Dakota Fanning’s Character in The Alienist Is Based on the First Female Detective in New York City

Dakota Fanning’s Character in The Alienist Is Based on the First Female Detective in New York City
The second season of period crime drama The Alienist, subtitled The Angel of Darkness after the source novel by Caleb Carr, has just begun on TNT. The series, which follows an unlikely team of criminal investigators in 19th Century New York, blends historical fact with fiction. Theodore Roosevelt plays a supporting role in the show as police commissioner, a position which he held in real life prior to becoming president, and the well-known attorney Clarence Darrow makes an appearance in season two.

What might be less evident, though, is that one of the central characters was also inspired by a real person. Sara Howard, the secretary-turned-sleuth played by Dakota Fanning, was modeled after Isabella Goodwin, the first female detective in the New York City police department.

Just like Sara in the show, Goodwin was hired by Roosevelt—one of the first women to find work in the police. While Sara is introduced as Roosevelt’s secretary, Goodwin, a widow, was employed as a “jail matron”, tasked with looking after female prisoners and children in custody. However, during her 15 years in this job, Goodwin would go undercover to investigate crimes, most famously solving a daylight robbery case that 60 other detectives had been unable to crack.

This victory led to Goodwin being appointed the first female detective in New York, with the rank of 1st grade lieutenant and a salary of more than twice what she had previously been paid. Goodwin worked as a detective for another 15 years, even after remarrying—highly uncommon for a woman in the early 20th Century.

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The Alienist takes some liberties with the specifics of Goodwin’s story in the character of Sara, however the broad strokes remain the same; Sara had lost her father at the beginning of the series, rather than a husband, and is initially recruited in a junior position before proving her worth as a detective. Most significantly, Sara channels the strong-minded spirit and intellect that made Goodwin such an historic figure.

Philip Ellis is a freelance writer and journalist from the United Kingdom covering pop culture, relationships and LGBTQ+ issues.

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