From Time To Thyme
Since March is Women’s History Month, this seemed like the perfect time for a column on Frances Neal Ellis.
I’d be willing to bet most people who just read that sentence are muttering “Who the heck is Frances Neal Ellis?” right now.
Don’t feel too bad if you’re one of them. I didn’t know who she was either until I started going through the old newspapers on a regular basis. That’s exactly why I needed to write about her.
Frances Neal Ellis was Hamilton County’s first female prosecutor and the ONLY female prosecutor in the state of Indiana while she held that office. I believe she was also this county’s first female attorney, period, although I haven’t confirmed that.
The fact that she accomplished this during the 1950s when women were supposed to stay home and mind the house makes it all the more impressive.
Born in Noblesville in 1923, Frances Neal knew she wanted a career in law from the time she was six years old. You could say the legal profession was in her blood.
Her father, Judge Noel C. Neal, was a member of the Indiana Appellate Court and twice served as Noblesville’s city attorney. Her grandfather, John F. Neal was a judge of the Hamilton Circuit Court and briefly served as mayor of Noblesville, filling the unexpired term of his predecessor. Her great-grandfather, Civil War veteran William Neal, was an Associate Judge of the Court of Common Pleas and one of the first lawyers in Cicero.
Frances graduated from Indiana University and the Indiana University Law School. While attending law school she worked as an assistant in the Indiana Supreme Court law library to pay for her schooling.
In 1948, after receiving her degree and being admitted to the bar, she returned to Noblesville and became the junior partner in her father’s law firm.
Two years later, she ran for the office of Hamilton County prosecutor in the Republican primary. She won, which meant she was elected prosecutor. (Then, as now, in this GOP stronghold, winning the Republican primary usually guarantees winning the office.)
Her victory brought her some state-wide recognition, but women in law were so rare in Indiana at that time that the commission she received from the Secretary of State was addressed to “MR. Frances Neal.”
She took that in stride, along with the kidding she received from people outside the courtroom who called her “Madam Prosecutor.” Inside the courtroom, she was always taken seriously.
She hadn’t held office two months before a case the Indianapolis Times called “one of the most sordid in Indiana history” landed on her doorstep.
On June 11, 1950 a farmer near Geist Reservoir had discovered the brutally beaten body of prominent Indianapolis attorney Albert M. Thayer.
A 25 year-old army veteran and two teenage boys were indicted for the crime. The veteran was committed to the Hospital for the Criminal Insane, but Neal prosecuted the two teens and won convictions for both.
In 1952, at the end of her two-year term, having prosecuted more than 1,000 cases, Frances Neal ran for re-election and won again. (Four-year terms for prosecutors didn’t begin until 1955.)
Later that year, she married Robert Ellis, a member of the Personnel Staff of Delco-Remy, and she went from being “Miss Frances Neal” in news stories to “Mrs. Ellis.”
Frances Ellis chose not to run for re-election in 1954. The following year her husband was promoted to a position in Kansas. When the couple moved, she gave up actively practicing law.
Frances Neal Ellis died in El Paso, Texas, in 2002. She was buried in nearby Santa Teresa, New Mexico, where she’d lived for several years.
Thanks to Jack Hittle and Doug Church for their help with this column.
Paula Dunn’s From Time to Thyme column appears on Wednesdays in The Times. Contact her at [email protected]