The Kopp Sisters: A Crime-Fighting Trio Uncovered on Ancestry

Posted by Amy Stewart on September 1, 2015 in Research

This is a guest blog post by Amy Stewart, the award-winning author of six books, including the bestsellers The Drunken Botanist and Wicked Plants. She and her husband live in Eureka, California, where they own a bookstore called Eureka Books.

Most people come to Ancestry in search of their family. I went looking for three complete strangers.

It started when I was researching a gin smuggler named Henry Kaufman for my last book, The Drunken Botanist. I wondered what else this Henry Kaufman might have gotten up to when he wasn’t smuggling gin, so I poked around in the New York Times’ archives until I found a 1915 article about a man with the same name who was convicted of harassing and threatening three sisters: Constance, Norma, and Fleurette Kopp. The trial capped a year-long ordeal in which the sisters faced kidnapping threats, had shots fired at their house, and survived an arson attempt.

Well, I thought. Isn’t that interesting.

This happens to writers all the time. We take a detour in our research, run across some shimmering little gem of a story, and set it aside, perhaps in a folder marked “Shimmering Little Gems of Stories,” and we go back to our work.Oh-for-a-Chance-to-Shoot-at-the-Nasty-Prowlers

But I couldn’t leave those sisters alone. Before long I found lively headlines, fabulous photographs, and a dashing sheriff who came to their aid. He issued revolvers to the Kopps, taught them to shoot, and enlisted the help of the oldest sister, Constance, in catching and convicting their attacker. This was not ordinary behavior for a woman of 1915! I knew right away that I’d found an amazing story, and that I’d have to write a novel about these women.

That night I took my first deep dive into Ancestry. I found the Kopp sisters growing up in Brooklyn in the late nineteenth century, the daughters of immigrants. I found them living on a remote farm in Wyckoff, NJ in the 1910s, where Henry Kaufman first went after them. And—on that very first night—I found their family. Their brother’s grandson had started a family tree. And he was more than happy to call and talk to me about his three rambunctious great-aunts.

1910 U.S. Federal Census, Ancestry.com

1910 U.S. Federal Census, Ancestry.com

It took another two years to piece the rest of their story together. I did all the legwork that anyone interested in their own family’s story would do: I visited city halls to get birth certificates, I went to courthouses to track down wills, and I walked around cemeteries, looking for gravestones. And in every case, I came back to Ancestry, to update what I knew, to connect new names and dates to the census records and directory listings I’d already found, and to search for other Kopp family members who might be online, putting their own version of the story together.

Photo of John Ward courtesy of Patricia Mott Meckley Becker

Photo of John Ward courtesy of Patricia Mott Meckley Becker

Some of the minor characters in the Kopp’s real story became major characters in my novel, Girl Waits with Gun, because of what I found on Ancestry. For instance, a lawyer named John Ward was only on the periphery of their lives, but when I saw a picture of him on Ancestry, posted by his granddaughter, Patty Becker, I fell in love with him immediately and had to give him a bigger role. In the novel, he’s a charming, funny, whip-smart young attorney who’s always got a pipe between his teeth and a bottle of whiskey in the desk drawer.

Patty shared everything she remembered about her grandfather, and after she read Girl Waits with Gun, she told me that he could be “a funny and quick witted guy,” and that he did have a bit of a reputation as a ladies’ man in between marriages, just as I suspected.

One night, frustrated that I had lost track of the youngest sister, Fleurette, in the historical record, I did a search for any woman named Fleurette who was alive at any point in the first half of the twentieth century. To my amazement, her married name popped up alongside her maiden name on a newly-created family tree, and within a few days, I was making arrangements to fly across the country to visit Fleurette’s son, and to hear the rest of the Kopp sisters’ incredible story from the only person still alive who knew it firsthand.

It was then that the Kopps really came alive. He put a photograph of Fleurette in my hand. He told me that she used to catch frogs in the creek behind her house to sell to a lady down the street. He told me that Norma was the most stubborn, opinionated woman he’d ever met, and that she hid cash between the pages of a notebook in her purse. And, between the two of us, we put together the pieces of a family secret about Constance that had been buried for over a hundred years.

Fleurette Kopp at age 21

Fleurette Kopp at age 21

I don’t want to give away too much of what I found out. It’s all in the book. Together we corrected a few mistakes in the family tree and shared photos and newspaper clippings. I put him in touch with cousins he didn’t know he had. And with Ancestry’s help, we brought the rebellious and remarkable Kopp sisters back to life. Even though Girl Waits with Gun is fiction, it’s rooted in the historical record, and in the family memories that brought them to life.


Amy Stewart is the author of Girl Waits with Gun (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, September 2015). Find book tour dates and more at www.amystewart.com.

 

Leave a comment

Past Articles

The New Ancestry: August 29th Feature Update

Posted by Ancestry Team on August 29, 2015 in Ancestry.com Site

Welcome to our weekly update on the new Ancestry. Last week we covered the location issues and the solution we put in place. This week we introduced some exciting enhancements on Family Events in the Facts view. As always, we have also included links to articles and videos at the end of this post that will… Read more

How Bad Photos Can Make Good Genealogy

Posted by Denise May Levenick on August 25, 2015 in Ancestry.com Site

by Denise May Levenick, The Family Curator Sometimes you don’t have a choice when it comes to finding your ancestor in old photographs. You are happy to take anything, even if it’s a tiny face in a crowd of college grads or a stern-faced soldier in the back row of long panorama. Group photos present… Read more

Who Do You Think You Are? Recap: Finding Ancestors Who Don’t Want to Be Found with Bryan Cranston

Posted by Ancestry Team on August 23, 2015 in Celebrity, Who Do You Think You Are?

A frustrating occurrence in many genealogical research projects is when an ancestor disappears entirely from the records. You have a great line of sources proving your conclusions back to the 1800s, but there’s one person who is holding you back. Maybe he ran away from his family to start a new life or find adventure.… Read more

The New Ancestry: August 22nd Feature Update

Posted by Ancestry Team on August 22, 2015 in Ancestry.com Site

Welcome to our weekly update on the new Ancestry website. Last week we covered the location issues, why they were happening and possible solutions. This week we rolled out a product fix to resolve it. As previously mentioned, we require a certain amount of information about the place in order to properly place it on the map. When a… Read more

Don’t Suffer From Library Anxiety: How to Best Research in Libraries

Posted by Linda Barnickel on August 19, 2015 in Ancestry.com Site, Research Helps

Guest Post by Linda Barnickel There’s a name for it. “Library anxiety.” We learned about this in library school. Symptoms: anxiety, uncertainty, sudden shyness, fear, worry that one might seem woefully ignorant, embarrassment, bewilderment, lack of confidence, and perhaps even shame that one should “know better” or already know the answers before the questions are… Read more

The New Ancestry: August 14th Feature Update

Posted by Ancestry Team on August 14, 2015 in Ancestry.com Site

Welcome to our weekly update on the new Ancestry website. Last week we showed the progress we made on printing and FamilySearch integration. This week we are focusing on a challenge you may have seen with the place names (locations) in the LifeStory. Location, location, location: In the new Ancestry website, we automatically generate descriptions for certain events… Read more

On the Street Where They Lived: Exploring Your Ancestor’s Hometown in UK, City, Town and Village Photos, 1857-2005 Collection

Posted by Juliana Szucs on August 14, 2015 in Ancestry.com Site

Have you ever wondered about the places where your ancestor lived? What did their street look like? The church they attended? What was the view as your ancestor went into town or to the market? Thanks to Francis Frith, many of us can now get a glimpse of ancestral towns and cities as they looked… Read more

Member Spotlight: AncestryDNA Connects Adoptee to Birth Family After Fifty Years

Posted by Jessica Murray on August 13, 2015 in AncestryDNA

The powerful stories of customers reconnecting with long-lost family with the help of AncestryDNA never cease to amaze us but today’s story is especially heartwarming. Earlier this year, with the support and encouragement of his wife and children, Tom L. submitted an AncestryDNA test as he describes as “a last resort” to find his birth family.… Read more