No one knows better the danger that a tense circumstance can present than police in the United States. Constantly under pressure to control people who are guaranteed rights that provide them a wide latitude of no control, the scenarios that citizens can present range from the mundane to sheer terror, even for a trained professional. With that thought, we continue to reflect on moments in the history of law enforcement we wish we could get back, the sacrifices of those that have paid the ultimate price on our behalf.
Police Matron Mary T. Davis
Police Matron Mary Davis was the second female officer in the history of the Wilmington, Delaware Police Department. In 1888, they began hiring female officers to supervise female inmates “in an attempt to upgrade the treatment of female prisoners,” so read the news briefs of that year when the news broke. The previous Matron to Davis was Mary White, who served 28 years and then retired in 1916. Matron Davis had been serving since 1910, and started in the position at age 53. The small history available tells us that Matron Davis was a well-respected officer, without a stain to her name.
On May 11, 1924, Annie Lewis, a 23-year-old criminal, who had many stains to her name, was arrested on the day in question for carrying a concealed handgun. When the arresting officers asked her why she was carrying the handgun, she stated she intended to kill her boyfriend, Fred Douglas, who she accused of double crossing her. Lewis was taken to Wilmington City Jail, where Matron Davis searched her for additional contraband, afterwards placing Lewis in a cell. The arresting officers then left the female holding area to continue their duties. The Wilmington Police Department had a policy during this time that jail staff could not open cells by themselves, that at least one other officer had to present when opening any cells. That is important in the case of Matron Davis, because there are several versions of what occurred that came to light after the fact, which impacted the aftermath.
One version of the story says that Lewis was banging a steel cup against the jail cell bars. Somehow Matron Davis took the cup from her, at which point Lewis began kicking the side of the cell and screaming for Matron Davis. The first version reported by the morning newspaper in Wilmington stated that Lewis used a ruse to lure Matron Davis into the cell, revolving the need for water, at which point a lengthy struggle ensued, described to have indications of the viciousness visited upon Matron Davis from one corner of the cell to the other.
The next version is the one that was used by prosecutors in court, which indicated that Matron Davis heard banging in the cell, and when she went to investigate, she saw a massive amount of water streaming out of the cell. She opened the cell to try to stop the gushing water, at which point Lewis attacked Matron Davis from behind, striking her multiple times in the head.
Another version given by some police officers was that Matron Davis never entered the cell, but rather went to the cell in response to a ruse by Lewis, who then grabbed Matron Davis, attacking her through the bars, taking the cell keys, and leaving Matron Davis inside the cell upon escaping.
For her part, Lewis told her version of events when questioned on the stand for the murder of Matron Davis. Lewis who was black, claimed that the Matron Davis called her racial slurs while in custody, at which point Lewis struck Matron Davis several times, leading to Matron Davis stumbling backwards and striking her head on an adjacent cell. Lewis claimed the entire incident was accident, though she did admit on the strand to striking Matron Davis. To date, no person has come forward stating that Matron Davis had any racial prejudice prior to this incident, which makes the claim by Lewis questionable at the least.
In the end, the jury found Lewis guilty of second degree murder, rather than first degree. Their reasoning was the multiple versions of what occurred, and the fact that it was plausible, given the only known circumstances outside of Lewis’ account, that Matron Davis had entered the cell, going against departmental policy.
Lewis was sentenced to life with parole, which she received after ten years. Other details we won’t post here is the manner in which Matron Davis’ body was found, which was not respectful on the part of Lewis, and only adds credibility that the attack was truly premeditated, and not a response to inciteful comments on the part of Matron Davis. Lewis moved to New York City after her release, and shortly after was arrested for another murder committed there.
For many years, Matron Davis was documented as the first woman to die in the line of duty. In the late 90’s, that would change when a female Jail Deputy from Ohio, Annie Hart, was discovered in historical agency documents to have been killed in the line of duty. What is certain about Matron Davis’ service, is that after 14 years of doing the job correctly, and without so much as a reprimand, her character was called out loudly after her death. Not only is this a terrible injustice, but we can’t think of any other walk of life where that is a reasonable response in a court of law. Lewis was a proven murderer even after the incident. Matron Davis didn’t cause a single problem in her 14-year career. It begs the question, where’s the justice in that?
In memory of Police Matron Mary T. Davis.