Over time, history changes from unknown to known. Why? Time blurs memories, newspapers sensationalize stories, and sometimes the facts are blurry. And so it is with the story of the first female in US law enforcement, Undersheriff, Constance Kopp.
The Accident that Kick-started a Detective
On June 3, 1914, Constance Kopp, her widowed mother, Mrs. Constance Kopp, and her younger sister, Norma Charlotte Kopp, rode in the family buggy in Patterson, New Jersey. Suddenly, an automobile crashed into them. The driver of the auto was Henry Kaufman, owner of a local silk manufacturing factory. Kauffman used abusive language toward the women after the wreck. Police arrested and fined Kaufman $1.00.
Mrs. Kopp wanted him to pay for the damages to the family buggy. He refused. She sued him for the damages. The verdict awarded her $50 in damages. Kauffman didn’t pay it.
Mrs. Kopp and her three daughters lived in fear after that. Over the next six weeks, they received threatening letters signed “H.K.’s friends. The letters threatened kidnapping, burning, shooting, and other things if they didn’t drop the lawsuit. The anonymous writers directed their kidnapping threats at the youngest sister, Fleurette.
Some thought The Black Hand (La Mano Near), an Italian mafia extortion ring, responsible for the letters.
The Kopp farm, near Wycoff, New Jersey, was 80 acres of land. Prowlers stood in sight of the Kopp house after dark. Unknown assailants fired pistols and shotguns at the house and at the girls.
One day, they’d left their home for a while and returned to find their furniture piled in the middle of the room as if someone had intended to start a fire. They assumed they’d interrupted the intruders because they found a man’s coat and a diamond ring in the room.
By October 2, 1914, the Kopps asked the county authorities for protection. The authorities put little stock in their complaints at first. Then, Sheriff Robert N. Heath, of Hackensack, got involved. He believed them and put a guard on their home.
Authorities gave the girls permission to carry guns for their defense.
Girl With a Gun
While in Paterson one day in November 1914, Miss Constance Kopp saw Kauffman driving down Main Street. She “created a scene” by running after his vehicle. A traffic police officer arrived and stopped his vehicle. Officials seized Kauffman’s vehicle to satisfy the judgment. Kauffman finally paid the $50.
Later that month, the Kopps received a letter which read: “Madam We demand $1000 or we will kill you. Give Monee to girl dressed In black at the corner of Broadway and Carroll street. Paterson, Saturday night. If you don’t pay we will fire your house. We know your horse and wagon. We live In Paterson. Ha ha! H.K. & Co.”
Miss Constance Kopp, waited at that corner until 9 p.m.on Saturday night under the watchful eye of Sheriff Heath. No woman in black showed up.
Even Federal agents and detectives from a New York agency failed to find the responsible party or parties.
A Badge and a Conviction
The newspaper accounts don’t report what happened next. In early 1915, Miss Constance helped arrest of ex-convict George Johnson for threatening to kidnap her younger sister, Fleurette. Sheriff Heath then hired her as Under Sheriff, making her the first woman in the US to earn the title.
Newspapers from New York to Hawaii covered Miss Constance Kopp’s appointment.
By June 1915, Kauffman was on trial for misusing the mail. His trial lasted three days. A handwriting expert testified that two samples of Kauffman’s handwriting matched the threatening letters. They convicted Kauffman on five counts. The judge passed sentence on four counts. He left the fifth count in case Kauffman bothered the Kopps again. If Kauffman did, the judge would sentence Kauffman on the fifth count. Kauffman paid a $1,000 fine.
An Effective Detective
Miss Constance Kopp was an extraordinary detective. In December 2015, she and Sheriff Heath found and in a “hard fight” in front of the Borough Hall, Brooklyn, overpowered an escaped convict, Rev. Dr. Herman A. Von Mathesius.
On April 10, 1915, Miss Kopp, Sheriff Heath, and Deputy Nicholas Dunn an insane prisoner, Tony Hajanicka, of Wellington. On their way to the asylum at Morris Plains. Hajanicka escaped. The officers gave chase. When Hajanika jumped into the river, Miss Kopp shed her coat and skirts and jumped in after him. Despite him fighting back, she pulled him to shore.
Later that year, Miss Kopp succeeded in “wringing a confession” from Minnie Davis, a Catskill Girl, which led to the arrest of at least a dozen young men of Fort Lee. Miss Davis had mysteriously disappeared from her home nearly a year earlier. They charged the men from Fort Lee with White Slavery.
A Short Career
In November 1916, voters elected John W. Courier, a Republican the county’s sheriff. Once sworn in, Sheriff Courier refused to recognize Undersheriffs Thomas English and Miss Kopp. Sheriff Courier claimed the country’s new civil service act did not protect their jobs. Undersheriff was an appointed position. Miss Kopp swore to keep fighting for her job, but newspapers lost interest in the story when it didn’t change.
The Mystery and Legacy of Constance Kopp
Papers described Miss Kopp as having “bright expressive eyes, a smiling month, a sense of humor and the ability lo handle a gun.” Other papers described her as “stout-hearted and daring”. According to one paper, she had muscular arms with “the compressive power of steel cables” yet capable of a tender embrace. Hers was a story of interest for nearly two years. But most of her story is a mystery.
In my research, I found several times when even the newspapers of the time confused Miss Constance Kopp and her mother, Mrs. Constance Kopp. The “facts” varied dependent upon which paper you read. One paper reported Sheriff Heath gave Miss Kopp a gold-plated badge and pair of handcuffs upon her appointment as Undersheriff. No other paper mentioned that implausible and too-expensive-for-most-counties gift. Plus, there’s the series of novels about Miss Kopp and her sisters.
The Kopp Sisters Series
Amy Stewart published the first of her Kopp Sisters series,Girl Waits With Gun, in 2015. The story gained popularity, and she gave many interviews. I don’t know which sources Ms. Stewart used. But some of the information she gave as true is contradictory to statements I found in the Library of Congress’s archives of newspapers. Ms. Stewart, and others apparently quoting her, claim that Miss Kopp’s youngest sister was actually her daughter born out of wedlock. I did not get public birth records that might have validated that.
Also, Mrs. Constance Kopp’s obituary in 1922 mentions a son and grandchildren born of that son. Not a single paper mentioned this son in any of the articles I read. There’s obviously more to the story that’s not part of the public records I could access.
Her Legacy Lives
Miss Constance Kopp was a brave and resourceful woman. She worked in a male-dominated profession with distinction. And she wasn’t the last woman to brave the world of police work.
In 1918, Emma Daugherty served as county deputy sheriff under her husband John R. Banister, a former Texas Ranger and Coleman County sheriff. When her husband unexpectedly died of a stroke, the council asked her to finish out his term as Sheriff. She served out the final three months of his term, then re-focused on her children.
Mrs. Marie Owens was one of five Chicago women appointed to serve as on the police force as health officers in 1889.
In 1897, twenty-one-year-old Claire Helena Ferguson received her commissions deputy in Salt Lake County, Utah.
At the turn of the century, several women joined the US Marshall service.
Today, women are still breaking barriers in male-dominated professions and trades. We are all indebted to women like Miss Constance Kopp, who stepped up first.
Had you heard of Constance Kopp before? Have you read any of the Kopp Sister books? What did you think?
Second image purchased from DepositPhotos
- Perth Amboy evening news. [volume], October 02, 1914, Last Edition, SECOND SECTION, Page 13, Image 13
- New-York tribune. [volume], November 23, 1914, Page 12, Image 12
- Evening Ledger Philadelphia: Tuesday, November 24, 1914
- Evening Ledger Philadelphia, Monday, November 28, 1914.
- Newark Evening Star:Friday, June 4, 1915
- Newark Evening Star and Newark Advertiser. [volume], June 05, 1915, STATE EDITION, Image 1
- Newark Evening Star: Tuesday, June 8, 1915
- Newark Evening Star: Thursday July 3, 1915
- Newark Evening Star and Newark Advertiser. [volume], June 28, 1915, HOME EDITION, Page 2, Image 2
- Palisadian. [volume], December 25, 1915, Image 1
- Palisade, N. J., February 19, 1916
- The Evening Herald, March 23, 1916, Page PAGE FOUR, Image 4
- Alexandria Gazette. [volume], April 11, 1916, Page 2, Image 2
- The Brandon News, May 04, 1916, Image 6
- Perth Amboy Evening News. [volume], November 17, 1916, LAST EDITION, Page 15, Image 15
- Evening Star. [volume], November 04, 1917, Page 8, Image 32
- America’s First Female Sheriff Got Her Job After a Man Tried to Screw Her Over
- First Female Deputy-sheriff
- The Library of Congress: The Sunday telegram. [volume] (Clarksburg, W. Va.) 1914-1927, February 06, 1916
- Palisadian. [volume] (Cliffside Park, N.J.) 1906-current, February 19, 1916,
- The Commonwealth. (Scotland Neck, N.C.) 1896-1929, December 01, 1916
- My thanks to the Library of Congress and their Chronicling America files.