America's First Female Sheriff Got Her Job After a Man Tried to Screw Her Over
When a wealthy silk manufacturer overturned Constance Kopp's buggy at the beginning of the 20th century, she demanded he pay. When he started blackmailing her, she took matters into her own hands and became the first female sheriff in America.
Illustration courtesy of Amy Stewart
"Shortly after 8 o'clock," on a July morning in 1914, the 6'0'', 180-pound Constance Kopp got into a car accident with the notorious silk factory magnate Henry Kaufman. "Miss Kopp and two friends were driving in a buggy through the Eastside" in Paterson, a local New Jersey newspaper reported on the scene. "They stopped at the corner of Carroll street and Hamilton avenue [sic] for light refreshments. A minute later Kauffman [sic], according to [Kopp's] story, came along in his automobile and struck the wagon, breaking the shaft." It was a day that would change Kopp's life forever; it ended up making her the first female sheriff in the United States. She's also the inspiration for Amy Stewart's new novel, Girl Waits with Gun, out earlier this month.
Constance, a Brooklynite who'd moved to Wyckoff, New Jersey, due to some personal drama, wrote to Kaufman several times, invoicing him for the damage done to her family's mode of transportation. When he ignored her, she sued. Instead of repayment, she started getting threatening letters from Kaufman and his buddies, signed with things like "friends of HK." The letters were similar to those being sent by Black Handers, mobsters who threatened wealthy families in order to extract payment; eventually Kaufman's cohort also demanded money and threatened to kidnap Fleurette, Kopp's teenage sister, to sell her into "white slavery" (sex trafficking) in Chicago. When Kopp continued her refusal to drop the suit, Kaufman and his cronies began prowling around the Kopps' farmhouse at night, shooting at the building and windows.
In response, Constance went to the police, which in 1914 wasn't a very formal institution but more of a ragtag group of untrained guys who rounded up other able-bodied men to help them in whatever search for an innocent or hunt for a criminal they were carrying out. There wasn't much accountability, either, and the cops Constance turned to were likely paid off by or scared of the wealthy Kaufman family.
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In Stewart's novel, Henry Kaufman, the owner of the motor vehicle, is drunk and rowdy when the accident occurs. Whether or not that part was true, it is known that Henry—often called "Harry" when mentioned in the papers—was rich, powerful, and a man. Constance Kopp was none of these things. Although sources leave who was really at fault uncertain, it makes sense that Kaufman would try to weasel out of paying a fine for the buggy he smashed. After all, isn't that what the wealthy and powerful still do today?
The personal drama that brought Kopp and her family to Wyckoff also served as fuel for Stewart, who found Kopp's story by accident; she was researching a Henry Kaufman for another book and stumbled upon a different, more interesting story starring a man of the same name. Reading about the accident between him and Constance Kopp, and the way Constance stood up to him, piqued Stewart's interest. Not many women in the early 20th century would keep coming after a man to get him to pay back the money he owed her. But Constance Kopp did, and Stewart became fascinated with the dynamic, independent, and unusual figure. She began to delve into Constance's background to find out how the first female sheriff in America came to be.
When Constance still lived in Brooklyn with her mother and her sister Norma, who was one of the "friends" in the car with her during the accident with Kaufman, she got into what her contemporaries would have called "trouble": She had an affair with a Singer sewing machine salesman. Even worse, he was a Jew (not a great thing to be at the turn of the century); even even worse, he got her pregnant. She was only 19, and though the details of what exactly went on between her and the Singer salesman are unknown, Stewart managed to determine through census records, birth certificates, and a hired genealogy specialist that Fleurette was in fact the daughter of the unwed Constance Kopp, claimed as her adopted sister in order to keep reputations intact. Fleurette "found out at Constance's funeral, and Fleurette was in touch with her dad later in life so the thing was confirmed," Stewart told me in an interview.
That Constance was a rare, robust, and active woman was clear early in her adult life. She attempted to study medicine and law but became neither nurse nor lawyer since her mother wouldn't allow her to complete the courses. Constance's pregnancy, Fleurette's birth, and the family's subsequent move from Brooklyn, New York, (most likely to avoid the gossip surrounding a sudden appearance of a new "sister" to Constance and Norma, especially as their father, a drunk, wasn't around much) to Wyckoff, New Jersey, may have been just the thing to give Constance the freedom she desired—in their new environment, no one would question Fleurette's origins, and Constance would not be labeled a tramp. The farm was fairly isolated, a bit of a ride away from the main town, Paterson, and because of their father's frequent absences, it fell to Constance, the eldest of the three Kopp sisters, to be the "man" of the house. In other words, she was the one who took responsibility when push came to shove and her buggy was overturned by a large black car.
A woman should have the right to do any sort of work she wants to, provided she can do it.
As what started as a simple fender-bender escalated into threats of kidnapping and rocks flying through windows, Kopp was lucky to find a policeman who actually gave a fuck. Paterson's Sheriff Heath—the only member of the makeshift police force who seemed to take the situation seriously and didn't fear the very aggressive Kaufman (who was, a fun fact, actually shorter than Constance)—did what any National Rifle Association member would advise: He gave the three Kopp women revolvers.
The papers had a field day; this was an era long before you could order a gun in pink, purple, or Tiffany blue. "'Oh, For a Chance to Shoot at the Nasty Prowlers' – The Misses Kopp, Maintaining Siege in Home, Would Just Love to Turn Guns on Blackmailers" read one headline, while another newspaper ran the following illustration:
Although the revolvers never saw action, they did come in handy, if for nothing else but empowerment. One of the blackmail letters the Kopp sisters received claimed that if they didn't bring $1000 to woman in black at specific location on a specific night, Fleurette—whom Stewart characterizes as a spoiled teenager looking for excitement—would be kidnapped.
Constance was more than willing to take the risk, especially with Sheriff Heath and his associates going undercover and staking out the entire area around the meeting point. Instead of cash, Constance packed her revolver in her handbag, though that's where it stayed—she waited on the corner for over an hour, but no one showed up.
Eventually, another letter arrived, this time disguised as a helping hand. George Ewing, later revealed to be one of Kaufman's men, wrote that he knew of the plot to abduct Fleurette and asked for a meeting. Having already been on one recon mission, Constance was prepared to serve as bait yet again. She met Ewing at a train station in Somerville, where according to Stewart, he came from behind her and lay a hand on her shoulder. According to one article, Constance physically shook him off, which made him run. According to another, she kept him engaged long enough to obtain a handwriting sample from him. What actually happened, we may never know, but Ewing figured out that something was wrong, and as Constance fled, the sheriff and his deputies chased and caught Ewing. With the help of a handwriting specialist (a new field at the time), both he and Kaufman were eventually convicted of abusing "the mails" with their threats.
Among headlines she inspired were 'Plucky Girl Sheriff' and 'Silk Manufacturer Fined for Fracas with Woman.'
After Constance's help in the case against Henry Kaufman, Sheriff Heath appointed her Under Sheriff, making her the first woman ever to receive such a distinction. Unfortunately, as Stewart points out, "There's no Wikipedia page about Constance Kopp. No one's written anything about her. She's not even in the literature about women in law enforcement." While I did find one mention of her in the new edition of Policewomen: A History, the author is unclear as to whether it was Constance or Fleurette who received the auspicious title.
A veritable Kopp expert, Stewart chose to fictionalize Constance's story for a variety of reasons, one of which was that the information available about Constance Kopp is, beyond the above, scarce and contradictory. While I found a bona fide picture of Kopp by following an end-note in Policewomen: A History and delving into the archives of a newspaper, searching for the right page in the luckily PDFied content, and Stewart has one on her website, Stewart (who has done so much research at this point that she'd recognize Constance's ghost if it walked up to her) also shared with me a photo of a debutante who was incorrectly included in an article about Kopp:
Another issue is that existing press is unreliable. According to a rather grandiose 1916 article in the New York Times, Constance received a "gold plated badge" and "a gold plated pair of handcuffs," which she apparently then carried "in her handbag." While Constance did carry her revolver in her handbag while out, it is very hard to believe that such expense was actually made for handcuffs and a badge. More plausible is that the article was attempting to paint Constance as feminine, or frivolous, with such expensive accessories. Among headlines she inspired were "Plucky Girl Sheriff" and "Silk Manufacturer Fined for Fracas with Woman."
Whether or not Constance was "plucky" or enjoyed "gold-plated" anything, the media, though of its time, pretty much otherwise portrayed her as a capable, one-of-a-kind, hotshot lady in a world of swaggering men. While Stewart hasn't come across any evidence that Constance was a card-carrying suffragette, Constance spoke very much like many feminists today: "Some women prefer to stay at home and take care of the house. Let them. There are plenty who like that kind of work enough to do it. Others want something to do that will take them out among people and affairs. A woman should have the right to do any sort of work she wants to, provided she can do it."