A mature looking woman walked unannounced into a Denver Police Headquarters and boasted she could escape from any pair of handcuffs they had….and she did. Here is the event as described in a June 19, 1899 article in the Denver Evening Post:
“Woman Mystifies the Police
Mlle. Clementina Starr was the demonstrator and she was so successful that the detectives at police headquarters are thinking of selling their handcuffs for scrap iron.
Mlle. Starr is a large and fleshy 45 years old. She has discovered a way to unlock any lock, but she makes a specialty of handcuffs and leg-irons. She arrived in Denver Thursday and at once went to police headquarters where she told of what she could do. She was only laughed at.
“I can prove to you that all your handcuffs are absolutely useless if you will only give me a chance,” and Mlle. Starr to the detectives, and it was then arranged for her to come to the station and perform what she termed her wonderful feats. When she left the station it was said that she would never come back and she was forgotten.
However, mademoiselle appeared again and said she was ready to prove her former statements were correct. The detectives, captains and sergeants were all called into the room to witness the act, and a pair of common handcuffs, were placed upon her wrists.
The secrets she has she guards carefully and will not perform the act in the presence of anyone. She was allowed to go into the next room, where she opened the cuffs in a few seconds. That seemed easy and another and much better pair was placed upon her wrists and were opened just as skillfully. Then the belt around the waist, the cuffs holding the hands down to the side. This belt is considered the best of the kind made and is used in handling the worst criminals in the country.
She does not slip out of the cuffs, but unlocks them and leaves them open. She does not do this with keys, as there are only two keys that will fit one pair of handcuffs, and the cuffs used were the property of the detectives who had the keys in their possession all the time. When she got through with her exhibition the detectives were convinced that she has made a great discovery.
“If the thieves knew that secret we could no more get them to prison than we could fly,” said an old time detective as he threw a pair of “invincibles” that had been opened by the mysterious woman into a drawer and locked them up.”
This is the earliest mention of a female escape artist in the press I have yet found.
Clementine, or Clementina as she sometimes used, was born about 1858 and grew up on farms around Marshalltown, Iowa. Her first marriage ended in divorce and she was left with a daughter born about 1879. She named her daughter after herself, a real bane to any researcher. She remarried in 1880 and vanishes until she shows up in Denver almost 20 years later.
How she got into the escape business is unknown. She may have performed in museums, small vaudeville theaters, burlesque or touring companies. So she was under the notice of most newspapers and trade publications. There is a wonderfully ornate letterhead in one of Houdini’s scrapbooks for the trio: Neptune “The Water King”; Clementine “You Cannot Keep Her Handcuffed”; and Bertina “The Wonderful Magnetic Girl”. The photograph on the letterhead shows three mature, and a bit worn, performers.
We do know Clementine left Chicago and arrived alone in Denver about two months before her appearance at Police Headquarters. Her successful escapes and the generated publicity did not lead to any work in the area, though she and her daughter soon settled down in Denver. Around this time a publicity shot was made by a Denver photographer. It was titled “Clementine” and shows a mature woman standing next to a small locked cage containing a younger handcuffed woman. This is probably Clementine and her daughter. The act was being passed onto the next generation.
In June of 1902 it was announced that a high-class vaudeville tent show would be presented at Colorado Springs’ Prospect Lake and Mlle. Clementine would be the headliner. Problems ensued when it was discovered such performances were banned under the terms of the contact Prospect Lake’s management had with the city. So the tent was moved to property adjoining park. However, as Clementine was performing her act, the sheriff was arresting the vaudeville company’s manager for trespassing and trying to close down the show. It seems that Prospect Lake’s management had not actually gotten a lease for the land.
Not letting this stop her the next month Clementine headlined a vaudeville company playing at Colorado Springs’ Bott’s Park. She also did a challenge handcuff escape at the sheriff’s office to publicize the show.
A “Ventia Starr” with her handcuff mysteries appeared for a week beginning August 24, 1903 at Denver’s Rocky Mountain Lake. This could have been Clementine’s daughter. She had listed her vocation as actress in a Denver City Directory.
The Denver Post on June 18, 1903 announced the marriage of Clementine Starr with William Woodman of Chicago. Sadly, the same paper announced their divorce just three years later. Soon Clementine moved to Colorado Springs, eventually owning and managing a farm outside the city. She married Samuel Irvin in 1913 and since both were busy on their farms they had to get the marriage license through the mail.
Clementine Starr last shows up in the 1920 Census. She owns a farm in Jasper, Texas and was a widow. After this date she escapes from written history.
Hope you enjoyed and good hunting.