The vexations of research

 

1957_0818_wells

1910_0914_wells
Aug. 18, 1957

Los Angeles

Nearly a century ago, Los
Angeles had the wisdom and foresight to appoint the first policewoman
in the United States–or was she? Alice Stebbins Wells is usually given
that distinction today, but the record is contradictory.

Although The Times covered Wells’ appointment, she never appeared
in another feature story. In fact, the paper only documented one arrest
by Wells, and that was in 1911, when she charged a man with ogling. The
newspaper did not interview her upon her 1940 retirement, although it
published a story saying that she was going to retire. As a result, The
Times has very little material on Wells between her first day on the
job in 1910 and her death in 1957," an oversight that grieves the heart
of a historian.

I would almost assume that Wells was extremely tight-lipped, except that The Times frequently
mentions her appearances as a luncheon speaker, discussing the role of
the Police Department and her experiences on the force. Art Sjoquist’s
brief entry on her in his "History of the Los Angeles Police
Department" also notes that she "was apparently a most charismatic
speaker." But for some reason, The Times never covered even one of her
speeches.

Perhaps she received such rude, condescending treatment in 1910
from reporters, who considered her nothing but a joke, that she refused
all later interviews. I wouldn’t blame her.

A Times editorial praised her appointment, but noted: "Naturally, Mrs.
Wells had hardly pinned her shield when she had to run the gauntlet of
interviewers. Judging by their comments she proved herself to be a
sensible woman. She resisted all attempts to see humor in her
appointment and in fact is described as being stern and earnest."

A Sept. 14, 1910, Times feature treated Wells as a mere curiosity,
saying that Police Chief Alexander Galloway "pinned the big shield on
the new officer’s shirtwaist and bade her to sally forth and ‘do her
dooty.’ "

1910_0913_wellsWells said: "This is
serious work and I do hope the newspapers will not try to make fun of
it. I think police work is a great work. I think it is worthy of the
respect of anybody and the position which has been given [illegible]
will enable me to reach into a [illegible] that men could not enter
without finding themselves greatly handicapped. I am only appointed on
probation, you know, of course, but I mean to [illegible] hard and I am
sure I can do a great deal of good."

 

"Will you carry a gun and club the irreverent" one asked. 

"Oh, no. I will not need anything like that," said Mrs. Wells very seriously. 

"But you will need a pair of handcuffs, will you not, and a flashlight?" 

"Oh, now, please don’t," she said and closed the discussion right there.

"Do you believe in votes for women?" was another question fired at her. 

"Now, here," she said with
determination and dignity,  "I am a police officer and while I may have
some ideas of my own about these things I cannot discuss them as an
officer.  I am sure that the time will soon come when women will be
frequently appointed on the police force of every city in the country
for there is a certain work to be done that only they can do."

Wells posed a problem for The Times from the beginning: The paper was
unsure how to refer to her, so it called her "the first woman
‘policeman’ " and humorously puzzled over whether to call her an
officer or an "officeress." In other stories, The Times snidely called her
"Officerette Wells."

Noting that she would not wear a uniform
or carry a baton, The Times said: "It is her purpose here to make
inspections of the dance halls, rinks and other places where young
people congregate, in an effort to perform preventive service against
immorality."

As the editorial  pointed out, Wells faced a considerable challenge in
fighting vice and corruption. Anyone who assumes that Los Angeles in this
period was a sedate cow town is badly mistaken. In fact, the city was
riddled with crime and crooked politicians. [See the 1947project for further information ].

As
for Wells’ only documented arrest, it concerned James Gibbons, whom she
detained at the Central Police Station. According to The Times, Wells
was standing in front of a movie theater on Main Street when Gibbons
passed. Although Wells believed Gibbons had winked and ogled her,
Gibbons’ wife said that he suffered from a nervous disease. "She did
not doubt that Gibbons’ eyes had twitched when he was on the street as
he at intervals is seized with such nervousness that he cannot correct
himself," The Times said.

Wells and Gibbons took a stroll in
which she led him to the police station and charged him. The line
between legal and illegal behavior was so fine that Police Judge
Frederickson had taken the case under advisement, the paper said
without ever reporting its outcome.

1911_0228_taxi
Another 1911 story says
that Wells reportedly complained to authorities about an
immoral play at the Mason Opera House, leading City Prosecutor Eddie
Guy to shut down "The Girl in the Taxi."

"It is entirely too sensuous
and is opposed to good morals and I shall take steps to prevent its
further appearance, as I cannot conscientiously permit a play on the
boards that is not in accord with good morals," he said.

Was Wells the first policewoman in the United States? Here’s what we find:

The 1910 editorial praising Wells’ appointment notes: "It is stated
that she is the first woman on the Pacific Coast to get such an
appointment. New York has one, the Middle West has one, it is fitting,
therefore, that the Coast should get in line."

The Times also has other early entries on policewomen:

  • A May 30, 1907, story reports that the police chief in Brussels,
    Belgium, wanted to experiment by appointing policewomen. They had to be
    widows or spinsters between the ages of 40 and 50.
  • More to the point, a June 9, 1907, Times story reports that Mrs. Julia Goldzier
    of Bayonne, N.J., "is making strenuous efforts to establish the
    policewoman as a permanent American institution." The Times added: "She
    has designed a uniform for her policewoman and appeals to all
    municipalities to at least make the experiment of appointing women to
    the force."
  • On April 7, 1909, a story from Bayonne reports that "policewomen
    are to be a reality here." The nine volunteers will not wear uniforms
    or make arrests, The Times said, but will police a local park,
    encouraging youngsters to be polite. They were to be called "guardian
    mothers" rather than police officers.
  • And on Oct. 24, 1909, The Times reported that "Mrs. Josephine
    Sullivan is the first policewoman of Chicago. She was sworn in the
    other day  and invested with all the  authority and privileges given
    to special policemen of that city."

 

1948_0626_wells

We will have to put an asterisk next to Wells’ claim at the first
policewoman in the U.S. It would appear that women in Chicago and New
Jersey preceded her. But a June 28, 1910, Times article says that Wells
had already done "rescue police work" in the East. Therefore, the
record remains unclear.

Here’s a final quote from a Dec. 13, 1910, story by The Times’ Sydney Ford:  "Mrs. Alice
Stebbins Wells, Los Angeles’ first woman police officer, touched a
vital point when she told the Ebell Club women of Highland Park the
other day that if housework were looked upon as something equal in
dignity to stenography, clerking or the 101 other occupations of women
who are not professional, it would bridge over the chasm between
mistress and maid with the result that more intelligent and capable
girls would be willing to work in the home."

A footnote to history: Mrs. S.E. George, a rural mail carrier, also
applied for the job of Los Angeles’ first policewoman, according to a
Aug. 9, 1910, story.

Email me

*In case you’re wondering, I forgot to mention her age. She was 84.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Downtown, LAPD and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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