavalry regiment to participate in the border war with Mexico. The "Rock Island Argus" for May 1, 1914, gave us a delightful look at "Col. Strayer":

 A thoughtless young national guardsman who undoubtedly has a mother, probably has sisters, and may some day have a wife, said something intended to be sarcastic as "Col." Cora Strayer began recruiting the first volunteer woman's cavalry regiment in the Seventh Regiment armory Wednesday. If he had been listening at the door of Company A's room a few minutes later his ears would have burned. After "Col." Strayer. who in semiprivate life is the head of a detective agency, had finished an address in which she told the 30 women present that persons thinking of enlisting for fun or for notoriety might better draw back before the "bugle blast," she announced herself as willing to answer questions.

The first question was: "What do you think of that soldier who said he thought he'd 'put on a skirt and stick around?'"

"He wasn't a soldier," the colonel contradicted. "A soldier wouldn't say such a thing."

"But he did, and he wore a uniform like a soldier," insisted the prospective cavalrywoman. "And then he laughed!"

"A man could not laugh loud enough to make me hear him," the "colonel" said serenely. "Nor do I know a man or of a man who would dare to laugh in my face."

Three men interrupted the discussion of the rude soldier at this point by marching into the meeting.

"Perhaps Mr. Ayers would like to speak a word," the "colonel" said, still gallant. She referred to one of the visitors, Frank D. Ayers, one time attorney for the election board.

"I want to state my belief that if you ladies organise your regiment and are accepted and do go to the front and do shoot some one, you probably will hit them in the back." Mr. Ayers said.

The women looked puzzled and slightly shocked.

"That is to say," he continued, "that they will turn to run as soon as you come in sight."

The women applauded.

"I think." Mr. Ayers went on. "that a woman will do more fighting with two bullets In her than a man hit only once. Once they make her mad--look out for her!"

The speaker retired amid cheers.

Some one wanted to know if it wouldn't be better to hold the woman's regiment in reserve until hearth and home were threatened. "Col." Strayer's eyes flashed.

"Do you want to wait until all the men are killed before you do your duty, sisters?" she asked. "A woman that would stand and let a man do all the fighting and suffering for his country is not a soldier. She belongs in the effete ranks of those who hurry abroad when trouble starts. Pooh! She is not even worthy of the ballot."

Damn, I do love this woman.

Cora and her "Amazons"

This story from the December 30, 1918 "Chicago Tribune" shows our girl in the middle of a high-speed police chase:

This tale should begin with a church scene in Dubuque, Ia six years ago when Marie Rossi, from her place in the choir loft, first charmed Jack P. Russell, a young traveling salesman, with her voice and face.

For action, however, we will start turning the crank at the Rialto, Clark and Randolph streets, Chicago. Time: 11:15 Saturday night. Persons involved: A girl with a red auto, red hair, and a lavender dress; a woman detective in a black automobile, three city detectives; Russell, and  a reporter for The Tribune.

Time and the whirl of life have changed Russell's unstable affections from the sweet voiced choir singer that he made his wife to the girl with the red hair and the red auto, whose name is Katherine E. Bezon, 1141 Sunnyside avenue, a girl of mystery who came from Holland, Mich. to the lights of the big city and a love beyond the law.

Complaint was made recently to the office of the second deputy of police that Russell and Miss Bezon were living together in various north side apartments and hotels as man and wife. Detective Sergeants Joseph McGuire, Fred Brown, and Arthur Wentze were assigned to the  case.

Cora M. Strayer, 2838 Indiana avenue, a private detective, came into the plot here. She had been working for friends of Mrs. Russell and offered to take the officers in her automobile on the chase after the couple. She took them to Clark and Randolph where they found the red car waiting for its owners to come out of a theater. While waiting for Russell and the girl to appear the detectives examined a bag that they found in the red car. It contained an assortment of negligee.

A Tribune reporter happened along, saw the detectives, and watched to see what would happen. When Russell and his companion appeared and got into their car the reporter was close behind in a limousine. The black car of the detectives came third and was almost lost in the chase out Michigan avenue, Lake Shore drive, through Lincoln park to Wilson avenue. The red haired girl drove like a racer.

"Step on it, they're getting away," shouted the three detectives to Miss Strayer, at the wheel of her black car.

West on Wilson to a garage on Kenmore where the red car stopped. Russell was suspicious of something. The police car came up. The shadows scattered. The reporter went into a cigar shop across the street. Russell looked up and down the street, then strolled into the Central Drug store with his lady. As they drank hot chocolate the reporter took a seat near them.

From the drug store the couple walked to the Sher-Lak hotel, 4841 Sheridan road, where they formerly lived. Russell carried the bag. They did not go in, however, but watched and waited from a doorway across the street. They seemed sure they were being followed.

Back to the garage, where the red car was backed out. North on Kenmore, the police car following. Suddenly the red car turned into an alley and stopped. When the police car stopped, too, Russell stepped out and confronted the detectives.

"Been following me, have you?" he asked belligerently. He spoke harshly to McGuire, who pulled him from the car. Russell admitted that his companion was not his wife. The woman said nothing. She was taken to the detention home for women and Russell was taken to the Town Hall police station. They were charged with disorderly conduct and will appear this morning in the Morals court.

Miss Strayer will appear, and there will be hotel clerks and registers and apartment house janitors. It is charged that the couple lived at the Sher-Lak, although the register does not show this; at 808 Sunnyside avenue, at 845 Melrose street, at the Alcazar Inn, and other places.

Russell Is a salesman for the Alaska Sulphur company and has offices in the Hartford building. He is 28 years old. Miss Bezon gave her age as 32. Russell, it is said, has been dividing his time for two years between this girl and his wife.

Mrs Russell is an operatic singer and is a soloist at the Church of Our Lady of the Lake, Sheridan road and Buena avenue.

Russell has a son, Alan, 4 years old, who lives with the mother at the Wilson apartments, Wilson and Maiden avenues. Russell has been paying $50 a month rent for them and contributing $12 a week for their support. He had rooms at the Sher-Lak until Saturday night. He left his wife finally, she says, on Nov. 12.

A week ago he filed suit for divorce, charging acts of cruelty in 1915. It was to counteract this suit and bring out the relations with the "other woman" that friends of Mrs. Russell retained Miss Strayer and filed the complaint with the morals department.

Mrs. Russell said that recently the woman came to her and said:

"You can't hold Jack's love. Why don't you leave him to me? He loves me and will leave you for good as soon as the war is over." He did.

The "Inter-Ocean" reported a similar case on April 2, 1910. A Sidney J. Hamilton hired Cora to watch his wife Susan, whom he believed was seeing other men. He was right, leading to an "all night chase" where Mrs. Hamilton and two of her gentlemen friends were pursued by her husband and some police detectives. It ended with Mrs. Hamilton's arrest for disorderly conduct.

Strayer was still advertising her agency in Chicago papers through at least the beginning of 1931, but after that she permanently drops from sight. After a bit of browsing online Illinois genealogy indexes, I found a listing for the death certificate of "Cora May Fortune," who died on December 19, 1932.  Her age was given as "Unknown," but she was apparently born sometime between 1867-69.

Unfortunately, this was all I could find about this amazing character, but by God I think it should be more than enough for Hollywood. Where the hell is "Cora Strayer, Private Detective," the movie?!


  1. What an intriguing woman. I think a tv series would do for her, but one based on her real cases, not murder or (God forbid!) terrorism, that Hollywood would probably think are more exciting. Real life seems to have given Miss Strayer plenty of genuine excitement.

    It's interesting to note that, except for the attempt at forming a regiment, Miss Strayer's detective work seems not to have been treated with condescension by the press and court, but with some degree of respect.

  2. Oh my! Thank you so much for sharing this. I have to agree with Mr. Bellen; an honest TV series and/or movie about Miss Strayer's life would be an entertaining breath of fresh air.

  3. Fascinating! Thank you for tracking down the info.

  4. Fabulous & fascinating women - What a find!
    Thank you for sharing HERstory...

  5. Mrs. Henssler sounds like a woman you don't mess around with!

  6. Great job!!!! I'm amazed by this woman, congratulations!


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