Police Brutality on the Streets of New York, 1847

By Sean Dwyer Griffin


As a historian, I’m often wary of making direct connections between the past and the present. To paraphrase Richard Hofstadter, writing history out of one’s engagement with the present can be a risky business -- all the more so when the imperatives of the present demand that we get the history right.

But with the latest in a seemingly-endless string of highly publicized shootings of black men by police, together with the retaliatory killings of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, I couldn’t help but be reminded of this short letter to the editor from 1847. Published in the Subterranean newspaper in January of that year, the letter is one of those rare documents that both challenges our expectations about what we think we know about the past -- in this case, about the salience of race and racism in the United States -— and reminds us of just how much hasn’t changed.

In some ways, the incident described by the letter is depressingly familiar. A group of New York City policemen use overwhelming force against an African-American victim whose only crime seems to have been being the wrong place and time. Racial epithets are hurled, and despite the presence of an eyewitness, the hapless victim is hauled off to jail, to await a fate that may have included further beatings in custody, being arraigned on trumped-up charges, or worse.

The location described in the letter suggests that, like many more recent incidents, the assault took place in a community with a high concentration of African Americans. Although there was no identifiably “black neighborhood” in pre-Civil War New York -- the city’s population of free blacks was widely dispersed, with pockets in Greenwich Village, the Five Points, and Seneca Village in today’s Central Park -- the intersection of Church and Duane where the incident took place was only a few blocks from “Mother Zion,” the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church that was a focal point and spiritual home for New York City blacks in the period.

Several details, moreover, clearly remind us that the incident took place in 1847, not 2016. At that time, the very phenomenon of an organized urban police force -- in this case, the “M. P.’s,” New York City’s “Municipal Police” -- was a relatively new one. Before the mid-1840s, New York had been policed by a system of elected constables, politically-appointed marshals, and semi-volunteer night watchmen (derisively known as “leatherheads” for the leather helmets they wore). But a spate of riots and urban insurrections in the 1830s, as well as the 1841 murder of Mary Rogers, a “cigar girl” from Connecticut whose brutal murder was sensationalized in the press, galvanized civic leaders to take steps towards a professionalized police force.

In 1843 the state legislature passed the New York Municipal Police Act, creating a police force modeled closely on that created in London in 1829. But it took two more years before the city adopted the Municipal plan, and in the meantime it had become clear that appointments of both police officials and ordinary officers would be largely governed by political considerations. The situation would become even more complicated in 1857, when for a brief period two competing police forces, the New York State-created Metropolitans and the city-run Municipals, vied for authority, leading to chaos on the streets and the famous “police riot” of that year.[1]

Another noticeable omission is the lack of firearms. Although DeGroot’s description of the policemen’s liberal use of “Billies” (a term then new enough to warrant being rendered in italics) sounds vicious, New York City police would not be armed with pistols for another decade -- and then, only ten officers in each ward would be allowed to carry revolvers.

But what is particularly striking about this letter -- to me, anyway -- is not only that it was written by a white man in defense of an African-American victim, but that it was published by a newspaper editor whose credentials on race and racial justice might be described as dubious at best. The Subterranean claimed to speak for the “shirtless Democracy,” the “subterranean” masses of workingmen and immigrants whose swelling numbers were daily adding pressure to what another contemporary journalist referred to as “the volcano under the city.”[2] But in reality, it was more or less a mouthpiece for Mike Walsh, a flamboyant Irish-born politician and leader of the “Spartan gang” of anti-Tammany Democratic enforcers.

Walsh’s uncompromising attacks on “the wages system” and his many memorable turns of phrase have led some historians to paint him as a proletarian radical or even as a proto-socialist, but only rarely could he be accused of consistency. That was certainly the case with slavery. Although Walsh claimed he “abhorred” the institution, he championed the political career of proslavery ideologue and states’ rights theorist John Calhoun, and during his brief stint as a congressman elected from the lower wards of Manhattan voted for the proslavery Kansas-Nebraska Act.[3]

Strange, then, that Walsh would publish this letter, fairly bristling as it is with outrage at the treatment of an African American at the hands of police. Of course, this decision might have been prompted more by Walsh’s generally free-ranging anti-authoritarianism and his hatred of political cronyism than any concern for the equal rights of black citizens. Certainly Walsh seldom failed to lash out at those he considered patronage appointees or “political suckers,” as De Groot described Tom Baker, the police captain who had him reprimanded and thrown out on the street.

Less is known about John De Groot. Although the descendent of an old Dutch landowning family, De Groot was no stranger to physical labor. He worked as a silk finisher in the New York Dyeing and Printing Establishment, one of the New York region’s first large-scale manufactories, located in a section of Staten Island known as “Factoryville” (later known as West Brighton).[4] We can only speculate about whether De Groot was motivated to act by genuine humanitarian concern for the fate of the African-American victim, a politically or personally-motivated desire to get revenge on Baker, or some combination. But at the very least, De Groot’s outraged tone and effort to intercede on the black man’s behalf suggests that at least some white workers of the period were occasionally willing to take a stand for the rights of their free black fellow citizens.

Regardless, the fact that even a racist proslavery demagogue like Mike Walsh saw fit to label an incident like this one a “disgraceful outrage” in 1847 should make us think twice about our contemporary quiescence in the face of similar outrages. Walsh’s quixotic editorial decision, De Groot’s brave challenge, and most of all, the suffering of the unnamed black victim all serve as a quiet rebuke to those of us who would remain silent in the face of hauntingly similar scenarios more than a century and a half later.

Sean Dwyer Griffin is a Ph.D. Candidate at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

[1] Much of this detail is derived from Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 635-38, 838-40.

[2] Appropriately, the phrase was coined by William Osborn Stoddard, an author and member of a volunteer police force who wrote a history of the New York City Draft Riots in 1887.

[3] On Walsh, see Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788 – 1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), 327–35 and passim, as well as Wilentz’s reconsideration of him in The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005). A good older source is Robert Ernst, "The One and Only Mike Walsh," New-York Historical Society Quarterly 26 (1952): 43—65.

[4] New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, “John De Groot House,” (Landmarks Preservation Commission, June 28, 2005), 2–4.