Summer Reading 2016: A Lady Cop Who Has No Trouble Finding Trouble
Told through the eyes of Bergen County’s first female deputy sheriff, this sequel to 2015’s bestseller brings New Jersey 100 years ago into sharp, witty focus
While we’re on summer hiatus, we want to make sure we’re still giving our readers something to think about, so NJ Spotlight is continuing its annual summer reading series. Every day we’ll feature an excerpt from a recent book -- from nonfiction to novels to poetry – with a New Jersey connection.
Based on historical fact, this fictionalized series about the first Bergen County deputy sheriff Constance Kopp and her oddball sisters is an entertaining look at just how far North Jersey has come in the past 100 years – both literally and figuratively. “Lady Cop Makes Trouble” is the sequel to “Girl Waits with Gun,” a bestselling novel named to many “Best of 2015” lists (including “The New York Times” and NPR). It picks up right where the first book left off, and details events in Bergen County, Paterson, and their environs. In this excerpt, Constance begins her career as deputy sheriff to the discomfort of some.
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.
He lived in a modest shingled home with painted shutters and a small front porch that looked to have been added on recently. There was a window open in his living room and the sound of piano music drifted into the front yard.
“Someone’s at home,” Sheriff Heath said. “Miss Kopp, you’ll knock at the door and we’ll stay down here. If there’s a girl in there now, I don’t want to scare her off. Try to get her to come to you. We’re not going to arrest her for waywardness, but she doesn’t know that.”
“That’s fine,” I said.
Mrs. Headison stared at the two of us as if we’d just proposed a safari to Africa.
“You aren’t going to send her to the door unguarded, are you? What if —”
She stopped when she saw me take my revolver from my handbag and tuck it into my pocket. It was the same one the sheriff issued to me the previous year when my family was being harassed: a Colt police revolver, dark blue, just small enough to conceal in the pockets Fleurette stitched into all my jackets and dresses for that purpose.
“Do they have you carrying a gun? Why, the police chief —”
“I don’t work for the police chief.” I felt the sheriff’s eyes on me when I said it. The fact that we were doing something the police chief wouldn’t have dared gave me a great deal of satisfaction.
With my revolver in place, I marched up to the man’s door. The two of them stayed just out of sight as the piano music stopped and the door opened.
Harold Meeker was a doughy man of about forty years of age. He came to the door in shirtsleeves and a tie, carrying a pipe in one hand and his shoes in the other. He had a flat forehead that rearranged itself into wrinkles when he saw me.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said, looking down at his bare feet. “The maid is in today doing some cleaning, and I was trying to stay out of her way.”
He offered an abashed grin. I didn’t want to waste any time lest the girl run out the back door.
“It’s no trouble, Mr. Meeker,” I said, loudly enough for the sheriff to hear. “In fact, I’ve come to see about that maid of yours. I believe I may have something that belongs to her.”
I pushed my way in before he could stop me. Inside, I saw the worn carpets and shabby furniture that suggested a man who had never moved out of his mother’s house. Every lampshade was painted in pink roses. The upright piano was draped in doilies. There was even a needlepoint sampler on the wall, faded to brown and covered in dust.
Mr. Meeker jumped around in front of me. He was almost my height but of a slighter build. He might have hoped to intimidate me, but he couldn’t.
“Lettie was just finishing,” he said, looking back toward what I took to be the kitchen. “If you wouldn’t mind waiting outside, she’ll be out in a minute. Are you a relation, Mrs. . . .”
I ignored him and went straight for the kitchen. “Lettie, is that you?” I called, pushing the door open.
There, at a little wooden painted table, sat a girl of fifteen with kid curlers in her hair and a cigarette between her fingers. She wore only a thin cambric gown and damask slippers of the kind Fleurette favored. It was an old kitchen with an iron stove and a washtub for a sink. It needed a good cleaning, but Lettie wasn’t the one to do it.
She jumped up when she saw me.
“You don’t look like a housekeeper,” I said, and went alongside her to take her elbow.
“No, I’m just—I’m here visiting until . . .”
Harold Meeker hadn’t followed us into the kitchen. I could only assume he’d realized that he was in trouble and tried to run. Sheriff Heath would grab him.
I kept a firm hold of her arm and said, “I’m from the sheriff’s department, dear. You’re not in any trouble, but we worry that you might have been misled by an advertisement Mr. Meeker placed for a housekeeper.”
Lettie was defiant. She jutted out her lower lip and put her free hand on her hip. “I’m allowed to apply for work. There’s no law against it.”
I heard voices from the other room and knew that Sheriff Heath had caught his man and returned with him.
“We believe he’s taking advantage of young girls, and there is a law against that. How long have you been here?”
She twisted around and looked toward the back door, but I pulled her firmly toward me. “When did you get to town, Lettie?”
She sniffed and dropped down to her chair. I eased down next to her. “Just last week.” She fingered the sardine tin she used for an ashtray. “I came out on the train from Ohio. I was going to New York, but something got mixed up with my tickets and here I am, with no money and no one to take me in but Mr. Meeker.”
Already I hated Mr. Meeker. What kind of man thinks he can just advertise for girls in the newspaper? “And what happened when he made it plain that he wasn’t just looking for a housekeeper?”
She put her face in her hands and didn’t answer.
I looked around for something for Lettie to wear and saw an old duster on a hook. “It’s all right. I’ve brought a lady with me who can find a better place for you.” I pulled the duster over her head and helped her up. She had a child’s bony shoulders. “Have you any things upstairs you’d like to take with you?”
She wiped her eyes. “I lost everything on the platform. My bag went one way and I went the other.”
“We’ll see what we can do about that.” I took her into the living room, where Harold Meeker stood in handcuffs alongside Sheriff Heath and a dazed Mrs. Headison. When Mr. Meeker saw us, he lunged for Lettie but could only rattle his chains at her.
“Did you call the sheriff?” he shouted. “You worthless little tramp, after all I’ve done—”
Sheriff Heath yanked him back, but they both lost their footing. Mr. Meeker kicked and fought and twisted out of the sheriff’s grip. He was free for only a second, and tried to run between us and out the door. I threw myself at him and forced him into a corner. I had my fist around his collar but still he flailed around and tried to push past me. Mrs. Headison gasped and ran across the room to take hold of Lettie.
The sheriff came up behind me and grabbed Harold Meeker’s arm. I pulled a little harder on his collar, forcing him to his tiptoes.
There was the tiniest flicker of a glance between me and the sheriff. Neither one of us wanted to let Mr. Meeker go. We were both enjoying ourselves. The man panted and seemed to wilt between us.
“I’ll add avoiding arrest and assaulting an officer to your charges,” Sheriff Heath said. “That’ll keep you in jail a while longer.”
I still had hold of his shirt. His neck had gone red where it pinched him.
“Get her hands off me!” Mr. Meeker gasped. “Who is she, your nurse?”
“She appears to be the deputy putting you under arrest,” the sheriff said. “Speak to her if you have a complaint.”
A little laugh escaped Lettie’s mouth, but I heard nothing from Mrs. Headison.
It was an awkward ride back to Paterson with me, Lettie, and Mrs. Headison in the back, and the men together in the front. I didn’t like to put a girl and her tormentor in the same auto, but we saw no other way to do it, as Mrs. Headison was too rattled to take Lettie back on the train alone and Sheriff Heath wanted me with him in case Mr. Meeker tried to escape.
The sheriff waited with his prisoner while I saw Lettie and Mrs. Headison back to the Travelers’ Aid Office.
“I know you’ll take good care of the girl,” I said. “It was right of you to call us.”
Paterson’s first policewoman still seemed agitated. “I’ll tell Mr. Headison all about you tonight in my prayers, but I don’t think he’ll believe me. The things they have you doing—well, I couldn’t do it, even if they did pay me.”
I stared down at her. Lettie was watching the two of us, open-mouthed.
“Don’t they pay you?” My salary was a thousand dollars a year, the same as the other deputies.
“Ah—well, of course not,” she said, slowly, still puzzling it out. “The chief expects me to serve out of a sense of duty and honor, and not to take a salary away from a policeman.”
I couldn’t think of a polite thing to say about that. I wanted only to get back into the wagon with my prisoner and to see him locked in jail where he belonged.
“Do call on us again if you need us, Mrs. Headison,” I said, and ran back to Sheriff Heath.
At the jail, he handed Mr. Meeker off to Deputy Morris, a dignified older man who had become a family friend when he guarded our house against Henry Kaufman last year. Morris nodded stiffly and congratulated me on my work as he took the man away.
But when I went to follow him inside, the sheriff called me back.
There was something uneasy about the way he said it. He nodded toward the garage, a little freestanding stone building that had once been a carriage house and still had two stalls, matted with old hay, for keeping horses. He preferred it for private conversations because it had only one entrance, and there was no worry about someone slipping in a back door.
In the dim shadows under the eaves Sheriff Heath gave me a long and measured look and then said, “There’s some trouble about your badge.”
Something froze inside of me but I tried to make a joke out of it. “Have they run out of gold and rubies?” Sheriff Heath’s badge held a single ruby, and he was always at pains to say that it had been purchased by his bondsmen, not the taxpayers.
He kept a large mustache that stretched when he smiled. It stayed perfectly still. When he spoke again it was in the manner of a speech he’d been rehearsing. “It has been brought to my attention by an attorney—who is a friend to the office of the sheriff and very much on our side—that I may stand on uncertain legal principle in the appointment of a female deputy sheriff.”
My hands went nervously to my shirtfront. I patted myself down, smoothing my skirt and checking a button. “Haven’t I been appointed already? Haven’t I been doing the job since the middle of June?”
He took a step back and walked in a little circle, nodding. “You have. But it isn’t official until the county clerk draws up the papers, and of course we don’t yet have the badge itself. The trouble is that Mr. —our attorney friend . . .”
“Didn’t the state pass a law allowing for the appointment of women police officers? Isn’t that why you offered me the job?” There was a vibrato in my voice that I couldn’t control. Even as I said it, I was beginning to understand what had happened.
“Yes. But that’s the difficulty. The statute addresses police officers only. The sheriff is elected and governed under a different chapter of the law entirely. No mention was made of women deputies. In fact, the sheriff in New York City tried just such a scheme a few years ago, and had to abandon it because the law there requires that deputies be eligible voters in the county in which they serve, which means that women—”
I cut him off irritably. “Couldn’t possibly qualify.”
He was standing right in front of me again but I wouldn’t look at him. Then he said, “We’ve no such troubles about voting in New Jersey. It isn’t written into our laws that way. But if the lawmakers in Trenton had wanted women to serve as deputies, we can be sure they would have said so, and they didn’t.” He had a higher opinion of lawmakers in Trenton than I did. “Couldn’t it have been an oversight?” I was practically yelling.
“Yes. And I’ve been advised to write to all the other sheriffs in New Jersey and ask if any of them have appointed a lady deputy under the new law. It would give us precedence.”
“So far, no one has.”
“And you don’t want to be the first.”
He lifted his hat, pushed his hair back, and set it down again. “Miss Kopp. I can fight the Freeholders over my budget and how I discharge my duties, but I cannot willfully break the law.”
I turned away from him and tried to compose myself. I thought about the day, when I was about ten years of age, when I copied down a list printed in the newspaper under the title “What a Woman Can Do.” I wrote down each item in a neat and careful hand, and then crossed most of them out after considered them. The Profession of Music was thus eliminated, as was Coloring Photographs and Women as Wood Engravers. Housekeeper was blotted out so thoroughly that the paper tore. Dressmaking met the same fate, as did Gardening. In fact, the paper was nearly in tatters under the force of my emphatic little hand.
Only The Profession of Law remained, along with A Lady Government Official, Women of Journalism, and Nursing. Each of those wore faint checks beside them.
I hid that list inside a white glove that needed mending and never showed it to anyone. On it were all the possibilities in the world.
No one, back in 1887, had dared to suggest Woman Deputy.
Now my profession was being taken away from me as quickly as it had been given. Already I’d grown accustomed to thinking of myself as one of the first to prove that a woman could do the job. I wasn’t like Mrs. Headison. I wasn’t just a chaperone for wayward girls. I carried a gun and handcuffs. I could make an arrest, just like any deputy. I earned a man’s salary. People did find it shocking and I didn’t mind that one bit.
A blue rectangle of sky lay beyond the garage’s wide door. As soon as I walked out, I’d be ordinary again. I hadn’t realized, until that moment, how much I hated being ordinary.
I still had my back to Sheriff Heath. I thought it best to leave without letting him see my face again. “Well. I suppose I’ll go home.”
“There’s no need for that,” the sheriff said quickly. “I’ve something else for you, if you’ll take it.”
That was enough to make me turn around.
“I won’t be your stenographer.” I wasn’t about to sit in a room and take notes about what the other deputies had done.
Now he did smile a little. “It’s not as bad as that. And it won’t last long. Give me a month and I’ll find a way.”
I looked him in the eyes at last. They were sunken and soulful, and often carried dark circles around them. The man had a trustworthy face.
“That’s all. One month.”