“Who’s on First?” Once and For All, Who Was the First Policewoman in the United States?

For younger readers, “Who’s on First” was a hilarious baseball comedy routine made famous by Abbott and Costello during their vaudeville days in the 1930s and remained popular into the 1970s. Not so comical is the continuing disagreement concerning who was the first policewoman in the United States. To read the differences, one would assume there is a lot riding on the outcome. And perhaps there is. If history has a persona, it surely would not allow loose ends; if the facts are there, history would ensure the question would be answered—hard and fast. Time to tie loose ends.

By the 1840s, women were becoming involved with local law enforcement agencies. Their primary duties included the care of female prisoners and young children. They were not sworn officers nor did they have arrest powers. Their appointment was significant because they constituted the first official recognition of the idea that women were necessary for the proper handling of female and juvenile offenders when in police custody.

Matron Lucy Gray, the first female to work on the LAPD, on the right, with her daughter, Mrs. Aletha Gilbert, who would follow in her mother’s footsteps.

Matron Lucy Gray, the first female to work on the LAPD, on the right, with her daughter, Mrs. Aletha Gilbert, who would follow in her mother’s footsteps.

Just prior to the dawn of the 20th century, the duties of early female officers were more of a social worker. None of these women had the same status as the men working as police officers. However, these women did endeavor to open the door of opportunity for other women to join the ranks for a career in law enforcement. Without question, they were very successful in laying the groundwork for today’s women working side-by-side with their male counterparts.

The problematic ingredient to the issue of who was the first policewoman in the country is defining what constitutes being a sworn female police officer. I suggest she must meet three distinct criteria: She must be appointed to a law enforcement organization, be provided the department’s badge or shield and have the corresponding powers of arrest. Now the controversy. Should she be identified as a policewoman no matter her specific assignment within the organization? If she just worked one narrowly defined assignment, should she be given the title of policewoman? I would argue she should as long as she meets all the other criteria. It is no different today, with some officers going through their entire career working just one or two assignments.

When I was in the police academy and listened to the instructor discuss the history of the Los Angeles Police Department, (and later when I taught the subject), LAPD’s Alice Stebbins Wells was always proclaimed to be the first policewoman in the United States. No instructor cited any documentation to the effect; it was just put out there—and has been for generations. But today, modern research techniques have challenged earlier assumptions. Facts that were obscure and buried in the massive depths of history can now be resurrected.

Armed with these newly discovered specifics, one can, with near certainty, fill a void in this historical caveat. Now, I realize that dates, as they relate to history, are boring, but bear with me—they are important in this discussion. Let’s look at the contenders for Who’s on First—in chronological order.

Marie Owens, Chicago PD

Marie Owens, Chicago PD

1891: Marie Owens, Chicago Police Department
The first date, which was just recently uncovered and lends itself to our established criteria, is in 1891—19 years before women were even given the right to vote. Contemporary research brought to light the exploits of Mrs. Marie Owens of Chicago. A refugee from the Irish Famine, Owens moved to Chicago with her husband. But her spouse died in 1888 of typhoid fever. Left with five children to raise, the tall, solidly built women with flowing black hair found a job with the Chicago Health Department working as the lead factory inspector, tasked with enforcing child-labor laws.

Many children at the time, some as young as 7, were subjected to work long hours and paid only pennies a day, slaving in ghoulish working environments. Public outrage was growing and politicians were forced to take action. Consequently, the city hired female inspectors to investigate and cite violators. Not standing by ideally, the business owners soon out-flanked the inspectors by demanding a search warrant before allowing Owens and her staff to enter. Since the inspectors were without powers of arrest, they were hampered in their investigations.

The Chicago Police Department (CPD) soon became involved and, in a bold move, had the foresight to hire Marie Owens. She was given powers of arrest, the title of detective sergeant and a police star. But her duties were limited to just child labor law violations.
Regardless, she became well known through the press, which followed many of her exploits. Sergeant Owens left little doubt as to her perceived position in the police department:

When the work first began, a woman wearing a police sergeant’s star was a novelty. Manufacturers, in some cases, were not inclined to admit me to their work shops. 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.

The owners of the big plants were not the only ones to take notice of a woman wearing a badge. Owen’s supervisor summed up her capabilities: “Give me men like she is a woman and we will have the model detective bureau of the whole world.” Owens retired in 1923 after 32 years with the Chicago Police Department. Her parting words were:
“In my sixteen years of experience I have come across more suffering than ever is seen by any man detective.”

Lola Baldwin, Portland PD, Oregon

Lola Baldwin, Portland PD, Oregon

1908: Lola Baldwin, Portland (Oregon) Police Department
The second woman in our three-officer race for being credited with being the first woman cop is Lola Baldwin of Portland, Oregon. On April 1, 1908, Baldwin was sworn in as a “female detective to perform police service” for the city of Portland. Her background included working for the Portland Travelers’ Aid Society to ensure that juveniles and young women did not fall into “moral pitfalls” as they worked at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in 1905. The exposition was like a World’s Fair and brought in single lumbermen, laborers and miners who might influence the young people of Portland.

To counter this onslaught, city hall, along with the police chief, formed a force of social workers, headed by Baldwin, who were given temporary quasi-police powers for the length of the exposition. Baldwin and her squad of women were so successful that the same politicians made her position a permanent one. Consequently, in 1908, Baldwin was hired by the Portland Police Department to serve as the “Superintendent of the Women’s Auxiliary to the Police Department for the Protection of Girls.” Thus began her 14-year law enforcement career with a badge and powers of arrest.

Lola Baldwin never thought of her position as one that was the same as that of the uniformed men of the department. Her duties emphasized crime prevention and social work rather than law enforcement. She did not carry a gun or wear a uniform. Her office was not in police headquarters, but at the local YMCA.

Alice Stebbins Wells, LAPD

Alice Stebbins Wells, LAPD

1910: Alice Stebbins Wells, Los Angeles Police Department
Two years later in 1910, 37-year-old Alice Stebbins Wells was a determined woman who took notice of the lack of women in law enforcement. She was a seasoned social worker who wanted to take her profession to the police department. Wells was not waiting to be asked to join the LAPD; she took her case in front of the city council.

She argued that society was changing and there was a definitive need for a women’s presence on the police department. She reasoned that children and abused and sexually assaulted women needed a female police officer to confide in; most women, she pointed out, were extremely uncomfortable in reporting crimes to male officers. The city council agreed, and a transformation took place on LAPD. On September 12, 1910, Wells was designated as the nation’s first female policewoman with arrest powers. The Herald ran a headline of the freshly badged “officeress:”

“NEW POLICE OFFICER ASSUMES HER DUTIES-‘PATROLMAN’ WELLS GIVEN STAR.”
If you happen to be prowling around the streets late at night in a suspicious manner and are arrested by a women who informs you in a gentle voice she is an officer of the law and then flashes a star on you to make you believe it don’t be alarmed or ask any questions, but give an explanation, for it will be Alice Stebbins Wells, the only woman on the department of Los Angeles.

Unlike the two other earlier pioneers mentioned, Wells worked a foot beat with a senior juvenile officer. The male officer showed her “the different penny arcades, skating rinks, dance halls, picture theaters and other places frequented by minors.” Once Wells had her assignment, the department promptly issued a directive:

No young girl can be questioned by a male officer. Such work is delegated solely to policewomen, who, by their womanly sympathy and intuition, are able to gain the confidence of their younger sisters.

Wells went on to found the International Association of Police Women and later the Women Peace Officers Association of California. Alice Wells was appointed the department’s historian and curator in 1934. She presented her first policewoman’s uniform to the archives. After 30 years of service, she retired in 1940 and died in 1957.

There you have it, three pioneering women who, no matter who was first, laid the foundation for the women officers of today. Arguments can be made for each woman. Rather than proclaim my choice now, I want to open it up to an Internet vote. Encourage your friends to vote and let’s see, according to you, Who’s on First. I will post the results soon.

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Local Williams author chronicles the stories behind the Los Angeles Police Department in new book

Jim Bultema displays his new book “Guardians of Angels: A History of the Los Angeles Police Department.” Bultema spent eight years researching and writing the book. Ryan Williams/WGCN
Jim Bultema displays his new book “Guardians of Angels: A History of the Los Angeles Police Department.” Bultema spent eight years researching and writing the book. Ryan Williams/WGCN

WILLIAMS, Ariz. – After eight years of research, local historian and former police officer James Bultema has published his first book about the history of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).
Bultema, a Parks resident, published “Guardians of Angels: A History of the Los Angeles Police Department” this month.

The book provides a chronological history of the department, starting in 1850 when Los Angeles became a city. Bultema explains how the department evolved from a volunteer organization to a professional organization in about 1871. He also highlights key people like the first African American and women officers in the department and several major investigations the department dealt with, including the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the Rodney King incident and the OJ Simpson case.  “But the philosophy I used is not what happened in 1865, da da da, but we take somebody from that era and let them tell their story,” Bultema said.

The idea for the book came while Bultema was serving on the LAPD and doing a history project in 1984. As part of that project he spoke with Arthur Hohmann, who was the LAPD chief from 1939-1941. “I had an opportunity to spend two days with him interviewing him, and that just really got me excited about the history of the department,” Bultema said.

That experience inspired Bultema to write a script and produce a documentary film about the history of the LAPD. After six years of research, the six-hour documentary “Badge of Honor: An Insider’s History of the Los Angeles Police Department” came out in 2002.
“About two years ago I was just thinking to myself, maybe I should take that script and write a book because I did all that research,” Butlema said.

So he completed two years of additional research, during which he started writing the book. Bultema interviewed more than 50 people as part of his research, including about 10-12 police chiefs and several officers who worked in the department from as far back as the 1920s. The book contains many italicized sections, which are quotes from those interviews. “I used a lot of first person documentation because they lived it and experienced it so let them tell the story,” Bultema said.

The book also contains information from old newspapers and numerous old photos. Bultema considers himself a photographic historian. “So the whole book, whenever I put a photograph in, it really complements the narrative that’s going on at the time,” Bultema said.

The most interesting thing Bultema learned while writing his book was how corrupt the LAPD was in its early days. “I don’t duck any of those issues. It’s all there,” Bultema said. “And it just shows our history and what we built from, from being one of the most corrupt to what I consider to be one of the most professional law enforcement organizations in the U.S.”

Bultema’s interest in law enforcement was sparked when he was growing up in Michigan, where his uncle was a police officer and sheriff. Bultema said “just hearing (my uncle’s) stories and being around him” had a strong influence on him.

During the Vietnam War, Bultema served as a police officer in the Air Force. As soon as he got out of the Air Force, Bultema started the police academy. He worked for the LAPD for 26 years.
Having been an officer himself helped Bultema when writing the book for readers unfamiliar with the police department. “They’ve got to understand some of the mentality that goes on that police officers have, how they approach things and what their mental attitude might be,” he said.

However, Butlema said being a historian was even more helpful in writing the book. Bultema has a history degree from California State University at Northridge. “I really haven’t touched on that I was a police officer that wrote (the book) because I don’t want people to think it’s a complimentary, a puff piece if you will, on the department and that I didn’t show any of the black eyes,” he said. Bultema’s time serving on the Board of Directors for the LAPD Historical Society and editing the organization’s quarterly magazine, The Link, also helped him in writing the book.

Bultema hopes his book will give people an idea of what it’s like to be a police officer in a major city. However, he said the book is about more than law enforcement. “I just think it puts the person in the different eras of the history of Los Angeles and gives them insight into the things that were happening,” he said. “Because really, this book is a history of LAPD, but it’s also a history of Los Angeles, because you can’t have one without the other. They complement each other.”

More information about the book is available at http://www.lapdhistory.com.

Article from the Williams News, Williams, AZ. (12-24-2013). http://williamsnews.com/main.asp?SectionID=1&SubSectionID=1&ArticleID=13922

 

National Radio Interview

bill

LAPD Historian James Bultema on Bill Martinez Live – Tuesday, Oct. 29th at 9:47 AM ET
Duration: appoximately 9:47 AM ET to 10:10 AM ET (appoximately 25 minutes)

Topic:  Guardians of Angels-A History of the LA Police Dept. from a police insider on the LAPD including:
  • Frontier Justice – LA Style – when Los Angeles justice dispensed with niceties
  • How a Chief of Police was gunned down by one of his cops over reward money
  • The “Man from Mars” bombing that almost leveled Central Station
  • The Dirty 30´s-gangsters & corruption
  • Christopher Dorner Rampage
  • The Simpson-Goldman Murders
  • Bultema on Mark Fuhrman, the OJ Trial and its effect on the LAPD
  • Rodney King Beating & Riots-20 years later and what needs to be told

What’s In a Picture: Historical Research Using Vintage Photographs

I love old photographs. I relish the stories that emanate from every pixel. It’s a moment in time that can never be duplicated. It allows the viewer to travel back to that instant and share with the people pictured whatever was occurring at that particular second in time. Fortunately for historians, LAPD was very photogenic. Taken by the press or a local photographer and, later, the department’s own photographers, thousands of images record the history of the Los Angeles Police Department from the Wild West era through to today’s digital age.

Photographs contain a treasure-trove of information just waiting to be discovered and used effectively in historical research. I believe these images are underused as a primary historical research tool—yet it’s a resource I enjoyed taking full advantage of through a variety of techniques. In compiling Guardians of Angels: A History of the Los Angeles Police Department, I used historical images to help illustrate the story of the department. As I wrote, I would always strive to locate the precise photograph to support the text. Once discovered, the real work began.

Most photographs from the earlier era of the department have no identifying inscriptions, such as handwritten captions identifying the occasion and the people in the shot. But with a little research, the details captured in the photograph can lead to very precise dating. LAPD has worn six badges since its formation in 1869. Since the time span for each badge is readily available, date ranges can be narrowed down simply by examining the particular badge being worn as well as by the type of uniform. Once I have that information I can look up who was chief of police during that span and narrow it down further by examining the image to see which chief might be pictured. Most made sure to be included in the photograph. By using today’s digital enlargement, fine details barely discernible in the original image can now be brought to life. It might be a close-up of weapons used, the uniform or an individual. Finally, if the image in question is vintage (not a copy), the researcher can date the photograph by the format and type of photograph taken further closing in on the year of the image.

Case in point. In researching for Guardians of Angels, I discovered a very old, unassuming vintage photograph showing two men in suits (above). The image was a carte-de-visite (also known as a CDV), which was a common style of photography from the 1860s to the early 1870s. This fact allowed narrowing down the date of the image. Further research of an old newspaper article accompanying the photo identified one of the individuals pictured as William “Billy” Sands.

sands earlyWilliam Sands, on the right, wearing the earliest known uniform of the Los Angeles Police Department, circa 1870.

In one of the oldest police annual reports of the LAPD, in October 1883, 16 officers were listed as employed, one of whom was: “William Sands, age 57, entered service February, 1870.” Subsequent investigation led to a glimpse into the life of Billy Sands, who posed for this photograph more than 140 years ago. Sands was born in Tennessee in 1826 and grew up in Arkansas. With the discovery of gold in California, the 23-year-old headed west. Briefly involved with the Civil War in 1861, Sands eventually settled in Los Angeles and became one of the earliest known city firemen.

Eight years later in 1869, LAPD hired its first six full-time paid officers. A few months later, Sands was hired as a replacement officer for one of the original six officers. Because LAPD did not adopt an official police uniform until several years later, the photograph of Sands standing with an unidentified individual (almost certainly another officer) is vital to the history of the department. It appears that the clothes worn by these two men are the earliest known example of what the LAPD uniforms resembled, before the official formal uniform was adopted in 1876.

The fact that both men are very similarly dressed, including their hats, jackets and pants, has to be more than a coincidence. Additionally, while most histories of the LAPD credit Chief William Warren with development of the sunburst-designed badge in 1869, I would argue that the first badge was not issued until 1877, under Chief of Police Jacob Gerkens. If these officers took the time to have their photograph taken in uniform, they most definitely would have displayed a metal badge on their lapels.

Officer Billy Sands remained on active duty until his death on November 9, 1885, at the age of 59. At this time, he was the most senior officer in the young department. The photograph, hidden from sight and deliberation for years, represent the founding officers’ uniform of the 1870 LAPD.

Over the next few months, I want to share just “What’s in a Picture” and several of the photographs I discovered in writing Guardians of Angels. Each one makes for interesting viewing, reading and historical research. Please comment on my blog and share if you have any special interest you would like to see in this column.

Why Guardians of Angels?

John Powers, while waiting for an ambulance to arrive, describes the details of the shooting to a detective, his wounded partner next to him.

  • John Powers, while waiting for an ambulance to arrive, describes the details of the shooting to a detective, his wounded partner next to him.

Everyone and everything has a history. Yet for the Los Angeles Police Department, it has been more than 75 years since the last in-depth historical account was written about—75 years since anyone has chronicled where the department has come from and what makes today’s officers who and what they are. I thought it was time for a new comprehensive examination of the LAPD. Not some boring factual account of its history, but engaging stories told by the men and women who lived them.

Guardians of Angels: A History of the Los Angeles Police Department details how the department started with just six hard-fighting, Wild West cops transformed over the next 160 years into the modern, technologically advanced LAPD of today. With the use of hundreds of rare photographs and scores of interviews, the book brings the history of the department to life—turning readers into time-traveling witnesses into the very essence of what makes LAPD such a major player in the world of law enforcement. When Chief of Police William Warren is gunned down in the dirt streets of Los Angeles by another officer over reward money, you can almost smell the smoke in the air from the gunfire. It’s the stories that make history so fascinating.

Guardians of Angels uses many first-hand accounts taken from either the person making history or from primary documents of the time. When John “Two Gun” Powers talks in detail on how he earned the nickname of “Two Gun,” he gets your attention:

He [the suspect] fired that .45 and I didn’t even think, my reflexes just took over, and I drew my gun…and I emptied it at the suspect with the .45. He went down—he went down hard—and the .45 skidded out of his hand. I had hit him twice, so he was down and out. So I take a deep breath and I hear shots on the other side of the car….

That’s the power of first-hand accounts. When Powers told me what happened that fateful day, I could visualize the suspect firing his gun and being hit with return fire. I could see him go down and watched as the .45 noisily skidded across the payment. This is want I want the reader to experience throughout the entire book—a 3-diminisional history coming to life right before your eyes. This is what Guardians of Angels is all about.

While its badge has varied—from a tin star of the 1800s to the most recognizable police shield in the world today—the symbol of the LAPD has always carried the same promise, just as the wearer carries the same responsibility. Each officer who has pinned on this badge, holstered a gun and traveled the corridors of history has left behind the rich traditions that are today the Los Angeles Police Department. The chronicle of the LAPD is the story of these men and women who have committed themselves as the guardians of the city of Angels.