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Worth Knowing: Hibbing typist and teacher once analyzed fingerprints for the FBI during the war

Officially a bureau secretary, Mary C. Motherway helped compare prints in an unofficial role, according to her daughter. Motherway died May 21, 2021, at age 102.

Mary C. Motherway.jpg
Mary C. Motherway

Editor's note: Each week reporter Matthew Guerry shares the life stories of residents of Minnesota or the Dakotas who have died recently. Maybe you don't know them, but their stories are worth knowing. If you have a suggestion for someone to be featured, email or call 651-321-4314.

During World War II, as a young adult, Mary C. Motherway and two of her sisters moved to Washington, D.C., in search of a way to serve the country.

For Motherway, of Hibbing, Minn., service took the form of employment with the FBI, where she started out performing clerical and administrative work. According to niece Mary Voigt, however, Motherway soon took on another duty in an unofficial capacity at the bureau's Crime Record Section: analyzing and comparing fingerprints.

"They recognized her skills. She was the fastest typist with the FBI," Voigt said in a recent interview.

But "they couldn't officially, my dad told me, call her an analyst because she was a woman."


The FBI would not swear in the first female special agent until 1972, more than two decades after Motherway left.

Motherway, who died at age 102 on May 21, 2021 , was part of a generation of women that served on the U.S. homefront during the war. Though they were lionized in history and popular culture for their contributions, Motherway's experience shows that they could still face discrimination in spite of their service and aptitude.


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One of William and Catherine Motherway's 10 children, Mary was born on Dec. 24, 1918.
Driven and inquisitive, she went to work for the FBI after graduating from the University of Minnesota. She spent the years before the move on the family farm, which she purchased in the late 1940s and made her home.

According to Voigt, Motherway and her sisters were compelled to move to Washington after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

"They did not have a plan. They just went to D.C. and looked for a job, and she ended up at the FBI," Voigt said.

Voigt said she did not know what specific crimes Motherway helped to investigate, but that she compared fingerprints for a variety of different cases for supervisor Milton Jones. Jones, according to "The FBI: A Comprehensive Reference Guide," headed the Criminal Records Section from the 1940s through the early 1970s.

Motherway left the FBI in 1950 after a car accident and returned to Hibbing, where she started her own secretarial service. She went on to do public relations work for the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, and between 1965 and 1970 taught high school English and speech classes in Hibbing and Nashua.


Motherway loved literature and history and read the news every morning, according to her obituary. In junior college, Voigt said, she served as editor of the school newspaper.

In another life, Voigt said, Motherway would likely have been an investigative reporter.

"She could remember everything sharp as a tack. And she could write," Voigt said. "If it was allowed in her time or if she had a way to break into that, I think it would have really been the thing for her to do."

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