Here is an article by Corey Kilgannon that is part of a series initiated by The New York Times to recognize extraordinary women who had not been honored in a Times obituary. To read the complete article and others in the series, please click here.
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Isabella Goodwin (1871-1943), a police matron overseeing female inmates, earned her detective shield for going undercover as a scrubwoman to expose a bank robber.
Her big break came in 1912 when she took a job as a boardinghouse scrubwoman for $6 a week.
She had been hired by the New York City Police Department as a police matron, which mostly meant cleaning jail cells and supervising inmates rather than solving crimes.
But when news of a bank heist made national headlines, vexing police officials, the department asked Goodwin to pose as a maid and infiltrate a seedy boardinghouse. Her mission: Find enough evidence to arrest the suspect, a gangster named Eddie (the Boob) Kinsman, who frequented the quarters to see his sweetheart, Swede Annie.
Goodwin donned a ragged outfit, affected an Irish brogue and began snooping between scrubbing floors and cooking meals.
Her information led to Kinsman’s arrest, and the department rewarded Goodwin with a first-grade detective shield, making her its first female detective.
With that, Goodwin became “the best known woman sleuth in the United States,” according to The Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1915 .
Goodwin’s story may sound familiar to fans of the recent television series “The Alienist,” based on Caleb Carr’s 1994 novel of the same name. In the series, Dakota Fanning plays Sara Howard, a character based on Goodwin, whom Carr learned about from old newspapers in the bowels of the New York Public Library.
“The fact that she turned this matron role into a detective role was very intriguing,” Carr said in an interview.
The New York City Police Department had hired women as jail matrons since its formation in the mid-1800s. In the 1890s, the police commissioner at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, expanded the role to include dealing with female crime victims, sex-crime cases and matters involving children and babies. But women were still not considered officers.
So a woman joining the department, Carr said, “had to take whatever job you could get and then finagle it into something else.”
Even before the bank heist, Goodwin had gained prominence for her skill at going undercover, posing as a hapless society lady to expose what she called “fakers” — fortune tellers, supposed healers and other swindlers. She would also pose as a degenerate gambler to help raid women-only betting parlors.
“There is many a 6-foot detective with a gun on his hip who does less valuable work for his $3,300 a year than Mrs. Goodwin, a slight, quick moving little woman whose brain more than keeps pace with her body,” The New York Herald wrote in 1921.
Still, Goodwin and other matrons were doing detective work for $1,000 a year, less than half of what male detectives earned.
Goodwin was born Isabella Loghry in Manhattan on Feb. 20, 1865, to Anna J. Monteith and James Harvey Loghry, who ran a restaurant and hotel on Canal Street, said Elizabeth Mitchell, author of the 2011 Kindle Single “The Fearless Mrs. Goodwin.” When she was young, Isabella aspired to be an opera singer.
When she was 19, she married John W. Goodwin, a policeman who died in 1896, leaving Goodwin to raise their four children, Mitchell said.
The department hired her shortly afterward, as it often did with wives of deceased and ailing officers to help them support their families.
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To read the complete article and others in the series, please click here.
Corey Kilgannon has been a staff reporter on the Metro desk at The Times since 2000, covering news and human interest stories on topics ranging from talking fish to kosher pizza wars. His “Character Study” column, in the Metropolitan section on Sundays, profiles interesting and offbeat New Yorkers.