Joe Bruno on the Mob – Watchmen (Leatherheads) and Roundsmen
The first New York City police force was created in 1845, but before then, the streets of New York city were “protected” by a motley crew of incompetents called Watchmen and Roundsmen.
The Watchmen first came into existence in the late 1700’s, when the Dutch ruled New York City. Their job was little more than patrolling the streets at night, looking for any possible disturbances, but mostly avoiding them. They would also call out the hours of the night, with such inane declarations as, “By the grace of God, two o’clock in peace.” Or, “By the grace of God, four o’clock and a cold, raw morning.”
Watchmen carried no arms, except for a 33-inch club. And they wore no uniforms except for a fireman’s leather hat, that they varnished twice a year, which made the hat hard as a rock. Hence the name “Leatherheads.” They were also called “Old Charlies,” which also was not a term of endearment.
Starting in 1829, Watchmen were required by New York City ordinance to call out fires. If they saw smoke, the Watchmen would scream out either the name of his post, or the street of the fire. There was a also street curfew that stated anyone seen outdoors after 9 pm were considered to be of “bad morals.” It was the Watchmen’s duty to arrest anyone they caught wandering the streets at night, then bring them to the local jail, to be locked up until daylight. The Watchmen’s pay was a mere $1 a night. They were also paid an additional fifty cents extra to attend as witnesses at Special Court Sessions, to testify as to any particular crime they may have seen while on duty, which hardly ever happened.
The criminals and gangs of New York City had little respect for the Watchmen, who numbered only 30-40 in the entire city. The Watchmen were considered not to be very bright, nor very ambitious, and were known to be frequently drunk on duty. Each Watchmen had a post, or watch-box, which consisted of an un-anchored wooden shack, where they would frequently fall asleep on duty, usually after consuming huge amounts of whiskey. A favorite activity of the young ruffians throughout the city, was to catch a Watchmen sleeping in his watch-box, lasso the watch-box with a rope, and drag it through the streets, whooping and hollering like banshees. The soon-to-be-famous writer Washington Irving was known to be one of those pranksters.
Whereas Watchmen patrolled New York City at night, the crime solvers, or Roundsmen, were the daytime duty men. Roundsmen were considered the plainclothesmen, or detectives of the era, but solving crimes were certainly not their strong suit. Roundsmen were usually common laborers, or stevedores who could not find work in their chosen field of endeavor. As a result, they were not especially adept at solving crimes, or catching criminals
Roundsmen were paid no salary, and they derived their income solely by serving legals papers, or collecting rewards from citizens for returning their stolen property. This led to some very enterprising Roundsmen forming alliances with groups of criminals. The crooks would steal the goods, and the victims would post a reward for the return of their property. The Roundsmen would then “find” the stolen property, collect the reward, and split it with the crooks.
Very low on the list of the Roundmen’s priorities was solving murders, since there was usually no reward given for finding the killer. The only way a Roundsmen could make a profit going after murderers, was if the family of the victim posted a reward, and if the Roundsmen was lucky enough to catch the killer, which was very unusual, he would collect the reward, and a further stipend from the city for serving a legal summons on the perpetrator.
Because of their outright incompetence, the Roundsmen and Watchmen were fast becoming an endangered species. It was the 1841 murder of Mary Rogers, that put the final nail in their coffin. With plenty of clues as to who the murderer was, the Roundsmen dragged their heels long enough that Roger’s killer was never found.
In 1845, the public was fed up with the archaic system of Watchmen and Roundsmen acting as an incompetent and un-industrious quasi-police force. Spurred on by the fury of the press, New York City’s reformers disbanded the Watchmen and Roundsmen system, and replaced it with a functional police department, which was then copied by many cities throughout the United States of America.