by Victor A. Berch

    It has often been surmised by the critics and historians of detective fiction that had the word “detective” been in use in 1841 when Poe’s “The Murders In the Rue Morgue” appeared in the April issue of Graham’s Magazine, Poe might have used that word to describe his character, G. Auguste Dupin.

    In fact, John Ball in his essay “Murder At Large” in The Mystery Story (Del Mar, CA., 1976) states the following:

    “In 1843/44, Sir James Graham, the British Home Secretary, added a new and pungent word to the English language. He selected a few of the most capable and intelligent officers of the London Police, formed them into a special unit and called them the detective police. It is regrettable that the word “detective” had not been coined a little sooner, as Poe could have made good use of it.”

    This concept had probably been fostered by the fact that the earliest recorded use of the word cited by the Oxford English Dictionary places it in Chamber’s Edinburgh Journal, vol. XII, p.54 of the March 4, 1843 issue

    However, the use of the word “detective” can be documented to have appeared in print before the example given by the Oxford English Dictionary. I first encountered an earlier use in The Examiner #1787 (April 30, 1842), pp. 283-284, which is hereby produced in part:

    “EFFICIENCY OF THE METROPOLITAN POLICE…. Now that the preliminary investigation into the facts of the murder at Roehampton(*) have been brought to a close by the committal for trial of the supposed murderer and other persons alleged to be implicated in the tragic affair, public attention has become directed to the circumstances of the case, as most materially affecting the important question, whether or not, the metropolitan police are at all effective as a detective police.

    “It has long been manifest to persons acquainted with the principles upon which the government of the metropolitan force is directed, that the officers, although most useful as a preventive force, are most inefficient as a detective police….”

    The article goes on to expound the inefficiencies of the metropolitan police in the handling of this case, and towards the end states that “we think quite enough has been given to prove that the existing system of police is not a detective one, and that unless some most important alterations are made by the appointment of a detective police, or an improvement in the system, the perpetrators of crimes, however horrid and revolting in their nature, will in nine cases out of ten, escape the hands of justice.”

    Although this use of the word detective only pushed the date back by not quite a year, it was not enough to warrant a claim that Poe could have used the word.

    My next encounter with the word would prove that it could have been used by Poe. It is in the form of a letter to the editor of The Times (London), May 30, 1840, p. 6; and the entire letter is hereby reproduced because of its importance not only to show that the word was in existence at this early time, but it lays the groundwork for the formation of a “detective police” force:


    “Sir, — I observed with much pleasure, in the leading article of your excellent journal a few days back some most able, judicious and temperate remarks on the efficiency of the metropolitan police as a preventive force, and upon its total and unequivocal failure as a “detective police”; the last proposition having been so clearly, but unfortunately too truly demonstrated by the recent dreadful murders and extensive robberies which still remain undiscovered.

    “It will hardly be necessary for me to say how fully I accord with every sentence contained in that important article as the public, I believe, have with one voice agreed to its truth and justice, and in the necessity of some immediate remedy. And, further, I am induced to think that the authorities at the Home-office are fully aware that some alteration must take place.

    “No one, I think, can for a moment doubt but they must see, however reluctant they might be to admit the fact, that they have most unadvisedly and hastily destroyed a system of detective police, which I may almost say, I am old enough to have witnessed the program from the crude and imperfect system originated by Sir John Fielding, down to the time of that active and able chief magistrate, Sir Frederick Roe, and which system was so much indebted to the great talents and judicious arrangements of the late much-lamented and highly respected, John Stafford, that I may say it had, with the limited force then under his control, reached almost perfection in the meaning of detecting the most artful, extensive and desperate offenders.

    “I now, Sir, at once proceed to offer, for the consideration of the Secretary of State, the only means to retrace the unfortunate steps which have induced all classes of society to feel that no means now remain of detecting great offenders, and that their lives and property are no longer safe, with similar with similar and that sooner or later the plan I now suggest, or something like it, must be adopted. The public will demand it.

    “I would suggest that 25 or 30 of the officers of the metropolitan police be selected with the greatest care and attention to their activity, talent and integrity, to form a detective force only, and that it would be advisable that to this body some few of the most active, able and respectable of the unemployed police-officers should be added, who might by their great skill and local knowledge render most important information and assistance.

    “This detective force should, of course, be under the direction of the Secretary of State and the Commissioner of Police. They should not wear a uniform unless it was thought necessary for them to do upon state occasions or Royal processions. They should report their proceedings to the Secretary of State or the Commissioners of Police only, and that they should have power to call in the assistance of any other part of the force, when necessary, upon their own responsibility.

    “The pay of these men should be the same, as the inspectors now have, with similar emoluments when employed to what the officers of Bow-street formerly received under the sanction of the Secretary of State. The first ten of them, as the most efficient, should be first employed on all important occasions either in town or country; the remainder would be employed as circumstances might require, and as vacancies might occur by death or removal.

    “This part of the force would always be looked up to as a desirable promotion and reward for men of talent and integrity; these men should not be required to do any of the ordinary patrol duty of the other part of the force, but be allowed to employ their time in the investigation and detection of offences according to their discretion. Making their daily report of what business they are engaged in when in London, in a book to be kept by the chief clerk, for the information of the Commissioners or Secretary of State only.

    “I fear these remarks have run into some length, or I should have gone into detail upon many other points, was I not aware that the moment such a plan is adopted .it will speak for itself. Trusting that the importance of this subject will be a sufficient apology for my requesting its insertion in your columns.”

I remain sir, your obedient servant,

    Thus, it is evident that the word detective did exist in print prior to 1841 and may well have been used in everyday parlance prior to the example given above.

    (*) This is in reference to the David Good case (1842), details of which can be found in Martin Fido’s Murder Guide to London (Chicago, 1990), as well as in Colin Wilson’s Encyclopedia of Murder (New York, 1962).

© November 8, 2010, by Victor A. Berch