Posted by Crista Cowan on April 29, 2018 in Entertainment, Women in History

When she was 41 years old, Mrs. Mary Quackenbos, married Mr. Howard Donald Humiston in Lima, Peru.  What she was doing in Peru, is the stuff of headlines.  And, there were a lot of headlines in the life of this woman.  Yet, today, she is relatively unknown.


That’s one of the things that I love about this season of Timeless.  The Time Team continues to travel in their pursuit of Rittenhouse.  But, in doing so, they cross paths with some of the most interesting people from history – people whose stories deserve to be told and re-told in the world today.


Mary Grace Winterton Quackenbos Humiston is one such person.  Known, later in life, as Mrs. Sherlock Holmes, Mary was once quoted as saying, “common sense and persistence will solve any mystery.”  I certainly feel that way about family history research, which is really just uncovering and telling the stories of those who came before us.  So, the Ancestry Research Team dug into the story of this woman to see what we could learn.


At the age of 31, Mary became a law student at New York University, at a time when very few women pursued that profession.  She graduated in 1903, completing three years of course work in two years and graduating seventh in her class.  She worked hard to establish a legal aid firm for the working poor.  That, eventually, led her to uncover a horrific system of peonage in the southern United States.


Mrs. Quackenbos went to great lengths to bring the conditions of these camps to the attention of the Department of Justice.  Her persistence got her hired by them as the first woman in a senior position with that organization.  For the next several years, as part of her investigations, she traveled abroad trying to understand the means by which immigrants were enticed into this kind of forced labor.


Her 1909 passport application, found on Ancestry, lists Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, India, China, Japan, the Hawaiian Islands, and Canada as her destinations for this one trip.  She may not have travelled in time but she certainly saw the world.  And, she righted injustices as she went – even in the face of harsh criticism from politically influential men who sought to undermine her efforts because she implicated them in the crimes she brought to light.


Following her marriage, to Howard Humiston, in 1911, Mary continued to hone her investigative skills.  In 1917, she took up the case of a missing 18-year old girl.  When the New York Police Department failed to locate the girl, her father hired Mary, who took the case pro bono and solved it.  This case led to her being named a special investigator to the NYPD and to her moniker, “Mrs. Sherlock Holmes.”


One headline in Jun 1917 reads, “Woman Mystery Expert Solves Problems When Policemen Fail.”  Another article calls her, “pure enthusiasm…in the face of personal danger.”  Mary Grace Winterton Quackenbos Humiston defied stereotypes, fought for human rights, and provided a great example for young women around the world.  I’m excited to see what parts of her story are shared tonight on Timeless.

Crista Cowan

Crista has been doing genealogy since she was a child. She has been employed at since 2004. Around here she's known as The Barefoot Genealogist. Twitter


  1. John

    Crista, I am a big fan of yours and the show “Timeless.” Common sense and persistence will solve any mystery as long as you have matching DNA segment data. Can you talk some sense into the brass at ancestry and tell them how much your family tree detectives need that information?

    • Crista Cowan

      John, I solve DNA cases every day (adoptions, long standing brick walls, etc.) and have never once used segment data. With the volume of people who have tested, the number of family trees available, and the Shared Matches feature, most of us have what we need.

      • Ariane

        Every time I have an Ancestry DNA survey pop up I ask that chromosome browser tools be added just as John as asked for in this response thread. It will be extremely helpful if that feature is added.

  2. Ann

    I watched 6 or 7 episodes of Timeless and enjoyed the characters, and the time travel and historical events, but the constant Rittenhouse theme is just unpleasant and annoying, so I gave it up.

  3. ruth m. harding

    it’s great that people who are very interested in the past. where our forebears come from, and their story’s. good work.

  4. Cathy Kesseler

    I love the blogs about some of the lesser known historical figures featured in ‘Timeless’ I have been googling to find out more information about some of them.

  5. David Ladely

    I have tree, Ladely and Collateral Lineages” on I have a very interesting relative, Dr. Charles Spencer Duncombe, born in New York, emigrated to Canada, where he pursued a medical career as well as being a progressive member of the Canadian Parliament. Dr. Duncombe got into trouble with his progressive ideas for treatment, especially of the mentally ill, whose treatment was terrible. He wound up becoming a leader in the political revolt of 1838, which failed. A price of 25,000 pounds (a huge reward) was on his head. He escaped by boat, dressed aa an old woman, arrived in Detroit USA. For awhile he taught in the US, then decided to go west, arriving at the Hudson Bay Company in Vancouver, WA. He then joined some French Canadian trappers, heading south through Oregon. He continued south to Sutter’s Fort near present day Sacramento in 1843. He was there with Lt. John Fremont and Kit Carson dragged themselves in, in bad shape after a near fatal crossing of the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the winter. He cared for them, and they continued their exploration. During the Gold Rush, he cared for many injured miners and gunshot victims. He ran for the California legislature, won, but his US citizenship was contested. That taken care of, he ran again and won. He died at this ranch near Sacramento in 1867, a few days after becoming ill after traveling in the heat of summer to visit a patent. He was a founding member of the Sacramento Masonic Order in Sacramento and is buried in the cemetery there. A play of his life was presented about 10 years ago in Toronto, Canada. His life would make an interesting film. If you access my site, you can read the details. If you sent me an email, I could send you an invitation to my tree. I have over 120,000 in my tree, some are historical figures. I am a 3rd cousin of Wyatt Earp. My direct Slack ancestor was in the Revoluitonary War; one of his cousins, James Henry Slack, was in the boat with Gen. Washington when he crossed the Delaware and is depicted in the famous painting. I also am related to all the English and Scottish royalty, and Vikings on the Scot side. But I think Dr. Duncombe is underappreciated as a very interesting figure in a tumultous time of Canadian history.

    • Crista Cowan

      David, He sounds like quite the character. I agree. It sounds like it would make a great movie.

  6. David Ladely

    I do have a complaint about I do not understand why the story feature has low contrast for the fonts. This makes the stories difficult to read. I do not understand the madness behind this fading of fonts. Also, the stories do not seem to allow images within the body of the stories any longer. Images make the stories far more interesting. And, when I cut and paste an article with images, the images no longer appear in the body, they are removed.

  7. OhioKMC

    Very interesting, our family histories are very similar in time and place!
    BTW- I just requested a link to your tree, THIS sis my correct email. Thanks


    First time on this site and found it very interesting. Thanks for the information that is shared.

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