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Marie Connolly Owens, America's First Female Police Officer

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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10 Treasures From the New York Academy of Medicine Library
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Tucked away on a side street near Central Park, the New York Academy of Medicine Library is one of the most significant historical medical libraries in the world. Open to the public by appointment since the 19th century, its collection includes 550,000 volumes on subjects ranging from ancient brain surgery to women's medical colleges to George Washington's dentures. A few weeks ago, Mental Floss visited to check out some of their most fascinating items connected to the study of anatomy. Whether it was urine wheels or early anatomy pop-up books, we weren't disappointed.

1. FASCICULUS MEDICINAE (1509)

The Fasciculus Medicinae is a compilation of Greek and Arabic texts first printed in Venice in 1491. While it covers a variety of topics including anatomy and gynecology, the book begins with the discipline considered most important for diagnosing all medical issues at the time: uroscopy (the study of urine). The NYAM Library's curator, Anne Garner, showed us the book's urine wheel, which once had the various flasks of urine colored in to help aid physicians in their diagnosis. Each position of the wheel corresponded to one of the four humors, whether it was phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine, or melancholic. The image on the left, Garner explains, "shows the exciting moment where a servant boy brings his flasks to be analyzed by a professor." Other notable images in the book include one historians like to call "Zodiac Man," showing how the parts of the body were governed by the planets, and "Wound Man," who has been struck by every conceivable weapon, and is accompanied by a text showing how to treat each type of injury. Last but not least, the book includes what's believed to be the first printed image of a dissection.

2. ANDREAS VESALIUS, DE HUMANI CORPORIS FABRICA (1543)

Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Frontispiece of Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Andreas Vesalius, born 1514, was one of the most important anatomists who ever lived. Thanks to him, we moved past an understanding of the human body based primarily on the dissection of animals and toward training that involved the direct dissection of human corpses. The Fabrica was written by Vesalius and published when he was a 28-year-old professor at the University of Padua. Its detailed woodcuts, the most accurate anatomical illustrations up to that point, influenced the depiction of anatomy for centuries to come. "After this book, anatomy divided up into pre-Vesalian and post-Vesalian," Garner says. You can see Vesalius himself in the book's frontispiece (he's the one pointing to the corpse and looking at the viewer). "Vesalius is trying to make a point that he himself is doing the dissection, he believes that to understand the body you have to open it up and look at it," Garner explains.

3. THOMAS GEMINUS, COMPENDIOSA (1559)

Flap anatomy from Thomas Geminus's Compendiosa
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

There was no copyright in the 16th century, and Vesalius's works were re-used by a variety of people for centuries. The first was in Flemish printer and engraver Thomas Geminus’s Compendiosa, which borrowed from several of Vesalius's works. The first edition was published in London just two years after the Fabrica. Alongside a beautiful dedication page made for Elizabeth I and inlaid with real gemstones, the book also includes an example of a "flap anatomy" or a fugitive leaf, which was printed separately with parts that could be cut out and attached to show the various layers of the human body, all the way down to the intestines. As usual for the time, the female is depicted as pregnant, and she holds a mirror that says "know thyself" in Latin.

4. WILLIAM COWPER, THE ANATOMY OF HUMANE BODIES (1698)

Illustration from William Cowper's The Anatomy of Humane Bodies
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

After Vesalius, there was little new in anatomy texts until the Dutch anatomist Govard Bidloo published his Anatomia humani corporis in 1685. The work was expensive and not much of a financial success, so Bidloo sold excess plates to the English anatomist William Cowper, who published the plates with an English text without crediting Bidloo (a number of angry exchanges between the two men followed). The copperplate engravings were drawn by Gérard de Lairesse, who Garner notes was "incredibly talented." But while the engravings are beautiful, they're not always anatomically correct, perhaps because the relationship between de Lairesse and Bidloo was fraught (Bidloo was generally a bit difficult). The skeleton shown above is depicted holding an hourglass, by then a classic of death iconography.

5. 17TH-CENTURY IVORY MANIKINS

17th Century Ivory Manikin
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

These exquisite figures are a bit of a mystery: It was originally thought that they were used in doctors’ offices to educate pregnant women about what was happening to their bodies, but because of their lack of detail, scholars now think they were more likely expensive collector's items displayed in cabinets of curiosity by wealthy male physicians. The arms of the manikins (the term for anatomical figures like this) lift up, allowing the viewer to take apart their removable hearts, intestines, and stomachs; the female figure also has a little baby inside her uterus. There are only about 100 of these left in the world, mostly made in Germany, and NYAM has seven.

6. BERNHARD SIEGFRIED ALBINUS, TABULAE SCELETI (1747)

Illustration from Bernhard Siegfried Albinus's Tabulae Sceleti
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

One of the best-known anatomists of the 18th century, the Dutch anatomist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus went to medical school at age 12 and had a tenured position at the University of Leiden by the time he was 24. The Tabulae Sceleti was his signature work. The artist who worked on the text, Jan Wandelaar, had studied with Gérard de Lairesse, the artist who worked with Bidloo. Wandelaar and Albinus developed what Garner says was a bizarre method of suspending cadavers from the ceiling in the winter and comparing them to a (very cold and naked) living person lying on the floor in the same pose. Albinus also continued the dreamy, baroque funerary landscape of his predecessors, and his anatomy is "very, very accurate," according to Garner.

The atlas also features an appearance by Clara, a celebrity rhinoceros, who was posed with one of the skeletons. "When Albinus is asked why [he included a rhinoceros], he says, 'Oh, Clara is just another natural wonder of the world, she's this amazing creation,' but really we think Clara is there to sell more atlases because she was so popular," Garner says.

7. FERDINAND HEBRA, ATLAS DER HAUTKRANKHEITEN (1856–1876)

Circus performer Georg Constantin as depicted in Ferdinand Hebra's dermatological atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

By the mid-19th century, dermatology had started to emerge as its own discipline, and the Vienna-based Ferdinand Hebra was a leading light in the field. He began publishing this dermatological atlas in 1856 (it appeared in 10 installments), featuring chromolithographs that showed different stages of skin diseases and other dermatological irregularities.

"While some of the images are very disturbing, they also tend to adhere to Victorian portrait conventions, with very ornate hair, and [subjects] looking off in the distance," Garner says. But one of the most famous images from the book has nothing to do with disease—it's a depiction of Georg Constantin, a well-known Albanian circus performer in his day, who was covered in 388 tattoos of animals, flowers, and other symbols. He travelled throughout Europe and North America, and was known as "Prince Constantine" during a spell with Barnum's Circus. (The image is also available from NYAM as a coloring sheet.)

8. KOICHI SHIBATA, OBSTETRICAL POCKET PHANTOM (1895)

19th century Obstetrical Pocket Phantom
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Obstetrical phantoms, often made of cloth, wood, or leather, were used to teach medical students about childbirth. This "pocket phantom" was originally published in Germany, and Garner explains that because it was made out of paper, it was much cheaper for medical students. The accompanying text, translated in Philadelphia, tells how to arrange the phantom and describes the potential difficulties of various positions.

9. ROBERT L. DICKINSON AND ABRAM BELSKIE, BIRTH ATLAS (1940)

Image from Robert Dickinson's Birth Atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Robert Dickinson was a Brooklyn gynecologist, early birth control advocate, and active member of NYAM. His Birth Atlas is illustrated with incredibly lifelike terracotta models created by New Jersey sculptor Abram Belskie. The models were exhibited at the 1939 New York World's Fair, where they became incredibly popular, drawing around 700,000 people according to Garner. His depictions "are very beautiful and serene, and a totally different way of showing fetal development than anything that had come before," Garner notes.

10. RALPH H. SEGAL, THE BODYSCOPE (1948)

The Bodyscope
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

This midcentury cardboard anatomy guide contains male and female figures as well as rotating wheels, called volvelles, that can be turned to display details on different parts of the body as well as accompanying explanatory text. The Bodyscope is also decorated with images of notable medical men—and "wise" sayings about God's influence on the body.

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23 Funny Historical Letters to Santa
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At the end of the 19th century, illustrator Thomas Nast popularized our current version of Santa Claus: a fat, jolly man with a white beard and a red suit who lives at the North Pole. Nast’s cartoons in publications like Harper’s Weekly also helped spread the idea of sending St. Nick mail. By the late 1870s, American children had begun mailing their Christmas wish lists to Santa, but the Post Office considered these letters undeliverable. Around this time, newspapers began prompting children to send wish lists to them, which would then be published so that Santa (and parents) could read the letters all in one place. We’ve collected 23 funny historical letters from children to Santa Claus, as printed in newspapers across the U.S.

1. CONRAD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Conrad tries to mask his violent tendencies by interspersing the weapons between non-threatening gifts, but he shows his hand with that threat at the end.

2. CLIFFORD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Clifford sounds ... intense.

3. MARIE FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

“As I can not have it I will not ask for it" ... but I will mention it, just in case.

4. LYNWOOD FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

“I smashed everything you sent me last year." I won’t tell you what I want this year, but you better not mess up.

5. PAUL FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

This 4-year-old is very concerned about his infant brother’s lack of teeth. Since the local doctor has proved useless to rectify the situation, Paul hopes Santa might be able to lend a hand. He is magical, after all.

6. HARRY FROM MONTANA (1903)

Fergus County Argus, Dec. 16, 1903

Who knew keeping your feet dry was such an important part of staying off the Naughty list?

7. RAYMOND FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

Clarence doesn’t sound very nice.

8. PERCY FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

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Poor Opal and Mildred. They’re just girls. Do girls even have preferences?

9. VIRGINIA FROM MISSOURI (1907)

Virginia understands that sometimes Santa needs to delegate.

10. ROBERT FROM TENNESSEE (1913)

The Commercial, Dec. 19, 1913

Old people get lonely.

11. WILLIE FROM FLORIDA (1915)

Sure, an axe sounds like an age-appropriate gift for a five-year-old.

12. ELEANOR FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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“Bring both if possible.”

13. UNSIGNED LETTER FROM FLORIDA (1913)

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This transplant from Maine would really like a basketball, but he doesn’t quite believe that a Santa Claus can exist in Florida, where there isn’t even any snow.

14. WALTER FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Daytona Daily News, Dec. 17, 1915

Good choice not to act a pig, Walter.

15. MERLA FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Merla will not be ignored!

16. ROY FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

A doll dressed in a cowboy suit could not be called Raymond. A lack of sailor suit is a dealbreaker.

17. MAXWELL FROM FLORIDA

The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Ways to improve your chances of getting a pony from Santa, according to Maxwell Hudson: 1. Admit right off it’s expensive. 2. Say you will use it to take your sisters to school. 3. Promise to be grateful for anything Santa brings, so as not to seem greedy. 4. Make yourself seem extra kindhearted (and thus deserving of a pony) by showing concern for your fatherless neighbors. Did it work? We will never know.

18. MOXIE FROM TENNESSEE (1916)

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Perhaps a kid known for being mean shouldn’t be given a firearm.

19. DICK FROM SOUTH CAROLINA (1916)

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The County Record, Dec. 21, 1916

No, Santa certainly wouldn’t want to get “fastened in” the chimney.

20. JOHN FROM NEW MEXICO (1918)

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World War I devastated Western Europe, decimating a generation of young men—and apparently killing the French Santa Claus.

21. MARY FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

Come on, Mary, Santa’s not a mind reader.

22. JEWEL FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

No apology for the door-slamming incident. That might have helped your cause, Jewel.

23. R.B. FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

R.B. is very thoughtful to provide such specific instructions; otherwise, Santa might get confused.

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