“Not a Regular Lady”

In 1915, Constance Kopp of Wyckoff, New Jersey, became the country’s first female deputy sheriff. Author Amy Stewart says she stumbled upon Kopp’s story while researching her non-fiction bestseller The Drunken Botanist. To her amazement, Stewart discovered that nothing, absolutely nothing, had been written about this remarkable woman who “made headlines across the country and had a truly groundbreaking career.” Stewart resolved to change that.

The result—Stewart’s historical novel Girl Waits with Gun—begins with a bang, but not IMG_0886the kind that comes to mind given the title. It’s 1914 and thirty-five-year-old Constance Kopp and her two sisters are riding down the main street of Paterson, New Jersey in a horse-drawn wagon when they’re broadsided by a motor car. With the wagon in splinters around them, Constance and her sister Norma confront Henry Kaufman, the driver of the automobile, and demand damages for the repair of the wagon.

Instead of paying the fifty dollars in damages, the wealthy and powerful Kaufman initiated a year-long campaign of harassment and intimidation that eventually included bullets, kidnapping threats, and arson. Instead of backing down, Constance actively aided Sheriff Robert Heath in his investigation of Kaufman. And when Kaufman and his drunken henchman started taking pot shots at the farmhouse, she picked up the revolver the sheriff had taught her how to use and fired back. During the court case that eventually resulted from the incident, Kaufman claimed that Constance Kopp had forced him to give her samples of his handwriting. Kopp’s attorney asked how it was possible that “a lady like Miss Kopp” forced him, a grown man, to do something against his will. Kaufman replied, “She’s not a regular lady.” No indeed she was not.

The story of Constance Kopp and her sisters generated plenty of publicity in its day. The title of the book, Girl Waits with Gun, was an actual headline from a story that ran in the November 23, 1914 edition of the Philadelphia Sun. Author Stewart amassed hundreds of newspaper articles and pulled birth certificates and criminal case records as part of her research. She also used Ancestry.com to put the Kopp’s family history together. Stewart says she stuck with the facts where possible, but to really tell a story she had to fill in the gaps, which is why she wrote it as historical fiction.

According to Stewart, the story of Constance and her sisters grabbed her the minute she came across it. “With the Kopp sisters,” she comments, “I found everything a storyteller could ever want—an interesting time period, a very distinctive but not particularly well-known setting, and these larger than life characters who carried around deep, dark secrets from their past and went out into the world and defied everyone’s expectations of what a woman could do.”

As you start your search for summer reads, do yourself a favor and put Stewart’s Girl Waits with Gun on your list. Not only is it a great read, the Kindle edition is $2.99 on Amazon. And if you’d like a second helping of Constance Kopp’s story, there’s a sequel slated for early September: Lady Cop Makes Trouble.

This post wraps up my series about amazing women you’ve never heard of, and I’m happy to report that one of them—Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin—is finally getting her due. In my February piece about her, I wrote that Payne-Gaposchkin’s doctoral advisor took credit for her groundbreaking discovery about the chemical composition of stars. In his new book, The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, Caltech theoretical physicist Sean Carroll writes: “Close Analysis of starlight revealed that stars are made of the same kinds of atoms as we find here on Earth, with Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin eventually proving that they are mostly hydrogen and helium.” Hooray–better late than never!

Still short on beach reads? My novel Yard Sale continues to be available on Amazon.