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Elenore Canny fought for children, became Kansas City’s first female ‘patrolman’

The Star set out to tell the stories of 10 hometown heroes. Here is one of them.

Look back a century to a block on the east side of the now trendy Crossroads area. That’s where Elenore Canny fought for the childen in the shanties.

They played in the streets — ran wild, some would say — before “Miss Elenore” arrived early in the summer of 1908 as head of Kansas City’s first organized playground. Newspapers at the time described the site as “the southern edge of the city.”

Holmes Square Park was actually on Holmes Street between 18th and 19th in an area of working men, poor families, saloons and factories, “about the most uninviting spot on the south side,” one newspaper reported.

The people who know Canny’s story — make that the very few people who know Canny’s story — say the 21-year-old must have been quite a force to get a supervisory job at a time well before “equal opportunity.”

But her being a woman likely brought the unsavory around, them and their wicked ways.

Canny took her job of organizing play and protecting the children very seriously, so she didn’t like the men lurking at the fringes. She had rules against swearing, tobacco and dice, and they typically boasted all three.

So in 1910, at the wish of the parks department, Canny was sworn in as the city’s first female “patrolman.” Earlier, a woman had been hired by the police department to serve as a “bouncer” in a theater.

Canny wore the police star under the large tie of her sailor blouse.

“I want to be a policeman so I can have the authority to make these great big gawks of men who come hanging around our playground to move on,” Canny said at the time.

But would she actually try to arrest a man? a reporter asked her.

“Well, that depends,” she answered. “You see, if a man was not gentleman enough to move on with moral suasion and no other officer was about, I believe that I would actually arrest him and take him to the station.”

A reporter later wrote of that quote: “Miss Canny’s eyes snapped in emphasis of every word she said, which argues ill for the first big, hulking man that fails to do just what she tells him.”

The Star said Canny was not a large woman, “but of athletic build and brown as a berry from outdoor exercise.”

Tony Sanders, a sergeant in the Kansas City Police Department’s traffic enforcement unit, has long been amazed that Canny is not better known. She never technically worked for the police department, but he still considers her a trailblazer and a police hero.

“Those men were such a problem down there that the parks department wanted her to be a police officer at a time when women couldn’t even vote,” he said.

Sanders, president of the Kansas City Police Historical Society, said it would not be until 1929 that the department officially began to hire women. Others followed during World War II because of a shortage of men.

“Those things would not have happened without Elenore Canny,” Sanders said. “I have no doubt that her name came up over the years.

“It’s unfortunate that she hasn’t been recognized until now for what she did for the children back then. She fell into happenstance, but she must have been quite a lady. She had a lasting impact on this city.”

Canny graduated from Manual High School in 1904 and went into a new field of “planned recreational activities.” This was during a time when social and reform groups pushed for changes in child labor laws, and play parks were popping up across the country.

The alternative was children playing in the streets, without supervision.

Canny’s first job was teaching games and gymnastics in Kansas City public schools. She later attended college before taking a job with the parks department as monitor of Holmes Square Park, which had sand pits, swings, seesaws and merry-go-rounds.

At the time of her swearing in, there was only one other female police officer in the country. That woman was in Los Angeles, said Ann M. McFerrin, archivist for the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department.

Of Canny, McFerrin said, “She’s always intrigued me.” Like Sanders, she has researched Canny’s life.

Canny left the parks department in 1915, graduated from the University of Kansas and then did graduate work at Harvard University, Barnard College and Columbia University. She then taught at East High School in Kansas City for many years.

As the city grew farther south and east, the people moved, too. Holmes Square Park closed and after World War II the site turned into housing units for returning servicemen and their families.

In 1961, the property, having been vacant for several years, was sold to Kansas City Power & Light for use as an electrical substation. At a 2013 ribbon-cutting for a renovation of the substation, a plaque honoring Canny was unveiled.

It has since disappeared, most likely stolen.

“Miss Elenore” never married. She died in 1983 at age 96.

Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182

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