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Time Machine | Cedar Rapids' first police matron cared for destitute and criminal women in 1893

Pauline Placek is shown wearing the badge identifying her as the Cedar Rapids police matron. She lived at the police station and cared for lost children and destitute women and girls, as well as female vagrants, criminals and mental patients. (Photo provided by Cedar Rapids Police Department)
Pauline Placek is shown wearing the badge identifying her as the Cedar Rapids police matron. She lived at the police station and cared for lost children and destitute women and girls, as well as female vagrants, criminals and mental patients. (Photo provided by Cedar Rapids Police Department)
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In 1889, Davenport hired the first “police matron” — Annie E. Davis — to oversee a house of detention for girls and women. She was the first woman to fill that role and possibly the first such matron in Iowa.

In 1893, Cedar Rapids followed suit, hiring Pauline Placek — sometimes spelled Placak — as the city’s first police matron to care for female prisoners.

A native of the central Bohemian region of the Czech Republic, Placek arrived with her parents in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1866, when she was 15 months old. The family prospered in Cleveland, and Pauline had a business of her own when she decided to move to Cedar Rapids in 1892 to take charge of the Young Women’s Christian Union.

Placek hosted lectures and talks on Tuesday evenings, sometimes attended by as many as 45 women.

home at police station

Her caring and teaching of the young women caught the attention of prominent Cedar Rapids women, including Mrs. C.D. Van Vechten and Mrs. J.D. Mateer, who petitioned the City Council to hire her as police matron.

Marshal A.R. West provided Placek with a star-shaped badge that identified her as the city’s police matron and immediately had several women assigned to her care.

Placek’s job came with a policeman’s salary — $45 per month, paid partly or wholly by charitable societies. She was required to live in an apartment at the police station and be on call day and night, though she was allowed to leave the station one hour each day for lunch. She needed special permission from the marshal to leave the station for church or any other reason.

Her duties included caring for lost children and destitute women and girls in need of a place to stay for the night. Female vagrants, criminals and mental patients were placed under her care.

Placek held the job for a more than a year before the City Council decided it couldn’t afford a separate place for women apart from the police station. Placek felt that she couldn’t adequately help women who were detained in the city jail and resigned in June 1895 to return to Cleveland.

Her successor, Anna Splechal, moved into new quarters above the police station.

‘friendless girls’

In October 1895, the Home for the Friendless Girls opened, and Placek — “remembered for her kindness of heart and good judgment as well,” according to The Evening Gazette — was persuaded to return to Cedar Rapids and become matron of the home. The home was temporarily set up in a house between Third and Fourth avenues on Third Street SE before moving to 511 Seventh St. SE.

In four months, Placek had helped a dozen women and girls. She provided temporary shelter to those who wanted to return home and helped others find work if they wanted to stay.

“None who knock at the door of this home are refused,” an 1896 Gazette story said. “Miss Placek’s noble mind and heart are centered in her earnest wish to uplift and be of use to other women.”

At the end of five months, the home had helped almost 40 women and girls.

‘place for everybody’

Placek told The Gazette, “Every woman that comes to us is sent just where she needs to go — if able to work, to a place of employment; if ill, she is cared for; if unskilled and not prepared for work, then in order to help her, we must help such a girl for a few days, furnish them with necessary working clothes and then find some good woman who is willing to teach a poor motherless girl how to work to earn a living.

“We do not hesitate to say that although we do not always succeed as we would like, yet a very small percent of girls that come to the Home ever float back.

“There is a place for everybody, and someone for every place. We are trying to help these women find places.”

Placek helped secure the annual conference of the Iowa Charities and Correction Society for Cedar Rapids in 1900, when I.H. Shaver of Cedar Rapids was elected the group’s president,

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It’s unlikely she was able to attend. The Gazette on June 15, 1899, announced that Placek — who was by then in her mid-30s — had returned to Cleveland for “a much needed rest.” No further mention of her could be found in the Cedar Rapids or Cleveland papers.

• Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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