Chicago claims first policewoman in the United States

By Colleen Mastony
Wednesday, September 8, 2010

CHICAGO -- Her story had been lost amid dusty records that were long ago stashed in deep storage and forgotten.

Forgotten until a retired federal agent, researching the history of Chicago law enforcement, stumbled upon a mention of her name and a reference to the fact that, in the 1890s, she had become a police officer in Chicago. The date caught his attention. A female police officer in the 1890s?

Now, after three years and hundreds of hours of research, Rick Barrett, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent and amateur historian, says he has found definitive evidence that a woman named Marie Owens was not only the first policewoman in Chicago, but also the first known female officer in the United States.

If true, Barrett's discovery would be "huge," said Dave MacFarlan, a police historian who noted that the police department previously believed the first female officers joined the force in 1913.

Debate has long swirled around the identity of the nation's first female cop. Los Angeles claimed the distinction of hiring the first, saying a woman joined its department in 1910. Yet Portland, Ore., points to its own female officer, hired in 1908. Barrett's claim would trump them both.

For Barrett, a square-jawed, hard-charging former investigator, uncovering Owens's story has become a quest. He crisscrossed the city, befriending archivists and pulling strings to access pension records, civil service documents and cemetery plot listings.

"She wasn't wealthy. She was Irish. She was Catholic," said Barrett, 57. "She had all of these strikes against her, and so they just wrote her off." And, he said, wrote her out of history. Though Owens's role at the police department was well covered by the turn-of-the-century press, a historian in 1925 mixed up Owens and another woman. As a result, Owens's accomplishments were almost erased, Barrett said.

A tall, solidly built woman with long, dark hair, Owens was the daughter of Irish Famine immigrants and grew up in the crowded tenements of Ottawa. In her 20s, she moved with her husband, Thomas, to Chicago, no doubt looking for a better life. But in February 1888, Thomas died of typhoid fever. Left to raise five children, Owens landed a job in 1889 with the city health department, working as one of five female factory inspectors who enforced child-labor and compulsory-education laws.

At the time, public outrage was growing over sweatshop conditions in factories across the city. But the inspectors' powers were limited; they couldn't enter buildings without a warrant. As pressure mounted on public officials to step up enforcement of child-labor laws, Owens was transferred to the police department in 1891. She was given powers of arrest, the title of detective sergeant and a police star.

"I like to do police work," Owens told the Chicago Tribune in 1906. "It gives me a chance to help women and children who need help." She described how she had discovered children as young as 7 working in factories. "In my sixteen years of experience I have come across more suffering than ever is seen by any man detective," she said.

She established schools within department stores so young workers could get an education, and she persuaded other employers to shorten their workdays, according to historical news accounts. In 1923 she retired after 32 years with the department. Four years later, she died at age 74. The brief, eight-line death notice that ran in local papers didn't mention her police career. Later, when a historian mistakenly described Owens in a book about policewomen as a patrolman's widow, her accomplishments were struck from history.

"That was nonsense!" Barrett declared, standing in his dining room, where piles of paperwork documenting Owens's life have taken over the table and overflowed into an adjacent den. A balding, bespectacled man with a tenacious work ethic and an eye for obscure details, Barrett says that, after 28 years as a federal agent, investigating cases has become second nature to him.

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