In the 1920s, D.C.’s top female cop tried to clean up our vice-filled city
By John Kelly
Columnist March 19
Folk music is communist. Rock-and-roll is immoral. Go-go music is dangerous.
It seems that every new generation’s form of music disgusts previous generations. If it isn’t the music itself, it’s the venues where it’s performed.
John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive
Such was the case with Penn Gardens, recounted in last week’s column. The dance hall at 21st Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, later known as the Jardin de St. Marks, operated from 1914 to 1924 and often attracted police attention.
[A century ago, Washingtonians danced at the Penn Gardens amusement palace]
The attention got so bad that the hall’s owner, Edmund K. Fox, sued several city officials. The constant attention, especially from policewomen interrogating female patrons, was stifling business. Among those Fox sued was Mrs. Mina C. Van Winkle.
In Answer Man’s experience, an interesting name often indicates an interesting life. Such was the case with Wilhelmina “Mina” Caroline Ginger, born in 1875 in New Jersey. As a young woman, she threw herself into the fight for female suffrage. When a ballot initiative in New Jersey failed, she told a reporter from the New York Times, “Any woman who took any part in the anti-suffrage campaign should be ashamed to come out into the sunlight.”
Mina added “Van Winkle” to her name after marrying Abraham Van Winkle, a New Jersey chemical manufacturer 36 years her senior who owned his own island in the Bahamas. (He’d wanted an island ever since reading “Robinson Crusoe.”)
Abraham died in 1915. Two years later, Mina Van Winkle moved to Washington to work at the newly-established U.S. Food Administration. In 1918, she became one of the District’s first policewomen. In 1919, she was named head of the Women’s Bureau.
Although Van Winkle reported to the chief of police, she had incredible autonomy over the handful of “female Sherlock Holmeses” in the Women’s Bureau, which had oversight of: “Any friendless, homeless or incorrigible girls or boys. Any conditions making for or persons causing delinquency. Any girl or woman who is violating the law.”
Van Winkle’s “coppettes” patrolled places girls might loiter, looking for runaways, shoplifters and prostitutes. The policewomen were a regular presence at Union Station and supervised dance halls and movie theaters.
Mina Van Winkle did not like what she saw. She harbored a belief that hairdressers were fronts for prostitution. She was suspicious of the saxophone and believed that some music was “indecent.” (Which music? “That tom-tommy sort of Oriental music that makes men forget home and babies,” she told a reporter.”) The Charleston, she said, was “one of our greatest contributors to sexual delinquency today.”
In April 1923, she criticized the craze for dance marathons, which had just reached Washington. She lamented that she had no grounds to stop them despite the ruin they were likely to cause.
“A dance epidemic always precedes national disaster, as clouds precede a storm,” she said. “A prominent historian tells us that dance fevers always come before revolution. America is dancing herself into war.”
(Mina wasn’t alone in her disdain: The assistant surgeon general also felt dance marathons were dangerous.)
Unlike some social reformers, Van Winkle had a rather stern attitude toward those who needed her help, thinking it better to criticize than coddle. She said that “cabaret life and cheap literature” were making American girls unfit to become wives and mothers.
“Too many women,” she said, “want a career in business, away from home. The only career in every girl’s life should be the developing of a real home.”
In 1925, Van Winkle lobbied to broaden the powers of the Women’s Bureau and enlarge its staff, so that, The Washington Post wrote, its officers “could keep constant watch on all families in the city and step in whenever they believed that parents are not rearing their children properly or are permitting them to keep bad company or too late hours or to develop bad habits.”
Her requests were denied. Van Winkle was swimming against the tide. There was a growing consensus that “social diseases” were better handled by charitable groups rather than by the police.
Nearly a century later, it’s easy to see Van Winkle as laughable — saxophones? — but it probably wasn’t easy for a strong woman trying to make a mark in a male-dominated arena.
“Prejudice against our bureau is inherent in the male,” she said. “Judges are tolerant of evil in their fellow males. If we had women on the bench, the story would be different.”
It’s hard to argue with that. And there’s doubtless some truth in Van Winkle’s belief that “parents who make no attractive home life for their children are directly and wholly responsible for their delinquency.”
But her zeal seems to have spilled over into zealotry.
Mina Van Winkle — the socialite social worker once known for her blue serge suit, white kid gloves, veil and “a faint hint of perfume” — died in 1933 at age 57. The Post lauded her “untiring devotion” and noted that she had “labored in sordid surroundings, among those whose lives seemed to be beyond hope.”
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.