Mary Caroline Davidson Seymour
Early Jail Matron
1855 – 1933
Mary Caroline Davidson Seymour was born in Boone County, Indiana, on August 15, 1855, the first of six children born to James and Julia Buttrey Davidson. Her childhood was spent in Chester, Nebraska. Although Mary had many health challenges throughout her life, she still accomplished an amazing amount in her 78 years.
In 1888, Mary was living in New Castle, Wyoming, with her husband, Martin Osborn, and three children—James Moler, Arthur Edward, and Bonnie Bell. A fourth child, Julia, had died in infancy. Martin, who was a brakeman for the railroad, died from a train-coupling accident.
Mary and her children moved to Spokane in 1891, where she worked as a waitress at the Rockaway Café. She and the children lived in rented rooms in downtown Spokane. In 1893, Mary married Clint Hardesty. It was the year of the economic Panic of 1893, and the family subsisted on scraps from the restaurant. Over the years, Mary’s jobs consisted of cooking for field crews, waitressing, and taking care of the sick, while supplementing her income by taking in boarders.
In 1896 the Volunteers of America, an offshoot of the Salvation Army, was organized. Mary, who wanted to be a missionary, became deeply involved shortly after and was very proud to be a part of this “American Army,” On September 7, 1905, her 2nd husband, Clinton Hardesty, died of tuberculosis. Later the next year she married Reverend William H. Seymour, member of the United Brethren.
During this time the city was recognizing the need to have women working in the jails, but the idea was hotly contested. Finally, a law was passed on February 20, 1893, requiring the appointment of police matrons. At first, the women of the Salvation Army took care of the duties that should be performed by a matron. The first jail matron, appointed in January 1902, was a member of the Salvation Army Home, who acted officially without pay.
On June 1, 1910, an ordinance was passed creating the positions for three jail matrons. The matrons’ activities were restricted to the city jail. They were sworn in as officers, wore uniforms and stars, and had limited authority to make arrests. It was hailed as “the greatest victory for decency ever attained in Spokane” and was celebrated by those who had worked for nearly two decades to reach this goal.
Mary was one of the first to apply when the department announced it would be hiring women for work as jail matrons in the city jail. On August 29, 1910, Mary joined the Spokane Police Department. Mary was 55 years old when she began and the job was not easy. It amazed many that this diminutive 5′1″ lady could hold such authority and earn the respect of both the inmates and the members of the department. She became known to all as “Mother Seymour.” Often Mary brought inmates to her home to teach them domestic skills. Mary was very good at keeping a watchful eye on the inmates and cared deeply about those she worked with.
Mary Seymour retired on January 16, 1932, at the age of 77, having been a public servant for 22 years. She died a year later on September 2, 1933. Her funeral procession was accompanied by police patrol vehicles and was the first to have a motorcycle escort from the city center to Greenwood Memorial Terrace. The pallbearers were police officers and detectives. As a sign of respect for her service, the department allowed a badge, paid for by fellow employees, to be inlaid on her grave marker.
Many years later, Mary’s daughter, Bonnie Bell Osborn Martin, influenced by her mother’s years of service, pioneered the Pacific Coast Mission, Spokane’s homeless shelter. In 1951, it became the Union Gospel Mission. Her work was a legacy to the example and teaching of her mother, Mary Davidson Seymour.