Our Police Protectors
History of New York Police
Chapter 4, Part 1

By Holice and Debbie


1831 – 1844

Watchmen Dissatisfied with their Pay -- The Duty of Captains at the Breaking out of Fire -- Inquiring into the Expediency of Re-organizing the Police Department -- Increasing the Number of Police Justices -- "The Year of Riots." -- Erection of New Watch-houses -- The five Points -- Necessity of an Increase in the Number of the Watch -- First Attempts at Forming a Detective Squad -- The Flour Riots -- Re-organization of the Watch -- Powers of the Mayor over the Watch Revoked and Transferred to the Common Council -- The Mayor Re-invested with Supreme Police Authority -- Mayor Morris' plan of Forming the Marshal into a Day Police -- Report of the Special Committee in Relation to the Re-organization of the Watch -- Battery Park in Former times -- High Constable Hays--his Remarkable Career -- How he Suppressed Crime and Scourged Criminals.

The Night City Watchmen, in 1831, became dissatisfied with their pay, and two hundred and fifty of their number, organizing as a body, petitioned the Boards of aldermen for an increase of wages. The question was referred to the Committee on Finance, Police, Watch and Prisons, who, after examining several of the officers and a large number of the men, advised adversely to granting the petition. Their report states that the members of the Watch were paid eighty-seven and a half cents per night, the men alternating in performing the duties, and the majority of them were engaged in other pursuits with which their official responsibilities seldom interfered. In the summer season, the Watch was stationed at nine o'clock, and was discharged at daylight, the men having half the time to rest, the force being divided into two squads, each serving every alternate two hours. In regard to the complaint that they obliged to attend the Police courts in the mornings with their prisoners, the committee held that this was not very arduous, as two men in succession were assigned to that duty, and that the turn of each did not come more then once in every three months.

The same grievance was complained of in 1825, and this led to an advance from seventy-five to eighty-seven and a half cents per night, that continuing up to the date of the present petition for more pay.

Reporting on the complaint of the Watchmen that they obliged to attend court as witnesses, without receiving sufficient remuneration for the time lost, the committee held that the two dollars allowed them for every case in which they were summoned was a reasonable average compensation, and should not be increased. "It may also be added," they report, "as evidence of the equity of the present wages, that there are many m ore applications of good, suitable men for the office then are wanted." In conclusion they state: "Duly estimating the value of the services of the nightly guardians of the city, on whose vigilance and fidelity the safety and comfort of our citizens so much depend, and without taking into consideration the fact that the expenses of the city would be increased upwards of fourteen thousand dollars by assenting to the present petition, the committee are constrained to come to the conclusion that they cannot justly recommend an advance in wages to the Watchmen."

Captains were notified that it was their duty to se that the church bells should be rung at the breaking out of a fire, and that the Watchmen callout between what streets the fire was found, under penalty of dismissal, even though it should have been the first offence.

Vagrant children, of whom there appeared to have been a great number, incited the Aldermen to an effort to remedy the evil. They directed the Police Justices, through their special officers, to use all lawful means to arrest such children, particularly those loitering around junk shops in the lower part of the city. Those that were taken into custody were sent to the alms house.

It appears that the magistrates were authorized, by an ordinance of the Common council, to employ the officers upon important business by the hour. The price, as stated by Justice Weyman, was two shillings per hour by night, and one and four pence per hour during the day. Their employment necessarily depended upon their fitness for the peculiar business to which their attention might be called, by the discretion of the magistrate. As the officers all conceived themselves equally qualified to perform any duty connected with the office, and, as the fat was otherwise, a proper exercise of this discretion in the magistrate led to complaints on the part of the men who considered themselves slighted.

A committee having been appointed to inquire into the expediency of reorganizing the Police Department, delivered their report on January 16, 1832. The report began with the general statement that in the increase of population in a city like New York, there was generally a corresponding increase of crime, and that recent experience had demonstrated that the higher and bolder grades of criminals were seeking this land to terrify the peaceful inhabitants, to set at naught the ordinary means of security, and to render dangerous the lives of prosperous citizens. Mention was made of the fact that when the population did not exceed one hundred thousand, a Police Department with three magistrates was conceived to be all that was necessary. The report pointed out that with a population of upwards of two hundred thousand, spread over an extent of land which rendered it not only hazardous, but difficult, for an officer to perform his duty at night, an extension of the Police Department was highly necessary. The committee also recommended an increase in the number of magistrates, to hold their offices in the upper part of the city. This was followed by he appointment of an additional Police Justice, and in the following year yet another, thereby increasing the number of Police Justices to five.

The pay of Captains of the Watch, in April, 1832, was fixed at one dollar and eighty-seven cents per night each, and the Assistant Captains received one dollar and fifty cents. The Watchmen in the Fifteenth Ward were increased to such a number that ten men might be on duty in that Ward at one time, and that their line of patrol should extend to Fourteenth Street. The rate of wages of Watchmen, for each and every night's service, was established at one dollar. The Captain of the Sub-watch House, at the corner of Delancey and Attorney Streets, was directed to have two more men, and to place one of them in the cupola of the said Watch-house every night to look for fires, and give the alarm by ringing the bell, and to hang out of the window a pole with a lantern on the end, in the direction of the fire, that the firemen and citizens might know in which direction the fire was. Also, to strike the bell the different house through the night.

Another ordinance authorized the Special Justices, from time to time, to select such of the Constables or marshals as they might deem requisite, to act as Police officers, whose duty it should be to attend daily at the Police offices and execute the commands and orders of the said Justices.

The Five Points, of New York, has acquired a most notorious distinction. Originally, it was a low, swampy pond, which was gradually filled up, and as it became susceptible of occupation, it in time became the abiding place of an impoverished and desolate population, such as always exist in larger cities. The locality, however, by degrees, grew to be so notoriously disorderly that it was common for persons from the country to request the protection of the Police that they might visit the scenes of crime and dissipation rampant there at all times. There were, it was popularly believed, underground passages connecting blocks of houses on different streets, and the well-known names of Cow Bay and Murderer's Alley were suggestively characteristic of the place. Neither education nor religion shed its softening and refining influence upon the abandoned creatures who formed this colony. This is the startling picture drawn of the Five Points, at a time that religious influences were beginning to eradicate this moral plague spot:

"Certainly, as no spot of ground on this continent had the reputation of having been the witness of more crime, so no spot had such repulsive features, or where want and woe were more apparent. Every house was a brothel, the resort of persons of every age, sex, and color; every store a dram-shop, where from morning till morning the thieves and abandoned characters of the town whetted their depraved tastes, and concocted future crimes and villainies."

The Police, it may readily be believed, were not over anxious to intermediate with the little social pleasantries that the inhabitants were so prone to indulge in. Indeed, Police interference's of any kind would be entirely superfluous and out of place, as the Five Points was a very active volcano, and to attempt to stop the innumerable small eruptions would be only to intensify the death-dealing discharges from the main crater. A knowledge of these facts will serve to prepare the mind of the reader for the historical realism of the accompanying picture of the Five Points in its palmiest days.

In these years, the vicinity of the Five Points seemed to be looked upon as needing the especial care of the Police. The lawlessness of the neighborhood began to become notorious, and for the purposes of restraining the criminal disposition of its inhabitants, three additional Watchmen, besides the usual number, were assigned for that duty. Even that did not seem to satisfy the Aldermen, for they ordered that when the Watchmen went off duty at daylight, two additional Policemen should patrol the neighborhood until the Watch was again set at night. But it was "love's labor lost." A regiment of soldiers, much less a handful of Police, could not have overcome the turbulence and depravity of the unregenerate denizens. In this year, also, the first allowance for sweeping the watch-house was made, the average amount being four dollars per fortnight. The question of detaining prisoners arrested on Saturday until Monday morning before arraigning them in court, seems to have attracted the attention of the Aldermen, for in August they passed a resolution directing the Police Magistrates to attend at the respective Police offices on the Sabbath day.

The Mayor, in his message, June 18, 1832, expressed his gratification at the improved condition of the City Watch, "upon which the repose of our citizens, and the safety of our property so essentially depend." "the persons so engaged," said the Mayor, "had always constituted a highly respectable class, with some few exceptions, and under the judicious arrangements of their Captains, the Watch were becoming constantly more useful, and were entitled to confidence and encouragement."

The Finance Committee--to whom was referred the communication from the Comptroller on the subject of extra police services--on July 23 reported that the thirty-fourth section of the Act to reduce the several laws relating particularly to the State of New York, into one act, together with the report of the Police committee adopted by the Common Council, February, 1812, authorized the Comptroller to make such payments only under the certificate of the Special Justices. In the present case, it was claimed the Ward Magistrate, no having been aware of such regulation, employed officers without the knowledge of the Special Justices, but, as this was evidently done in good faith, the committee recommended that the Comptroller pay the sum of one hundred and thirty-two dollars and sixty-six cents to such officers. The common Council, while adopting the report, declared it to be their opinion that the law required that the services of the Police officers in the several Wards should be obtained solely on application to the Special Police Magistrates, in order that such services might be ]certified to by them according to law, and that no bills should thereafter be paid that did not comply with these conditions.

Mayor Lee, in his annual message, in the succeeding year, expressed the opinion that the Watch Department required the immediate attention of the Common Council, as the number of Watchmen, however faithful and vigilant, was utterly insufficient to guard the property and person of the citizens. There were some watch-posts, the Mayor said, which could not be carefully patrolled in a less time than from one to two hours. From the best obtainable information, Mayor Lee said the Watchmen had been increased not exceeding from fifteen to twenty-five per cent, during a period of time in which the population and the property of the city had been augmented one hundred per cent.

During the year 1813 the Watch force was increased from time to time by the appointment of additional men for the different Wards. Watchmen injured in the performance of their duty were generally allowed a sum of money, varying according to the extent of their wounds.

In this year also the vices of drunkenness and pauperism led the Aldermen to incite the Police to renewed efforts to suppress the same. They passed an ordinance for the severe punishment of such as were arrested, when the testimony of the officer or the views of the Magistrates warranted a commitment. The constable or other Police officers were directed to watch for and arrest habitual drunkards, person refusing to support their families, lewd women, able-bodied beggars, lodgers in the watch-houses, persons sleeping in out-houses, sheds, carts, or in the open air, and to being them before the Mayor, Recorder, or one of the Aldermen or Special Justices for examination. If convicted, in the generality of cases, they were sent to the alms house, where they were kept at hard labor for a period not to exceed six months. If old offenders, they were sent to the penitentiary. For a simple case of intoxication a fine of five dollars was imposed. The Police were also directed to enforce the ordinance prohibiting driving through the streets at a greater speed than five miles an hour, the carrying of a gun or a pistol for purpose of fowling on Sunday, or hawking and peddling through the streets, where licenses had not been obtained. Able-bodied beggars were obliged to pay for their board at the alms house or in lieu thereof serve a certain number of days at any hard labor designated by the Mayor. When an officer made an arrest on a charge of assault and battery he was protected if his prisoner was discharged, by the complainant being obliged to pay the costs of the proceedings or suffer imprisonment for not more than two days. Watchmen were also specially directed to arrest and bring before the Recorder all children found begging, so that they could be sent to the alms house to be educated, taken care of, and taught some useful trade in order to make them reputable citizens.

The Rotunda was erected in 1818 by Vandelyn, the artist, for a studio and the exhibition of panoramic pictures. The post-office was installed in the Rotunda, immediately after the destruction of the old post-office in the great fire of 1835. When it was understood the government proposed to accept the Rotunda, the merchants got up very demonstrative indignation meetings and protests against locating a post-office so far up town. the pressure to get the post-office "down town" still continued, and advantage was taken of the fact that the Middle Dutch church was for sale to procure it for the post-office. That was in 1845.

In the latter part of the year 1833, the building occupied by the Upper Police became inadequate for the public use and the Committee on Repairs were directed by the Aldermen to ascertain what alterations were necessary to prevent those detained for examination from suffering from the cold during the winter season. The force was still further increased by the appointment of new men and the establishment of new posts in the different Watch districts.

The year 1834 may, with propriety, be called the year of riots. The civil authorities being obliged for the first time to call for military aid to assist in maintaining the peace of the city. In this year the Mayor was elected by the city for the first time. Hitherto that office had been filled by appointment by the Governor and Council. The elections were then held for three successive days, and in the inefficient condition of the city Police, they were oftentimes the cause of great excitement and turbulence. The Sixth Ward remained true to its title of "the bloody ould sixth," party strife running even more than usually high, and giving rise to a series of brawls and riots. Three months after the National Guard had quelled the election riots they were again called upon to put down a disturbance of a much more formidable character. The abolitionists were this time the object of the fury of the mob; their meetings were attacked and broken up; and the mob sacked the dwellings and assaulted the persons of several well-known leading abolitionists. The Twenty-Seventh Regiment, N. G., S. N. Y., Colonel Stevens commanding, were called out to dispense the mob. The latter had assembled in large numbers, and erected a barricade of carts, barrels, and ladders, chained together, in the vicinity of the Rev. Mr. Ludlow's church, spring Street, between Macdougal and Varick Streets. The regiment first met the rioters in large force in Thompson Street, above Prince. The Aldermen who had been deputed by Mayor Lawrence to accompany the military, and to direct, as magistrates, the action of the regiment, became greatly alarmed,, and endeavored to prevail on Colonel Stevens to retreat to the City Hall. Colonel Stevens was not that kind of man. For answer, he moved two companies up to the barricades under a shower of stones, broke it up, and drove the mob before him at the point of a bayonet. Meeting Justice Olin M. Lowndes with a force of Police, Col. Stevens turned around and marched back against the mob, sending them flying before him, demoralized and beaten. The riot had been efficiently put down and peace again restored without the firing of a shot.

The other riots that took place about this period were the Stone-cutter's riots, Five Points riots, O'Connell Guard riots, and Chatham Street riots.

On the night of December 16, 1835, the city was visited by a terrible conflagration, the burnt district embracing thirteen acres, in which nearly seven hundred houses were leveled to the ground, with the loss of over seventeen million dollars.

During these years additional Watchmen, who merely performed Sunday duty, were appointed whenever the Board of Aldermen deemed such appointment necessary. Their pay in the beginning was but seventy-five cents a day, but it was gradually increased until, in the year 1835, it was fixed at one dollar and fifty cents for each day's service. The date of payment for such service, however, was uncertain, as the Watchmen so employed, after making out their bills and having them certified to by their superior officers, had to petition the Boards to pass a resolution directing the comptroller to draw his warrant in their favor. The Boards of Aldermen then were not different to the present Boards in the matter of expediting business,. The bills were generally of a small amount. It was customary in those days to allow the High constable from twenty to fifty dollars for the employment of Special Police to do duty on public holidays. Applications for these positions were numerous, as the records of both Boards show.

During the years 1835-36, the growth of the city demanded an increase of Watchmen. A number were appointed, two new watch- houses were erected, and some of the old ones were altered and repaired. Several new posts were created many of the Watch districts being extended further up town.

The doings of the Magistrates seem to have been watched with unusual interest by the Aldermen, for they decreed that the police Courts should be kept open from the discharge of the Watch in the morning until the Watch was set in the evenings, so that prisoners might be speedily granted justice. Occasionally, during these years, the Watchmen, for extra services performed, were allowed extra pay, and, on the death of a Watchmen, the Board often passed a resolution directing the comptroller to draw his warrant for a sum sufficient to defray the funeral expenses.

Mayor Lawrence, in his message, July 6, 1836, adverted to the necessity and importance of an efficient and well-regulated Police. The elements of the present system of Police, he said, he believed to be good, and that the character of the Magistrates connected with the department was a warrant for the faithful discharge of their duties. The principal point, therefore, he said to which he desired to direct the attention of the Common Council, was the necessity of a very considerable increase in the number of the Watch. No right, he maintained, could be dearer to the citizen than to be protected in his person and property, and secured against dangerous disruptions of the public peace.

The first attempt at forming a detective squad under the name of Roundsmen was made in April of this year; at which time a law was passed directing the appointment of one hundred and ninety-two additional men to the Watch Department to be designated as Roundsmen, forty-eight to be stationed in the First District and twenty-four in each of the other districts. They were not required to wear the Watchmen's caps, nor any dress to distinguish them from other citizens. The Captains of the Watch had the arrangement of their posts, which they were obliged to patrol continuously while on duty in search of criminals and also t discover and report any neglect of duty of any Policemen on their beat. Their pay was the same as that given to member of the Watch, and the pay of the Watchmen doing duty as Sergeants was fixed at twelve shillings.



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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