30 pages 1 hour read

Henry Sydnor Harrison

Miss Hinch

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1911

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Miss Hinch”

Henry Sydnor Harrison’s murder mystery “Miss Hinch” is a short story that debuted in McClure’s Magazine in 1911. Harrison was an American novelist, short story author, and journalist from Sewanee, Tennessee, who was born in 1880. The story follows two crafty women through chilly New York streets. Gossip about Miss Hinch, an actress-turned-murderess, pulses through the city as she remains on the run. She uses her skill with costume to evade capture while being chased by famed sleuth Jessie Dark, a female crime journalist who is adept at tracking down women criminals. As the narrative develops, the story considers themes like The Role of Women, Paranoia and Suspicion, and Good Versus Evil.

The story opens with two strangers circling each other on the sleet-dampened streets of New York City near midnight. The strangers—a bearded clergyman who has a limp and walks with a cane and an elderly woman with a hat—board the same subway car. Few travelers are in the car due to the time and the weather. The woman soon engages the clergyman in conversation by asking for his newspaper. Their discussion quickly becomes heated, and the other passengers are eventually drawn into it. New York City is absorbed in the scandal that resulted from the murder of John Catherwood, whom the police found stabbed in a dressing room two weeks earlier. The suspected killer, Miss Hinch, occupied the dressing room and was Catherwood’s lover. He was stabbed with her stage-prop sword. Miss Hinch has been on the run since that time. A talented actress, she is known for her impressive ability to assume the appearance of others. She is said to be so skilled that she “appeared to have no permanent form or fashion of her own, but to be only so much plastic human material out of which her cunning could mold man, woman, or child” (561). The passengers in the car decry the police for being lazy and are in awe of Miss Hinch. They discuss the difficulty of the case and the chances of catching the woman, who is recognizable only by her prominent, sharp chin.

As the passengers debate, the old woman in the hat claims to know the murdered man’s mother. She states that he was leaving Hinch to marry someone else and that she just left Catherwood’s house. However, the paper’s location for the family home contradicts the woman’s story. The talk then turns to the story’s byline: Jessie Dark. The famous female journalist and detective became known for hunting down infamous criminals, primarily women. One elderly gentleman, claiming an acquaintance with the journalist, champions her skill. The passengers talk over one another in their excitement about the case; most support Jessie and are sure she will triumph. Only the elderly woman voices her doubts; she remains sure Miss Hinch will escape the crime.

As the discussion dies down, the woman searches for something in her shawl, ends up empty-handed, and asks the clergyman for a pencil. He produces a blue lead pencil. Both exit the train at 14th Street, saying they must transfer. After a chilly walk on the platform, they silently agree to stay together. They walk to the “ticket-chopper” to ask when their train will arrive. After a bit more walking, the woman nearly faints. She tells the clergyman that she needs to eat, and he agrees that they should get some food together.

They walk to the street above. The clergyman suggests the first open restaurant to which they come, but the woman suggests they go a bit further on. They enter a restaurant, sit opposite each other, and eat in silence. She asks the clergyman for the bill of fare to see how much a pot of tea would cost, but he does not have it. He then “looked hard at the woman and found that she was looking hard at him” (565). The two call to the waiter for another one, and the clergyman pays with a worn dollar bill.

The woman drinks her tea slowly, as it is quite hot. The clergyman grows restless, fidgeting in his seat. When they begin to hear the newspaper boys calling out an extra edition, the clergyman abandons the woman and walks into the street, searching for the newspaper carriers with updates on the infamous case. The man glances down the streets and begins to walk. He then speeds up, losing his limp and the need for his cane. He races past a newsboy with the special edition. When he starts to run toward a figure in the distance, the elderly woman slams into him as she rushes out of the restaurant’s side exit. The pair consider each other while they both claim to be searching for the newsboy. They eventually head back down to the subway platform together.

As the two make their way, the waiter discovers the missing bill of fare on the floor beside the table. On the back of the cardboard menu, scrawled in blue lead pencil, is “Miss Hinch 14th St. subway Get police quick” (566). The waiter shows the note to the owner, who believes it is a prank but calls the police officer in from across the street. They dismiss the message, only to be interrupted by two young policemen and the ticket chopper. The newcomers show the others a similar note that was left by the station’s ticket box. The group disparages the elderly woman and the clergyman for wasting the police force’s time.

The three officers and the ticket chopper head back into the cold night, only to be stopped moments later by a man racing down the street. He shows them a partial bill of fare from the restaurant with yet another scrawled note. The group then makes their way to the station. At first, they walk while discussing the possible truth of the messages. They begin to see the possibility of catching Miss Hinch and take off at a run.

The elderly woman in the hat and the bearded, limping clergyman return to the platform. She seems to falter with fatigue as he supports her with his arm. They walk on the icy platform, and the roaring train approaches. The clergyman continues to ramble as the woman wilts, breathing hard and trembling. As he talks, he reaches into his coat, grabs a pin, pricks his finger, and wipes his blood on his handkerchief. He uses the bloody cloth to dab the woman’s face, under the guise of showing her an injury she endured. He uncovers smooth, young skin beneath skillfully applied makeup wrinkles as he wipes.

As the policemen pound onto the platform, the clergyman exclaims, “Miss Hinch, you are not so terribly clever after all!” (568). The woman springs away from him, only to slip on a patch of ice. The narrative suggests his cane tripped her. She falls to the tracks of the oncoming train. The men retrieve her body, which suffers minor external damage, with only a bruise on the temple. The police question the clergyman at length, going over the details of the evening, the various notes, and his suspicions about the woman.

The police release the clergyman with gratitude. The onlookers watch with kind eyes as the clergyman retrieves the woman’s handkerchief. He stoops to place the cloth on her breast. However, as he leans toward her, the woman’s hatpin catches on his beard, pulling it down to reveal the “smooth chin of a woman, curiously long and pointed” (569). The police violently handcuff the real Miss Hinch and take her into custody. The next morning’s papers proclaim the last victory of Jessie Dark, the woman who “reached back from another world to bring her greatest adversary to justice” (569).

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