The Amazing Ada Curnutt
By Jesse J Elliot
“Extraordinary conditions often force the brave women of the vigorous west into extraordinary positions. In OK for instance according to a veracious correspondent, there is a comely young woman, Miss Ada Curnutt who holds the position of deputy United States marshal.” The Okahoma Times Journal. (Oklahoma City, Okla. Terr.), Vol. 5, No. 161, Ed. 1 Saturday, December 23, 1893.
While researching the Internet, newspapers, and historical societies for information on female law enforcers of the 19th Century for my own book, one name continued to surface–Ada Curnutt, the first recorded female United States Deputy Marshal in the Oklahoma Territory. [NOTE: Oklahoma City was in the “unassigned lands” within the Oklahoma Territory] Thinking the first female in an all male agency would be such a celebrity that a plethora of articles and stories would be written about her, I began the search. Unfortunately, much of the same information on Curnutt, nothing longer than a few sentences, continued to surface again and again. Other than her birth and marriage and a decade of social events, Ada Curnutt’s life continued to remain an incomplete story.
Fortunately, with the assistance of the Oklahoma Historical Society, twenty-two newspapers, some as far away as Fredrick, Maryland, Indianapolis, Indiana, and Peoria, Illinois, wrote about Ada Curnutt’s personal life as well as her achievements as a Deputy Marshall. The Oklahoma Historical Society provided some day-to-day information on Ada. In addition to the 19th Century newspapers, the original source of most of the contemporary articles on Curnutt’s historical arrests appeared to have been written in Ron Owen’s comprehensive book, Oklahoma Justice: A Century of Gunfighters, 1995. Using Owen, twenty-two newspaper articles, and several Western blogs, I was able to piece together some interesting information on this intrepid woman.
Ada Curnutt was born in 1869 in South Fork, Christian County, Illinois. Her father, William W. Curnutt, was a 29 year-old Methodist minister with a 20 year old wife, Nancy Ellen, when they married. Ada came from a family of three brothers and two sisters. Louella was the oldest, followed by Ada, her brothers Elmer and Roy, her sister Grace (who died less than a week after her birth), and her youngest brother Guy.
Curnutt’s arrival in the Oklahoma Territory was acknowledged in the local newspaper, and from the beginning she was a person of interest. “Miss Curnutt came to this country just after its opening to settlement with her sister and brother in law, and her ability soon won her a place in the court clerks office. She knows and cares nothing for politics, but she understands her business and sticks to it.”
The Oklahoma Territory had recently opened up its Indian lands for settlement. Corruption, land grabbing, and even murder were common. Those who grabbed land illegally and/or before the land was officially open were prosecuted for perjury or other crimes; they were called “Sooners,” and unfortunately many of these land grabbers were ruthless and violent. Some of these men [and occasionally women] were dangerous, carrying guns and other weapons to get and keep their land. The problem of monitoring these land claims was turned over to the United States Marshal’s office.
Apparently Ada started her career with the U.S. Marshal’s Office as a clerk but that somewhere during her stint she was appointed as a Deputy U.S. Marshal, but there is no record of when this happened or how formal her assignment was. If it wasn’t on the December 1893 night, which I assume it wasn’t because there are references to her partaking in the arrests of 19 nefarious men, then it must have been some time before then. Being a woman, she may have been appointed a deputy and also continued with clerk duties. There weren’t a lot of marshals, and I assume not a lot of clerk positions either, so dual duty would make sense.
One December night in 1893 (one source incorrectly said March 1893), the marshal’s office received a telegram from Marshal Grimes stating that two dangerous men, wanted for perjury, were seen at the Black and Roger Saloon in Oklahoma City. Being the only one there to make the arrests, Ada immediately dressed for the cold weather and caught a train from Norman to Oklahoma City.
The two fugitives were named Reagan and Dolezal, and they were in the Black and Roger Saloon. Both had a reputation for being particularly violent. Being unable to enter the saloon, Curnutt asked someone to tell the two wanted men that a lady wanted to see them. The two wanted men came to the door, and Curnutt told them they were under arrest. The men laughed at her until she turned to the curious crowd of men who had gathered and told them they were all deputized, and that they should help her handcuff the men and take them into custody. Reagan and Dolezal saw they were defeated. “Curnutt cuffed the two men and put them on the train. She marched them to the railway station and telegraphed the marshal at Guthrie.
“Meet me at the train. I have Reagan and Dolezel.” The Oklahoma Times Journal. (Oklahoma City, Okla. Terr.), Vol. 5, No. 161, Ed. 1 Saturday, December 23, 1893.
The above event was documented in dozens of papers across the nation, but some went so far as to hyperbolize the story of the brave and attractive young woman. The Oklahoma Times Journal. (Oklahoma City, Okla. Terr.), Vol. 5, No. 161, Ed. 1 Saturday, December 23, 1893 ran a story entitled the “Plucky Miss Curnutt” and stated: “The modern name of Una is Miss Ada Curnutt, and her lions are men.”
Another story from The Indiana State Sentinel Indianapolis, ID, Jan 3, 1894 p. 11, describes Ada as “a Woman clerk of the District Court at Norman who does the work of Criminal catcher better than a man—she carries no weapons. . . and she takes her prisoners without much trouble.”
Others just respected her dedication to her work. “As clerk of the district court [she] has survived several administrations. Her work is conducted with and in the presence of men of the rough character, who however, yield her the greatest respect.” Another newspaper, The Territorial Topic. (Norman, Okla. Terr.), Vol. 7, No. 11, Ed. 1 Friday, October 11, 1895, went so far as to suggest that “if it ever becomes possible for a lady to be judge of an Oklahoma court, Miss Ada Curnutt will make a good one.”
Apparently one official business meeting described Curnutt working in the presence of only men. The newspaper published this meeting but was so concerned that it had possible compromised Miss Curnutt’s character, that it immediately printed a clarification. Oklahoma Times Journal. (Oklahoma City, Okla. Terr.), Vol. 5, No. 270, Ed. 1 Tuesday, May 1, 1894, “A construction not intended by the writer has been placed upon a news item concerning a conference held by Judge Scott, Harry Bacon, John Dawson, E. A. Jacobs and County Attorney Woods. Miss Ada Curnutt was present certifying to the sheriff removal papers as deputy clerk. Some understood that she was in secret confidence with those men. Nothing of the kind was intended, and we supposed that everybody would understand that she was present in an official capacity only.”
In additional excerpts from the local newspaper, Ada’s name appeared on occasion. She attended teas, visited her sick brother in Kansas, became the secretary of the Philharmonic Society, hosted New Years events, and was praised for her honesty and work. Her favorite pastime, according to most accounts, was painting china, the activity many women of leisure and skill participated in at the time.
Everywhere she went, she was highly praised. “As clerk of the district court [she] has survived several administrations. Her work is conducted with and in the presence of men of the rough character, who however, yield her the greatest respect.” In two other separate news stories, her intelligence and integrity were reinforced. “The force of her character . . .to conduct the office in a new country, and under the circumstance arising in such a community are very great, but this young woman has won the admirations and respect of all the judges and officers as well as the characters who find themselves before the courts.”
The last entry I found about Ada came several years after she moved to an eastern office. The article was about her marriage. Jan 31, 1902, “Mr. Patterson and wife, the former Ada Curnutt of Colony, will leave Feb 9th for New York to sail on Feb 15th for the Philippine Islands where he will teach. They go by the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Indian Oceans, touching Egypt and other points of interest. They plan to spend three years [abroad] and return by way of San Francisco, making a world trip of it.” Colony Kansas Newspaper Clips Vol.1 (1882-1907). Alas, this is where Ada’s story appears to end. Hopefully, she led a long, rich life, travelling the world and later, returning to San Francisco.
Ada Curnutt, however, was not the only woman Deputy Marshal, and she may not have been the first. Two other women are believed to have been United States Deputy Marshals before Ada Curnutt. According to David Lee Summers, in 1884 a man named John Couzins was appointed US marshal in eastern Missouri. He appointed his daughter, Phoebe, as one of his deputies, and when he was killed in 1887, she was appointed as an interim US Marshal. Phoebe Couzins was replaced two months later by a man, but she had other achievements. She was the first woman to receive a law degree and graduate from Washington University in St. Louis.
Another woman was also a deputy marshal in Paris, Texas. Unlike Ada Curnutt who did not carry a gun, a woman named F.M. Miller, a deputy marshal from Paris, Texas, prided herself on her expert shot, her horsemanship, and her reckless courage. According to a November 6, 1891, issue of the Fort Smith Elevator, she was a “charming brunette.”
Sadly, according to the current historian of the United States Marshal Office, David Turk (via phone, January 2017), these two women were not recorded in the list of US Marshals since permanent records were not kept until 1897. Tom Rizzo, however, has written an article about these forgotten women law officers in his personal blog, and he may be able to offer additional information.
Although in the annuals of the America West, Ada Curnutt is recorded as the first Deputy U.S. Marshal, Ada, Phoebe Couzins, and F.M. Miller are all trail blazers in the role of women in the U.S. Marshal Service and part of a proud heritage that embodies “the civilian power of the Federal Government to bring law and justice to the frontier.” (https://www.usmarshals.gov/history/index.html).