The profile of police woman Maggie Egbert in the 1917 Lexington newspaper was written in prose so flowery it gave off a stench.
In the first anecdote, Egbert, Lexington’s first police woman, rescues an innocent girl who has been led astray by “a new beau in Lexington who looked just like Francis X. Bushman,” a muscle-bound silent screen idol who looked a little like a dark-haired Chris Pratt.
In the second, “the Little Woman in Black” leads home a local leader who has had too much to drink; in the third, she keeps a good boss from dispatching an attractive stenographer being abused by a heinous boyfriend; and in the conclusion, she keeps her fellow police officers from smoking just by the force of her personality.
So, it was established early on that Egbert, 53 years old and 98 pounds, was a force of nature. She was paid $50 a week and from the first, understood her job as being far more important than being a mellowing influence on her fellow officers.
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When she first met her fellow officers, Egbert recalled, “They were most courteous but I sensed that they were also amused.”
She had been married for 32 years by then, to Colonel Edwin Egbert, the private secretary to Kentucky Gov. James Proctor Knott. The couple had two children, Ethlyn and Edwin Jr.
After settling into her job, Egbert spent a lot of time in juvenile court, “which at that time was in its infancy,” she wrote. “I soon found myself as acting officer, bringing in both juvenile delinquents and delinquent parents, and even was asked to make decisions.”
Egbert worked hard for that $50 a week, often laboring “until the small hours in the morning many nights,” she wrote. Every incident, except the handling of drunks, came her way: “In many instances the case can better be done by a woman,” she wrote.
Nor was she a shrinking violet about societal problems: She recalled in a farewell article that one of her biggest accomplishments was helping establishing a venereal disease clinic.
Egbert would work for the Lexington police department until 1946. She died, at 95, in a Nicholasville nursing home in 1959.
Unlikely as it seems today, women on the police force were novelties until the decade between 1910 and 1920. Los Angeles was the first big city in the nation to appoint a policewoman: Alice Stebbins Wells, who was hired on a wave of support for the woman’s suffrage movement and concerns that male officers were not tuned in as well to abused children and unwed mothers.
Wells, then 37, patrolled dance halls, skating rinks, penny arcades and other places linked to “immorality.”
By 1915, policewomen were appointed in at least 25 cities including San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Denver and Chicago. Lexington, in 1917, was following what was by then an established precedent. Still, women wouldn’t be assigned to beat patrols in cities such as New York until the mid-1970s.
Egbert’s tenure has been chronicled by Lexington police historian Robert Terry, who recently wrote about her leading the way for today’s generation of police officers. Although Terry has a regular job within the Lexington force, he also serves as Police Historian for the Lexington department. (Got ideas for him? He’s at Rterry@lexingtonpolice.ky.gov)
“I have no regrets that I had chosen the work of a policewoman as my profession,” Egbert wrote when she retired. “For there is no greater opportunity for service than comes to the police department.”