After watching The Alienist: Angel of Darkness I wondered about Sara Howard, the protagonist in season two of the show. Did a woman like Howard, who works as a detective, actually exist in New York of the 1890s?
Author Caleb Carr said he based the character of Howard on a flesh and blood woman named Isabella Goodwin. Isabella’s husband was a beat policeman, or “roundsman” as they were called then, with the NYPD in the 1890s. The Goodwins had four young children when 42-year-old John Goodwin died unexpectedly in 1896.
After moving in with her widowed mother, Isabella, who was 31, passed the civil service exam. And while Sara Howard is the secretary to Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt and later runs her own detective agency, Isabella’s job was more prosaic: She was hired by the NYPD to work as a jail matron at the Mercer Street Station, located near police headquarters in lower Manhattan.
Born Isabella Loghry in February 1865 to James Harvey Loghry of New York and Ann Jane Monteith of Ireland, Isabella grew up in Greenwich Village. Her parents ran a hotel, located at 77 Christopher Street, and later owned a restaurant on Canal Street in Chinatown.
Her matron job entailed taking charge of female prisoners, many of who were either angry or drunk (or both). It’s likely that she was also required to keep the jail premises clean. Unlike Howard, her opportunities for passionate moments in bed with hunky colleagues must have been few and far between. But such is the reality of real life as compared to fiction!
Despite the lack of glamor, Isabella persevered with the job. As the years progressed she was allowed to take on more challenging tasks, such as going undercover to get evidence on fortune-tellers and palm readers. She also investigated “medical fakers”— quacks who passed themselves off as doctors and sold worthless “snake oil” concoctions to their victims.
But some things haven’t changed: Although she was doing undercover work for the Detective Bureau, Isabella wasn’t a detective. She was still a jail matron getting paid a jail matron’s salary of $1000 per year (now worth about $28,000).
Her big break came in 1912, when five men held up two East River National Bank messengers in broad daylight while they were transporting cash to another bank in a taxicab. The crime occurred near Trinity Church in lower Manhattan. The robbers knocked out the messengers -— an old man and a teenage boy — and got clean away with the loot — $25,000 in denominations of fives and tens.
The bank messengers were unable to provide a description of their attackers. The only witness to the crime was the cab driver, an Italian man named Geno Montani. He claimed that when he slowed down for a pedestrian, the robbers jumped into his vehicle. He said one of them held a gun to his ribs and ordered him to drive. They went about 11 blocks, then the robbers jumped out and got into a parked car without a license plate.
The police thought Montani’s story was fishy, so they held him while they investigated.
Rumor had it that one of the culprits was a pugilist-turned-criminal named Eddie Kinsman. Eddie had a girlfriend named Annie Hull, better known as “Swede Annie.” A trio thought to be Eddie, Annie and another man had been seen on a train headed to Albany after the robbery.
The deputy police commissioner asked Isabella to go undercover and gather evidence. Shortly after Annie left town, her friend, Myrtle Hoyt, moved her belongings to a tenement boarding house in Greenwich Village. Isabella was hired as a charwoman at the boarding house. She moved in and became friendly with Myrtle and Annie, who had returned to the city. As the women began to trust her they made the mistake of letting their guard down, speaking about the bank robbery while she was cleaning their room.
Isabella later told a New York Times reporter:
Early one morning I got into Swede Annie’s room and discovered that she had returned from Albany with a new hat and suit. I got the names of the [hat] dealers and telephoned these facts to the Commissioner, who ascertained that the purchase had been made with five dollar bills by a man of Edward Kinsman’s description.
She also overheard Swede Annie say that she and Kinsman had plans to flee to San Francisco. She passed that information to the deputy commissioner and before the pair could abscond, they were arrested. Kinsman later confessed to taking part in the robbery, which had been planned and orchestrated by Montani, the taxicab driver. Annie was not charged. Eddie got three to six years in Sing Sing.
The Great Taxicab Robbery is a contemporaneous account of the crime. The author, James Collins, gives Isabella’s role in the action short shrift, but such were the times when men got the lion’s share of the credit for crime fighting.
Thanks to her work on the taxicab robbery case, Isabella became the first woman in the history of the NYPD to be promoted to first grade detective. Her salary more than doubled to $2,250 a year (over $60,000 now). Three years later she was promoted to first grade lieutenant.
Sadly Isabella never got to work another high profile case. However she did make headlines again in 1921 when she remarried, because her new husband, a concert baritone named Oscar Seaholm, was thirty years her junior. (He was also quite handsome). “I consider it a personal matter and don’t intend to say anything about it,” commented Isabella to a New York Herald reporter when asked about her young husband. In 1924 she resigned from the force and moved with Oscar to Connecticut.
Dakota Fanning, who plays Sara Howard, must have studied photos of Isabella Goodwin, because she imitated her serious countenance so well in the show. With her sharp eyes, Isabella looks like a woman who missed nothing, brooked no fools and was good at keeping secrets, making her perfect for her job as a detective. She died at the age of 78 on October 26, 1943.
Featured photo: Isabella Goodwin Seaholm in a 1924 photo from my collection.