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Offbeat Oregon History

First woman cop was Portland’s “municipal mother”

By the time Walt Disney Productions released “The Rescuers” in 1977, the idea of a “Rescue Aid Society” dedicated to the eradication of kidnapping felt quaint, old-fashioned, and fun.

But not many years earlier, when memories of the Progressive Era were fresher, it would not have scanned that way. In fact, “The Rescuers” was first pitched in 1962, at which time Walt Disney himself killed it. And that was probably a good call: members of the real Aid Societies were still alive and had matured into one of the fiercest and most serious cohorts of old ladies the world had ever known. A cartoon that seemed to poke fun at the great accomplishments of their younger lives, even gentle and good-natured fun, would have brought them out of retirement ready for battle.

And Walt knew what they were capable of — he had been there in those Aid Society ladies’ heyday. And he’d been working in show business — one of the industries they regularly locked horns with.

No, “The Rescuers” would not come out in 1962. It would have to wait until every society lady who in her youth had made it her life’s work to stamp out “white slavery” was gone, along with Disney himself, before it could be safely made.

For that was what the Aid Societies were about. They weren’t dedicated to finding and rescuing little orphan kids who had been kidnapped by evil flame-haired swamp witches to steal diamonds. They were anti-human-trafficking organizations.

And one of their most prominent and effective members was a Portland woman named Lola Greene Baldwin, known to history as the first paid female police officer west of the Rockies.

Lola Greene was born in 1860 in Elmira, N.Y., and raised in Rochester. She grew up following a decidedly non-traditional education path that ended with her acquiring her competency Abraham Lincoln-style, as an autodidact by firelight at night, after she was forced to drop out of school when her father died.

After passing the relevant exam, Miss Greene took a job as a schoolteacher in Lincoln, Neb., and it was there that she met and married her husband, LeGrand Baldwin, a prosperous local dry-goods merchant.

After the wedding, the custom at the time was for the former Miss Greene to leave her schoolteacher job and settle into “keeping Mr. Baldwin’s home for him and bearing his children” full-time. She found, however, that these wifely duties didn’t come to a full-time job for her.

She also chafed at being cloistered away from the world. It was now the 1880s, and American society was still in the throes of a change in how it viewed a woman’s place. The traditional pre-Civil War view was the “cult of True Womanhood,” according to which the proper role of a wife was kind of like a domestic chaplain-mascot. She was to stay at home, having babies and setting a great example to the children, and focus all her energies on helping her family stay clean, morally upstanding, and as sin-free as possible, letting her husband do all the work out in the world.

But then had come the runup to the Civil War, and the great work of Abolition, and women had done great things to end the social evil of slavery. And after the war, many ladies decided they preferred to stay active, and started looking for other charity work to occupy their energy.

Of course, there was plenty of injustice in the world for a lady to work to fight. Bright-eyed girls who fell in love with and married men who turned out to be secret drunkards, little orphans walled up in cold stone workhouses, innocent country girls tempted into a “life of shame” by a visit to an opium den on a dare.

So, that’s how the Abolition movement led middle- and upper-class American women to start leaving their homes and working for change in the world. They did it with a Bible in one hand and their hearts in the other, leaning on each other for support. It all kicked off, more or less, nine years after the war with the “Temperance riots of 1874,” when groups of them dressed up in their Sunday best and held prayer sessions in saloons and roadhouses, pleading with the drinkers there to give up Demon Rum and go home to their neglected families.

And that activity, in turn, led some of the ladies to learn about the plight of the women and girls whom many of the saloons preyed upon.

The typical 1880s saloon was not much like the comparatively wholesome taverns that folks would stop at for a beer on the way home from work a century later. Basically, they were one-stop sin shops. Here’s how the model worked:

The saloon keeper would rent a building from an agent. The agent was necessary because the owner of the building was usually a “respectable” member of society, who did not want anyone to know he made his money renting real estate to vice operators.

The saloon keeper would set up his operation in the best part of the building, laying it out with card tables and faro rooms as needed. He would also set up some performance spaces for dancing girls. Then he would sub-let some prime streetfront space to a grill restaurant, which would, of course, serve liquor from his saloon; and he would sub-let the upstairs to a madam, who would “stock” it with girls and women.

There would be a sort of promotion track for the girls: they would start out making pretty good money as dancers or as eye candy in the bar, enticing customers to come in and buy drinks; sooner or later most of them would be tempted by the easy money to turn a trick or two; and they would end up aging out of the brothel industry and being discarded like worn-out clothes to make room for the next crop of younger women.

There were variations on this — many saloonkeepers who wouldn’t host brothels, and many more that merged the grill into the saloon and used free food as an enticement to customers to come in and drink — but that was the basic model.

So, obviously, a big crowd of hymn-singing ladies there to “save” the drunks were in a great position to observe all of this, or maybe even to be approached by prostitutes wanting to leave the business, or by young girls who were being groomed to take their place in it.

When Lola Greene Baldwin got married and left her teaching job, these lady activists had just started doing something about this problem. They had started creating institutions or homes for “wayward girls and fallen women,” with an eye toward giving these erstwhile sex workers an off-ramp — or, better yet, to intercepting the young at-risk teens and giving them some social support so they could more easily stay strong.

In Lincoln, Mrs. Baldwin found several of these institutions to plug into: the Nebraska Rescue Home and the Home for the Friendless. Soon she was, as historian Gloria Myers puts it, “interviewing inmates to determine the best course for their moral salvation.”

Continued Next Week

 

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