THE OLD NIGHT WATCH
It is a long cry from the old Dutch night watchman of New Amsterdam to the present New York police force of 10,670 men and women. Apparently the first step taken to institute a regular watch was in 1654, when the magistrates summoned a meeting of citizens to consider means for protecting the town at night. So little interest was taken in the matter, however, that not one appeared, and nothing was done until 1658. In that year eight watchmen were appointed who made four rounds each night to protect peaceful citizens from lawbreakers, and to call the hour.
In 1731 a new police ordinance was passed. All householders, “being able and fit,” were required to keep watch within the city, “for the preservation of the King’s peace and the arresting and apprehending of all night-walkers, malefactors and suspected persons which shall be found passing or misbehaving themselves.” The new law called for one constable and eight watchmen every night. The wards had to furnish men for this duty in turn, the following succession being observed: East, Dock, North, South, West and Montgomerie.
The last and most noted of the constables was Jacob Hays who is still remembered by a few of the older New Yorkers. Hays was appointed when Edward Livingston was Mayor and was kept in office for nearly half a century until his death at the age of 78. He was a man of powerful physique, and proved a terror to street brawlers. When summoned to the scene of a disturbance he would rush into the melee, wielding his staff and separating the fighters, and by his own efforts alone would often restore the peace. “He did not crack the heads of the brawlers,” it is credibly related but would knock off their hats, and when they stooped to pick them up, shove them over on their faces.
The old watch system continued, somewhat modified, far into the nineteenth century. But in place of the eight watchmen of 1654, before 1840 no less than 1,000 were sent out every night. They wore no uniform, however, save the old fireman’s hat from which the front helmet piece had been removed. It was from this that the sobriquet “Leatherheads” arose. This force was recruited from truckmen, bricklayers, stevedores or others out of a job or anxious to increase their incomes by night duty, and afforded no adequate protection to the city. During the day there was no watch at all.
As the. city grew this situation became intolerable. The large foreign population was a source of disorder, and serious riots occuired at frequent intervals. The abolition riot of July, 1834, and the bread and flour riot of February, 1837 brought matters to a head, and steps were taken to establish a regular force. The old system still persisted for a while, however, and it was only in 1844 that the first uniformed municipal police appealed on the streets of New York. With that date commences the history of the police force in America’s greatest city.