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Marie Connolly Owens, America's First Female Police Officer

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Image Credit: "Owens tails deadbeat dad" // Chicago Daily Tribune, October 28, 1906

When women first began to enter the police force around the turn of the 20th century, they came in through the back door as social workers tasked with upholding laws protecting women and children. Lola Greene Baldwin, sworn in "to perform police service" for the Portland, Oregon, police department on April 1, 1908, did the same thing as a "Female Detective" (that was her actual job title) as she had done for her previous employer, the Travelers Aid Society: keep young women safe from predators seeking to lure them into prostitution and a life of crime. Two years later Alice Stebbins Wells was hired by the Los Angeles Police Department to enforce laws protecting girls from hotbeds of white slavery like dance halls, skating rinks, and penny arcades.

Alice Stebbins Wells via The Day Book Chicago, February 10, 1914.

Because of their non-standard appointments and powers, determining who was the country's first policewoman is challenging. Both Baldwin and Wells have vied for the title, but in fact they were beaten to the punch by almost 20 years. Marie Connolly Owens joined the Chicago Police Department in 1891 with the title of Detective Sergeant, full arrest powers, and a badge. She was on the department payroll and received a police pension when she retired in 1923 after 32 years on the force.

Marie Connolly was born the daughter of Irish famine immigrants in Bytown (later renamed Ottawa), on December 21, 1853. She married gas fitter Thomas Owens in 1879, and they moved to Chicago soon thereafter. Together they had five children before Thomas died of typhoid fever in 1888. Marie was widowed with five mouths to feed; her youngest was just a couple of years old. As she told the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1904, up until this point she had never "earned a penny" in her life.

She entered the workforce with a bang the next year. In 1889, the city of Chicago passed an ordinance prohibiting the employment of children under 14 years old unless they had extraordinary circumstances requiring them to work. To enforce the ordinance, the city hired five women as sanitary inspectors to monitor conditions in stores, factories, and tenements. Women, all of them married or widowed mothers, got the jobs because dealing with children was deemed to be in their natural purview. Mrs. Owens, Mrs. Byford Leonard, Mrs. J.R. Doolittle, Mrs. Ada Sullivan, and Mrs. Glennon formed the first board of sanitary inspectors in the country to be given official authority by the city. They reported to the Commissioner of Health and were paid salaries of $50 a month.

Sanitary inspector Marie Owens dove into her work with a passion, removing illegally employed children from their workplaces, helping them find other means of support and even paying out of her own pocket to help their destitute families. She soon earned a reputation for zeal and effectiveness tempered by a diplomatic approach to parents, children, and business owners that made her as popular as someone in her role could be.

In 1891, the newly appointed Chief of Police, Major Robert Wilson McClaughrey—a tireless reformer with a particular interest in the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders—took notice of Mrs. Owens's efforts in tracking down wife deserters—men we now call deadbeat dads. Owens saw first-hand how many children were forced to seek employment to keep the family from starving after the father abandoned them. She was relentless in ferreting these men out and turning them into the police, so much so that McClaughrey decided to employ Owens in the detective bureau.

Owens photo via Chicago-Daily Tribune, Oct-28-1906

Marie Owens was now Sergeant No. 97, with the rank, salary, badge, and arrest powers of any detective (although she made infrequent use of the latter two). She was detailed to the Board of Education where her brief was enforcing child labor, truancy, and compulsory education laws. In an op-ed she wrote for the July 28, 1901, issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune, Owens described her early days on the job:

The sights to be seen in the slums today can in no way compare with those of ten years ago and the suffering due to the inability of the older members of the family to work is, indeed, pitiable. Children were found working in factories all over the city, the frail little things in many cases being under 7. The pittance of 75 cents or $1 a week, however, helped to buy food for a sick mother, though it was at the cost of health and education.

When the work was first begun a woman wearing a police sergeant's star was a novelty. Manufacturers in some cases were not inclined to admit me to their workshops, but armed with the strong arm of the law and the will to do good I soon found that in most cases the merchants met me half way and rendered me great assistance. As a result the children were gradually thinned out, and the employers became accustomed to asking for affidavits required by law before work was given to children. Mothers had to depose as to the children's ages, and with these papers the latter were enabled to get employment in the larger factories and stores.

Owens, like Baldwin and Wells after her, made a point of differentiating what she did from the work of male police officers. In almost every contemporary news article about her, her success in law enforcement was subsumed under her femininity, maternal instinct, charitable nature, and kind heart. A 1906 story in the Chicago Daily Tribune assured its readers that this lady police sergeant "has lost none of her womanly attributes and other detectives in the central office lift their hats when they chance to meet her." If that wasn't relief enough for anyone concerned about the dangers of masculinized womanhood, the words of Sergeant No. 97 herself were sure to soothe:

"I like to do police work," said Mrs. Owens. "It gives me a chance to help women and children who need help. Of course I know little about the kind of work the men do. I never go out looking for robbers or highwaymen. That is left for the men. ... My work is just a woman's work. In my sixteen years of experience I have come across more suffering than ever is seen by any man detective. Why, it has kept me poor giving in little amounts to those in want. I have yet the time to come across a hungry family that they were not given food."

Her superior officer, Captain O'Brien, gave her more credit than she gave herself in that article. "Give me men like she is a woman," he said, "and we will have the model detective bureau of the whole world."

Despite Owens's effectiveness, a woman wearing a police sergeant's star was supposed to remain a novelty. In 1895, Chicago adopted new civil service rules requiring all cops to pass the civil service exam (Owens scored a 99 percent) and allowing for appointment of women as regular factory, tenement, or child labor inspectors independent of the police force. Had those rules been in effect in 1891, Mrs. Owens would probably have been made a government inspector rather than a police detective. Because she was so great at her job and had an unblemished service record, she was kept on the police force after the new rules were in place instead of being transferred. In an article in the August 7, 1904, Chicago Daily Tribune, the new rules were assumed to have made women police officers obsolete. The civil service rules "will forever prevent the appointment of more feminine patrolmen. Mrs. Owens will undoubtedly remain as she has been for fifteen years, the only woman police officer in the world."

Four years later, Lola Greene Baldwin put an end to that assumption with her April Fool's Day appointment. Two years after that, Alice Stebbins Wells charged into the fray and soon became the national posterchild for female police officers. She went on lecture tours emphasizing the need for women on the force to deal appropriately with women and children. In one of those lectures, delivered at Brooklyn's Civic Forum in 1914, Wells showed how foolish the poor Chicago Daily Tribune's prognostications had been: "There are four policewomen in Los Angeles, five in Seattle, and 25 in Chicago," she said, "and the time is coming when every city will have policewomen, both in plain clothes and in uniform."

Lola Baldwin rocking her badge at 94, March-1954 via Oregon Historical Society Research Library

Wells' tours made her so famous throughout the country that even though just a few years earlier Det. Sgt. Marie Owens had been the subject and author of numerous newspaper stories about her pioneering position in the Chicago Police Department, Wells became fixed in the cultural imagination as the first woman police officer in the nation. Owens was still on the job when this misconception took hold, keeping her shoulder to the wheel and never, so far as we know, seeking to correct the record publicly.

She retired in 1923 at the age of 70 and moved to New York to live with her daughter. When she died four years later, the notice made no mention of her 32 years on the police force. She faded even further from memory after a historian confused her with a Mary Owens, the widow of a policeman, in a 1925 book on female police officers.

The real Marie Owens and her many accomplishments were rediscovered by, appropriately, a retired DEA agent whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather were Chicago cops. Rick Barrett was researching fallen police officers when he found a reference to Owens as the wife of a slain cop. Death records revealed that Mr. Owens had been a gas fitter, not a cop, and Barrett pulled on the thread until the whole rich tapestry unraveled. After nigh on a decade of research, Barrett is writing a book about Detective Sergeant Marie Owens that will restore her to her proper role in history.

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The Day Notre Dame Students Pummeled the Ku Klux Klan
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General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

At first glance, there was nothing unusual about the men who stepped off the train in South Bend, Indiana on the morning of May 17, 1924. Dapper and mannered, they drifted from the station to the downtown area. Some headed for a nearby office that sported a red cross made out of light bulbs stationed in the window. Others roamed around looking for Island Park, the site of a planned social gathering.

A closer look at these visitors revealed one common trait: Many were carrying a folded white robe under their arm. Those who had arrived earlier were fully clothed in their uniform and hood, directing automobile traffic to the park.

The Ku Klux Klan had arrived in town.

Fresh off a controversial leadership election in Indianapolis, Indiana, there was no reason for Klansmen to have any apprehension about holding a morale booster in South Bend. Indiana was Klan territory, with an estimated one in three native born white men sworn members within state lines. Just a few months later, Klansman Ed Jackson would be elected governor.

It was only when Klansmen found themselves guided into alleys and surrounded by an irate gang of Catholic students from nearby Notre Dame University that they realized mobilizing in South Bend may have been a very bad idea.

The Klan wanted a rally. What they got was a full-scale riot.

Photo of KKK Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
Indiana Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson
By IndyStar, Decemeber 12, 1922 issue, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Politically-endorsed prejudice was the order of the day in the early part of the 20th century, when the Klan—first created in 1866 to oppose Republican Reconstruction with violent racial enmity and then revived in 1915—expanded its tentacles to reach law enforcement and civil service. No longer targeting people of color exclusively, the KKK took issue with Catholics, the Jewish faith, and immigrants. An estimated 4 million Americans belonged to the Klan in the 1920s, all echoing the group’s philosophy that only white, God-fearing citizens were worthy of respect.

Under the guidance of Indiana's Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson, the group had attempted to shift public perception from the lynch mobs of the past to an orderly and articulate assembly. Rallies were held in KKK-friendly areas; propaganda material was becoming an effective weapon for their cause. Acceptance of the Klan’s ideology seeped into political office; Stephenson was a prominent Indiana politician.

To help continue that indoctrination, the Klan made plans for a parade in South Bend to be held on May 17, 1924. That it would be in close proximity to the Notre Dame campus was no mistake: At the time, 75 percent of the school's nearly 2000 students were Catholic, a religion the Klan found abhorrent. By pledging allegiance to the Vatican, their reasoning went, Catholics were acknowledging a foreign power. In the fall of 1923, they had persisted in setting crosses on fire near the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, a predominantly Catholic college, and were frequently chased off by angered football players. That December, the Klan set off firebombs in Dayton during Christmas break. While no one was seriously injured, the intent was to send a message—one they wanted to spread to Indiana.

In the weeks and months leading up to the parade, both students and faculty began to get a taste of that perspective. Copies of the Fiery Cross, the official Klan newspaper, circulated on campus; one Klansman showed up at an auditorium to broadcast that Catholics were not good Americans. He exited the stage when attendees began throwing potatoes at him.

If that public response was foreshadowing, the Klan either ignored or failed to heed the warning. Members began arriving the Friday evening prior to the rally and were met at the train station by irritated students, who scuffled with the early arrivals by ripping their robes. By Saturday morning, when more Klansmen arrived, hundreds of students were in town, a loosely organized anti-Klan task force.

Keystone Features/Getty Images

Klan members were used to breezing into towns without incident. Here, they were immediately confronted by young, ornery college kids proud of their Catholicism. Klansmen were led into alleys and tossed into walls; students who played for the school’s legendary football squad formed wedges, the offensive line-ups found on the field, and plowed into groups of Klan members like they were challenging for a state title.

The violence, swift and sudden, prompted the Klan to retreat to their headquarters in South Bend. The students followed, their blood pumping hot at the sight of the red cross lit in the office window. Below it stood a grocery store with barrels of fresh potatoes. The students lobbed them at the glass, smashing the bulbs inside.

The conflict had been uninterrupted by law enforcement, but not for lack of trying. Deputy Sheriff John Cully, himself a Klansman, tried to enlist the National Guard but was shot down by officials. Notre Dame president Matthew Walsh had already implored students not to go into town, but his words went unheeded.

Unencumbered by authority, the 100 or so students idling near the Klan’s office decided they wanted to seize the hideout. Dozens began running up the stairs but were greeted by a Klan member who produced a gun. Unarmed, the students backed off. Four seniors went back and came to an impromptu truce: The student body would disperse if the Klan agreed to hold their rally without weapons or their robes.

The agreement seemed to placate both sides until Stephenson finally arrived in town before the parade’s scheduled 6:30 p.m. start. Assessing the roughed-up Klansmen and their skittish behavior, he complained to the police, who posted officers on horseback around their assembly at Island Park.

But there would be no rally: A heavy downpour prompted Stephenson to call it off, although the potential for further violence likely weighed on his mind. Lingering students who still hadn’t returned to campus met departing Klansmen as they attempted to drive out of town, smashing windows and even tipping over one car.

By Sunday, things seemed to have settled down. Walsh cringed at newspaper reports of the incidents, fearing it would portray the students as thugs.

Unfortunately, neither side was done protesting. And when they met a second time, the robed men would be backed up by lawman Cully and a squad of 30 deputized Klansmen.

Denver News - The Library of Congress (American Memory Collection), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Students back on campus Monday had taken to hanging up seized Klan robes and hoods on their walls like trophies. It had been a rout, with the Klan barely putting up a fight.

Now, word was spreading through the halls that the Klan had captured or perhaps had even killed a Notre Dame student. Roughly 500 students jogged the two miles back into South Bend, eager for another confrontation.

When they arrived at the Klan’s headquarters, the light bulb cross had been rebuilt. It was an act of defiance, and the students moved forward. But the Klan was prepared: Many had been deputized, and uniformed officers joined the melee. Axe handles and bottles were brandished, and blood began to stain the street. It was a clash, with parties on both sides laid out.

When he got word of the conflict, Walsh rushed to the site and climbed on top of a cannon that was part of a monument. Shouting to be heard, he implored students to return to campus. His voice cut through the sounds of breaking glass, snapping the students out of their reverie. They returned to the school.

Absent any opposition, the Klan did the same. Stragglers from out of town returned home. With bombastic prose, writers for the Fiery Cross later recapped the event by accusing Notre Dame students of “beating women and children.” Later that summer, they declared they’d be returning to South Bend in greater number.

It never happened. Although the Klan maintained an aura of strength for several more years, the conviction of Stephenson for raping and murdering a woman in November 1925 extinguished one of their most enthusiastic leaders; the Depression dampened the ability of new recruits to pay dues. By 1930, the Klan was down to an estimated 45,000 members.

While Walsh never condoned the vigilante justice exacted that weekend, he never disciplined a single student for it.

Additional Sources:
Notre Dame vs. the Klan, by Todd Tucker (Loyola Press, 2004)
"Hearing the Silence: The University of Dayton, the Ku Klux Klan, and Catholic Universities and Colleges in the 1920s" [PDF], by William Vance Trollinger

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Why the Berlin Wall Rose and Fell
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of history's most notorious barriers broke ground early in the morning on August 13, 1961, when East German construction workers, guarded by soldiers and police, began tearing up the Berlin streets.

As European history professor Konrad H. Jarausch explains in this video from Ted-Ed, the roots of the Berlin Wall can be found in the period of instability that followed World War II. When the Allies couldn't decide how to govern Germany, they decided to split up the country between the Federal Republic of Germany in the West and the German Democratic Republic in the East. Eventually, citizens (especially young professionals) began fleeing the GDR for the greater freedoms—and higher salaries—of the West. The wall helped stem the tide, and stabilized the East German economy, but came at great cost to the East's reputation. In the end, the wall lasted less than three decades, as citizen pressures against it mounted.

You can learn more about exactly why the wall went up, and how it came down, in the video below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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