R. A. Long grad Lyndsay Farber – now writing as Lyndsay Faye – has a new book on the way as a follow to her well-received Sherlock Holmes take-off Dust and Shadow.
The following article – “NYPD work in 1850” – was written by Lyndsay and published in the New York Post on Feburary 26th. It gives you a feel for the setting of Lyndsay’s book The Gods of Gotham, a mystery that focuses the formation of New York’s police department.
The book has received great pre-press reviews.
It was a city of “mysteries and miseries,” an ambitious commercial port town in which the pigs were free to wander and gangs like the Roach Guards and the Bowery B’hoys played brutally at politics and fisticuffs.
Antebellum New York teemed with 400,000 residents packed into rotting wooden tenements, where immigrant families of 10 or more huddled in swamp-like, one-room cellars and the sewage oozed up through the planks. Life for many was brief and grim. Before the Croton Aqueduct was completed in 1842, even the water could kill you swift.
Nevertheless, foreigners poured into the metropolis, many of them as dangerous as they were destitute, daily inventing new methods of relieving the unwary of their purses. And so, in the summer of 1845, what would become the most famous law-enforcement body in the world was created to keep the peace: the NYPD, a motley collection of non-uniformed “star police” with copper emblems pinned to their breasts.
The Five Points in lower Manhattan was considered the most dangerous area for the first NYPD officers to patrol.
Reviled by many as a “standing army,” the lives of the first policemen were perilous. Untrained and unarmed, they walked 16-hour rounds in small circles of a few blocks, patrolling the worst neighborhoods in the nation — including the undisputed king of slums, the Five Points.
“If some of our disbelieving readers would take a night-stroll down into that sickening neighborhood,” wrote journalist Ned Buntline, “and look around amongst the wretches who hide away during the day, and come out at night, reeking with filth and gin-fumes, they would think them fit for any crime which the devil could invent.”
Few firsthand accounts of the early police exist, but an officer named William Bell kept a diary in the 1850s; he painted a picture of a wild city, one plagued with poverty and corruption. The Great Famine of Ireland began in the same year the police were formed, and refugees from the British Isles swarmed into the port by the thousands. Bell was an inspector of pawnshops, and starving immigrants often survived by stealing rags or old rope and pawning them to junk shops that supplied oakum or paper makers. His diary is full of colorful rogues, men with monikers like “One-Eyed Thompson” and “Bristol Bill.”
On May 30, 1851, Bell reported visiting 17th Street and Avenue A, where the locals complained of a stagnant pond filled with stray dog carcasses. “This pond is not only detrimental to the public health but is dangerous to the lives of our citizens,” Bell wrote, “as within the last year, five persons have drowned in it . . . The water is on a level with the sidewalk and a person going along these of a dark night is liable to walk in it and drown before assistance could reach him.”
Bell’s rounds were populated by the poorest of citizens, people whose lives revolved around violence; he gives accounts of a wretched 15-year-old girl who sold herself aboard the coal boats in the harbor and a fellow officer whose head was smashed in with a cast rung by a bloodthirsty sailor.
But ruthless villains were not the only hazards an antebellum New Yorker faced. On Aug. 23, 1851, Bell wrote, “About ten o’clock this morning, a wild steer ran down Broadway, taking the sidewalk along the Park, knocking down every person and obstacle that was in its way. Several of the persons who were knocked down were severely injured, among whom I noticed an elderly lady who was severely gored by his horns in the face, completely tearing the flesh open from the lower jaw to the temple.”
Despite serious obstacles, the early police thrived. Bell arrested numerous petty thieves and scam artists, closed unlicensed junk shops, assisted poor travelers who had lost their supply of coin and returned a crazy man he found in the City Hall fountain to the care of his friends.
Lacking the aid of modern forensics, the star police relied upon common sense to serve their neighborhoods and began the tradition of resourcefulness and courage that characterize the NYPD to this day.
Lyndsay Faye is the author of The Gods of Gotham (Amy Einhorn Books), a novel set in the early days of the NYPD, out March 15.