Our Police Protectors
History of New York Police
Chapter 3, Part 1

By Holice and Debbie


1783 – 1830

The City Divided into Seven Wards--New York described as "A Strange Mosaic of Different nations." -- The Force and the Pay of the Men Increased -- progress of the Police system very marked -- Establishing a Police Office in the City Hall -- Places of Confinement: State Prison, Penitentiary, Bridewell and Jail -- the Watch doubled on account of the increase of Crime -- Example of "A Good Arrest" -- An Act Establishing Courts of Justices of the Peace and Assistant Justices -- A law for better regulating of the City Watch -- Petition for an Increase of Pay -- A perfect Police of extreme Importance -- Watchmen declared not eligible to act as Firemen -- The Humane Society -- Result of the Watch Committee's Investigation.

The third period in the history of New York now opens. The City is a free member in a free State. She manages her institutions herself for the benefit of her people, without foreign aid or interference, and, under the change regime, her population, wealth, and prosperity increase, and her system of government develops to keep pace with the development of her life in every other phase. In that system of government no branch of the public service has had a broader or more successful growth than the public policing of the city, It will be the province of this and following chapters to describe that growth in detail.

After the evacuation of the city by the British on November 25, 1783, no immediate change was made in the municipal system. The authority of the Dongan and Montgomerie Charters was suffered to subsist, the State of New York assuming the functions previously reserved to the English Crown or its representatives. The City remained divided into seven wards, an Alderman and an assistant being chosen from each annually by the people. Half the city was still in ruins from the fire of 1776; the other half was dilapidated and impoverished by the period of war and hostile occupation. The work of rebuilding was soon begun, however, and both literally and figuratively, the city speedily rose from its ashes. The early mixture of races among the population has already been alluded to. This had become so much more marked about the period of independence that the people of New York were described as: a strange mosaic of different nations." How much more true would the phrase be at this day; but it is not out of this mingling of blood that much of the energy, thrift, and keenness of the people has been derived.

It is plain, from figures which come down to us in the public records, that no time was lost inputting things in order in the city. Arrangements appear to have been made with great promptitude for a system of watching, and for lighting the streets, for the accounts of the City Treasurer show that drafts were made for the purpose from January 1, 1784, forward. These expenditures were marked by great liberality as compared with those of the Colonial days; but it must be taken into account that extensive repairs in lamps, watch-houses, and other appurtenances were necessary, before any effectual service could be obtained. Nevertheless the appropriations were extremely liberal for the period. For the first years of independence, the sums expended for watching and lighting were:






Dec. 31, 1783 to Aug. 1. 1785




Aug. 1, 1785 to Oct. 1, 1786




Oct. 1 1786 to Sept. 1 1787








This Watch expenditure, apart from the outlay involved in lighting the streets from the year beginning May 1, 1786, and ending May 1, 1787, placed the cost of the Watch, which consisted of a Captain and twenty-eight men, at £1724 8s., of which £50 was for wood and candles, and the rest, £1674 8s., was for salaries. These were computed at the rate of £32 a week for the entire Watch, and the Captain had eighty shillings a night or £2, 16s., a week, while the twenty-eight Watchmen had three shillings a night, or £1, 1s., per week each.

Constables' fees were fixed by law in 1789 as follows: For serving a warrant, 1s., 6d., mileage, for every mile going only, six pence.

For levying a fine or penalty to the amount of twenty shillings or under, one shilling; and on all sums above twenty shillings, at the rte of one shilling in the pound. Taking a defendant in custody, or a witness, one shilling; conveying a prisoner to jail, one shilling, if with in one mile, and for every mile more going only, sixpence.

The committee appointed to regulate the city Watch were ordered to inquire into the state of the Watchmen's caps, and report the same to the Board, and also whether an additional number of Watchmen (and how many) were necessary to fully patrol a part of the outward ward. The Common council concluded not to enforce regulations made by the above committee, looking to the increase of the ? Watch, until the legislature should have authorized the raising of a sufficient sum to defray the extra expense attendant on the augmentation of the City Watch. An allowance was made to constables and marshals for conveying prisoners to Bridewell, and the pay of the former was placed at four shillings per night during January, February, and March, and three shillings per night for both branches of the State legislature, "in humble confidence that the wisdom of the Legislature will provide a remedy for an evil productive of consequences dangerous, and destructive to an alarming degree." According to this memorial the poor prisoners suffered great hardships, besides their loss of liberty. It appears a if the atrocities practiced by British jailors has to some extent produced a similar disregard of human suffering in the breasts of the officials that succeeded them. The prisoners confined in the jail, we learn were "subjected to the danger arising from putrid and contagious disorders, occasioned by crowded rooms and corrupted air, and liable to become useless if not pernicious members of society, from the great danger they are in of acquiring habits of intemperance and debauchery, while attempting to drown the recollection of their present misfortunes and distresses by the excessive use of spirituous liquors." From the second of January, 1787, to the third of December, 1788, there had been one thousand one hundred and sixty-two commitments to the jail for debt; seven hundred and sixteen of these had been confined for sums recoverable before a justice of the peace, and many of these under twenty shillings. In December, 1788, there were eighty debtors in jail, forty of whom were locked up for sums under twenty pounds.

The Watch of 1788 consisted of one Captain and thirty men. The former was paid eight shillings, and the latter three shillings a night, which amounted to £34, 6s., per week, and £1783, 12s., per year. for supplying the same with wood and candles, £50. It was proposed to add fifteen more men, which would raise the Watch to forty-five men per night, making an extra expense of £15, 15s., per week, or £819 per year. there are also an additional expense for the winter (three months) of £202, 10., making a grand total of £2855, 2s. Their pay was increased in December one shilling per man per night.

On December 31 of the same year, however, twenty men were added to the force in consequence of the frequent robberies, which were taking place in the city. This extra protection was not of long consequence; for, on April 7, 1789, the common council adopted a resolution to discharge all extra men. But a slow increase was soon inaugurated. On October 23, two men were added, and the number of gradually increased in this way. A new Watch-house was built in the City hall at Broad and Wall Streets, where the sub-treasury now stands, and there the Watchmen were obliged to parade at seven o'clock on winter evenings and eight in summer. Toward the close of 1789, it was ordered that the Watchmen be allowed four shillings per night from the first of December to first of March ensuing, and the "Assistant Foreman" of the Watch was allowed an addition of a shilling a night to his pay above what the rank and file received.

The High Constable, in 1793, was enjoined to direct that two or more of the constables, those of the Harlem Division of the Seventh Ward excepted, on every Sunday during the time of the Divine Service, by turns, should walk through the several streets with their staffs and cause this law (a law for the due observance of the Lord's Day) to be duly kept and observed; and to that end the said High Constable and other Constables were authorized to enter into all or any public inns, victualers, or ordinary-keepers; and if any person should be found tippling therein, or that strong liquor was sold therein contrary to law, they should make complaint thereof, that the same might be punished.

Along towards 1796, the progress of the police system became very marked. Four more men had been added; the pay for all was now increased. On January 1, 1796, it was determined that until May 1 of each year, the Captains of the Watch should receive eleven shillings a night; the assistants, seven shillings; and the privates five shillings and sixpence. By the close of the year, too, the new watch-house at the end of Chatham Street was reported complete and ready for occupancy. A committee was then appointed to make recommendations as to the number of me to be assigned to the new house. This committee made a thorough report, recommending that the Captain and one assistant be stationed at the main watch-house, Broad and Wall Street; and one assistant at the new house. The additional number of men to be employed was sixteen. The committee counseled that the rounds should be performed by three bands of three men, each relieving each other; and that seven sentries should be posted as follows: one at the watch-house; one at the intersection of Pearl and Chatham streets; two at the ship-yard; one at the "upper box" in the Bowery; one in division Street; and one "in Mr. Iver's ropewalk."

A man could be both a policeman and a politician in those days. We learn that in 1796 Alexander Lamb, one of the Captains of the City Watch, being about to depart for Albany to attend his duty as a Member of Assembly, it was ordered that Nicholas Lawrence, his assistant, take charge of the Watch until his chief's return.

The Watch Department was under the immediate direction of the Corporation. It was the duty of the Captains, under the direction of the Watch Committee, to fix the rounds of the Watchmen, prescribe their duties, and visit their stations. When a Watchman was guilty of misconduct, the Captain of the district might suspend him till the pleasure of the Common Council was known. He was obliged to make a return, early in the morning, to the justices of the Police, of the number and names of Watchmen attending the preceding night, and the defaulters, if any.

The estimate for the support of the city in 1800 was as follows:


Alms House








Support of Prisoners








Wells and Pumps


City Contingencies




An estimate of the expenses of the city for the year 1801 contained the following:


Watch, consisting of two Captains, two Deputies, and seventy-two men

52 weeks, at $368.50 per week


Extra Watch




There were four places of confinement in New York City: three for felons and one for debtors. These were: 1, the State Prison; 2, Penitentiary; 3, Bridewell; 4, Jail. The State prison, a south-east view of which is given in the accompanying cut, was "situated at Greenwich, about a mile and a half from the City hall, and occupying one of the most healthy and pleasant spots on the banks of the Hudson.' It was a strongly built structure, of the Doric order, and was constructed of free stone, the windows being grated with iron for security. It was two-sores high, of fifteen feet each, besides the basement, and had a slated roof. Rising from the centre there was a neat cupola, in which a bell was hung. The centre of the principal front, towards Washington Street, was projected and surmounted by a pediment, as was also the west front. The whole front measured two hundred and four feet in length, and there were four wings, which extended backwards towards the river. the building and yards covered four acres, and the whole as enclosed by a stone wall twenty-three feet high on the riverside, and fourteen feet in the front.



Our Police Protectors, History of the New York Police, Published for the benefit of the Police Pension Fund, by Augustine Costello, Published by Author, 1885.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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