Hello everyone, Winnie Griggs here.
Back in January I started a series of articles about 10 amazing women who paved the way for females in various branches of law enforcement. If you missed the prior posts you can find them here:
- Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton Agent.
- Phoebe Couzins, the first woman to be appointed to the U.S. Marshal service.
- Marie Owens – First US Female Police Officer
- F.M. Miller – Female Deputy Marshal to the Indian Territory
- Ada Carnutt – U.S. Deputy Marshal
This month I want to talk about Claire H. Ferguson, another trailblazing female law enforcement officer.
Claire was the member of a well-known Utah family. In fact, the female members of the family were quite progressive for their times. Claire’s mother, Ellen, co-founded the Utah Conservatory of Music and after her husband’s death dedicated herself to practicing medicine. Ellen was also active in politics and organized the Women’s Democratic Club in 1896. Claire’s sister Ethel was an actress. It is interesting that little is remembered of her father William, other than that he was a Scotsman and that he moved his family to Utah in 1876.
Claire herself was quite accomplished in her own right. One contemporary newspaper article, which called her the girl sheriff of Utah, described her as “young and beautiful, highly educated and prominent in society.”
Born in Provo, Utah in 1877, Claire grew up in Salt Lake City. It was there she received her commission in 1897. Prior to that she’d served as a stenographer in the sheriff’s office under Sheriff T.P. Lewis. It was Sheriff Lewis who recognized her aptitude and ambition, and made the appointment. It is reported that she viewed her new role in this manner “The prospect did not frighten me. You must remember that I was born in the grand, free West, where we breathe freedom of thought and action with the air.” She also said “Women make good sheriffs. Every sheriff’s office should have women in it.”
Her duties included taking charge of female prisoners, vandals and child truants. But she did so much more. She was trained to handle a weapon the same as any other deputy and was warned that she might at some point be required to carry out an execution, though there is no record that she had to do so. According to her own accounts, she served more than 200 summons, transported more than 100 women to the insane asylum, escorted 12 or more children to reform school and escorted a half dozen women back and forth between jail and court and remained with them throughout their trial proceedings.
The Kendalville Standard Newspaper of Indiana, calling her the girl sheriff of Utah, reported some of her other accomplishments in their September 29, 1899 edition: “…she has had as many thrilling experiences as the border heroine of a dime novel. She prevented the escape of “Handsome Gray,” the most desperate criminal in Utah. She nearly lost her life at the hands of a lunatic. She is the only woman ever invited to visit “Robber’s Roost,” the rendezvous of a lawless gang of cattle thieves. She saved a woman thief from suicide.”
I read in one report that she had as many as 15 marriage proposals during her time as a Deputy Sheriff. She refused them all, believing they were more in love with her unusual role than with her.
Claire did eventually marry, though not many details are known about the groom beyond the fact that his name was William Wright and he was a salesman. By the time of their marriage she was no longer a Deputy Sheriff in Utah. Instead she was living in New York where she’d moved to be with her sister and mother and she’d taken a job once again as a stenographer.
I could find no record of what eventually happened to Claire, though there was a mention that she survived her mother who passed away in 1920.
There you have it, another very brief sketch of the trailblazing life of a brave and ahead-of-her-times woman. What struck you most about her? If you’d already heard of her, did you learn anything new, or do you have more to add to her story?