One of four prizes awarded to the fifty-six members of the Kansas City police force in the annual target contest Thanksgiving was won by Mrs. Vinnie Callahan, with every shot in the circle and two dead center.
— The Kansas City Kansan, December 4, 1922
Everyone agreed that Vinnie Callahan was a great shot, though she rarely needed to use her gun in her job as the welfare officer of the police department in Kansas City, Kansas. Most of her workday was spent solving problems stemming in large part from poverty, poor judgment and anger management issues. It was a job that required compassion, common sense and patience. Her gun was a tool of last resort.
She was born Vinelia Good in 1881 in Junction City, Kansas, to Peter “Peachy” and Lulu Good. Her family had no money for her to attend college, so after she graduated from high school she worked as a typesetter for a local newspaper and later as a night telephone operator. In 1902 she married William Callahan, a college-educated veteran of the Spanish-American War. The following year their only child, a son named Byron, was born.
The Callahan family relocated to Kansas City, Kansas, and Vinnie stayed home to raise her boy. After Byron graduated from high school, in 1921, she was hired by the police department to be the “social welfare” officer. She threw herself into the job wholeheartedly.
Newspapers of the time are full of stories about Vinnie’s police work. The more mundane side of it involved helping people who were out of work find jobs so they could feed, clothe and house their families. “Untangling the domestic affairs of citizens” was how one newspaper described what she did. But really it involved much more than that.
When a woman was sent to prison for selling alcohol (prohibition was in force), Vinnie took care of her eight children who were left homeless and found them good temporary homes. She helped a depressed woman who spoke no English move out of a squalid shack and find a decent place to live after her husband murdered their two daughters. During the 1921 holidays she played “Mrs. Santa” at a local school that had mostly impoverished students. There she distributed gifts, toys and ice cream to the kids in good Mrs. Claus style.
Vinnie’s attitudes about parenting were far ahead of her time. She helped a young runaway girl, who’d been denounced by her family as “incorrigible,” communicate with her parents so that, instead of being relegated to life on the streets, she was able to return home. “It was the common case,” she told a reporter, “of the parents demanding obedience regardless of the child’s rights in the case. So many of them do not seem to realize children have social needs that should be studied and supplied.”
Helping people with day-to-day life challenges didn’t deter Vinnie from honing her target shooting skills. The police department held a yearly contest just before Thanksgiving for its officers. She was one of four police officers ranked as among the best shots in 1921 and 1922. In 1924 she was ranked the second best marksman out of 51 cops and detectives. The achievement warranted a news story and a photographer hired by United Newspictures of New York City took a picture of her for the story.
The contest winners were awarded turkeys for their Thanksgiving feasts. Vinnie was probably the only person to win a turkey and cook it too.
Most of her male colleagues were good sports about being beaten by a woman at a traditionally male-dominated skill. Only one man grumbled publicly, blaming his poor showing on the fact that he was left-handed.
Vinnie left her job with the police in the mid-1920s. Unfortunately there’s no way to know what prompted her to retire, however it may have been for health reasons. She died, age 47, on December 13, 1928, after “an illness of several months duration” according to her obituary.
Featured photo: Policewoman Vinnie M. Callahan, news photo taken December 3, 1924. Collection of the author.