Law and Disorder: The Chaotic Birth of the NYPD

    Brice Chadwick’s is less about the NYPD and more about what a mess New York City was in the 1800’s. The author prefaces the book by telling us that crime levels in pre-Civil War NYC were six times what they are today, even more at the time than London and Paris (not sure I agree with that one.) Regardless, the city was known for bad behavior, and the chance of getting robbed and murdered was high. There wasn’t much in the way of law & order, and the police were never much help.

Chadwick’s first chapter discusses the constant rioting in downtown New York (well there wasn’t much of an “uptown” yet) and the Black churches, schools, and homes were a favorite target. The first great riot of the city was not the famous Draft Riot of the Civil War, but the Summer Riot of 1834 (seems like the trouble in this city is always worse in the summer) where the abolitionist meetings were attacked. The few police available did try to stop the riots, but with no results. There wasn’t much that ten cops (with limited armament) could do against 300 violent men, especially when those men had no qualms about killing the police. Maybe those cops just weren’t willing to risk their lives for the miniscule pay they got.

Riots in New York City happened every time the poor got mad, whether it was the use of unclaimed bodies in medical schools (the Doctor’s Riot) or the high price of flour, or the killing of stray dogs, or the impounding of stray pigs. In one forgotten 1833 incident, stonemasons stormed a workshop and smashed the place, because the contractor was using cheap marble from Sing-Sing. Apparently, NYU couldn’t afford the craftsmen’s price, so they opted to use cheaper stonework made by convict labor (NYU always seems to piss everyone off when they build a new wing.) As for the police, they were driven away by the stonemasons (leave it to your imagination who was physically stronger) and the militia had to be called in. That alone almost caused another riot; ever since the American Revolution 50 years earlier, nobody wanted to see armed troops in the city.

I will hand it to Bruce Chadwick for mining some unbelievable resources for this book. In the chapter on the Hellen Jewett murder, he brings to light some old first-person accounts of the city in the 1830’s, most of which I’d never heard of. Some were written by professional writers who toured the city, others are scholarly academic studies on crime. According to the sources, prostitution was rampant (not surprising, as the respectable classes did not engage in casual sex) and some women found it more respectable than being a domestic servant.

Chadwick credits Fernando Wood with improving things. He was trusted and respected by the police captains, and he appointed the ones who could gain the trust of the rank-and-file. As long as there was no dissent within the ranks, the police would at least be unified. Unfortunately, there was no way for patrolmen to communicate with HQ (radios not invented yet) and few would risk their lives by going into certain areas (no way to call for backup.) When the old Metropolitan Police were scrapped and reorganized, the city had the Police Riot, where the old cops and new cops battled each other in the street.

The anti-crime reformers clashed with the police as well as the crowds, because the reformers all came from the same class and school as the abolitionists. Lydia Child, for instance, was a Conservative educated Bostoner, and John McDowall was a divinity student from Princeton. They both criticized the police for the prostitution problem, since the madams were paying off the police captains for every brothel they opened (a fact that the Lexow Committee would concur 60 years later.) Lydia Child found the perfect cause when Amelia Norma murdered a client. The reason – he reneged on a promise to marry her – was used by Child to prove her point; men could do whatever they wanted to the women and face no consequence.

The author does find one positive thing about the early NYPD, and that is the use of the photograph. When cameras first became available, the NYPD seized the opportunity, creating the world’s first “rogue’s gallery” with detailed descriptions. Other departments followed suit, as did the FBI and the CIA. Reorganizing the police didn’t help that much, and things would still be unsafe in the city. Conflict between the abolitionists and pro-slavery New Yorkers continued, leading to the Draft Riots of the Civil War then the labor union riots, then conflict between the Irish and Italians, and so on.

Tearing down the Five Points slum and the old Gotham Court may have helped. It’s harder to attack a cop in a dark alley if there are no alleys anymore.

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