America’s first female cop?

There’s been some debate over who was the first female police officer in the country. Los Angeles boldly proffers its first female police officer hired in 1910, while Portland claims to have gotten the jump on LA by hiring a female officer in 1908. Now Rick Barrett, an amateur historian and former DEA agent, thinks he’s found the real first of the first in Chicago, her far earlier accomplishments obscured when a historian confused her with someone else back in the 20s.

Detective Sergeant Marie Owens was the daughter of Irish famine immigrants. She moved to Chicago from Ottawa with her husband, and when he died of typhoid fever leaving her with 5 children to support, in 1889 she got a job with the city health department as a factory inspector enforcing child labor and compulsory education laws. Not unlike certain federal agencies to this day (*cough* USDA *cough*), the health department had no real power to compel businesses to obey child labor laws. They couldn’t even walk into a factory without a warrant.

Det. Sgt. Marie Owens on the front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune, 1904The outcry over Dickensian sweatshop conditions spurred the city to take a firmer hand, and in 1891 Marie Owens was transferred to the police department. She was given powers of arrest, the title of detective sergeant and a police star. It wasn’t just a sinecure or one of those Official Police Assistant certificates they give to kids, either. She was a for real police officer, listed on a record of all police officers from the years 1904 through 1910 found in the archives of the Chicago History Museum. She even made the front page of the Chicago Tribune on August 7, 1904, described in the headline as “the only woman police sergeant in the world.”

Owens described how she had discovered children — “frail little things” as young as 7 years old — working in factories all over the city. Some assembly lines were staffed by scores of kids, many looking suspiciously younger than 14, the age at which children were legally allowed to work.

“In my sixteen years of experience I have come across more suffering than ever is seen by any man detective,” she said.

Her work affected thousands of children. 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. Already, her work seemed to be fading from memory. And when a historian confused her with another woman and described Owens in a book about policewomen as a patrolman’s widow, her accomplishments were struck from history.

In 2007, Rick Barrett found a reference to her as the wife of a fallen policeman when he was researching Chicago police officers. When he looked up the death records, however, he found a discrepancy. Owens’ husband was listed as a gas fitter, not a cop. His interest now fully piqued, Barrett combed through all the records he could find, piecing together her remarkable life story and now finally calling attention to this overlooked pioneer.


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Comment by kevin
2010-09-09 02:46:07

I’m so glad you brought this story back to life, it could have been lost forever and Marie Owens life’s work would have never been known by those of us who enjoy civilized working conditions. Her life was important and she deserves the respect and recognition of all of us who enjoy the great freedoms that America has to offer.

Comment by livius drusus
2010-09-09 11:50:11

Agreed. Owens was a pioneer not only for women in the workplace, but also in the history of organized labor.

Comment by LadyShea
2010-09-09 12:56:32

Agreed! What a remarkable story that was almost lost forever. Yay Rick Barrett for being curious!

Comment by livius drusus
2010-09-09 13:00:24

And for having 3 generations of Chicago cops in his family. That’s what started him looking through the records in the first place.

Comment by Hels
2010-09-09 19:04:30

What a fantastic woman! “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.” So Marie Owens had a job much bigger than that of an ordinary police officer and one with greater community development potential.

No wonder she was written out of history. The robber baron capitalists probably hated her.

Comment by livius drusus
2010-09-09 20:34:43

So Marie Owens had a job much bigger than that of an ordinary police officer and one with greater community development potential.

Exactly. I think that’s why they gave her det. sgt. status out of the gate, so she could define her own job and take effective action.

Comment by Rick Barrett
2011-01-15 20:25:07

I am so glad you liked the story. I think I will write a book about Marie Owens, nee: Connelly. Thanks again, Rick Barrett

Comment by livius drusus
2011-01-15 20:42:45

Please do! I will be first in line to purchase a copy. Thank you for ferreting out this wonderful story. :thanks:

Comment by kieron walsh
2011-05-14 09:00:30

to rick barrett

rick, have read with great interest in the newspapers here in ireland of marie owens nee connolly’s amazing work in that field. do the decent thing and write that book !!

on another note, i am researching my grandfather john m walsh’s life in chicago in the very early 1900’s. i know he lived there for seventeen years, did very well in the railway construction trade and openened a very successful bar / tavern there before retuning to co kerry in 1907 to run the family farm.

any idea where i might look for a possible register of bar licences etc ? i was told by an uncle ten years ago that the bar is still trading and has a green door, but i cannot say for sure that it is the famous green door tavern. any pointers for me to look at , or anyone out there to help me ?

am travelling to chicago in november next to look things up. any of your barretts here in county cork ? a common name here, when i was a kid our local barber in skibbereen was barrett.

all the best, and thanks for any help you might be able to give me. kieron walsh

Comment by Alyssa
2013-03-16 15:44:45

My son is writing a women’s history month paper (7th grade) on Marie Owens because he’s very interested in law enforcement. He hasn’t been able to find transcripts of the original Chicago Tribune newspaper articles discussing Mrs. Owens’s career. Can you give us any guidance on how to find this information? We don’t live anywhere near Chicago. Thanks!

Comment by livius drusus
2013-03-16 16:13:17

The Chicago Tribune archives are available to search online, but you either have to have a digital subscription or be willing to pay to purchase individual articles. I went ahead and purchased the 1904 article on Marie Owens. May I email you?

Comment by Anonymous
2013-04-15 08:48:30


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