The vexations of research
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.' "
Wells 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.
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."
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.
*In case you're wondering, I forgot to mention her age. She was 84.