Our Police Protectors
History of New York Police
Chapter 3, Part 4

By Holice and Debbie


 The Police Committee was ordered in 1817 to report upon the propriety of allowing further compensation to peace officers for the arrest of felons. The report was made on November 17, and four propositions which it contained were agreed to. These were: Fist, that the Police committee be authorized to pay officers for extraordinary services in arresting criminals, such sums, not exceeding $100 in anyone case, as they might deem just; Second, that sixty-two cents be allowed to every officer who should arrest on process, a prisoner who should be committed and afterwards released or convicted; Third, that every Watchman who attended court on subpoena as required by the District Attorney, in consequence of his being a Watchmen, should be allowed $2 for each case of felony in which he so attended; and Fourth, that Marshals, when not attached to a court, and Constables should be allowed $1 for every attendance on subpoena.

Constables and Marshals when summoned, were obliged (Act March 5, 1819) to attend the sittings of the courts of Common pleas, Oyer and Terminer, General Sessions, and the jail delivery, for which services they were each paid $1.50 per day. Constables were forbidden (Act April 7, 1820) to buy or become interested in any bill or promissory note, debt, not lend any money on any debt for the purpose of getting it in his hands for collection, under penalty of fine, imprisonment and forfeiture of office. Upon warrant for the non-payment of rent, Constables and Marshals were empowered to remove defaulting tenants (Act April 13,1820). A subsequent act provided that Constables should receive reasonable compensation for services performed, and for when no special compensation had been allowed by law.

By an act of ninth February, 1788, justices of the peace were authorized to commit for sixty days, any vagrant, disorderly person, etc., on their own views, without a trial by jury. By an act of March 3, 1820, the term of commitment was extended to six months. Thus the police justices had the power of taking up and imprisoning any individual at their discretion, without the form of trial by jury, although this provision was indirect collision with the Constitution of the United States, which declares that "the trial of all crimes, except in cases of impeachment, shall be by jury." The police at this time, it is alleged, with regard to crimes, were rather remarkable for success in detecting, than for vigilance in preventing them. The police of the city were not, it would appear, over-efficient or zealous.

By act of the legislature of this year, the Mayor, Recorder, five Aldermen and five Assistants, were deemed necessary to form a quorum for the transaction of any business. In the same act it was provided that the salary of the Mayor might be seven thousand dollars per annum, but could not be less than five thousand dollars, and after being fixed, it could not be lessened during the holding of the then incumbent. Formerly, the salary arise chiefly from perquisites of office.

The Mayor's Court was held in the City hall. The Mayor, Recorder, and Aldermen constituted this court, though the Mayor and Recorder might meet without the Aldermen. The court held its sittings on the third Monday of every month. The charter of this court is dated April 22, 1686. As a Court of Justice the Mayor's Court stood very high in public estimation.

Then there were the District court of the United States; the Circuit court of the United States; the Surrogate's Office; the Marine or Justices' Court--this court consisted of three Judges or Justices, who were appointed by the Council of State, two of which should always preside. They met every lawful day at ten o'clock, and were empowered to try actions for debt to the amount of one hundred dollars; to determine as to seamen's wages to any amount, and in actions of assault, battery and false imprisonment among seamen and passengers. It was distinct from all other courts of justices; had no power to hold sessions of the peace but as to keeping the peace it had the same power as other magistrates.

Besides the marine Court, there was a Justices' Court held in every ward, in which one person presided, who was called an assistant Justice. He tried questions of debt and trespass to the amount of twenty-five dollars, and generally all actions competent to all other justices in the State where the amount did not exceed twenty-five dollars. The Justices of these courts were remunerated out of fees prescribed by law, on the proceedings in their respective courts.

A change was affected in the law concerning assistant Justices, on January 4, 1820, by reducing their number, as follows: One was appointed for the first, second and third wards, one for the fourth and sixth wards, one for the fifth and eighth wards, and one for the seventh and tenth wards; each Justice to hold a court for the trial of causes to the amount of fifty dollars and under. The salary of each was one thousand seven hundred and fifty dollars per year, and certain fees were allowed when more than twenty-five dollars was recovered. It was not lawful for more than thirty of the Marshal to serve processes issuing out of the court of any assistant justice, such Marshal to be commissioned by the Mayor.

The first faint movement toward uniforming the peace officers was to oblige them to wear a certain style of hat to distinguish them from the general crowd. On July 23, 1821, the order to wear these hats was abolished; a painted plate to be worn by each office when on duty in front of his own cap, was made optional. Another and more pleasing enactment was adopted, as a sort of Christmas present, on December 24 of this year. This allowed Captains and privates of the Watch one dollar a day each for attendance at the Court of General Sessions on duty, growing out of their duties as Watchmen. The next year, this rule was made to include the Court of Oyer and Terminer. The same committee which reported this ordinance, was also ordered to consider the petition of the Watchmen for an increase of salary. The committee found that there were a great number of applications for berths as Watchmen, and that neither mechanical labor nor the cost of living was higher than it was when the pay was set at the figure that then prevailed. An increase was therefore opposed. In 1825, however, a resolution was carried allowing the Captains, assistants, and Watchmen of the different districts of the City Watch, a compensation to twelve and a half cents a night additional to their regular pay.

The Watch committee was instructed to investigate the method of conducting the Watch which prevailed, and report thereon to the Common Council. The report was rendered April 24, 1826, and it opened with an assurance that the committee had exerted themselves to obtain that practical information necessary to form correct opinions. The result of their labors, laid before the Board, is as follows:

"Your committee have on various occasions, and at such unexpected seasons as to render it certain that their visits were not anticipated, visited the watch houses, have found them clean and orderly, as far as regards the Watchmen, and that in general, proper respect is paid to the commanding officers, and a wholesome subordination used in all their regulations. The Watchmen as a body are men to whom your Committee feel confident our citizens may properly confide the safety of their lives and property; they are, however, men, and it would hence be unreasonable to expect that they should be faultless, or that there should not be among them those who dishonor their station, and have been found and promptly dismissed, and your committee believe that a rigid adherence to the present test for qualifications will rid the Watch of its improper members, and insure to the city a corps whose active exertions and integrity may be relied on."

Notwithstanding this high praise, the committee found the system in need of improvement. The whole number of Watchmen in the city at this time was two hundred for each night's service, including officers. The force was apportioned as follows:

















Three Captains and three Assistants






The Postmen were to include those stationed at public buildings and the cupola, and doormen at the watch-houses. This left the Captains and assistants, and ninety-seven men, to protect the streets during the night. The committee believed the number wholly insufficient to guard the city. After making every effort by rearrangement of the posts to make the existing force as efficient as possible the investigators were forced to the conclusion that twenty-four men ought to be added. They reported, however, against the addition of a new district, on the double ground of expense and the difficulty of locating the new house. They recommended, however the addition of six assistant Captains to the Watch, two for each district, to b on duty alternate nights. Besides, the establishment of relief watch-houses was advocated, the distance of the outposts from the main houses requiring too much time in relieving. To meet this demand it was proposed to erect a watch-room in the rear of a new engine-house, then in course of erection at Delancey and Attorney Streets; for the use of the Second District, and to use the room over the engine-house at Hudson and Christopher Streets for the Third District. Each of these relief houses was to be placed under command of an assistant Captain, and the assignment of men to them was to be left to the Captains and the Police Committee. "If the foregoing recommendations of your committee are carried into effect," the report says, " the number of Watchmen employed for each night will be two hundred and twenty-seven, and there will be constantly on duty three Captains, six assistants, and one hundred and nine Watchmen, ninety-four of the latter being Postmen and fifteen Roundsmen, whose duty it is to visit the posts by divisions every two hours during the night." The estimated cost of these improvement was ten thousand dollars. From a resolution appended to the committee's report it is gathered that the boundaries of the three Watch district were as follows:

First, commencing at the foot of north Moore Street to Chapel Street, thence through Chapel to White Street, to orange Street, through Orange to Bayard, through Bayard to Mulberry, through Mulberry to Chatham, down James to East River, and including all that part of the City north and west of the said line.

Second, commencing at the foot of James Street, to Chatham Street, through Chatham to Mulberry, through Mulberry to Bayard, through Bayard to Orange, through Orange to Grand, through Grand to Mulberry, through Mulberry to Broome, through Broome to the Bowery as far as the Lamp and Watch District extend, including all north and east of the said line.

Third, all the city in the Lamp and Watch Districts not included in the above.

All the recommendations of the committee just quoted were adopted by the Common Council, and were speedily put in operation.

The Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents, made a n application to the City Council for a grant of land for the proposed institution. The committee to whom the request was referred recommended "that the piece of ground lying at the junction of the Bloomingdale and Old Post roads, on which the U. S. Arsenal was situated, which was granted on the 17th of November, 1807, by the corporation to the General Government, upon the express condition and understanding that the same should be used for the purposes of an arsenal and deposit of military stores, and whenever it should cease to be used for such purposes, it was to revert to the corporation, should be conveyed to the board of managers of the Society, whenever they obtain from the General government conveyance of the interest they had in the grounds."

In addition to this they proposed to convey to the Society the triangular plot in front, formed by the junction of the roads. The memorial to the government was granted, and the government stores were removed to Castle William, the barracks being turned over to the Society.

The site now forms part of Madison Square, lying between Twenty-third and Twenty-sixth Streets, and Madison and Fifth Avenues. Here on the first of January, 1825, in the old barracks occupied during the war of 1812-15, purified, refitted, and prepared for a limited number of inmates, the New York Home of Refuse was opened. At first there was but one long building; subsequently additions were made as the number of inmates increased, as presented below. The building was burned down in the year 1835.

By act of April 15, 1826, the fees of constables and Marshal employed in the Police office were fixed as follows: For serving a warrant or summons within one mile, thirty-seven and a half cents, and six and a quarter cents for returning if the party was arrested or served. For very mile, going only, twelve and a half cents mileage; for taking the defendant in custody on commitment, twelve and a half cents; for conveying the party to prison, if within a mile, twelve and a half cents; for going with a defendant to procure a security, when ordered by the Justice, fifty cents; for serving a subpoena, when within a mile, twelve and a half cents, and twelve and a half cents additional for every additional mile, going only; for serving every search warrant when goods were not found, one dollar, but if found and they should exceed fifty dollars, then any sum not over two dollars and fifty cents, which he Justice might direct.

A resolution was passed August 4, of this year, that an inquiry be made into the expediency of associating with the several Watch departments a judicial officer to admit prisoners to bail, was referred to the Watch committee. On the eleventh of the following month a resolution was adopted providing for the sitting of Magistrates on Sundays, and during the night--the committee on application being instructed to ask the legislature to change the law to that effect. The succeeding month a resolution was offered providing for the establishing of two branches of the Police Department, to be located at the watch-houses of the Second and Third Districts, each having Justices' clerks and Marshals to attend during the day-time and a Justice to attend at night to dispose of the cases brought up, thereby relieving the Captains of the responsibility. In the month of December, six new posts were created; two in the First District, one in the Second, and three in the Third.

The Watch Committee were directed to employ a physician to attend certain Watchmen who were injured in the riot at Anthony Street, near Elm Street, on January 1, 1827. On the fifteenth of the same month, the Watch Committee were directed to render any financial assistance necessary to the families of the wounded Watchmen. The following month provision was made to fine Constables twenty-five dollars for failing to attend before a Justice when summoned to do so.

Watchmen were required by ordinance (July 13, 1829) to callout fires. The Captains of each Watch District were ordered to instruct the Watchmen under their direction to cause every alarm of fire to be made as general as possible, by crying aloud the mane of the street or post where the fire might be.

Watchmen were allowed fifty cents for attendance as witnesses at Special Sessions, by ordinance, December 27, 1830.

When on duty, Watchmen wore a fireman's old-fashioned leather hat, bereft of it upright front plate. This hat was varnished twice a year, and soon became as hard as iron. From this they came to be called "Leatherheads." They were also dubbed "Old Charlies." They had no other badge of office than this hat, and a thirty-three inch club. For many years, like their Dutch predecessors, they called out the hours of the night, but this practice ceased long before the old Charlies has run their course. For over half a century the city was policed by these Watchmen. The system worked well enough while the city remained in its "teens;" but an ever increasing population, and constantly expanding area, in time called for a change in the management and organization of our public guardians. The jaded stevedore, teamster, or mechanic, could hardly be expected to display much enterprise or energy, when, on each alternate night, he sallied forth to patrol the streets. It is safe to assume that he performed his duty in a perfunctory manner, and that the "knights of the jimmy," and other midnight marauders, did not hold him in especial reverence or dread.

The only day police during the regime of the aforesaid Leatherheads, were the Constables, generally two from each ward, and the Marshals, who were assigned to the Courts, it was, then, the province of the Watchmen, or "Leatherheads," to protect life and property, to preserve public order, and generally to keep the criminal classes within proper subjection. He did not always succeed in doing his, it is true; but perhaps that was not entirely his fault. The young bloods of those days took liberties with this official personage which no young man of our time, who valued his health and reputation, would dare take with one of "The Finest." The old "Leatherheads" had often to suffer the pranks of wild young men about town, who, like their cockney prototype, thought that a night's spree would not be appropriately ended except they had played some practical joke on the City Watch, which took the form generally of upsetting a watch-box with a snoring Leatherhead in it, or t lasso the sentry-box with a stout rope, and drag it along with it imprisoned occupant. But these experiences did not seriously ruffle the temper of the Watchmen, and so nobody was much the worse off for those irregular pleasantries.

Jacob Hays was then the main safeguard of the city during business house. He was accustomed too the rounds with a few Constables, suppressing tumults and enforcing ordinances. The Watchmen found t no easy task to cope with crime and criminals. The city at this time was not remarkable for the peaceable and orderly disposition of the naturally vicious and turbulent portion of the inhabitants. Gangs of rowdies not infrequently indulged in a series of serious faction fights, and, growing tired of this, they began to maltreat peaceable citizens. Robberies, burglaries and general thievery were alarmingly on the increase, and this criminal activity was not in any manner counterbalanced by a corresponding energy on the par of the city's legally constituted guardians. The Watchmen of the period stood in wholesome terror of the lawbreakers they were supposed to keep within proper subjection. The constables were but a mere corporal's guard, but, under the skillful and fearless leadership of High Constable Hays, they did much towards intimidating the higher order of the culprits, who organize crime and employ other to execute their plans. The High Constable's duties were more in the line of detecting than preventing crime, and his services in this respect can not be over-estimated.

But those old Watchmen were, as a class, very respectable men, and many of them belonged to very good families.

The roughs and toughs of those days were in no way interior or superior to their congeners, with whom our citizens are but too familiar. Nevertheless, the statement may be hazarded that the Watchman's low was even a less happy one than that of the Policeman of the present day. the former was not uniformed or armed, save as to a club; he was not so well protected by the law in his warfare on criminals; the system lacked effective organization, and there was an entire absence of that esprit du corps which so distinguishes our own Police force.

"New York City," says Mrs. Lamb, in the history of the City of New York, "by this time appeared like a youth much overgrown for his years. It has shot up with a rapidity that defies calculation." Wealth was increasing faster than sobriety was inclined to measure. Swarming multitudes from very quarter of the globe were rendering the community--in a certain sense--unformed. Educational and charitable institutions were multiplying.

The rapid growth of the city, to keep peace with its constantly increasing population, may best be inferred from the following table:


Population in 1790


In 1800


In 1810


In 1820


In 1830


On the seventh of April, 1830, an amended charter was granted to the city, which provided for separate, meetings of he two boards, and excluded the Mayor and Recorder from the Common Council, giving the Mayor, however, the power of approving or disapproving the acts of this body. In the course of the following year the Fifteenth Ward was added to the city.



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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