Real Crime

The Life of an Early 20th Century Policewoman: Solving Murders and Busting Prostitution Rings

Alice Stebbin Wells policewoman
Mrs. Alice Stebbins Wells of the Los Angeles Police Department, one of the first policewomen in the world, poses for a photo. Although she is wearing her badge, she normally kept it in her pocketbook while on the job. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
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    The Life of an Early 20th Century Policewoman: Solving Murders and Busting Prostitution Rings

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      Erika Janik

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      The Life of an Early 20th Century Policewoman: Solving Murders and Busting Prostitution Rings

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      June 17, 2018

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      A+E Networks

From its inception, organized law enforcement has been considered a male-dominated field. But in August 1910, Alice Stebbins Wells became America’s first official policewoman with the Los Angeles Police Department. (The gender neutral term “police officer” wasn’t the norm back then and policewomen had different roles on the job than policemen.) Although women worked in policing before Wells received her badge (which she carried in her pocketbook), they didn’t have the official title “policewoman.”

In the following excerpt from Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction by Erika Janik, reprinted with permission from Beacon Press, see how one early policewoman helped solve a sensational murder and the vital role the first policewomen played in busting prostitution rings, finding missing people and more.

“THERE’S A DEATH REPORTED FROM OVER HERE ON CLARK STREET,” reported the station orderly to the captain and a lady detective inside Chicago’s police headquarters. The victim was Eileen Perry, a young woman of about seventeen or eighteen years old. Stricken by typhoid, the girl appeared to have died from her illness.

The lady detective, along with a male detective named Williams, left the station to have a look and were soon “ascending the steps of a rickety building” past the gaunt, destitute figures of the other inhabitants of the tenement. When the detectives reached the top floor, they found a janitor waiting for them.

“It’s just a case of typhoid,” said the janitor, moving toward Williams. “This little girl came here about six weeks ago looking for work. She didn’t find it. About two weeks ago she got sick. We did everything we could for her but there wasn’t much money and we couldn’t find out where her folks were.”

Williams looked around the room. Seeing nothing suspicious, he concluded that the police had little to offer a case as obvious as this. The lady detective, however, was less sure. Spotting a dulcimer in the corner she asked who it belonged to.

“Little Miss Perry, I guess,” the janitor answered.

She picked up the instrument and ran her fingers up and down the strings. She stopped and looked at her hand. The strings were rough, but no rust was apparent. Taking her magnifying glass from her handbag, she examined the strings again.

After a quick look, the detective handed the instrument to Williams and ordered, “Take this to the microscopist.”

“Now what have you got up your sleeve?” Williams asked.

“A murder case and a good one,” the lady detective asserted as the two left the scene.

Investigating further, she discovered that the victim had inherited property in Colorado from her long-deceased father. She also found that Miss Perry had an aunt, a Mrs. Brent. The girl had known nothing of her inheritance, which had begun “pouring in money” after the discovery of gold on the property. Nor did she know of her relationship to Mrs. Brent, who had hired Miss Perry as a domestic to get close to the girl and her untapped riches. “An ordinarily good woman who had allowed greed to enter her heart and stifle all else,” Mrs. Brent came up with a horrible scheme to claim the land deed for herself. While on philanthropic business at city hall, Brent stole a tube containing typhoid germs from the public health laboratory. She then paid Miss Perry a visit. Brent found her alone in her room, playing the dulcimer that had once belonged to her father.

“I am thirsty,” Brent said. “Could you get me a glass of water?”

The girl laid down the instrument and left the room. Brent drew the culture tube from her bag and applied some of the germs to the strings. She knew that Miss Perry often licked her fingers as she turned the pages of her music.

When the lady detective confronted Brent with her evidence, Brent’s face “grew ghastly” at the allegation. She staggered forward and then fainted. When she came to, Brent admitted that money had driven her mad.

But before the detectives could take her to the station, “a wild scream interrupted.” Brent plunged forward, “blood streaming from her throat, where she had pierced it with a penknife.” She died a few minutes later.

The case, dubbed “The Dulcimer” by the press, seemed something straight from the pen of popular writers Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. Yet the lady detective in the story was none other than Alice Clement of the Chicago Police Department.

Stories like this made Clement famous in the 1910s, while surely invoking the ire of many other pioneer policewomen who sought a quiet and unobtrusive approach to policing…

The hiring of Chicago’s policewomen created a media circus, likely due both to the size of the city and to the number hired at once. The ten women ranged in age from twenty-five to fifty. Of the ten, eight were widows. All were trained in social work. Police training consisted of two hours of instruction on their first day given by Chief James McWeeny. He mostly covered what they shouldn’t do: “Don’t stretch the truth”; “Don’t be too strenuous, have compassion”; Don’t be nosy”; “Don’t use too much force in making arrests”; “Don’t complain about long hours”; and “Don’t talk more than necessary; let your commanding officer do most of the talking.” The women were then sworn in and given a whistle, fire and patrol box key (before telephones, a system of locked call boxes with levers sent requests and notifications of emergencies to police and fire departments), a rulebook, and badge. Guns were, as usual, not part of their uniform.

Working in pairs, Chicago’s policewomen visited dance halls, excursion boats, beaches, and train stations looking for suspicious people and girls in danger. Although they had the authority to make arrests, the policewomen were encouraged to gather information, “instruct and persuade” rather than capture and discipline. The Chicago Daily News reported that hiring policewomen placed “emphasis upon sympathy and understanding instead of upon mere muscle” in law enforcement. Even so, reporters followed the policewomen’s every move, waiting breathlessly to report on their first arrest or, even better, a fight between officers and a suspect. Two days later, the newspapers had their story when a pair of policewomen arrested Nellie Cameron on charges of disorderly conduct. A crowd assembled to watch and applaud the policewomen. “Three cheers for the women cops and their first arrest,” someone shouted. That arrest was not their last: despite the directive to use persuasion over detention, in 1913 the policewomen arrested approximately ten thousand women.

As [Alice Stebbins] Wells continued to travel the nation making the case for policewomen, several other cities began to act. Denver, Topeka, San Diego, and San Francisco were among those to appoint women to the force in the early 1910s. By 1913, the United States had thirty-eight policewomen. Two years later, the number had increased to seventy in twenty-six cities. Those cities without policewomen often increased the number of matrons and expanded their duties to include some police and detective work.

Even without the title “detective,” policewomen performed an investigative function in their daily duties. They went to saloons and dance halls looking for evidence of proprietors serving alcohol to children or men engaging in white slavery. In Chicago, the city’s first African American policewoman, Grace Wilson, busted William New in 1921 after her investigation revealed that the “art gallery” New ran was actually part of a prostitution ring. When girls (and sometimes boys) disappeared or ran away, policewomen gathered the evidence to locate and return them to their families.

One Macon, Georgia, policewoman gathered evidence and tracked a missing fourteen-year-old girl named Helen Berry to a boardinghouse in New York City, alerting her mother to Berry’s whereabouts more than a month after Berry disappeared. Policewomen monitored classified ads in newspapers for sexual harassers and fraudsters offering nonexistent jobs as receptionists, clerks, and models, and apprehended the offenders by posing as applicants.

In 1923, Los Angeles policewoman Lula B. Ditter used an assumed name to apply for jobs with agencies promising women movie careers. Most paid her far less than they agreed, if they paid her at all, while others billed her for photographs and makeup classes with vague promises of future employment that never materialized. These types of agencies placed women in brothels, not movies.

Policewomen worked on prostitution and abortion cases, arrested doctors and nurses illegally distributing birth control, and busted fortune-tellers and other swindlers. They investigated the home lives of troubled young women. These were not the cases of murder and robbery that fictional detectives tackled, but they constituted detective work nonetheless, requiring observation, the collection of evidence, and deduction in a protective function.

Excerpted from Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction by Erika Janik (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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