Thomas C. Acton

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Thomas Coxon Acton
Harvard Theatre Collection - Thomas C. Acton TCS 1.39 - cropped.jpg
Born 1823
New York City, New York, United States
Died May 1, 1898(1898-05-01) (aged 75)
Saybrook, Connecticut
Nationality American
Occupation Civil servant, politician and reformer
Known for Noted political and social activist during the mid-to late 19th century; appointed to the first Board of Police Commissioners.
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Sarah Elizabeth Kelsey
Children Thomas Coxon Acton, Jr.
Agnes Acton
Sarah Acton
Caroline Acton

Thomas Coxon Acton (February 23, 1823 – May 1, 1898) was an American public servant, politician, reformer, police commissioner of the New York City Police Department and the first appointed president of its Board of Police Commissioners. He and Commissioner John G. Bergen took control of the police force during the New York Draft Riots with Action directing police and military forced against rioters in Manhattan.

A noted political and social activist, he also held several important government positions throughout his career including superintendent of the New York Assay Office, Assistant U.S. Treasurer and, most notably, the founder and president of the Bank of New Amsterdam. It was also largely due to his efforts that the modern New York City Fire Department was established replacing the outdated colonial-era volunteer firefighter system.


He was born in New York City in 1823, near Washington Square Park. Although from largely a poor background, he was educated in public schools and found employment as a deputy clerk under Clerk Bradford. He eventually held a position as a Deputy Register for nearly six years. He was appointed police commissioner of the old Metropolitan police district by Governor Edwin D. Morgan in May 1860 along with John G. Bergen and Superintendent John Kennedy. He was also made president of the Board of Police Commissioners when New York County, at the time comprising the entirety of present-day New York City, was formed. Acton held this post until the outbreak of the American Civil War a year later.[1]

Acton temporarily reassumed command during the New York Draft Riots when he and Bergen took over the police force after Superintendent Kennedy was incapacitated following an attack by a mob during the first hours of the riots. While Bergen oversaw actions in Staten Island and Brooklyn, Acton took charge of police forces in Manhattan. His organizational skills, working in coordination with the military, were partially responsible in bringing an end to the rioting. He received and answered over 4,000 telegrams and directed police and military forces, army officers keeping in close contact with the commissioner and referring to him for troop movements. While assuming the position of the Superintendent's office, Acton reportedly did not sleep once during the five-day period or did he leave police headquarters with exception to brief inspection tours.[2] The strain on his health during the riots forced him to take a leave of absence from the force for the next five years.[1]

Following his departure from the NYPD, Acton became the superintendent of the U.S. Assay Office in New York and held the post until 1875 when he was appointed Assistant U.S. Treasurer. He spent four years at the U.S. Treasury before resigning his position to establish the Bank of New Amsterdam. He held numerous government positions during his later political career as well as becoming a noted social activist and reformer. Action was a founding member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Children as well as a member of the Geographical and New York Historical Society. Despite years of opposition, Acton was instrumental in the founding of the modern New York City Fire Department which replaced the old volunteer firefighter service.[1]

A strong supporter of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist movement, Acton was also one of the most important political activists in the city during the post-Civil War era. He was an honorary member of the Union League Club since 1864 and later helped establish the Republican Party in Tammany Hall-dominated New York with the help of Marshall B. Blake and Fred A. Conkling, brother of U.S. Congressman Roscoe Conkling. In 1887, he was nominated to run as the Republican candidate for the Mayor of New York but refused to accept due to his own business dealings at the time. He would again decline to run at the next election as well. He did, however, remain an opponent to Tammany Hall and its policies. Among his personal friends were Horace Greeley and George W. Jones, editors of the New York Times and New York Tribune respectively.[1]

In 1896, he moved to his summer home in Saybrook, Connecticut. In failing health for some time, Acton died at his home from a complication of diseases on the evening of May 1, 1898. At the time of his death, he was still a director of the Bank of New Amsterdam. His death was attended by his wife, son and three daughters.[1]

Over one hundred of Acton's letters documenting his career as a member and president of the Board of Police Commissioners are held in the Lloyd Sealy Library's Special Collections at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.[3]


  1. ^ a b c d e "Thomas C. Acton Is Dead; He Expired at His Home in Saybrook, Conn., After a Long Illness. Made History In This City, He Stopped the Draft Riots Here During the War -- An Abolitionist in Earlier Days and Helped Form the Republican Party". New York Times. 2 May 1898
  2. ^ Asbury, Herbert. The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the New York Underworld. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928. (pg. 119, 132, 145, 151) ISBN 1-56025-275-8
  3. ^ "Manuscript Collections". Lloyd Sealy Library, John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Retrieved 5 March 2013. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Bernstein, Iver. The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
  • Cook, Adrian. The Armies of the Streets: The New York City Draft Riots of 1863. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1974.
  • Costello, Augustine E. Our Police Protectors: History of the New York Police from the Earliest Period to the Present Time. New York: A.E. Costello, 1885.
  • McCague, James. The Second Rebellion: The Story of the New York City Draft Riots of 1863. New York: Dial Press, 1968.
  • Mohr, James C. The Radical Republicans and Reform in New York During Reconstruction. Ithica, New York: Cornell University Press, 1973.
  • Morris, Lloyd R. Incredible New York: High Life and Low Life of the Last Hundred Years. New York: Random House, 1951.
  • See also: Thomas Coxon Acton papers (not digitized) at the Lloyd Sealy Library Special Collections, John Jay College of Criminal Justice (New York City).

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