The more things change, the more they stay the same. You won’t find these words in Mrs. Sherlock Holmes, by Brad Ricca. But when the author brings it all together in the end, you may find it rings true anyway.
Mrs. Sherlock Holmes chronicles the life of Grace Humiston, a lawyer and detective in New York City, and the 1917 murder case that brought her national attention. Mrs. Humiston was not just a lawyer, but a champion for women and the poor, especially immigrant families. Often working for low cost, if not altogether free, Mrs. Humiston toiled tirelessly to correct the wrongs she saw before her. Her world was starkly black and white, but instead of social justice, or other political movements, she employed the law to bring her vision of the world into focus.
During a time when America had space to fill and was more welcoming to immigration, mostly coming from Europe, many immigrant families found themselves the victims of fraud and other unchecked abuses. Debt labor, or peonage, which often preyed on immigrants, was a big enough problem that the federal government was constantly investigating it.
(While the author does not make a specific correlation to slavery, it’s interesting to note that, in the absence of slavery, plantations and other commercial businesses quickly found other ways to enjoy cheap and often forced labor. Can’t enslave people because their color? Enslave them through economics.)
I’ll let you read how Grace Humiston becomes involved in investigating peonage, but it sees her being hired as the first female district attorney in the United States, a position she’ll leverage to it’s fullest to change what she sees as a terrible injustice. Of course, peonage can be difficult to prove, especially when powerful people are involved. That justice is sometimes served Luke-warm becomes a sad reality and a terrible truth when it comes to law.
On White Slavery
Here is the crux of the life of Mrs. Sherlock Holmes. To be a female attorney in the early 1900s was a road traveled by few women. Grace Humiston used her position to help other women who suffered at the hands of an uncaring system. Young women disappeared at a staggering rate. They weren’t all nefarious, but enough were.
In 1917, eighteen-year-old Ruth Cruger stepped out in the early afternoon to pick up her ice skates, which she had taken to a shop to be sharpened. No one saw her again. Rumors spread, sightings abounded, but no could find her. The police doubted foul play. The idea that women were generally at fault for the actions of men against them seemed to permeate large portions of society. She was one of the “wayward” girls. Probably ran off to elope with a troublesome young man. Still darker rumors persisted: girls taken off the streets, forced prostitution, murder. When no one else seemed to care, Ruth Cruger’s father found himself at Mrs. Humiston’s law firm asking for her help.
Grace would leave no stone unturned in her investigation, including incompetence within the police department. She would challenge perceptions; she would upset the status quo. It’s fascinating to watch. I couldn’t help but think that no one else could have done it.
Grace felt the plight of young women in New York City was an epidemic of injustices with no champion to be found. Like many causes, the wrath of the righteous can fall victim to stubbornness and be taken too far, seeing injustice where there is none, trying to turn rumor into fact. Even Grace hit that barrier in her efforts to help those who couldn’t help themselves, and it almost derailed her career.
But without the willingness of someone to try, to take a stand no matter the personal cost, the ghost of Ruth Cruger might still haunt the streets of New York, crying out for someone, anyone, to find her and bring her home.