Joe Bruno on the Mob – Mayor Fernando Wood and the Police Riots of 1857
In 1857, it was chaotic times in New York City as the city’s two adverse police forces battled over the right to arrest people, and to accept graft from anyone willing and able to pay them.
In 1853, under Democratic Mayor Harper, the first uniformed police force in New York City was created. Their uniform consisted of a blue coat with brass buttons, a blue cap and gray pants. Led by Police Chief George G. Matsell, the police were generally more crooked than the crooks, taking bribes not to arrest people, and sometimes taking bribes to arrest people. The citizens of New York City complained that their police force, called the Municipal Police, was “the worse in the world.”
Fernando Wood was a millionaire in the real estate business by the age of thirty-seven. Buying votes through his wealth, on January 1, 1855, Wood became Mayor of New York City. Wood immediately inserted himself as head of the police graft-gravy-train, charging new police captains $200 a year for a promotion to their $1000-a-year job. Of course, to make up the shortfall, the police captains received $40 a year from each patrolman under their command. The policemen, in turn, shook down honest citizens and protected dishonest citizens, so everyone on the public law enforcement dole was quite happy to keep things just the way they were.
The New York State Legislature would have none of this. In 1857, they passed an act creating a new Metropolitan Police Force, with Fredrick Talmage named as Superintendent of the force. The legislature also ordered Wood to immediately disband his 1100 member Municipal Police Force. Wood refused, saying the creation of the new police force was unconstitutional. Thus the court battle began over which police force would be the one to patrol New York City. The Supreme Court soon voted the creation of the new police force was indeed constitutional. Yet Wood, with the backing of Police Chief Matsell, steadfastly refused to cooperate. 800 men, all aligned with the Democratic Party, stayed with Wood and Matsell. But 300 men, under respected Police Captain George W. Walling, defected and comprised the new Metropolitan Police Force, which was backed by the Republican Party.
On June 16, 1857, the issue came to a head. The street commissioner Joseph Taylor had died, and Wood, for the sum of $50,000, appointed Charles Devlin as the new street commissioner. On the same day, Republican Governor John A. King appointed Daniel Conover to the same position. As Conover entered City Hall to assume his new post, Wood had his Municipal Police throw Conover out of the building. Conover immediately went to a Republican judge, who swore out two warrants for Wood’s arrest; one for assault and one for inciting to riot. Captain Walling strode to City Hall to arrest Wood on the assault charge, but he was met by a contingent of 500 Municipals. He was allowed to enter the building and Wood’s office. But when Captain Walling told Wood he was under arrest for assault, Wood refused to recognize the legality of the arrest warrant.
Captain Walling grabbed Wood’s arm to lead him out of the building, but he was immediately swarmed by twenty Municipals and thrown out of City Hall himself. Captain Walling repeatedly tried to go back up the steps of City Hall, but he was beaten back every time.
Suddenly, a contingent of 100 Metropolitan Police, wearing their new uniforms of frock coats and plug hats, arrived to serve the second arrest warrant on Wood. Instead of wearing the gold badges of the Municipals, the Mets wore copper badges, which gave birth to the term “coppers,” then “cops.” The Metropolitan Police were described by essayist G.T. Strong as, “a miscellaneous assortment of suckers, soaplocks, Irishmen and Plug-Uglies (an Irish Street Gang).”
Thus began a horrendous half-hour battle between the two New York City Police Departments. The Mets were vastly outnumber by the Municipals, and when the fight was over, some Mets were lucky enough to be able to flee unharmed. Still, 53 Mets were injured, 12 were hurt seriously and one was crippled for life.
While the fighting was intensifying, Captain Walling rushed over the office of Sheriff J.J.V. Westervelt, and implored the sheriff to arrest Mayor Wood. After consulting with a state attorney, Captain Walling, Sheriff Westervelt, and the state attorney marched to City Hall and pushed their way into Wood’s office. When the three men informed Wood he was indeed under arrest, he shouted at them, “I will never let you arrest me!”
At the same time, a beaten contingent of Mets spotted the Seventh Regiment of the National Guard boarding a boat for Boston. The Mets convinced the National Guard that they were needed to police a state matter. Recognizing the severity of the situation, Major General Charles Sandford marched his men to City Hall. As his troops stood guard, Sandford strode up the steps of City Hall and into Wood’s office, where he announced to Wood that he was under arrest. Wood looked out the window and spotted the National Guard. Realizing his men were no match for the military troops, Wood finally submitted to the arrest.
Yet, this was only the beginning of a long strife. For the rest of the summer, the two police forces constantly conflicted. When a Met cop arrested a crook, a Municipal would step in and set the man free. And visa versa. On numerous occasions, contingents of policemen would raid the other’s station house and free all the prisoners. In the meantime, the criminals of New York City were having a fine time indeed. While the two police forces battled each other all hours of the day and night, honest citizens were robbed while they walked the streets. Murders were committed with impunity. And still, all the two police forces were interested in was fighting each other.
This total indifference by the two New York City police departments led to a two-day riot on July 4th and 5th, of 1857, when the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits street gangs squared off with fists, knives, stones and pistols. As many as 1000 gang members were involved. Hundreds were injured and several gang members killed. The riots also led to the indiscriminate looting of stores, in the Five Points and Bowery areas, and as far north as 14th Street.
Finally, in the fall of 1857, the Court of Appeals upheld the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Metropolitan Police was the only legitimate police force in town. The Municipals were disbanded, and although Mayor Wood had been arrested, he was released on bond and never tried.
The Mets, who were injured in the June 16th fight, sued Mayor Wood for personal damages. They were awarded $250 apiece by the courts, but Mayor Wood refused to pay a single dime. Finally, the city of New York was forced to pay the damages from the city treasury, including the injured Mets’ legal costs.
Wood was defeated in the 1858 Mayoral race by Daniel F. Tiemann. Yet, in 1862, the rotten Wood was somehow re-elected mayor of New York City until 1862. After the Civil Ward started, Wood floated a trail balloon, whereby New York City would secede itself from the state of New York, which was run by Republicans, and become a free city. Wood’s proposal was shot down, and New York Tribune’s Horace Greeley, wrote in an editorial, “Fernando Wood evidently wants to be a traitor. It is lack of courage only that makes him content with being a blackguard.”
In 1867, Wood found his true calling, in the United States House of Representatives, where he served, not too admirably, until his death on February 14, 1881.
Year later, statesman and author John Bigelow, who knew Wood well, said that Wood was, “The most corrupt man who ever sat in the mayor’s chair (of New York City).”