Sadie Likens (c. 1840–1920) was a prominent officer of the court in Denver’s formative period, served as Colorado’s first prison matron, and was also known for her charitable work on behalf of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and other women’s organizations. Before losing her job as prison matron, following the ascension of a populist regime in 1893, Likens demonstrated the position’s potential to effect change and helped open up government positions to women in Colorado.
Sarah Jane Morehouse was born in Trenton, Ohio, probably on July 14, 1840. She was the youngest of six children of the Reverend Moses Morehouse and his wife, Rhoda Potter Morehouse. Sarah, called “Sadie” from an early age, had two brothers and three sisters. Sadie’s mother died on May 23, 1844. By 1847, Reverend Morehouse and his family had moved to Iowa, where he remarried. By 1855, Morehouse, his new wife, and daughters Sadie and Rachel lived in Potosi, Wisconsin. Although no school records for Sadie have been found, her advanced literacy as an adult suggests that she had some schooling during her teenage years, while she was still living at home.
Sadie married twenty-nine-year-old farmer David Isiah Washburn in Millville, Wisconsin, in 1859. The following year, the couple had a son, Fred. During the Civil War, David enlisted as a private in Company H of the Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. He attained the rank of corporal before dying suddenly of chronic diarrhea, a common wartime malady. A year later, Sadie’s young son, Fred, died of pneumonia. At the age of twenty-two, Sadie was not only a war widow but also a grieving mother.
Sadie remarried on August 17, 1869, wedding William Wallace Likens in Lancaster, Wisconsin. William became a teacher in Tafton, Wisconsin, before enlisting on September 1, 1864, as a captain in the Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry. On March 4, 1865, while serving in Tennessee, he was disabled in a construction accident. Instead of returning to teaching, he attended the Albany Law School in 1866 and began a practice in Lancaster. William and Sadie lived in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, and had four children: Ada Belle, Reuel, Velma, and Clarence.
In 1877 William was indicted for forgery but jumped bond and fled to Placerville, California. Sadie and the children likely stayed in Wisconsin because Sadie’s father died in 1878 and she administered his estate. William resumed his law practice, but two years later was charged with fraudulently changing real estate records. He was tried twice and acquitted both times, but a higher court disbarred him nonetheless. The California Supreme Court, unaware of the decision in Wisconsin, readmitted William to the bar.
Move to Colorado
On August 1, 1881, the family moved to Boulder, where William opened a law practice. On May 8, 1884, William was indicted for forging the name of client Mary C. Stoyer on a two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar note payable to himself. The case went to trial, and on May 25, he was sentenced to four years’ hard labor. He was released on good behavior in 1888, but his marriage to Sadie appears to have finally been broken; he moved to Tacoma, Washington, leaving Sadie and the children in Denver.
In the meantime, during parts of 1887 and 1888, Sadie served as the matron of women at the Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s (WCTU) home at 1720 Blake Street. Her children lived there with her. In autumn 1888, she took a new job as a jail matron and moved to a residence at 2501 Arapahoe Street. From that time forward, Likens lived with her children at various addresses in Denver. But because Denver had only hired one matron, Sadie likely slept as often in her jail quarters at city hall as she did at home. Her job description designated that she could be summoned at any time to oversee incoming female prisoners and attend to their medical and spiritual needs.
Despite being just over five feet tall, the hardly imposing Likens managed to contend with whatever her job demanded. During her tenure, the Denver police matron’s small office had, for the first time, enough space to host a lost child as well as question women held for investigation or as witnesses. Also for the first time, a woman would look after female prisoners. Before the end of her first month, police officials wondered how they had managed without a police matron for so long. The growing workload that came with Denver’s swelling population during the mining booms of the 1880s required the force to add another matron to the payroll. Deciding to keep its matron duties in the hands of the Likens family, officials appointed Sadie’s daughter Ada Belle assistant police matron on May 6, 1891.
Populism and Politics
With the arrival of Populist governor Davis Waite and his new fire and police boards, Ada Belle Likens was removed as assistant matron and replaced by Populist Kate Dwyer. Mrs. Otto W. Frinke, a German, was hired as second assistant matron; it was hoped that she could attract German support for the Populist cause. Likens was asked to support Populist causes but declined, since she was neither a politician nor a Populist. Early in May 1894, Dwyer’s salary was increased ten dollars a month and Sadie’s was cut by the same amount, making their salaries equal at seventy-five dollars per month. They were given equal power as matrons.
Sadie was abruptly dismissed from the matron position on July 10, 1894, when the fire and police board elected to terminate one of the three matrons on the payroll. Likens had attempted to resign several times before then, but her friends in numerous philanthropic organizations persuaded her to stay because they recognized the value of her work. Public sympathy ran in her favor, and those who knew both her and the facts of the case regretted her removal.
When the Populist administration was voted out in January 1895, Likens replaced Dwyer as police matron and Matilda S. Billington replaced Frinke as assistant matron. The new fire and police board eliminated the distinction between matron and assistant matron, granting the two positions equal responsibility. Likens, who believed that only one person should be responsible for the department, stated that she would continue as matron only if she remained chief of the department. This did not happen, and, this time, she resigned.
But caring for female inmates as Denver’s first police matron showed Likens her true calling in life, which was to help others. After she resigned as police matron, Likens became superintendent of the State Home and Industrial School for Girls. She only served for nine months, however, as she suffered from what she described as “nervous prostration.” In 1897 she worked for the Florence Crittenton social agency, which helped poor young women; and in 1898 and most of 1899, she appears to have been unemployed. For almost three years, beginning in October 1899, she was matron of the county hospital. In addition to politics and her apparent anxiety, Likens’s poor vision hampered her search for steady employment for the remainder of her life.
While she struggled to remain employed, Likens channeled her compassion into charitable work. She served as the first matron of the Colorado Cottage Home, a rescue home, and the first matron of the Florence Crittendon Home, a rehab center for prostitutes. For many years she was an active member of the Denver Orphans Home and the Old Ladies’ Home boards. She was chair of the committee that founded the Young Women’s Friendly League, an organization that became part of the City Temple Institutional Society in 1900. Her prominent temperance work gained her honorary membership in the WCTU. She was also a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Colonial Dames of America, served as chaplain of the Oriental Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star, was a prominent member of the Trinity Methodist Church, and was a charter member of the Denver Women’s Club.
In addition to helping poor women and children, Likens also took a strong interest in helping veterans. In 1881 she and two others organized the Farragut Relief Corps. The organization was a ladies’ auxiliary of the all-male veterans group, the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). In 1912–13, Likens served as Colorado-Wyoming president of the Woman’s Relief Corps, an arm of the GAR. She was an honorary member of the Organization of Shiloh Veterans and the National Association of Civil War Prisoners. She did relief work during the Spanish-American War and, in her sixties, as World War I raged, she volunteered with the American Legion. On July 30, 1920, Sadie Likens’s long and illustrious life as a public servant came to an end, as she succumbed to an illness at the home of her daughter and son-in-law on Cherry Street in Denver.
Adapted from Annette L. Student, “Sadie Likens: Patron of the Fallen,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 21, no. 3 (2001).