Join  |  Official Historian  |  City of Stamford  |  Blog  |  About Us
Jewish Historical Society  |  Civil War Roundtable  |  Contact Us

tamford in the Gilded age book cover Estelle Feinstein, c. 1973

Stamford in the Gilded Age
The Political Life of a Connecticut Town 1868-1893
by Estelle F. Feinstein
© Stamford Historical Society, 1973

a transcription work in progress

Police Protection in the 19th Century
pp. 148–152

Police Protection

The problem of establishing an effective police department differed from the other problems that confronted postbellum Borough Boards in that Burgesses could neither adopt mechanical or technical innovations nor arrange contracts with private companies to resolve the issue. The Burgesses found the question increasingly vexing as police appointments, once shunned, became objects of competitive and hence partisan interest and as breaches of police conduct, once barely known, became sources of criticism. Still bewildered by the problem, the Board, in its last year, did not succeed in establishing a permanent and professional police force and bequeathed the demand to the new City government as one of its first orders of business.

New England towns of the eighteenth century held constables in low repute and relied on consensual social pressures, rather than aggressive law enforcement methods, to maintain order. The foundations of such a system rested on the small size, Yankee homogeneity, and rural background of the overwhelming majority of small town citizens. Postbellum Stamford, though founded on the same principles, had grown to over 10,000 and was distinctly heterogeneous in both demographic and class terms. At least one-quarter of the adult males were Irish-born, and much more than half the population followed non-agricultural pursuits. The exponential effects of the population congestion and diversity made the old system inadequate but did not automatically provide a more efficient substitute.

In the years immediately following the Civil War, the Board appointed regular Constables or Policemen or Special Constables or Special Policemen at its discretion. Formal responsibility for hiring and for issuing orders lay with the Committee on Police, but, in daily practice, the Warden and the Bailiff, a post created in 1854, directed the functionaries. Until 1885, constables were paid on a per diem basis for handling special events and on a fee basis for making arrests or doing court duty. In the case of the night watch, until 1880, the Board and the downtown shopkeepers contributed equally to the hourly wage. That the constables had to collect the fees personally from the store proprietors revealed the continuing subordinate status of the officials. As early as 1871, one of the regular constables, Charles Alphonse, proposed the notion of a fixed wage. But it was not until fourteen years later that the Board establishment decided to employ two men, on a stated annual stipend, “who shall perform regular police and court duties, as directed by the committee and have no other vocation.” Although the number of paid constables had increased to seven by 1893, the yearly payment of $600 remained fixed and constituted the only significant step taken to upgrade the police force, despite the concurrent professionalization of the Fire Department.

Fires were more frequent and inflicted more serious damage to property in the postbellum era than robbery. At times, epidemics of blazes raised the possibility of arson. The most common crimes were statutory violations of established moral codes, sometimes called non-victim crimes, such as drunkenness, prostitution, abortion, gambling, loitering or loafing, some types of breaches of the peace, and vagrancy. A monthly list of causes of arrest, made during five months in 1885, included 26 cases of intoxication, 17 vagrancy, 16 of breaches of the peace, 13 of bastardy and indecent exposure, 4 of contempt, 1 of truancy, and 1 of selling without a license. The lists also included, 28 cases of assault, 7 of theft, 2 of rape, and 1 of helping prisoners to escape. The major community scandal of the period, the arrest and trial of Dr. William H. Trowbridge, a prominent local surgeon, involved prosecution for the performance of an abortion.

The problem of petty crime did lead to improvement of the local court system in the 1880's. Following the adoption of the revised Charter of 1882, the Freemen established the next year, by a vote of 214 to 55, a Borough Court with jurisdiction over civil, probate, and minor criminal cases where the actions or the participants in the case were of local origin. Drawing on the services of the professional attorneys the community operated the new court at at a saving over the previous amateur Justice Courts.

Keeping individuals awaiting trial or serving short sentences, in jail proved far more difficult than setting up a community court. Neither Town nor Borough wished to discharge the obligation, and each shuttled it to the other without arriving at a satisfactory solution. The Borough Meeting of 1871 voted an appropriation of $350 to keep the Borough Lockup in the Town Hall. In 1883 the Town delegated complete responsibility for the Lock-up to the Borough officials. Five years later the Town Meeting voted to eject the Borough jail, which had acquired a noisome reputation, from the basement of the Town Hall and to lease a separate room for town prisoners elsewhere. Yet, the following year, after the Borough had rented and furnished a Lock-up, the townsmen decided to contribute to the Borough facility in lieu of maintaining another jail.

The conduct of the policemen posed a seemingly intractable problem. They were accused of setting prisoners free from the Lock-up without permission of the Bailiff and of cohabiting with female prisoners, of failure to make arrests, shirking duty, and permitting juvenile hoodlumism, and, above all, of drunkenness and disorderly conduct. Advocate and Herald reports of street fighting outside Dublin saloons condemned saloon keepers, drinkers, and officers alike and did not fail to note the Irish background of all the participants.

Despite delinquency in the community and among the police, the Committee on Police resisted pressures to appoint a Police Chief and set up a professional, uniformed, permanent Police Department. A principal cause of the reluctance was the increasingly partisan nature of the Boards and the patronage inherent in the yearly half-dozen full-time police appointments and two-dozen or more part-time constabulary positions. In contrast to the pre-industrial period, rivalry for both types of posts became so intense that the Board, in 1880, for the first time, mandated executive sessions to allow free discussion on the merits of the candidates. As the Borough era drew to a close, the politicization increased. The Democratic News candidly reported that J.H. Swartwout, the Democratic “boss” and the son of the Warden, “was present and coached” the Burgesses on appointments at the 1891 organizational meeting of the Board. The Advocate, in 1892, pleaded for a Republican board in order to secure “experienced and respectable” Republican policemen. At the 1893 organizational meeting the five Democrats and four Republicans divided along strict party lines in voting on individual candidates for police posts. A Republican attempt to split the six positions equally between adherents of the two parties failed. A Democratic attempt to restrict appointments to Borough residents passed by the same five-to-four tally. Even a decision on the professional conduct of accused officers rigidly followed the party lines.

Distrust of the amateur and political character of the police may have persuaded the Rev. Samuel Scoville to appear personally at McDevitt's, Mulligan's, and other saloons and gambling rooms in Dublin in order to enforce sabbatarian prohibitions. The Congregational minister's plea for a law-and-order Borough administration, the identical conviction of the Republican candidate for Warden, Charles H. Leeds, in 1893, the appeal of the Republican campaign to sabbatarian, temperance, and anti-gambling portions of the citizenry, and the overtones of resentment against Irish and non-conforming elements all produced an extraordinarily intense campaign for the Wardenship and an extraordinarily active Borough executive in the very last year of the Borough's existence. The total vote for Warden had hovered between 1,000 and 1,100 in the early 1890's, and the majority for the victor had been narrow. In 1893 not only did the total reach 1,255 but the majority of the Republican winner was an unprecedented 243. Campaigning on the law-and-order theme accounted for the outcome. The ineffective police force, retained by the increasingly politicized Boards for an increasingly dense polity, partially accounted for the successful impact of the theme and made the establishment of a professional, permanent Police Department a priority issue for the new City.

The postbellum Boards of Burgesses, more systematic administrators and more influential policy-makers than the Boards of Selectmen, responded sensibly, if sometimes slowly, to demands of the seventies and eighties for the provision of housekeeping services and for the introduction of technological innovations. Ten years after Towne proposed purchase of a steam fire engine, the Board and Freemen approved mechanization of the Fire Department and then rapidly approved professionalization of the companies. The Boards worked comfortably through contracts with a series of private corporations, in which Burgesses often held large personal interests, to supply water, gas, and electricity to residents. Only the service of the trolley company proved a problem. To secure paved streets, the Borough itself purchased a steam road roller, a large-scale capital investment, and then leased it to local firms to operate. Board leadership, even when occasionally stimulated by the principal industrialist or editor, faltered, however, on the issue of organization of an efficient Police Department, a task requiring political rather than technological or entrepreneurial skills. On this issue, confusion prevailed. It indicated the pattern of Board and Borough reactions to a series of problems which emerged around the end of the eighties and which did not respond readily to relatively simple mechanical and practical solutions.

Law & Order: A History of the Stamford Police Department 1830-1956 - An Exhibit and more
Stamford in the Gilded Age

back to top