Friday, November 17, 2017

A Life of Crime: Ruth Sawtell Wallis (1895-1978)

Ruth Sawtell Wallis, is a good example of the sort of person whom detective fiction boosters used to use in the Thirties and Forties to bolster the intellectual respectability of classic crime writing. (Actually, we're still doing it today as well, for crime fiction has its pooh-pooh'ers today as it did yesterday.)  If someone as brainy as Ruth Sawtell Wallis not only liked mysteries but wrote them, so the thinking went, no one should be embarrassed about being fervent mystery fiction addicts, no matter what judgmental scolds like Edmund Wilson and Q. D. Leavis had to say.

Barring sexism prevalent at the time (something with which we are still dealing today too), Ruth Sawtell Wallis might never have written any mysteries at all, however.  The future crime writer was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, the daughter of Grace Quimby and Joseph Sawtell, owner of a haberdashery and a descendant of Thomas Cogswell, a figure of some note in the world of 18th century American politics, when he was, during the Revolution, an officer at the Battles of Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill and the Continental Army's chief wagon master (in this latter capacity his logistical expertise was instrumental in pulling off the Anglo-French victory over the British at the Battle of Yorktown), and, after the conflict, Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Court of Common Pleas and an Anti-Federalist pamphleteer.

Ruth Sawtell in 1923, age 28
Ruth Sawtell clearly had much of her ancestor's fighting spirit.  She attended Vassar and Radcliffe Colleges, graduating with a BA in English from the latter school in 1919.  She thereupon decided to do graduate work in anthropology at Radcliffe, obtaining her MA in 1923.

Awarded a Radcliffe Traveling Fellowship in Science, Sawtell went to Europe, where she did research work in France, Germany and England. During this time Sawtell with her colleague Ida Treat excavated Azilian culture graves at the village of Montardit in the French Pyrenees. 

With Ida Treat, Sawtell published both a scholarly account of her findings and a most entertaining popular one, Primitive Hearths in the Pyrenees (1927).  Nearly two decades later she drew on this material for her similarly entertaining crime novel Blood from a Stone (1945).

On returning to the US in 1926, Sawtell transferred to Columbia University, where she worked as research assistant for Franz Boas, chair of the Anthropology Department there and often dubbed the "Father of American Anthropology."  One of her jobs with Boas was to take measurements of Sicilian heritage families in New York, which partly explained her hiring it seems, since, as she told friends, "Sicilian men in 1926 would never have allowed a male researcher to measure their wives." (With all the groping scandals getting reported these days, perhaps it might not have been Sicilian men alone who might have been concerned!)

Between 1926 to 1930 Ruth Sawtell worked as a physical anthropologist in New York City for the Bureau of Educational Experiments (now the Bank Street College of Education), a progressive institution founded by a trio of women which operated a demonstration nursery school.  Her work there served as the basis of her doctoral dissertation, which she successfully submitted in 1929 at Harvard University.

Rhodes scholar Wilson Wallis at Oxford
1911, age 25 (pictured upper left)
With her PhD in hand, Sawtell in 1930 became a charter member--one of only two women to do so--of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and the University of Iowa hired her as an assistant professor of anthropology. 

The next year she published an academic monograph, How Children Grow (1931) and she wed the distinguished cultural anthropologist Wilson Dallam Wallis, a widower nine years her senior with two children, moving with him to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he was a professor of anthropology.

Ruth Sawtell Wallis, as she was now known, took a position as an assistant professor of sociology at Hamline University in adjacent St. Paul. 

She was, however, terminated at Hamline in 1935, in her belief because of "envy over the dual incomes" that she and her husband enjoyed "in the midst of the Depression." (Even my mother, some three decades later, recalls hearing the same thing from people about her teaching employment prospects after her marriage to a university professor.)

Over the rest of the 1930s, with university employment seemingly barred to her on account of her marriage and her gender, Ruth Sawtell Wallis was employed in positions with the US federal government, first with the Works Progress Administration and then with the Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Home Economics

During the Second World War she served as a labor department analyst for the War Manpower Commission and additionally she began writing detective novels (ultimately five of them in all): like other women of her generation who had had promising career paths closed to them on account of cultural biases prevalent at the time, she sought fame and fortune in the field of crime fiction.

More on this and her accomplished crime novel Blood from a Stone, coming soon!  See my earlier review of her mystery No Bones About It here.

Source for much of this post: Patricia Case, "Ruth Sawtell Wallis (1895-1978)," Women Anthropologists: Selected Biographies, edited by Ute Gacs, Aisha Khan, Jerrie McIntyre, Ruth Weinberg (University of Illinois Press, 1988).


  1. Many thanks! This is an author I've managed not to trip across, and she sounds a truly fascinating individual. I must see if I can lay hands on one of her books.

    1. Thanks, I've enjoyed getting to read, and write about, her.

  2. I wonder if Wallis knew Frederica de Laguna. She worked with Boas too maybe only a few years after Wallis. Six degrees of separation...

  3. sawtell Wallis is certainly a good author for coachwhip......