Our Police Protectors
History of New York Police
Chapter 5, Part 1

By Holice and Debbie


1844 - 1853

A turning Point in the System of Policing the City -- The Old Watch Department Abolished -- Establishment of a Day and Night Police -- Chief Matsell -- A Man Who Played an Important Part in Police Affairs -- Harper's Police -- First Effort to Introduce a Uniform -- The New Stem Not Satisfactory -- Changes in the Law--Astor Place Riot -- Battery Park -- Growing boldness of Criminals -- Citizens Alarmed -- the Whole Force Directed to Patrol Day and Might -- Detailment of policemen a Growing Evil -- Measures taken to Suppress it--Tables of Arrests.

The necessity of a new department in policing the city had for a long time been forcing itself on the public mind. But, however apparent this might have been to the politicians, that body of enlightened citizens had neither the will nor inclination to change the old way of doing business. And so matters dragged along until 1840. At that time the city was in the full tide of its mercantile prosperity.

George W. Matsell, in the above year, became one of the Police Magistrates. He was a young man of some talent and considerable energy. Born in New York, he early in life came to this city, and grew up with the town. He was, in his official sense, the lineal descendent of Jacob Hays, who had grown old in the public service. Mr. Matsell soon became impressed with the necessity for a change in the watch system, and he set himself to re-organize the old sleepy Leatherheads. The population of the city was then about four hundred thousand souls. The city was filled with thieves and burglars, many of them of the worst kind. Mr. Matsell gathered some kindred spirits about him, and, with the squad of men he had at his command, he was in the habit of going about the city a great deal at might, breaking up many places of evil resort through his personal exertions. Among his lieutenants were George w. Walling, afterwards Superintendent; Robert Brownsen; W. Stevens, late keeper on Randall's Island; and Joseph McGrath, afterwards Captain, and later a Magistrate.

Mr. Matsell's efforts showed what one earnest, fearless man, could accomplish, and the public mind became impressed with the fact that wheat Mr. Matsell was doing almost single-handed, and therefore but partially and imperfectly, was of too important a nature for individual effort, and so at last it was determined to take a decisive step in the right direction. This step was not taken, however, until James Harper was elected Mayor in 1844, but once taken there was no crying halt on the onward march of Police progress and reform.

Mr. Matsell was born in the year 1806, and came to this country when but six years of age. His father kept a book store on part of the site of the metropolitan Hotel, and adjoining Niblo's Theatre. Young Matsell also learned the business from another bookseller, and in time owned a store of his own on the corner of Pearl and Chatham Streets.

The Municipal Police Act was passed in the year 1844, and William F. Havemeyer being elected Mayor the following year, he at once nominated Mr. Matsell Chief of Police, both Boards of Aldermen, confirming the nomination. For twelve years he occupied the position, gradually improving the Police system and enforcing strict discipline. During this time he had to contend with the Astor Place riots, volunteer firemen's mobs, and election disturbances.

From 1845 to 1853 the Board of Aldermen had the appointment of the Patrolmen on the force, but it being impossible to discipline the force under such circumstances, the legislature interfered, and designated the Mayor, Recorder and City Judge as a commission. In 1857 the State legislature passed what is known as the Metropolitan Police Act.

Fernando Wood was Mayor, and this legislation neither suited him nor Chief Matsell. The Mayor thought it unconstitutional--as interfering with municipal; prerogatives, and the Chief felt bound to obey this superior officer. A conflict with the State authorities soon resulted, a large number of the old force refusing to obey the new Commissioners.

The conflict which ensued between the State authorities and Mayor Wood as to which was entitled to appoint a Street Commissioner to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Commissioner Taylor, was bitterly waged, and was attended with the shedding of blood. Chief Matsell, who took sides with Mayor Wood, had eighty hundred men stationed at the City Hall to resist any attempt to arrest the Mayor. The story of the riotous proceedings that followed between squads of the Municipal Police (Mayor Wood's partisans), and the recently created Metropolitan Police, (who enforced the commissioners' mandates), will be narrated more fully in another place. When at last, Mayor Wood's Police were routed by the bayonets of the military and the edicts of the courts, Chief Matsell clung to the fortunes of his chief with an unflinching devotion. Upon his failing to appear before the Police Commissioners the day following the disturbances in question, in obedience to their summons, he was tried and dismissed the force. Mayor Wood subsequently said that Mr. Matsell has acted in good faith, deeming the Mayor his superior officer.

When Wm. F. Havemeyer was re-elected Mayor he re-appointed Mr. Matsell superintendent of the Police vice James Kelso, on May 23, 1873. In July of the following year, when Commissioners Charlick and Gardner were removed, he was appointed a Police Commissioner, and a few days afterwards was elected President of the Board. He remained in office until December 1, 1875

After that he practiced law in a quite way, giving advice in criminal cases, his wide experience being found to be of great value. It was Mr. Matsell who originated the much quoted phrase, "the finest police force in the world."

Mr. Matsell died at his residence, No. 230 East fifty-eighth Street, on the morning of July 23, 1877, in his seventy-first year. For two years previously he had suffered from an injury to one of his feet, and this injury, becoming aggravated by a second accident, proved fatal.

The Police system was clearly approaching a turning point in its history. Sweeping and radical changes were in contemplation, and the old order of things was fast passing away. The system of policing the city that had prevailed, with few changes and modifications, as handed down from the Dutch to the English, and by these to the government that supplanted them, was legislated out of existence on May 7, 1844. Prior to that time the Police force of the city, as we have seen consisted of two Constables elected annually in each ward, of a small body of men appointed by he Mayor, denominated Mayor's Marshals, and of a Night-Watch composed of citizens who pursued their trades or avocations during the day, and patrolled the streets at night. This act abolished the Night-Watch, and established a Day and Night Police.

The act was suffered to remain for the time being inoperative, lacking the official approval of the Common Council and the Mayor. The Board of Aldermen, however, on November 27, 1844, while ignoring the Police bill passed by the legislature subject to their approval, adopted an ordinance establishing a Municipal Police, or Night and Day Watch.

This ordinance removed from office all Sunday officers, Day Police officers, officers to attend the polls, officers to attend boats, keepers of public places and superintendent of junk shops.

In lieu of these, the Mayor was empowered to select two hundred suitable men, who, with the concurrence of the Common council, were to constitute a Municipal Police, or Night and Day Police.

The following Police Stations were appropriated to the force, and established in accordance with the above ordinance:

No. 1 Franklin Market: First Ward.

No. 2 City Hall: Second, third and Fourth Wards.

No. 3 Halls of Justice: Fifth and Sixth Wards.

No. 4 Essex Market: Seventh, Tenth and Thirteen Wards.

No. 5 Corner Prince and Wooster Streets: Eighth and Fourteenth Wards.

No. 6 Jefferson Market: Ninth, fifteenth, and part of the Sixteenth Wards.

No. 7 Union market: eleventh, Seventeenth and part of the sixteenth Wards.

No. 8 House of Detention, Harlem: Twelfth Ward.

The officers and salaries were named as follows:





Assistant Captains






The Mayor was authorized to prescribe a distinguishing badge or dress for the members of the force, and also to prescribe such rules and regulations as he might deem necessary and proper. This ordinance, it was stipulated, should not be construed to affect the Watch department in any other way than as it rendered necessary an alteration of the Watch posts to conform to the diminution of that force by transfers into the Municipal Police.

In Pursuant of the power invested in him, as aforesaid, Mayor Harper quickly went to work to uniform, or partially uniform, the corps of two hundred men which constituted the Municipal Police. This uniform consisted of a blue single-breasted cloth frock coat, buttoned to the neck, having the letters M. P. on a standing collar. This was the first serious attempt made to uniform the Police force, but it did not survive long. These Policemen were variously called "M. P.'s" and "Harper's Police."

The Police offices or courts were established by ordinance, March 12, 1845, as follows:

    1. Franklin Market.
    2. Halls of Justice.
    3. Corner of Bowery and third Street.
    4. Jefferson Market.

The Mayor and Special Justices were authorized to select six City Marshals, whose duty it was to attend daily at the downtown Police Office, and take charge of all prisoners brought to the office by Policemen, Watchmen, or private citizens. For the same purpose three Marshals wee assigned to the Police office at the corner of Third Street and the Bowery, the pay of each being on dollar and fifty cents per day. It having been discovered that a number of Policemen had, by direction of the Mayor and Special Justices, performed services before they had been finally appointed, and in order to compensate them for their labors, both boards adopted a resolution granting them pay from the day on which they had assumed control of the locust.

The Police of the city, by this change, consisted of three separate bodies. The Police proper, the Municipal Police, and the Watch--and the persons belonging to each of these divisions received their appointments from different sources. This was found to be a complicated and inefficient system. These separate organizations tended to excite dissension among the individuals composing them, which was incompatible with the efficiency of a well-regulated Police.

The board of Aldermen again took counsel and reflected over the situation, the result being that they repealed the ordinance aforesaid on May 16, 1845, and removed all persons holding office or appointments under it. The Board of Aldermen at their next meeting, that is on the twenty-third of May, adopted the Act passed May 7, 1844. In ten days thereafter the Act took effect.

The Act of 1844, as has been said, abolished the Watch and kindred departments of the City Police. In lieu of the Watch Department, Marshals, Street Inspector, Health Wardens, Fire Wardens, Dock Masters, Lamp-lighters, Bell-ringers, Inspectors of Pawnbrokers and Junk-shops, and of the officers to attend the polls (these being sub-divisions of the then Police force), there was established a Day and night Police, not to exceed eight hundred men, including Captains, Assistant Captains, and Policemen. Each ward was constituted a Patrol District, in each of which there was established a "District Headquarters." In addition to their other duties, the law obliged Policemen to light the lamps, and ring the alarm bells. The duties of the force were more explicitly defined, but such duties in no particular differ from those performed by policemen at the present time. They had, for instance, to attend fires, to preserve the peace, to report to their Captains suspicious and disorderly houses, to arrest and arraign at court offenders against the law; to protect life and property, etc.

The Chief of Police, subordinate tot the Mayor, was the chief executive officer. His office was located at the City hall, in the Mayor's office. He was appointed by the Mayor, by and with the consent of the Common council, to serve for one year, unless sooner removed.

The Aldermen, Assistant Aldermen, and Assessors of each Ward, with the concurrence of the Mayor, were empowered to appoint a Captain, one first Assistant Captain, one second Assistant Captain, and as many Policemen as the Ward was entitled to, whose term of office was also for one year.

The Common Council, in determining the salaries of the officers and men, should not , the act declared, exceed the following sums:

Chief of Police, fifteen hundred dollars; Special Justices, fifteen hundred dollars; Captains, seven hundred dollars; Assistant Captains, five hundred and fifty dollars; Policemen, five hundred dollars.

The chief of Police was appointed on the nineteenth of June, but so much time was occupied in making necessary investigations into the character and capacity of persons nominated for places in the department, that the organization could not be judiciously advanced faster than as follows:

On the twenty-seventh of June, one hundred and seventy men were appointed, consisting of three officers and seven men for each Ward, and, on the fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth days of July, most of the six hundred and thirty men forming the complement of eight hundred officers and men were also appointed.



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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