Joe Bruno on the Mob - 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.
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  Joe Bruno on the MobFernando Wood and the Police Riots of 1857In 1857, it was chaotic times in New York City as the city's two adverse police forces battledover 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 Citywas 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. Buyingvotes through his wealth, on January 1, 1855, Wood became Mayor of New York City. Woodimmediately 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 policecaptains 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 dolewas 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 anew Metropolitan Police Force, with Fredrick Talmage named as Superintendent of the force. Thelegislature also ordered Wood to immediately disband his 1100 member Municipal Police Force. Woodrefused, saying the creation of the new police force was unconstitutional. Thus the court battle beganover which police force would be the one to patrol New York City. The Supreme Court soon voted thecreation 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 withWood and Matsell. But 300 men, under respected Police Captain George W. Walling, defected andcomprised 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 thesame day, Republican Governor John A. King appointed Daniel Conover to the same position. AsConover entered City Hall to assume his new post, Wood had his Municipal Police throw Conover outof 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 arrestWood on the assault charge, but he was met by a contingent of 500 Municipals. He was allowed toenter 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 immediatelyswarmed by twenty Municipals and thrown out of City Hall himself. Captain Walling repeatedly triedto 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 coatsand plug hats, arrived to serve the second arrest warrant on Wood. Instead of wearing the gold badgesof 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 werelucky enough to be able to flee unharmed. Still, 53 Mets were injured, 12 were hurt seriously and onewas 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 wayinto Wood's office. When the three men informed Wood he was indeed under arrest, he shouted atthem, “I will never let you arrest me!”At the same time, a beaten contingent of Mets spotted the Seventh Regiment of the NationalGuard 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 Sandfordmarched his men to City Hall. As his troops stood guard, Sandford strode up the steps of City Hall andinto Wood's office, where he announced to Wood that he was under arrest. Wood looked out thewindow 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 policeforces constantly conflicted. When a Met cop arrested a crook, a Municipal would step in and set theman free. And visa versa. On numerous occasions, contingents of policemen would raid the other'sstation house and free all the prisoners. In the meantime, the criminals of New York City were having afine time indeed. While the two police forces battled each other all hours of the day and night, honestcitizens 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 onJuly 4 th and 5 th , of 1857, when the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits street gangs squared off withfists, knives, stones and pistols. As many as 1000 gang members were involved. Hundreds were injuredand several gang members killed. The riots also led to the indiscriminate looting of stores, in the FivePoints and Bowery areas, and as far north as 14 th Street.Finally, in the fall of 1857, the Court of Appeals upheld the Supreme Court's ruling that theMetropolitan Police was the only legitimate police force in town. The Municipals were disbanded, andalthough Mayor Wood had been arrested, he was released on bond and never tried.The Mets, who were injured in the June 16 th 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 rottenWood was somehow re-elected mayor of New York City until 1862. After the Civil Ward started, Woodfloated a trail balloon, whereby New York City would secede itself from the state of New York, whichwas 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 islack 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).”
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