Miss Constance Kopp, who once hid behind a tree near her home in Wyckoff, N.J., for five hours waiting to get a shot at a gang of Black Handers who had annoyed her, is now a Deputy Sheriff of Bergen County, N.J., and a terror to evildoers.
?— ?New York Press, December 20, 1915
YOUNG GIRL WANTED ?— ?GOOD WAGE. Well-to-do man seeking a housekeeper who is matrimonially minded. Room and board offered. Reply to box-holder 4827.
I handed the newspaper back to Mrs. Headison. “I suppose you replied to the box-holder?”
She nodded briskly. “I did, posing as a girl who had just come to town from Buffalo, with experience not in housekeeping, but in dancing, and with aspirations for the stage. We can all imagine what he must have made of that.”
I didn’t like to imagine it, owing to the fact that a youthful aspirant to the stage lived under my own roof, but I had to admit that the trick worked. Sheriff Heath and I read the man’s reply, which invited her to visit at her earliest convenience and promised an offer of marriage if she proved worthy of it.
“Any number of girls have auditioned for the job and are still awaiting that offer of marriage,” she sniffed. “I’ve seen them going in and out of his house. As my position is only advisory in nature, I’m under instructions to report any suspicious findings to the police chief, who sends an officer to make the arrest. But this man lives out here in Bergen County, so we’re handing the matter over to you.”
Belle Headison was Paterson’s first policewoman. She was a slight figure with narrow shoulders and hair the color of weak tea. Her eyes were framed by brass-rimmed spectacles that recalled the inner workings of a standing clock. Everything about her seemed upright and tightly wound.
I was New Jersey’s first lady deputy sheriff. I’d never met another woman in law enforcement. The summer of 1915 felt like a brave and bright new age.
Mrs. Headison had arranged to meet us at the train station in Ridgewood, not far from the man’s house. We stood on the platform, under the only awning that cast any shade. In spite of the late August heat, it gave me a bracing thrill to think about going after anyone who would so casually advertise for a girl in the newspaper.
The sheriff took another look at the letter. “Mr. Meeker,” he said. “Harold Meeker. Well, ladies, let’s go pay him a visit.”
Mrs. Headison took a step back. “Oh, I’m not sure what use I’d be.”
But Sheriff Heath wouldn’t hear it. “It’s your case,” he said cheerfully. “You should get the satisfaction of seeing it through to the end.” Nothing made him happier than the prospect of catching a criminal, and he couldn’t imagine why anyone else wouldn’t feel the same.
“But I don’t usually go along with the officers,” she said. “Why don’t you go, and Miss Kopp and I will wait here?”
“I brought Miss Kopp along for a reason,” the sheriff said, ushering us both off the platform and into his motor car. Mrs. Headison stepped in with some reluctance and we drove through town.
On the way, Mrs. Headison told us about her work at the Travelers’ Aid Society, where she helped girls who came to Paterson with no family or job prospects. “They get off the train and find no difficulty in making their way to the most disreputable boarding-houses and the tawdriest dance halls,” she said. “And if she’s a pretty girl, the saloons will give her supper and drink, free of charge. Of course, nothing comes free, but the girls aren’t so easily convinced of that. It’s their first time away from home and they’ve forgotten everything their mothers taught them, if they were taught anything at all.”
Mrs. Headison, it developed, had been widowed in 1914. On the first anniversary of the death of her husband, a retired constable, she read about New Jersey’s new law allowing women to serve as police officers. “It was as if John were speaking to me from the hereafter and telling me that I had a new calling. I went right to the Paterson police chief and made my application.”
Sheriff Heath and I attempted to offer our congratulations but she continued without taking a breath. “Do you know that he hadn’t even considered adding a woman to his force? I had to argue my case, and you can be sure I did. Do you know why he was so reluctant? The chief told me himself that if women start going about in uniforms, armed with guns and clubs, we would turn into little men.”
I cast the sheriff a look of horror but he kept his eyes straight ahead.
“I assured him that my position in the police department would be exactly the same as that of a mother in the home. Just as a mother tends to her children and issues a kind word of warning or encouragement, I would carry out my duty as a woman and bring a mother’s ideals into the police department. Wouldn’t you agree, Miss Kopp? Haven’t you become quite the mother hen at the sheriff’s department?”
I hadn’t thought of myself as a mother hen, but then again, I’d seen a hen peck an errant chick so sharply that she drew blood, so perhaps Mrs. Headison was right. For the last two months, I’d been riding along anytime a woman or a girl was caught up in some criminal matter. I’d served divorce papers to an estranged wife, investigated a charge of illegal cohabitation, chased down a girl attempting to run away on a train, put clothes on a prostitute who was found naked and half-dead from opium in a card room above a tailor’s shop, and sat with a mother of three while the sheriff and his men ran through the woods looking for her husband, over whose head she had broken a bottle of brandy. The husband was returned to her, although she wouldn’t let him inside until he promised, in front of the sheriff, to bring no more drink into her house.
It would be no exaggeration to say that the moments I have just described were among the finest of my life. The prostitute had soiled herself and had to be washed in the card room’s dingy basin, and the girl running for the train bit my arm when I caught her, and still I assert that I had never been more content. Improbable as it may sound, I had, at last, found work that suited me.
I didn’t know how to explain any of that to Mrs. Headison. To my relief, we arrived at Mr. Meeker’s before I had to. The sheriff drove just past his house and parked a few doors down.