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Some Dayton Saints and Prophets
Robert and Mary Steele Part Two


(This chapter has been divided into two parts due to its length - Editor) 


Part Two


      Taking all in all and counting the handicap, she was the best citizen Dayton ever had.  What a strange thing to write of a woman!  What kind of an impression will the unexplained statement give to those who never knew her?  It makes me want to leap into the middle of my story, submit an instantaneous impressionist picture and so prove my point of her.

      Scene: a darkened room in the St. Clair Street home, with books to the ceiling and writing materials every where; a couch in a corner with covers disarranged; medicine vials on a stand. On the couch, such a strange figure; pale and thin, with dark hair and eager luminous eyes, talking rapidly despite the weakness and the cough.  Near her stood the two sisters protesting:


    "Now Mary, you must not; you know you will suffer for this.  Mrs. Conover, make her lie down and stop talking."

      But Mrs. Conover was merciful enough not to obey.  She knew that the heart and soul of the sick woman was in her project, just then the celebration of Dayton's centennial ; that no one but herself could so well do it and no one else so much enjoy its being done.  There were moving spirits in it among the lusty and strong, but the real inspiration and the real worker was this frail woman on a sick bed. Months in advance she began to contribute articles to the papers on local history.  Besides her own "Early Dayton," written to stimulate local patriotism, she had given us many accounts of people and places that should interest Daytonians.  She called attention to the old cabin on the corner of Main and Monument Avenue, which was about to be demolished to make room for the Insco apartment house.  It was a relic of pioneer times; it had been Dayton's first tavern, first school, first church, first courthouse, first jail; there were Indian bullets inbedded in the logs; it was not rubbish--it was a treasure; it should be bought, restored, and kept to show our children how their great-grandfathers lived.  All this was said many times over the signature, M. D. S., in the Journal and the Herald.  Not only by pen, but by word of mouth did Mary Steele plead for the cabin.  She sent one by one for her men friends and talked to them.  They hated to go, because they knew she suffered for every exertion, but they did at last come to see the importance of saving the cabin and, in short, the cabin was saved.  There were committees appointed and money collected; speeches made and the buying and moving of the cabin effected.  Mary Steele had nothing to do with all these things.  Public-spirited men and women did all the actual work, but they knew where the first impetus came from.

      The cabin on its new site, we came to the year 1896, our centennial.  What so fitting as that we should celebrate?  People were slow to take interest.  We had not awakened, in the great, young Middle West, to the importance of celebrating anniversaries.  It was held to be all right for Massachusetts, with a historical background, but for Ohio--well, the response was weak. However, under ceaseless writing and talking the idea grew.  There was a mass meeting, and the Mayor appointed a committee; at least he thought he did.  The voice was his and the writing was that of an office clerk but it was Mary Steele who at the cost of pain and sleeplessness had prepared the names and dictated them to a friend who took them to the Mayor.  No one but herself, with her knowledge of Dayton's old families could have made so complete and workable a list. Every family, every church, every society, every public interest was represented upon it.  If she found she had omitted some important consideration, one of us was sent for and the mistake corrected. "Now, please tell the Mayor," began most of her sentences to us, her willing deputies, in those days.  She meant it to be, and it was, a celebration of and by and for the people.  There were three days of it, if I remember right; including speeches, brass bands, processions of school children, an apotheosis of the Log Cabin, great enthusiasm and greater noise.  It was all as Mary Steele had imagined it three years in advance; a grand efflorescence of local patriotism, and it did us all good. Not a boy in knee trousers but was proud of having been born in Dayton.  And what of Mary Steele during that forty-eight hours of pandemonium; of cannon and crackers and a row of jangling brass engine-bells the whole length of the Court House?  She was in bed, windows closed and shuttered, her senses dulled by opiates to keep out the noise.

      Miss Steele's constant reading and her correspondence with public officials in other cities kept her in touch with all the advanced movements in municipal concerns.  She knew more than city official of her day, (I will not say of ours,) of what had been accomplished in other cities in municipal lighting, in public parks and playgrounds, in rest-rooms and bath-houses, neighborhood libraries, in truant laws, and probation for young offenders; of all these things she talked and wrote--he wrote and talked.

      Nothing is more illustrative of Mary Steele's persistence in accomplishing what she knew to be a good end than the story of how Dayton came to have a police matron.  It is right to tell it here, not only for her sake, but because it brings in another woman, who might have had a chapter to herself, Louanda Bowman.

      For years the entire police system of Dayton, as of other cities, had been in the hands of men. Young girls arrested on the charge of loitering were taken in hand by policemen, locked up by policemen, often in the same cell with hardened women, who, by their conversation, soon finished the work of pollution begun on the street.  Women prisoners, whether first offenders or old "cases," were searched by the officers before being locked up.  This was the law, and it sometimes bore as hard upon the officers as upon the prisoners.  No woman, even if she be on the criminal road, likes to submit to such indignity. They always resisted. If they were drunk the resistance was loud and brutal, and the carrying out of the laws made shocking scenes.  Ask the dwellers on Sixth Street how it was.

      Little lost boys and girls came into these dreadful surroundings; there was no other place to put them.  The unwisdom, to use a mild term, of this shocking situation was slow to be felt by the public.  What do we know, sitting about our own firesides, of what goes on at the station house?   The homesick cries of a lost child reach no farther toward the public ear than the ravings of a man in delirium tremens.  But at last people did wake up to it, the women part of the people.  Up to that year, 1893, the agitation which resulted in the appointment of police matrons had been begun and carried on entirely by women. Few cities had them, and in those cities the struggle was a long one, carried on by a few deadly earnest women against a lot of deadly stubborn or phlegmatically apathetic men.  Sometimes the interest arose among the Christian Association workers, sometimes in the Christian Temperance Union, sometimes in a Woman's Club.

      This was the case in Dayton, where a winter's study of civic conditions and a looking into local affairs convinced the members that Dayton should no longer bear the shame of the absence of a matron in our Police Station. Mary Steele was one of the first to talk and then to act.  Hardly had the interest started in the Club when outstretched hands came from other organizations, in full sympathy with the plan, and wanting only to know how and what to do.  A joint committee was appointed with women representing different organizations and churches to confer and report.  They were: Mrs. J. H. Winters, chairman; Mrs. J. H. German, Mrs. Jos. R. Gebhart, Mrs. Frank Conover, Mrs. O. M. Randall, Mrs. John G. Doren, Mrs. David Gebhart, Mrs. U. H. O'Dell, Mrs. J. A. Gilbert, and Mrs. W. J. Conklin.

      These ten women began under Mary Steele's direction by "reading up" the subject.  They found what cities had police matrons, and how the system worked.  They looked into the station house, and found how the want of a kind sensible woman to look after things did not work.  Then they began by interviewing public officials; here their troubles began.  The tax commissioners were the first wall in the path of progress.  They said there was "no money," and considered that the question was closed.

      When women want to do things that take money and men say there is no money, the matter generally stops there, that being one of the beautiful results of the economic dependence of women.  But it did not stop here with this committee.

      Miss Steele, at that time, was not confined to her bed, only to her room.  This was but a small hindrance to her vigorous and determined soul.  I met her on the street walking uncertainly, her head swathed in a thick green veil, impervious alike to the sharp spring air and the sharp remonstrances of friends.  Under her arm she had a copy of the Revised Statutes of Ohio, and with it she climbed the steep office stairs to show the City Solicitor what provision the State of Ohio had made for her delinquents.  He was most polite, agreed with her on all questions; they all did; in fact, the unanimity of the Tax and Police Commission with the women, in theory, was beautiful to see, but it did not further the practice.  The money had been "all paid in, all paid out," and no more coming until the next levy--a year or so off, when, if we cared to wait, they would "see about" the question of employing a Police Matron.

      But the waiting had gone on long enough.  Miss Steele opened her authoritative volume to a certain page and said: "My dear sir, the law does not say 'may,’ it says 'shall'; are you going to obey it?"

      Under the surface in official circles there was a feeling that things were well enough as they were, and that a lot of women who ran about to offices trying to teach men what to do ought to be shut up at home or penally transported.

      A mass-meeting of women was then called to meet at the W. C. A. auditorium; not of women with political bees in their bonnets; not busy-bodies, minding everybody's affairs but their own, but the best representatives of cultivated Christian womanhood in Dayton; mothers of sons and daughters, who, for the sake of somebody else's less fortunate sons and daughters, would not let this disgraceful want go unprovided for.

      The Mayor was invited, as one having the appointing power, and given a seat on the platform.  He was gallant, but nervous, and listened attentively.  The subject was gone over as has been sketched.  Women spoke eloquently from the floor and the platform.  The law provided, and they desired it; a woman had been found who was eminently fitted for the position; would he appoint her if her salary was assured?  He would.

      In another five or ten minutes the whole of the first year's salary was subscribed and the troubles of the committee appeared to be over.  Miss Bowman was appointed, but, upon taking her place, some one in official circles discovered a mandatory law which seemed to put an end to the whole question. The statute said: "There shall be a Police Matron"; it also said there "shall be" steel cells, tiled walls, and various other comforts and conveniences which everybody knows always have been lacking in the Dayton Station House, and it is to be feared always will be.  The official interpretation of this law was, "No steel cells, etcetera, no police matron," and it did look black. Besides, there was no place to put her.

      The committee again met, and with it Miss Bowman.  It was a religious-minded committee, and tearful at the turn affairs had taken. Each member around the table quoted a text of scripture, expressing resignation; but one member, less tearful, and a trifle paganistic, quoted from Zoroaster, (they were studying him in the Literary Club that winter,) saying, "To the Preserving Mortal the Blessed Immortals are swift."  Being translated it meant that they should adjourn to the station house to look into matters, which was done.

      In all these deliberations Mary Steele was our most optimistic inspirer.  We visited the Station House and we visited her. We reported the building neither roomy nor convenient; just the reverse; but there was a hallway which could be shut off at one end and a door put at the other.  Miss Bowman looked at the narrow space, one window, dirty walls and floor, and said she could make herself comfortable.  One of the committee remembered a bed she did not need, another a rug, and the next day the cell, for it was no better, was furnished and the Matron moved in.

      This has been a long story, but it would take a longer to tell how Miss Bowman took her place in the Station House and then in the officers' hearts, and kept both. How she sheltered wandering girls on the verge of hideous wrong and got them back somehow to their mothers; how she took little lost boys to bed with her, borrowing a "nightie" from the neighbors, for their temporary needs; how she accompanied women prisoners into police court to speak for them to the judge; how she looked after things in and about the place, moral, spiritual, and physical.  With her small hundred-pound weight she accomplished what the strong men on, the force could not.  Drunken furies gave up hidden knives or laudanum at her bidding and went to sleep without cursing.

      Many a secret has she heard that was told to no one else; many a prayer has she said by penitent bedsides; many a letter written to lost families or friends.  Her influence persisted and controlled beyond the four miserable walls of the building she lived in.  She kept friends with the girls she had befriended, and helped them back into safe, useful lives.  After a few months in her position, the officers of the police force would not have done without her.  The experiment had proved itself in Dayton as it had elsewhere.  No committees of women are now needed to suggest a Police Matron.  Every man in public municipal life knows it to be a first necessity to the ignorant and degraded waifs that drift upon the city shores.

      And Mary Steele was the first person in Dayton who sensed the necessity.  I think nothing in her life ever gave her such satisfaction as to know of this one fact accomplished.

      Nothing which Miss Steele did as a citizen will touch wider results than her interest in the great movement of women's clubs.  This was recognized outside of Dayton in the beginning of things. When the General Federation was formed in 1889 she was made State correspondent for Ohio.  How many Ohio towns owe their wider outlook to the clubs formed under her intelligent suggestion!  She corresponded untiringly with women in villages and on farms; made out programs of work and sent them book lists and helpful hints for organization.

      At the Piqua meeting of the Ohio Federation of Women's Clubs in the fall following Miss Steele's death, I was asked to say a few words in her memory.  At the close of the session a woman met me in the lobby and thanked me for what she had heard.

      "All we have," she said, "of the wider, higher, better life in our little town we owe to Mary Steele.  She answered all our letters, told us how to organize a club, what books to buy.  Then she suggested a Public Library; her advice was followed, and now .we have one.  I shall repeat what you have told us to the people of our town.   We are mourning with you, although we never saw her."  What a tribute to the memory of a "shut-in"!

      In 1891 Miss Steele was made one of the Advisory Board of the General Federation of Women's Clubs and rendered efficient, though interrupted service on the Committee of Reciprocity.  The records of the three Biennial conventions show her present in spirit and inspiration, although held captive in the little bedroom in Dayton.

      I have heard her quoted as authority on organization and reciprocity in Philadelphia, in Louisville, and at Denver.  The astonishing fact remains, that this bed-ridden invalid was a valued working member and official of one of the greatest movements of the nineteenth century--the organization of women into clubs for recreation, information, and training.

      Our Woman's Literary Club is another of the movements owed to Mary Steele's incentive.  I cannot say that the idea originated with her, but she was at least one of the earliest promoters. Our first year-books were compiled, literally, at her bedside.  It was such a stupendous undertaking, this planning of a year of subjects under proper heads and sub-heads.  We were so inexperienced and so doubtful.  Her knowledge of books seemed almost miraculous; when in pursuit of a subject she cited authority after authority, piled up a bibliography for us faster than our fingers could take it down, indicating shelves at the Public Library, pages in publisher's catalogues, or files of magazines with equal facility.  I believe she never attended but one meeting of the Club in her bodily presence; but she was behind and all through the proceedings. When we took it down to her in her bedroom, reading our papers and reproducing the discussion, she also felt that she had been there.  Other smaller clubs were proud to place her name on their honorary list, though her face might never be seen at their meetings.  From the inception of the Young Women's League her heart and soul were in it, and her name upon the Board of Directors was by no means an empty compliment.  She gave her strength daily, in spite of the tender jealousy of her sisters, to aiding by voice and pen all these organizations.

      Mary Steele's writing for publication began in 1885 with a series of unsigned articles in the Evangelist.  The highest, happiest praise was her father's admiring tribute to one of these papers when ignorant of its origin.  In 1888 she published in the Atlantic Monthly "The Learned Lady of Gournay," followed in the next year by "John Evlyn's Youth," and "John Evlyn at Sayes Court," both in the same magazine.  In 1892 the Popular Science Monthly gave space to an  interesting paper entitled "Scientific Visionaries of the 19th Century." The Cycle published a series of six articles on early and half-forgotten literary women, beginning with the life of Cristine de Pisane.  During about six years contributions were to be found from her pen in the pages of the Evangelist, the Interior, the Independent, and Education.  Two books upon the shelves of the Dayton Public Library bear Miss Steel's name upon the title page, "Early Dayton" and a "Happy Life."

      And now, when I have told of her public spirit, her sympathy, her perseverance, and her temperamental vigor, I have told but the smaller part.  When you know of the Clubs, the Centennial, the Police Matron, and the libraries, you know the half of what she accomplished; the visible material half. The larger half was left for her friends to learn slowly to appreciate after she was gone.  The greatest bequest of Mary Steele to Dayton was her own character and her own example. To have made of her sick-bed a lever, a stepping-stone, a staff to a useful and happy life, this was Mary Steele's truest claim to the halo of ordinary saintship.  It is said to have come from her physician that she had three chronic organic disorders, either one of them enough to reduce to unserviceableness any ordinary woman.  They lasted through a rather long life, never vanquishing her spirit, although the poor frail body at last succumbed.  Why that impassable cordon of physical weakness and suffering was drawn about a life so full of noble potentialities, God alone knows.  Perhaps it was part of a divine plan to teach those laggard souls who make ease a religion and pleasure a pursuit, the moral grandeur of such heroic trampling under foot of human limitation.


      Dr. Edgar W. Work, her pastor, wrote of her:


"Ever since the scene on Calvary, when men and women have refused to think of themselves,

though every condition would have required them to think of nothing else; when they have studiously and persistently dropped their own needs and frailties out of sight and insisted upon doing and planning for others; when they have declined to be reckoned as helpless, and freed from responsibility toward those who have more strength and freedom than themselves; whenever men and women have arisen to those sublime heights of unselfishness–it has been said, and said most truly, such deeds are Christ-like."

*           *           *           *           *

"And nothing, we are bound to say, in the life of a man or woman has a greater power of

endurance than an unselfish living for the interests of others.  To keep in touch with the world, to have a useful sympathy with the world to see, at such a distance, the world's points of need, and to have the energy to reach forth the weak arm to touch these needs--all this is a feeble statement of the indebtedness of the community to one who lived, unknown by face or by name, to the most of those whom she served."


      Forgetfulness of self, occupation with the needs of others was the touchstone of Mary Steele's life.  She was so determined to have a Happy Life that she wrote a book on the subject.  If you will read it you may know how she succeeded.  One sentence in it reveals the secret of her contentment, her lovableness, and her value to Dayton.


      "The heart at leisure from itself is the happy heart; expectant, grateful, serenely acquiescent."

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