Mary C. Whelan’s life would be considered phenomenal even today.
But in the early 20th century, Rock County’s first female deputy forged a career far beyond the local badge.
In addition to breaking the gender barrier in policing, Whelan spoke passionately on behalf of women’s suffrage prior to passage of the 19th Amendment in 1919.
She also was the only female attorney in Rock County at one time before her death in 1939 at age 51, according to an obituary.
Rock County Sheriff Troy Knudson read about Whelan while researching the history of the sheriff’s office last year and sought more information.
Rock County historians Tom Larsen, Lorna Spoden and Mary Buelow independently searched newspapers online from across the Midwest and found articles that fill in the blanks of the trailblazing woman’s life.
Larsen is on the board of the Beloit Historical Society and active in the Clinton Community Historical Society. Spoden is a volunteer historian for the Rock County Historical Society. Buelow is the local history specialist with Janesville’s Hedberg Public Library.
All were impressed by Whelan’s accomplishments.
“Mary was so many things in a time of suffrage and challenges for women,” Spoden said. “In her limited life span, she accomplished so much with dignity, fortitude and grace.”
Larsen, who is knowledgeable about Beloit history, was unaware of Whelan’s life prior to his research.
Buelow called Whelan “a woman many years ahead of her time.”
A deputy first
On Jan. 4, 1917, Rock County Sheriff Robert Whipple named Whelan a deputy sheriff for the municipal court in Beloit, where she had been clerk for several years.
With the appointment, Whelan made history as the county’s first female deputy.
Whipple said having a deputy to serve papers would speed up the court’s work.
Suffragists in Rock County were pleased with the move, and Whelan used her new notoriety to advance the cause.
“In successfully fulfilling my duties as deputy sheriff, I shall cripple an old argument against woman suffrage,” she was quoted as saying in the Fort Wayne Sentinel of Fort Wayne, Indiana. “If a woman can make a good deputy sheriff, she certainly ought to have the vote.”
Whelan readily accepted the appointment.
“You see, I come from a long line of sheriffs,” she said. “My relatives have served in the capacity for generations in Ohio, and, of course, I want to preserve the family traditions.”
She added: “Anyway, I have a beautiful shiny police star.”
Whelan predicted the sheriff never would have a reason to regret her appointment.
“I am going to make good with a bang,” she said.
Keeps her word
Whelan soon moved on to another post.
In October 1917, she was appointed to a federal position in “food control” under Herbert Hoover at the War Department in Washington, D.C., according to an article in the Janesville Daily Gazette.
While in Washington, Whelan studied law. While in law school, she took part in a debate about voting rights for D.C. residents and also was involved in an investigation concerning Coca Cola exporting syrup that contained cocaine, Larsen said.
Whelan was admitted to the bar in D.C. in 1925. Later, she worked as an agent for the federal narcotics bureau in New York and Chicago.
Whelan advocated for the treatment of people with addictions and said they “should be handled as medical, rather than criminal, cases.”
A March 1934 article in the Greenville Daily Advocate, Greenville, Ohio, said she had many encounters with “underworld characters, and she also had several opportunities to go into the dope business.”
About 1933, Whelan returned to Wisconsin to open a law office. At the time, she was the only female lawyer in Beloit, according to a biography in “Pioneers in the Law—The First 150 Women,” published by the State Bar of Wisconsin in 1998.
Whelan was a member of the Rock County Bar and was active in the Daughters of the American Revolution and Republican politics. In 1936, she also served on the new Rock County Pension Board, a Depression relief project.
Whelan died in July 1939 after being ill more than a year. An obituary in the Rockford, Illinois, newspaper said she had no surviving relatives. Whelan is buried in Beloit’s Oakwood Cemetery at the same location as her mother, also named Mary.
In retrospect, Spoden said Whelan deserves “deep recognition” for her “heroic career.”
“She inspired me to be brave,” Spoden said. “She inspired me to move forward in whatever I believe in because she was able to do it more than 100 years ago.”