Two Dead Center for Thanksgiving

Two Dead Center for Thanksgiving

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.

The Subway Sting

The Subway Sting

New York, Oct 11 — A trim young policewoman proved to be more than a match yesterday for a husky mugger, making up in know-how and spirit what she lacked in size and strength.

 

Repeated reports of women being molested at a subway station in the financial district, which is lonely and nearly deserted at night, brought transit Policewoman Dorothy Uhnak, 25, to the scene.

 

With another policewoman and a transit cop hiding nearby and ready to aid her, Mrs. Uhnak climbed up and down the subway stairs hoping to lure a mugger. For six days nothing happened.

 

Finally last night a man grabbed her from behind with a strangle hold and shoved a gun in her face. She acted with lightening speed. Breaking his hold and knocking the gun from his hand, she turned on him and knocked him down. She had him sprawled at the bottom of the stairs by the time her two colleagues arrived.

The Miami News (Miami, Florida), October 11, 1955

Brooklyn resident John Thomas Bishop was booked on charges of felonious assault, attempted robbery and weapons law violations after his arrest by New York City Transit Authority cop Dorothy Uhnak. The event was widely reported in the news, with 6’1” John described as being “twice the size” of 5’5” Dorothy. The fact that John was black and Dorothy was white got special attention by the media.

Dorothy, a Bronx native, who was “half Irish and half Jewish” had been a policewoman for about three years when the 1955 subway capture catapulted her briefly into the spotlight and spurred her promotion to detective.

Three years earlier a photo of 22-year-old Dorothy, vaulting over a barrier in an agility course, appeared in the New York Times in an article titled “73 Girls in Shorts Take Police Tests.” She was one of a group of 138 women (out of 1240 applicants) who passed written and medical exams, making it to the final round of competitive physical tests to qualify for a job as a policewoman. Dorothy nabbed one of the 23 positions open for “aspiring women bluecoats” in 1952. Her starting salary was $3,700 per year.

Presumably John served jail time for the subway assault, though details could not be found. According to her 2006 obituary, Dorothy gave $125 she had won in a television quiz show to John’s pregnant wife after his arrest. “I wondered what it feels like, how a criminal tells his family what he’s done,” she said to Newsday. “I felt so sorry for him when I saw his family.”

lg_717444-Uhnak_Policewoman_coverDorothy was in the news again when her first book, a memoir titled “Policewoman” was published in 1964. In 1966, after 14 years on the force, she quit, fed up with the sexism she continually encountered. She told Newsday that she was “always chased out when something interesting happened.” She completed her college education and became a full-time writer.

Her first novel, “The Bait” won the Edgar Award for best first mystery novel in 1968 and was adapted into a TV film. The book introduced the character of Christie Opara, a female NYPD detective — quite a novelty at the time. The third Opara novel became the inspiration for the blaxploitation TV series “Get Christie Love!” starring Teresa Graves, with the race of the female protagonist changed from white to black.

In total four of Dorothy’s novels were adapted into television films, including her most successful book, “Law and Order,” published in 1973.

A pioneering policewoman and writer, Dorothy committed suicide by taking an overdose of pills at her New York home. She was 76.

Featured photo: Dorothy Uhnak and John Thomas Bishop after his arrest in the New York subway on October 11, 1955. Collection of the author.

Her Skull Speaks

Her Skull Speaks

When skeletal human remains were discovered on April 13, 1922, in a rural part of New York State near New York City, Mary E. Hamilton was assigned to the case. Hamilton, head of the short-lived New York City “Women’s Precinct,” was the first policewoman to serve in New York City. Medical experts declared that the victim was a young woman but her identity was unknown.

Mary E. Hamilton front_marked

Mary E. Hamilton, circa 1922. Collection of the author.

Hamilton used a novel and untested technique, facial reconstruction on the skull, to try to identify the victim. Grant Williams, a retired police captain, was brought in by Hamilton to create the reconstruction. Williams gradually added Plaster of Paris and wax to the skull to build up the victim’s face. The plaster face was painted with a flesh-toned paint. Finally glass eyes and a wig were added to complete the head.

The reconstructed head was shown to the Lillian White’s sister who agreed that it bore a strong resemblance to her sister. White had run away the previous fall from Letchworth Village, an institution for mentally and physically disabled individuals in Rockland County, New York.

A New York court ruled that the bones were those of the missing girl, Lillian White. There was no doubt that her death was murder; she died after being hit on the head multiple times with a hammer. Her body had then been wrapped in old newspapers and left to decompose.

lillian-white-marked

Artist’s rendition of Lillian White, victim of Harry Kirby

James Crawford, alias Harry A. Kirby, a former attendant at Letchworth Village, was a “supposed sweetheart of White’s.” He was a suspect in Lillian White’s murder and police collected his fingerprints from his home, but in the meantime he escaped. He was arrested three years later, in Augusta, Maine, for the abduction and strangulation of another woman, Aida Hayward, and attempted murder of Hayward’s aunt.

While being held in jail for the Hayward murder, Kirby committed suicide in jail by slashing his wrists with a razor blade.

Hamilton retired from the police force in 1926 but she remained a strong advocate of fingerprinting for use in identification of criminal suspects. Forensic facial reconstruction continues to be used to help identify victims of crimes as well as to visualize the faces of famous historical figures. Mary E. Hamilton was the first American police officer to use the technique to identify a murder victim.

Featured image: News photo (jail mugshot) of Harry A. Kirby, 1925. Collection of the author.