A Police Matron from Davenport, Iowa

This article is contributed by one of our summer interns, Elena DiGrado, who worked on this newest addition to our collection.
When I picture a police matron in the early 20th century, I imagine the corrupt Matron “Mama” Morton from the hit Broadway play, “Chicago.” Her character represents our modern stereotype of a woman in her profession. Matron “Mama” Morton receives bribes from the young murderesses of Cook County Jail in exchange for contraband (i.e., cigarettes and liquor) and legal assistance during their trials. In her solo performance, she expresses her motto explicitly, singing, “When you’re good to Mama, Mama’s good to you.” Although “Mama” Morton entertains audiences, she represents a false conception of early 20th century police matrons.
The National Law Enforcement Museum recently acquired a new collection that focuses on the life of Davenport, Iowa’s, Matron Sarah “Sadie” Hill. The Museum plans to use the collection to reconcile the public’s perceptions (or misconceptions) of police matrons’ roles in American society with who they actually were. The collection includes several newspaper articles detailing her positive role as the city matron and some of her personal items, such as her black shawl, bonnet, and hand mirror, along with nine photographs and a bundle of hair from an unknown person. Matron Hill was a member of a national organization called the Western Police Matron Association, and the collection also contains ribbons from annual conferences, including the one held during the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri.

Bonnet, hand mirror, photograph, newspaper articles, and ribbons
Bonnet, hand mirror, photograph, newspaper articles, and ribbons, Hill Collection. 2010.29.4a, 6, 13, 1, 11. Collection of the NLEM, Washington, D.C.

The position of the police matron began in the 1890s and quickly became the trend for major cities in America. Right before the turn of the 20th century, law enforcement in America found themselves in desperate need of assistance with social problems they were expected to handle, in addition to crime. As cities urbanized, more and more young women lived without the protection and support of families and in jeopardy of descending into the sway of prostitution in local brothels. Prior to police matrons, male officers handled arresting women and were confounded by the abandoned children, elderly, and homeless people on the streets who all needed the basic necessities of life, such as food, clean water, and shelter. These individuals did not break the law, and people argued that they did not belong in jail with law breakers because of their unfortunate circumstances. The “Police Matron” became the chosen solution to these problems. These women first dealt with female prisoners, but they soon extended out to serve as social worker, counselor, and welfare officer as needed.
According to Sharon E. Wood’s The Freedom of the Streets: Work, Citizenship, and Sexuality in a Gilded Age City, Sarah Hill was the second matron appointed by Davenport and was assigned to her position in 1893. She dedicated her life and service to the protection of those who could not help themselves from the perils of urban decay. This new collection of Matron Hill’s effects gives evidence of how one police matron exemplified the ideas behind NLEM’s mission statement. Helping abandoned women, old people, children, and the homeless, her acts created a positive relationship between law enforcement and the public. Also, through the duties she performed, she successfully contributed to a safer society and served to uphold the democratic ideals of the U.S. Constitution.
With this collection, researchers can further investigate the role of police matrons in American history and how their involvement established the role of women in the law enforcement field. Matron Hill’s story provides another view of what I once thought was the role of a matron, and I look forward to delving further into her life and her service to the citizens of Davenport, Iowa.