Hotel detectives, who were indeed once extremely ubiquitous, and are now indeed much less commonly encountered, were men who did a very distinct type of job. They were responsible for ensuring that the hotel the detective worked for was safe and secure – memoirs describe regular rounds of the building and endless testing of locks – but they were, for the most part, far more concerned with protecting their employer than their guests. Their job certainly did involve preventing crimes from taking place on the premises, and solving, where possible, those that did occur – but mostly this was done to ensure that the business they worked for was not being ripped off. Only occasionally, and at the very best hotels, would their work extend to areas such as offering protection to distinguished guests.
My little Hotel Detective
They Might Be Giants, an alternative rock band, are particularly fond of hotel detectives. Three songs have been released by the band about the subject. “(She Was A) Hotel Detective” and “She Was A Hotel Detective” (the sequel). THEN a second sequel, “(She Was A) Hotel Detective in the Future.” One has to question why the band seems so obsessed with the profession.
She’s gotten promoted
A large proportion of these “house officers” were former policemen who took hotel posts after retiring from the force. Such men made ideal employees. The skills required of a hotel detective included a good understanding of human nature, a talent for conflict resolution, and a good working knowledge of the local criminal element – all things that were readily picked up in the course of a career in law enforcement. Ample experience of dealing with crooks and crime was important not least because, in taking up a house position, a former policeman forfeited a good deal of the powers he’d had as a cop. “The hotel detective is the world’s most fenced-in man,” the journalist Frederick Laurens observed in 1946. “He has no badge, can carry no weapon, has no authority to push people around, as have the regular police, and must either rely on tact or threats and ugly looks to get his way.”
Experience was the most important attribute of a hotel detective, since, for the most part, such men had three main functions to perform. The first was to protect the hotel’s reputation and prevent it from unwittingly breaking any laws, which, especially in earlier periods, often involved preventing an establishment from acquiring a reputation as the sort of place that allowed unmarried couples to have sex on the premises – very often an offence at the time under laws relating to “unlawful cohabitation”. A 1979 article in Texas Monthly notes that in earlier times a house officer would, as part of his routine, challenge male guests with the line “Is there a woman in your room?” Dev Collans, in I Was A House Detective (1954) describes enlisting bellboys to report on “couples who wouldn’t open their suitcases while the bellboy was still in the room; married couples didn’t hesitate to. A man in sleek clothes with a woman whose shoes were run down at the heels is another giveaway.”
The dumbwaiter’s a monkey
The detective’s second major task was to screen new employees and know as much as possible about those who made it onto the staff, in order to prevent them from robbing both the hotel (of food, silverware, bedlinen and pretty much everything else) and the guests. In this respect, a New York Times article dating to 1902 recounted how “Detective Sergeant ‘Sam’ Davis, who has for twenty years been responsible to Police Headquarters for all the hotel detective work between Fourteenth and Fifty-ninth Streets” in Manhattan, fingered “one chef, three cooks, two porters, half a dozen chambermaids, and a woman in charge of the linen room” as thieves in a single hotel. As soon as the 13 malefactors had been fired, “the robberies stopped [and] the proprietor found his receipts growing larger.”
Thirdly, a house officer would be expected to keep criminal elements from causing trouble in his hotel. This involved recognising known crooks and prostitutes – another reason why retired police officers from the district were highly favoured as hotel detectives. A detective might, for example, agree on a signal with the desk clerk to warn of a known criminal attempting to check in; since the crook would be highly likely to leave without paying his bill, he would be told the establishment was full and there were no vacancies.
Of course, an especially large proportion of their work involved spotting when guests were taking prostitutes into their rooms, and either stopping them or, more usually – since active intervention embarrassed and angered guests, and tended to cause scenes – logging the girls’ locations, and dealing later with any problems that occurred as a result of their visits to the hotel. These only rarely had anything to do with sex; as Charley Coyle, a house detective at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, noted in 1979, “These girls aren’t there just to have sex and get paid. It would be different if they were. Not so much trouble for us. They’re there to steal.” According to Gregory Curtis of Texas Monthly, keeping track of prostitutes was by far the most time-consuming aspect of the house detective’s job: “Every hotel detective I talked with, from those in the plainest hotels to those in the fanciest, said prostitution was still their main problem.” One reason for this was that sex workers favoured working in hotels, not least because of the advantage that a prostitute had over her clients when they were in a public space. Lou Speer of the Adolphus explained that
A clever working girl can get the money she’s been promised, then clean out her client’s wallet and possibly his luggage, and escape from the room with her virtue, at least the sexual part of it, intact.
No, they don’t usually carry guns or nothing. They don’t really have to. A lot of times they’ll get out of the rooms just by saying they’re going down the hall for some ice to put in their drinks…. Usually what they do is make sure the mark takes his clothes off first. Hell, he’s got his own ideas about what she’s there for, so all he has to do is just heat him up a little bit, and he’s not going to think twice about stripping down. Then, with him naked as a jaybird, she can grab his wallet and run out the door and there’s no way he’s going to come running after her.”
She’s got her ear to the walls
Interestingly – in Speer’s experience, at least – the hotel detective’s main role in cases such as this was not to catch the girl, but to prevent the guest from attempting to bring a claim of theft against the staff. Few men would admit to bringing a prostitute into the establishment, much less to being stupid enough to allow themselves to be robbed by her, but many would attempt to lodge a complaint that their wallet had been stolen while they were in the hotel. In such circumstances, Speer and his men had recourse to their “hooker reports” – a log they kept of single guests who entered the premises with women on their arms.
“If a guest comes down in the morning and says his wallet was stolen, the first thing I do is look up my hooker reports to see if he had a girl up there. The guest is trying to say that the hotel is responsible for the loss. You ought to see the expression on some of their faces when I say, ‘But what about the girl you took up to your room at twelve-eleven last night?'”
Forget about it
As to why hotel detectives are now a dying breed: two key developments have combined to do away with them. One is changes in morals; no modern hotel is likely to acquire a dubious reputation simply because it allows clearly unmarried couples to share a room, and it’s no longer against the law for guests of this sort to “unlawfully cohabit” – so house detectives are no longer required to police the guests. The second is the ubiquity of close-circuit television. When it comes to deterring and detecting theft, it’s cheaper and probably more effective to outfit a hotel with multiple CCTV cameras than it is to pay a roster of former detectives to work often unsociable hours to try to solve such crimes after they have taken place. The problems of staff theft and of prostitutes stealing from guest rooms can both fairly readily be investigated now – and evidence handed over to the local police – without recourse to a house detective.