New York City Police Riot
|New York City Police Riot of 1857|
|Part of History of New York City (1855–1897)|
Municipal and Metropolitan police fight in front of New York City Hall.
|Casualties and losses|
The New York City Police Riot of 1857, known at the time as the Great Police Riot, was a conflict which occurred between the recently dissolved New York Municipal Police and the newly formed Metropolitan Police on June 16, 1857. Arising over Mayor Fernando Wood's appointment of Charles Devlin over Daniel Conover for the position of city street commissioner, amid rumors that Devlin purchased the office for $50,000 from Wood himself, Municipal police battled Metropolitan officers attempting to arrest Mayor Wood.
Two arrest warrants had been issued against the Mayor following an altercation between him and Conover when arriving at City Hall to assume his office. The situation was resolved only with the intervention of the New York State Militia under Major-General Charles W. Sandford.
The massive police corruption under Mayor Fernando Wood's administration prompted the New York state legislature to relieve the city official of control over the police force. Several bills were passed during the spring of 1857, most importantly abolishing the Municipal Police and Police Board formed under the Act of 1853, replacing them with a Metropolitan Police District which would fall under the jurisdiction of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the rest of the boroughs comprising present-day New York City. This new police force was to be controlled by a 5-man board of police commissioners, appointed by the Governor of New York, and at first comprised Simeon Draper, James Bowen, James W. Nye, Jacob Cholwell and James S.T. Stranahan. The head of this commission was Frederick Augustus Tallmadge, noted reformer and Recorder of New York City during the Astor Place Riots of 1849, who accepted the position of Superintendent of Police after several others had declined.
The new police board ordered Mayor Wood to disband the Municipal police and turn over its police property to the Metropolitans. Wood refused to cooperate with them however, even when the State Supreme upheld the police board in May 1857, and called upon his police force to support him. When it was put to a vote among the ranks of the Municipals, 15 police captains and 800 patrolmen under Police Superintendent George Washington Matsell chose to support the Mayor. The remaining members, among them Captain George W. Walling, chose to comply with the state and joined the Metropolitans. While the Metropolitans were setting up their new headquarters on White Street, Mayor Wood was filling the positions left vacant by those who had left the Municipal police.
In June 1857, the sudden death of city Street Commissioner Joseph S. Taylor caused a dispute which arose between Mayor Wood and Governor John King over a successor. Daniel D. Conover was originally selected to take over as street commissioner but, when he arrived at New York City Hall to officially assume the office on June 16, he was informed that Mayor Wood had appointed Charles Devlin for the position instead. Woods then had Conover forcibly removed from the building by Municipal police officers resulting in Conover immediately obtaining two arrest warrants for the arrest of Mayor Wood, one for inciting a riot and a second for "violence against Conover's person". It was widely speculated at the time that Wood had received $50,000 from Devlin to secure the position.
Captain George Walling was assigned to carry out one of the warrants. He arrived at City Hall by himself and was allowed to speak with Mayor Wood in his private office. Explaining the purpose of his visit, Wood refused to accompany Walling who then attempted to take him out of the building by force. With over 300 Municipal officers stationed at City Hall, Walling was stopped before he could take the Mayor out of the his office and was then thrown out into the street. He remained at City Hall, attempting several times to reenter the building, arguing with Captain Abraham Ackerman until the arrival of Captain Jacob Sebring and Coroner Perry with a 50-man Metropolitan detachment to serve the second warrant.
Instantly the Municipals charged out of the building and, for over a half hour, the police fought on the steps and in the corridors of City Hall. The Metropolitans were eventually forced from the building and fled in a disorganized retreat. Both sides had suffered 53 men injured including one officer from the Seventeenth Precinct, a Patrolman Crofut, whose injuries resulting in his becoming an invalid. The wounded Metropolitans were brought to the office of Recorder James M. Smith and treated by physicians while Mayor Wood and his supporters celebrated their victory barricaded in his private office.
During the battle, Conover and his attorney visited Sheriff Jacob Westervelt to request that he serve the warrants. Westervelt was advised by his own representatives, who agreed that it was his legal responsibility to do so, and left with the two men for City Hall. Upon his arrival, Wood again refused to leave his office. Soon afterwards, members of the Metropolitan Police Board met with Major-General Charles W. Sandford who was about to leave with the Seventh Regiment for Boston. They explained the situation and Sandford agreed to assist. Leading the regiment to City Hall, he had his men surround the building and he himself entered City Hall to confront Mayor Wood. By this time, realizing his situation, Wood agreed to submit and was placed under arrest.
Within an hour of his arrest, Wood was released on bail. He was apparently never brought to trial, as records seem to indicate, and civil courts later supported that the Governor had no legal right to interfere in the Mayor of New York deciding the appointments of city officials. Several months following the riot, policemen who had been injured at City Hall sued Mayor Wood and received $250 each. Wood ignored the ruling and the officers were later paid, including legal bills, by the city.
Tensions remained high between the Municipal and Metropolitan police, especially during the next several months, and their feud continued throughout the summer. It was a common occurrence for Municipal officers to interfere in arrests by Metropolitan patrolmen. Criminals were often either released by Municipal officers or, when brought to a precinct, let go upon their own recognizance. This rivalry encouraged the criminal underworld to go on a crime spree and was partially responsible for the Dead Rabbits Riot in July 1857. By the fall of 1857, the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Supreme Court's decision and Mayor Wood quietly agreed to disband the Municipal police force.
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