Dedicated and bold, Elizabeth Durfee challenged the perception of gender norms in Randolph County through her role as one of the nation’s only female constables, serving the public while also helping the people of the area to broaden their understanding of career opportunities for women.
Elizabeth Ackermann was born in rural Red Bud on October 18, 1895. She was the second child of Charles Ackermann and Wilhelmina Kroemer, who were both the children of German immigrants. Elizabeth, who was called “Lizzie” by her family, was raised with three siblings, Herman, Clara, and Otto, on the family’s farm two miles west of Red Bud. Her upbringing meshed her parents’ German traditions with the American farming culture of the region. She spoke German at home, but was educated in both German and English, studying at St. John’s Lutheran School as well as a tiny school in the rural Blackjack settlement between Red Bud and Ruma.
Along with her education, Elizabeth was also focused on her responsibilities at home on the farm. From a young age, she participated in labor-heavy chores like washing. She was also assigned the task of ferrying milk from the farm to the creamery in Red Bud, where it was made into cheese and butter. Elizabeth helped to put food on her family’s table, too. A talented shot from a young age, she learned early on how to handle a gun safely and accurately. She loved to hunt and fish with her brothers, and she was particularly good at bringing rabbits home for dinner. She relished the ability to spend time outdoors, riding horses, skating, and bicycling.
Much changed for all of the families in the area with the outbreak of World War I, and the Ackermanns soon found themselves in the midst of unhappy history. Elizabeth’s older brother, Herman, left the family farm to serve his country in the army. Tragically, he would not see his family again. In October 1918, as the Spanish influenza pandemic was sweeping across the globe, Herman was one of many soldiers who became ill during his military training. At Camp Zachary Taylor near Louisville, Kentucky, he died at the age of 26. His body was returned to Red Bud, where a patriotic funeral service, complete with crepe decorations in red, white, and blue, was held at St. John’s Lutheran Church. Local school children participated in Herman’s funeral procession as the choir sang, “God Bless Our Native Land.”
In her grief, Elizabeth decided to embark on a new life for herself. She left Red Bud for St. Louis, where she found a home on Geyer Avenue—and quickly found work in an unexpected profession. Initially planning to find work as a housekeeper, she instead became one of the city’s first female streetcar conductors, working on the Jefferson, Cherokee, and Tower Grove lines. As more and more men had volunteered for military service, the streetcar companies had opened up opportunities for women. The work was sometimes physically demanding, but Elizabeth was up to the task. She recalled that, on at least one occasion, her car was pulled off its track. She remembered, “I jumped out the back window and put the trolley back on line.” The job also allowed Elizabeth to use her social skills and her fearless attitude. Later in life, she joked with one journalist, “I liked the job because I could take people’s nickels and tell them where to get off.”
Life in the city helped Elizabeth to forget about the twin traumas of war and pandemic that plagued the country in the late 1910s. Work kept her busy with both day and night shifts on board the streetcar, but sometimes she’d have enough free time to go dancing on one of the steamboats that dotted the St. Louis riverfront. She spent a decade in the city, and she loved to talk about her unconventional first job, but she was sometimes reluctant to share all of the details of her life in St. Louis. By 1930, she had returned to live on the family farm with her parents near Red Bud. The federal census taken that April noted that she’d been married and divorced, though she never spoke about that early marriage.
Elizabeth found love once more back in her hometown. In 1936, she married Winsor Lee Durfee, a widowed father and grandfather who had spent his life in Ruma and Red Bud. Winsor, who was often called “Win” by family and friends, was a cousin of Richmond Durfee, one of the founders of Red Bud. Win lived on a farm just outside of town, where he also sold farm machinery and automobiles; he ran a filling station in the center of town as well. Win’s first wife, Alta Baker, had died in 1928. Their daughter, Lucille, had married Loyola Horrell, and the couple had three children, Lola, Margaret, and Lloyd. Win kept busy with his grandchildren, but he also served his community as constable, a job he’d held for several decades.
Constables no longer exist in Illinois, but during the first half of the twentieth century, they were a central part of police work in the state. In the days before rural parts of the state were connected by roads and automobiles, constables were often called on to make arrests in remote areas. By the time Elizabeth married Win, the duties assigned to constables had changed. These elected officials were tasked with jobs like escorting prisoners to jail, but they were also given the responsibility of serving summonses, collecting court fees, conducting evictions, and repossessing property. Most constables, like Win, held full-time work outside of their elected duties. And, also like Win, most of them were armed. He carried a .38-caliber revolver when he went out on official work for the county.
Sadly, Elizabeth and Win didn’t have many years together after their marriage. In July 1940, at the age of 62, he suddenly died. Elizabeth buried her husband in Red Bud’s city cemetery beside his first wife, Alta. She found herself alone in the farm house they’d shared. His death was only one of a series of losses she experienced at the time. Her mother, Minnie Ackermann, died in 1939. Two years later, her father, Charles, also passed away. But, just as she’d done when her brother had died decades earlier, Elizabeth soon found work to distract herself from her grief. Because she was familiar with the responsibilities Win had held as constable, she was tapped in the summer of 1940 to serve as his temporary replacement until an election could be held that November.
Without hesitation, 44-year-old Elizabeth pinned the constable’s badge to her dress and stepped into her late husband’s shoes. Very few women in state, let alone the country, served as county constables, but just as she’d done on the streetcars of St. Louis, Elizabeth took on her new responsibilities fearlessly and with determination. She had inherited Win’s 1938 coupe and his .38 pistol, and she used both in her new job, which involved facing her fellow citizens at some of their lowest moments. One journalist described her can-do attitude succinctly: “She takes on all assignments and neither expects nor gets help from anyone.”
These assignments took Elizabeth to some of the most remote parts of the county, and neither road conditions nor bad terrain could prevent her from carrying out her responsibilities. The very first summons she was called to deliver took her to a man who was working in a field near the Kaskaskia River. She recalled getting out of the car and encountering deep, yellow mud. She wasn’t deterred. “I took my shoes off and walked through the mud and served the paper,” she remembered. “That was the only time I served papers barefoot.”
Sometimes Elizabeth found herself up against significant anger when out on a job. Not long after she waded through the Kaskaskia mud, she was assigned to repossess a car and take it to a local garage. She recalled trying to offer the vehicle’s owner as much leeway as she could: “I gave the car owner a certain amount of time to catch up on his payments, or I would sell the car.” The angry owner vented to a neighbor, and his words soon circled back to Elizabeth: “The only way she’ll sell my car is over my dead body.” Triumphantly, Elizabeth remembered, “I served the papers and got the car and we’re both still very much alive.”
Not all of Elizabeth’s assignments required her to take such a hard line. She also tried very hard to be kind when she could, offering outreach to local citizens who needed it very much. A profile published in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat related one of these stories: “One case in particular is a sterling typical example of her knack for lending a helping hand at the same time she is doing her duty. Mrs. Durfee was called on to evict a family from a house. She did her job, but before the day was over she had succeeded in talking the landlord into letting the people occupy a couple of rooms until they could get another place to live. Today the family not only lives in that same house but they own it lock, stock and barrel, all because the lady constable went even farther and arranged a loan which made it possible for them to buy the place.”
Through her genuine care for the people of her community and her fair approach to justice, Elizabeth quickly won the appreciation of those with whom she lived and worked. Still, it was a shock to many when she decided to run to keep the job of constable in November 1940—and an even bigger surprise when she easily won the election. She would go on to be elected to the post several more times, holding the job for a remarkable eighteen years. In 1942, she decided to sell the farm, moving into a house in town with her widowed sister, Clara Menke. There, she conducted her constable business from a small table in her home office. The work was mostly done on nights and weekends, giving her plenty of room for a full-time job at the American Device factory in Red Bud, where she made mail boxes.
By 1950, the press began to catch wind of Elizabeth’s unusual job. She was featured in Bill Pigott’s “Odds and Ends” column in the Murphysboro Daily Independent that summer, and soon, she was contacted by a pair of journalists from St. Louis. She was featured in twin profiles that autumn. Harry Barnes, a correspondent from the Central Press, touted her record in “Gun-Toting Constable Doing Man-Sized Job,” while St. Louis Globe-Democrat writer Suzanne Triboulet featured her in “The Constable Is a Lady.” The articles were accompanied by pictures of Elizabeth examining her weapon, doing paperwork at her desk, stepping into her car, and knocking on the door of a local resident. She quickly became national news, as the story was syndicated in papers from Vermont to Texas. The New York Daily News even included her in a story about female constables working in America, complete with large photographs.
The sudden celebrity didn’t change much about Elizabeth’s life. She continued to work at the factory until 1953, when the company relocated to Steeleville. Afterward, she found work as a practical nurse to supplement her income. When her constable duties ended in 1958, shortly before the state abolished the role and reassigned constable duties to sheriffs’ departments, Elizabeth maintained an active life, fishing and cheering on her favorite teams. She nurtured an ambition at one point to learn to fly a plane. In her retirement years, however, she satisfied her need for adrenaline by reading detective magazines in her favorite rocking chair.
Elizabeth lived to the remarkable age of 99, passing away on September 16, 1995, just a month before her 100th birthday. She was buried at St. John’s Lutheran Cemetery in Red Bud beside her sister, Clara, who had died in 1976. Elizabeth’s long life of self-assured work in areas traditionally not open to women provided a fantastic example to those around her, allowing them to adjust their expectations about traditional gender roles in the workplace. Her commitment to fair, humane law enforcement also offers all of us a model to follow in our interactions with our fellow community members. With determination, fearlessness, and confidence in her own abilities, Elizabeth Durfee blazed a trail for working women that continues to serve as an inspiration today.
Elizabeth Durfee was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2021.