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The Fighting Girlfriend, an Unsexed Soldier, & a Police Matron

Name: Mariya Oktyabrskaya

Born: August 16, 1905    Died: March 15, 1944

What they did: Tank-Driving Nazi Killing Widow

Facts:

  • Born into a poor Ukrainian family on the Crimean Peninsula. She was one of ten children.
  • In 1925, she married a Soviet army officer. While married to her husband, Ilya Oktyabrskaya , she began to acquire an interest in military matters.
    • Became involved in the ‘Military Wives Council’
    • Trained as a nurse in the army.
    • Also learned how to use weapons and drive vehicles.
    • “Marry a serviceman, and you serve in the army: an officer’s wife is not only a proud woman, but also responsible title.
  • When the eastern front of World War II opened (called the Great Patriotic War in the former Soviet Union), Mariya was evacuated to Tomsk in Siberia.
  • While living in Tomsk, she learned that her husband was killed fighting the forces of Nazi Germany near Kiev in August 1941. The news took two years to reach her.
  • The news angered her greatly, and she became determined to fight the Germans in vengeance for her husband’s death.  Mariya sold literally all of their belongings in order to buy a tank.
  • Her letter to Staling Read:“My husband was killed in action defending the motherland. I want revenge on the fascist dogs for his death and for the death of Soviet people tortured by the fascist barbarians. For this purpose I’ve deposited all my personal savings – 50,000 rubles – to the National Bank in order to build a tank. I kindly ask to name the tank ‘Fighting Girlfriend’ and to send me to the frontline as a driver of said tank.”
  • The tank Mariya drove was a T-34 medium tank.
  • She took part in a five-month tank training program immediately after the donation.
  • After completing her training, she was posted to the 26th Guards Tank Brigade, part of 2nd Guards Tank Corps, in September 1943 as a driver and mechanic. She named her tank ‘Fighting Girlfriend’ and emblazoned these words on the turret of the T-34.
  • Many of her fellow tankers saw her as a publicity stunt and a joke.
  • On her first outing in the tank, she and her crew outmaneuvered the German soldiers, killing around thirty of them and taking out an anti-tank gun as well as machine gun nests. When they shelled her tank, immobilizing Fighting Girlfriend, she got out — in the middle of a firefight — and repaired the damn thing. She then got back in and proceeded to kill more Germans. During this feat she was promoted to the rank of Sergeant.
  • She took part in an assault on the German positions near Novoye Selo, a town which they had captured. However, a German artillery shell exploded against her tank’s tracks, halting her advance. Mariya and a fellow crewman jumped out to repair the track, while other crew members gave covering fire from the tank’s turret. 
  • Two months later, on 17 January 1944, an attack took place at the village of Shvedy near Vitebsk. During the battle, she drove her T-34 about the German defenses, and destroyed resistance in trenches and machine-gun nests. The tank crew also destroyed a German self-propelled gun. Subsequently, the tank was hit by a German anti-tank shell, again in the tracks, and was immobilized. Mariya immediately got out of the tank and began to repair the track, amid fierce small arms and artillery fire. She managed to repair the track, but she was hit in the head by shell fragments and lost consciousness.
  • After the battle she was transported to a Soviet military field hospital at Fastov, near Kiev, where she remained in a coma for two months, before finally dying on 15 March.
  • She was awarded the highest honor in the Soviet Military and is buried in one of the nation’s most sacred cemeteries. She was the first of the few female tank drivers to be awarded this honor

Name: Sarah Emma Edmonds

Born: December, 1841    Died: September 5, 1898

What they did: Female Soldier (dressed as man) and spy

Facts:

  • Born in Canada in 1841, but in 1857, to escape the abuse and an arranged marriage, Sarah left home.
  • She lived and worked in the town of Moncton for about a year, but always fearful that she would be discovered by her father, she decided to immigrate to the United States.
  • In order to travel undetected and to secure a job, she decided to disguise herself as a man and took the name Franklin Thompson. She soon found work in Hartford, Connecticut as a traveling Bible salesman.
  • By the start of the Civil War in 1861, Sarah was boarding in Flint, Michigan. Compelled to join the military out of sense of duty, she enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry as a male field nurse. Under the name Franklin Flint Thompson.
  • Although Sarah and her comrades did not participate in the Battle of First Manassas on July 21, they were instrumental in covering the Union retreat from the field. She stayed behind to nurse wounded soldiers and barely eluded capture to return to her regiment in Washington. She continued to work as a hospital attendant for the next several months.
  • In March of 1862, Sarah was assigned the duties of mail carrier for the regiment.
  • From April 5 to May 4, the regiment took part in the Siege of Yorktown.
  • It was during this time that Sarah was supposedly first asked to conduct espionage missions.
    • One of her alleged aliases was as a Southern sympathizer named Charles Mayberry.
    • Another was as a black man named Cuff, for which she disguised herself using wigs and silver nitrate to dye her skin.
    • Yet another was as Bridget O’Shea, an Irish peddler selling soap and apples.
  • The information she gathered on the Confederate’s local troop size, available weapons and location of numerous “Quaker Guns” (logs painted to look like cannons from a distance) that the Confederates planned to use in Yorktown.
  • On May 5, 1862, the regiment came under heavy fire during the Battle of Williamsburg. Sarah was caught in the thick of it, at one point picking up a musket and firing with her comrades. She also acted as a stretcher bearer, ferrying the wounded from the field hour after hour in the pouring rain.
  • 1862 saw Sarah continuing her role as a mail carrier, which often involved journeys of over 100 miles through territory inhabited by dangerous “bushwhackers.”
  • Sarah’s regiment saw action in the battles of Fair Oaks and Malvern Hill, where she acted once again as hospital attendant, tending to the many wounded.
  • On August 29, 1862, the 2nd Michigan took part in the Battle of Second Manassas. Acting as courier during the battle, Edmunds was forced to ride a mule after her horse was killed. She was thrown into a ditch, breaking her leg and suffering internal injuries. These injuries would plague her for the rest of her life and were the main reason for her pension application after the war.
  • In spring of 1863 Sarah contracted malaria and requested a furlough, which was denied. Not wanting to seek medical attention from the army for fear of discovery, She left her comrades in mid-April, never to return. “Franklin Thompson” was subsequently charged with desertion.
  • After her recovery, Sarah, no longer in disguise, worked with the United States Christian Commission as a female nurse, from June 1863 until the end of the war.
  • In 1876, she attended a reunion of the 2nd Michigan and was warmly received by her comrades.
  • On July 5 of 1884, a Special Act of Congress finally granted Sarah a veteran’s pension of $12 a month but the bill to clear her name moved slowly and wasn’t passed until July of 1886.
  • In 1897, Sarah was admitted into the Grand Army of the Republic, the only woman member.
  • One year later, on September 5, 1898, Sarah died at her home in La Porte, Texas.
  • In 1901, she was re-buried with military honors at Washington Cemetery in Houston.

Name: Isabella Goodwin

Born: February 20, 1865   Died: October 26, 1943

What they did: New York City’s First Female Police Detective

Facts:

  • Isabella Goodwin was born in in Greenwich Village, Manhattan on Feb. 20, 1865.  Growing up she had dreams of being an opera singer.
  • At 19, she married police officer, John W. Goodwin in 1885. Together they had six children, four of which survived.
  • John died in 1896, leaving 30-year-old Isabella a widow and single mother.
  • After the death of her husband, Isabella applied to become a Police Matron. After passing an exam, she was hired by Theodore Roosevelt who was the police commissioner at the time.
  • The Police Matron position wasn’t great; Isabella only made $1,000/year ($30,092) and she was only allowed 1 day off per month.
  • She served as a Police Matron for 15 years.
  • During this time, she began going undercover to investigate crimes while her mother watched her 4 children.
  • In 1912, Isabella got her big break.  In a bold midday bank robbery in downtown Manhattan, robbers, dubbed the “taxi bandits,” hijacked a cab full of bank workers, assaulted two clerks, and stole $25,000 ($651,484.54 in today’s money.)
    • The robbery gained national attention and, despite 60 detectives being assigned to the case, it went unsolved.
    • The NYPD was at a distinct disadvantage against criminals using cars for a quick getaway as they didn’t even have police cars yet.
    • As concerns about copycat crimes and frustration mounted, the sheriff’s office actually proposed arming civilians so they could fight crime on their own.
    • Eventually, the police got a lead about one of the suspected robbers, Gangster Eddie “THE BOOB” Kinsman. 
  • The boob had been frequenting a local boardinghouse to visit his girlfriend Swede Annie. That’s where Isabella came in. Isabella was asked to pose as a maid at the boardinghouse and collect evidence that implicated the boob in the heist.
    • Dressed in a rags and speaking with an Irish accent, Isabella began her mission.
    • Isabella would later recall eating scraps and sleeping in “a dark, wretched, little hole.” Between her maid duties, she would listen to conversations and get close to the thieves’ girlfriends to gather intel.
    • Some of the information she gathered included signs of the boob’s sudden wealth, such as a shopkeeper saying the boob was “shedding money” like a molting canary.
  • Eventually the boob’s girlfriend, Swede Annie confessed to Isabella that “Eddie the Boob turned the trick, alright,” the police were finally able to make arrests.
  • After her successful undercover operation, Isabella was promoted to the rank of detective.
  • A few years later, Isabella moved to Brooklyn where she met Oscar A. Seaholm, a handsome singer, 30 years her junior. In 1921 she put a ring on it.
  • Throughout the 1920s, Isabella oversaw the NYPD’s new Women’s Bureau which handled cases involving sex workers, runaways, truants, and victims of domestic violence.
  • In 1924, Isabella worked with prosecutors to investigate fraudulent medical practices and was instrumental in securing several high profile arrests. The same year she retired after a 30 year career with the NYPD.
  • At 78 years old, Isabella died of colon cancer on October 26, 1943. She was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn under the name Isabella Seaholm.
  • Her grave incorrectly indicates her year of birth as 1871.

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