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Research unravels mystery of early detective fiction

Natalie Stefanelli with English professor Mary Bendel-Simso.
July 29, 2013

Natalie Stefanelli has spent the summer reading and proofing 150-year-old detective fiction before it is posted online in the Westminster Detective Library, established by two McDaniel professors.

Since the stories, published mainly in newspapers and magazines in the 1860s, are nearly impossible to scan, professor of English emeritus LeRoy Panek is typing in the stories, while Stefanelli and two other students – senior Samantha Stair of Mount Airy, Md., and sophomore Shannon McClellan of Boonesboro, Md. – proof them.

“I’m getting exposure to a new set of ideas and things going on historically at the time,” says Stefanelli, a junior English major from Dallas. “It’s great to be part of something that might otherwise have been lost.”

At one point, scholars believed that there was no detective fiction published in the U.S. after those written by Edgar Allan Poe and prior to the syndication of the Sherlock Holmes stories in 1891, says English professor Mary Bendel-Simso, who is working with Panek to develop the online resource. Now, she says, they know of stories published even earlier than Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” a short story which appeared in Graham’s Magazine in 1842 and has generally been recognized as the first detective story.

Bendel-Simso and Panek have found detective stories published before 1891 – 1,200 of them and counting. Their oldest story is “Vidocq and the Sexton,” published in 1830 in the Philadelphia Album and Ladies Literary Gazette. They’ve come across “The Trailor Murder Mystery,” written by Abraham Lincoln and published in 1846 in the Quincy Whig.

Dickens published “Hunted Down” in The New York Ledger in 1859 – and both Mark Twain and Walter Whitman, later known for his poetry as Walt Whitman, wrote detective stories. Lax, if not non-existent, copyright laws and the relative isolation of cities and towns in the 19th century allowed the same story with a different title to appear in many newspapers across the country.

“The library shows the development of a genre, from great must-reads to really, really badly written stories,” says Bendel-Simso, who says some crime investigation techniques were first noted in fiction. “They used dental identification in crime stories even before they used it in real life.”