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The Moocher: Callie Fairley, First Woman Vice Detective in El Paso
Article first published in Vol. 27, 2009.
By Rachel Murphree
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“Look out, here comes the Moocher!” The whispers would fly when petite Mrs. Callie Fairley came around. Was it the heavy pistol she carried in her purse? Was she a vagrant, begging for food money? No, her “mooching” was always on behalf of girls “in trouble”, and it was her quiet determined demeanor that would make policemen and businessmen alike honor her request. El Paso’s first woman vice detective would ask any policeman she saw for a dollar to help the ladies picked up for prostitution. Businessmen were generous with their donations to her superiors, who would see the money was used to help runaway girls.
Image caption: Callie Fairley and Ida Newton with other officers Callie Fairley (left center) and Ida Newton (right center) were the only women police officers in 1929. Neither one wore a uniform. Photo courtesy of El Paso County Historical Society
Callie Fairley retired at age 70, after 27 years of work cleaning up El Paso and bettering the lives of prostitutes. While not the first woman on the police force, she was its first detective and its best known.
Fairley didn’t start out to become a police detective. She found many ways to support her family, but her longest running career was police work. According to a 1963 Herald-Post article, Callie Griffin was born in Colorado in 1881, to a father in the freight business and a mother with scars from an Indian ambush she suffered as a child in her family’s journey west from Illinois. When Callie was three, the family moved to New Mexico, and she and her eight siblings learned about hard work and honesty.
A widow with two young daughters, she arrived in El Paso in 1907, a widow with two young children, as she put it, “just a country girl”. Work was hard to find for a woman in those days, so she started a dining room in a boarding house that catered to convalescents. With the help of one maid, she cooked three meals a day for 27 people, and soon her reputation spread, bringing diners in from the outside. She later trained to be a practical nurse; she was soon well loved and highly in demand.
In 1916, she married Lester Fairley, a steel construction foreman, a man with whom she shared many interests, including dancing. Soon they moved to Alabama for Mr. Fairley to work on the Muscle Shoals Project. Callie was a volunteer nurse there during the flu epidemic of 1918 until her husband contracted the disease. He was disabled from permanent lung disease and the family moved back to El Paso. He died in 1928.
Callie again went back to work as a practical nurse to raise her family. She joined the county welfare agency, and after only a year, she was asked to join the City Police Department. She was not a jail matron or secretary, the usual jobs open to women in police work at that time, but a certified city detective, the first and for decades, the only woman to hold such a post in El Paso. After a career that saw many societal changes, she retired in 1952 as head of the three member vice squad, and at 70, the oldest working member of the police department.
Callie’s predecessor on the force, Ida Newton, got her start during World War I. Then Mrs. Ida Vinson, she was a widow with five children and became El Paso’s first policewoman. She passed the Civil Service exam with high marks, and while two of her sons went off to war, she started 27 years of police work on the “homefront”. Armed only with a billy club, she arrested women hiding narcotics. She was also jail matron and later aided in vice raids. The aims of both Fairley and Newton were to rid the city of prostitution and get the women out of that life and back into respectability. The two early policewomen are pictured on this page along part of the force they served with -- all men.
When soldiers returned from World War I, they helped change the values of the country. Many were already familiar with the more liberal attitudes toward sex overseas. Prohibition, the mass availability of automobiles, the emergence of jazz and cheek-to-cheek dancing in popular culture changed society forever.
The city wrestled with how to legislate morality trying and deal with prostitution, especially with the high rates of venereal disease of soldiers at Fort Bliss and civilians alike. City leaders tried and retried various methods if dealing with prostitution, including fines, a “Zone of Tolerance”, having the girls maintain health cards with weekly medical checkups, and licensing only certain establishments to be in business. The city would run cleanup drives for decades.
Callie Fairley was a central figure in the drives to clean up the city. In The Gentlemen’s Club, Gordon Frost writes that Callie was “often referred to as El Paso’s ‘one-woman police force’ and a “near-legendary figure in El Paso law enforcement”. He went on to say, “During her twenty-five-year career, the diminutive officer arrested more than 20,000 women, a record which any career officer would be proud to own.”
In 1931, Fairley was put in charge of the newly established Police Department Welfare Bureau whose responsibility it was to look after the women entering prostitution because of the hardships of the Depression. At the end of that year, Callie submitted her first Welfare Bureau report showing that 331 hotels and houses were inspected, 999 girls interviewed and 500 found to have venereal disease. More than 90 percent of these contacts were made by Fairley in addition to her full-time work as a vice detective.
In a 1950 El Paso Times article, she spoke of several attacks she suffered, from men and women. “I never backed off and I was never afraid….If you never show fear you will never get hurt – that is the way a woman should always feel and she will never be harmed.”
In a 1963 El Paso Historical Society meeting discussing early law enforcement, Callie said “I was solo; I didn’t have a partner. Once in a while I kinda felt like I might need it [her gun], but didn’t have to use it.” Fairley noted that she wouldn't have had to carry a gun had it not been for the "gentlemen friends" of the prostitutes who sometimes tried to take the girls' side when Callie attempted to arrest them.
Fairley often felt that the runaway girls didn’t need punishment as much as they needed aid and direction to get them back home to their families. Frost compiled comments from those who knew her. An ex-madam said, “She was always fair with us, and seemed to understand more about us and our jobs than anyone else.” A former prostitute said, “I knew she was there to help, not hurt me. She was more like a mother than a cop”.
A retired public health nurse remembers, “She was overly generous, often using her own money to buy bus tickets to send wayward girls home, thinking it would save them from a life of vice. Those girls who wouldn’t pay any attention to Callie’s advice and generosity soon found themselves in jail, though.” At four-foot-nine-inches, Detective Fairley was an institution in the city.
Callie’s good friend and Salvation Army worker, Mrs. John A. Warren, better known as “Mother” Warren, paid for a room by the month at a downtown hotel which Callie used it to house a girl that she felt was “worth the while”, and they would feed her until they had enough money to send her back home. Callie said of their partnership: “We had right here in this city young ladies – that is they are grandmothers now – that we interviewed and through Mother Warren and I they have lovely homes, girls, and college, and they are doing fine so you feel like you have had some reward out of the rough edges of El Paso’s rough times.”
After her retirement, Callie spent another lively 14 years working with the Pilot Club, a professional women’s social service organization, as their president and matron of their “Home for Aged Gentlefolk”, as well as with other civic groups. In 1963 she was chosen Mother of the Year by the Junior Woman’s Club. She enjoyed crocheting and also traveling in two-seater planes and jets, ever active in retirement as in younger years. She died in May 1965 at age 84.
In the 1963 panel discussion she said, "Allow me to say that the officials of both the county and the city, if they could dodge me, they did, but they never met me face to face and refused [to give money]. So I could always manage to get fare and enough for [the girls] to eat on such as a hamburger, coffee or something until they got home. Sometimes you heard from the parents of the girls and you felt you had done some good. “ And she had. The lives of many women were improved because of the kindness, hard work, and resourcefulness of “The Moocher”, Detective Callie Fairley.