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Where's Nellie when you need her?

The XX files 

Where's Nellie when you need her?

Rochester has me feeling a little blue lately. The wicked high murder rate. The sad, sorry state of downtown. The poverty. To cheer myself up I sometimes squint my eyes like a kid looking at the stars until a gleaming vision of Rochester of yesteryear comes into focus. It's the early 1900s and a city of promise rises over the cornfields.

            But that's not the whole story. Although Rochester about a hundred years ago was bustling and productive, it wasn't without problems. I got a slim glimpse into 1913 Rochester recently when I read the work journal of the city's first policewoman, Nellie McElroy. The folio-sized, leather-bound book that chronicles her first couple of years on the job working with troubled women and girls is in the Rare Books Library at the University of Rochester. In careful handwriting she describes a world where a thousand tablets of heroin cost $5.50, where pickpockets mingled with prostitutes, and where young women looking for work became prey.

"Visited Eggleston Hotel... Found Dorothy Ralsont, 16 years of age, with one Andrew Dodge, a traveling salesman over 60 years of age, sitting at one of the tables eating dinner. A glass of slow [sic] gin rickey had been ordered for her and was sitting on the table. [I] told Dorothy I wanted to see her in the ladies room. After talking with her I took her to her home, 159 Chestnut Street. Before taking Dorothy home I told Mr. Dodge if I found him in company with any girls under age in any of our 'Hotels or Cafés' I would place him under arrest."

            Rochester was an entirely different city then. The canal ran through downtown. Boats clogged the waterway at Exchange Street, and bridges were constantly swinging or lifting to let them through. Pedestrians, bikes, and trolleys fought each other for the right of way. Workers, lured by factory employment, stayed in cheap hotels. Images of the day show smoke, water, boats, and people.

            It's easy to imagine how 1913 Rochester could be a tempting destination to a country girl with few prospects. Women and girls flowed into the city --- some were runaways, others lacked the skills to work in the factories and turned to, as Officer McElroy charmingly put it, "the sporting life," or to drugs.

            "Clara Hurd, 25 years old, living with her parents at 5 Eckhardt Street. Clara has been a Heroin fiend for four years. She started to take the drug when she lived in Syracuse. Clara was committed to the municipal hospital by Judge Gillette and was there 11 days. Clara admitted she had taken as high as 50 pills a day. Paroled to Miss McElroy to report once a week. Clara purchased the pills at Heath's on Central Avenue and paid $5.50 per thousand."

            McElroy made daily rounds of dance halls and movie theatres, which were hotbeds of vice. She attended women's court and followed her parolees carefully, often keeping track of their activities in her journal. According to the 1913 Report of the Department of Public Safety, she was hired because "there are certain kinds of police work that a woman can do better than a man." Isn't that the truth, sister.

            "Interviewed: Martha Weyner, 20 years old, living with Mrs. Buhr at 176 Clinton Avenue South. Martha conducted a manicure parlor in one of the side rooms downstairs having her own private entrance. She also stated she entertained men in the front room downstairs that Mrs. Buhr kept for that purpose. Making as high as $10 a week. She also stated Mrs. B. could accommodate two couples at a time. She stated Mrs. B.'s price for the room for each couple was $2. [This was added in the margin:] When men came to Mrs. B. without a woman, Mrs. B. would send Martha to the front room --- admission was by card and private phone."

            McElroy had a background in social service, having been an investigator at the Rochester Children's Nursery, and it shows. More a guardian angel than a tough-skinned cop, she intervened when families were on the brink of disaster, found jobs for women, and put runaways on the bus home. Because she couldn't just pick up a phone and call a girl's parents, McElroy often had to rely on her own judgment. She had a lot more latitude than today's police officers.

            "Miss Goldie Ferguson, 20 years old. Her parents are living at Granville Summit, Pennsylvania... I noticed Goldie around the R&E station one day and she was crying. About six o'clock in the afternoon a man came to the station and she went out with him. She said his name was Wade. Goldie said she had never been anything but a good girl. She had no place to work, but had money her mother gave her. Chief secured a position for her at Bastian Brothers. Goldie is boarding at Mrs. Keegan 90 South Washington Street"

Some of the women McElroy came across had colorful, if difficult, lives. My favorite entry is about a woman brought to McElroy's attention by a colleague.

            "Winnie was brought to station by Det. Andrews. She was soliciting on the street and took a man to her room at 83 Chestnut Street. The man gave her $3 and she gave one dollar to her husband. Winnie is a heroin-dope fiend. Winnie has traveled with Van's Amusement Co. and was a snake charmer."

            McElroy saw to it that Winnie received proper care, taking her to the hospital for treatment. The vagrancy charges were dropped.

            Years later, Officer Nellie McElroy, whose respect for criminals betrayed a certain optimism, remained hopeful. Interviewed for a book about the police force, she said that since the decline of the speakeasy and the rise of the automobile, she saw an ongoing decrease in crime. Conditions were better, she said. That was 1925. Somehow, between then and now, we've lost a little ground.

  • Where's Nellie when you need her?


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