In October 1862, the New York City Metropolitan Police held Mrs. Isabella Brinsmade for over a month without charge in the precinct house on West 47th Street. The twenty-year old Louisiana native had arrived in New York that August, sent by her merchant father who thought she would be safer there than in Union-occupied New Orleans. Her husband was away fighting in the Confederate Army, and she does not appear to have maintained any special affection for him. By all accounts Mrs. Brinsmade was intelligent, high-spirited, very attractive, and... liked to talk.
The most charitable explanation for her apprehension and detention is that the Metropolitan Police acted on orders from federal War Department agents. The feds wanted Brinsmade quarantined as a possible spy until she could be returned to New Orleans. The truth was more complex, with complicity on both sides. In the end Brinsmade was released unharmed and her ordeal became a cause célèbre in New York City for opponents of the Lincoln administration. The police commission hearings that followed her release were the first public airing of grievances against the government’s system of arbitrary arrests. “The Case of Mrs. Brinsmade,” as it was referred to in the press, sheds light on politics in wartime New York, police practices of the day, and the interaction of federal and local officials in the latter half of 1862.