Law Enforcement in 18th Century New York

Law enforcement in colonial New York worked similarly to law enforcement in England. It was the responsibility of the local government to protect its citizens.

There were three main categories of criminal behavior dealt with by the courts in colonial New York: thefts, acts of personal violence, and disruptions of public order. Without an effective police force, which didn’t come about until the 19th century, these crimes put tremendous strain on the welfare of the community and individuals responsible for law enforcement. There was a severe shortage of able night-watchmen, constables, sheriffs, jail-keepers, and justices of the peace.

Night-watchman: A man carrying a lantern on a staff is followed by his dog through town
Night-watchman: Wikimedia Commons

Sheriffs, appointed by the governor, enforced the laws, collecting taxes, supervising elections, and taking care of the legal business of the county government. Constables, elected by the people, could make arrests, serve warrants, and testify in court. Night-watchmen were merely responsible for patrolling the city at night, looking for fires, crimes, or riots.

Peacekeeping

There were three forms of peacekeeping in colonial New York. The first of which included the obligation of the citizens to take their turn as watchmen. If they didn’t want to do it, they had the option to pay for a substitute. Other times, the government paid constables to do the job, but they lacked authority and resources to prevent crimes and maintain order. Their only real choice was to apprehend a criminal in the act. The third option occurred during times of war. The governor sent militia to take over the watch. However, this was an expensive and unpopular choice.

Master of the forge, mid-18th century
Blacksmith, mid-18th century. Source: Diderot’s Encyclopedia

Paid constables were often hired from among artisans and tradesmen. With little pay and a lot of responsibilities between their regular profession and work in law enforcement, it was hardly worth the dangers the job presented. Since there weren’t enough constables, they were rarely able to subdue suspects who resisted arrest, especially when the suspect resorted to violence.

Law Enforcement Stretched Too Thin

An angry mob chases after the stamp collector
Andrew Oliver, Stamp Collector Attacked by the mob. Source: James H. Stark

In 1765, a mob of over 200 men ousted four families from their homes in Dutchess County in protest of the Stamp Act. Nothing was done about the 200 men since it was too difficult to arrest all 200, let alone ten. Law enforcement lacked the resources to stop the unrest.

A Lack of Quality Law Officers

Because of the dangers implicit in the job, and the lack of resources, many New Yorkers preferred to pay a fine than serve as law officers. If they couldn’t afford the fine, they took the job but were often negligent in their duties by, for example, not showing up to testify in court. Another problem law enforcement faced was the inclusion of those with questionable integrity. They would take bribes to release prisoners or fix juries; extort money from prisoners in exchange for preferential treatment; assault innocent citizens without just cause; charged suspects excessive fees — food and lodgings were paid by suspects held in jail; committed a variety of crimes without consequences; and used the office to advance their personal interests.

A Lack of Quality Prisons

Jack Sheppard escaping from prison by climbing down with a sheet
Prison escape, source unknown

Prisons in the Province of New York were not fortified places. For those awaiting trial, many escaped. The sheriffs were faced with a dilemma. They were criminally liable if suspects escaped, but were not given enough jail-keepers or more secure jails to do their job. Further, if a suspect crossed county lines, they could not be apprehended because arrest warrants issued by county.

A Lack of Quality Judges

William Hogarth, The Bench, 1758. Source: Wikimedia Commons.]

If a suspect didn’t escape prison or evaded recapture, they would appear before a judge. Depending on who was sitting on that particular bench could make a big difference in the suspect’s case. There is much evidence to indicate that judges of colonial New York were, on the whole, an ignorant lot, ill-suited to hold office, and often anxious to abuse the power which such office afforded them. (Greenberg, Douglas)

In 1763, fifty-nine percent of justices of the peace in New York had no legal training. Some could neither read nor write! One can only imagine their ability to uphold the law. In fact, 36% of criminal cases in court records from 18th century New York were never resolved.

In Conclusion…

The Province of New York wasn’t lawless, but it had its challenges. Law Enforcement was neither setup to succeed, nor respected for its authority. As a historical romance writer, these facts give me a lot of fodder with which to torment my characters.

Sources:


Rescuing Her Rebel is free to newsletter subscribers: In the middle of the Merriweather’s Ball, smuggler and soldier Daniel Greene needs to stash stolen gunpowder and get a second chance at love.

Pleasure Gardens

This week, as I plan some fun for my characters, I’m visiting the old pleasure gardens of New York. While London’s Covent Garden had her ladies, as well as markets and a variety of entertainments, the pleasure gardens of 18th century Manhattan were private, walled-off parks one had to pay an admission fee to enter. That is, they were not public venues run by the city.

A quick note about green spaces in the 18th century: Manhattan provided “common” fields that were used for public markets, grazing livestock, and military parades. These spaces were not meant for relaxation or entertainment. Wealthy colonists wanted more from their city. Those who had business acumen rose to the challenge.

Green Dragon Tavern,
Boston, Massachusetts 1773

Our journey begins with the urban taverns in colonial America. These drinking establishments quickly became places to meet and be social. Many had adjacent gardens. “By attaching the earliest commercial pleasure gardens to pre-existing ‘open’ spas and taverns, New York City’s businessmen minimized their financial risks while also providing demanding clientele yet another reason to visit their establishment.”1

1740 — Spring Garden

Shortly after, in 1740, came the Spring Garden—so named for its seasonal operation—on what would now be Broadway, Fulton, Nassau, and Ann streets. Not only did it feature a tavern, but offered Georgian-style geometric gravel paths through cultivated shrubbery. If you could pay the fee, about two shillings, you were welcome.

A pleasure garden with a gazebo, wide lawn, a pond, lots of people milling about.
This is actually the New York Palace Garden, 1858. There are very few images of New York’s pleasure gardens from the 18th century. (Source: NYPL)

The Spring Garden tavern hosted balls, magic shows, tumbling acts, feats of strength (including a Female Samson), and musical concerts. These entertainments, as well as the bucolic atmosphere, were a welcome relief and cultural respite to the citizens of Manhattan, especially as the city grew and became more crowded.

1750 — Mead Garden

Adam Vandenberg was a very successful promoter who owned and ran a tavern called the Drovers’ Inn, a pleasure garden called Mead Garden, and a horse race-course all situated on his farm, Church Farm, by the Hudson River. [Astor House would eventually be built on this site.] In March of 1743, there was a race between a mare named Ragged Kate belonging to Mr. Peter De Lancey, and a horse named Monk belonging to the Honorary William Montagu Esq, for £200.2

1765 — Ranelagh Garden

Ranelagh (pronounced “Ran-lee”) Garden, named for its London counterpart, occupied a wooded rise of ground just north of the northernmost city houses, not far from the smaller Vauxhall Garden. The two gardens directly competed in the form of fireworks exhibitions. Each offered limited engagements, bigger and bolder spectacles, and “never seen before” designs.

At the request of several gentlemen and ladies there will be a concert twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays, 6.30 p.m. (Ranelagh Garden Concert). Small fireworks will be played off and  the best entertainment as usual, notwithstanding the artful insinuations of some ill-minded people to the contrary.
(Hallie Alexander)

1767 — Vauxhall Garden

Portrait of Samuel Fraunces, 1770-1785, unknown.
Portrait of Samuel Fraunces (circa-1770-1785), unknown artist.
(Source: Wikimedia)

In 1767, the owner of the Queen’s Head Tavern on Pearl Street, known today as Fraunces Tavern for its most famous proprietor, Samuel Fraunces, brought Vauxhall Garden to Manhattan. It was originally located at Spring Hill, a villa on the Hudson River not far from Mead Garden. Like its namesake in London, Vauxhall offered a variety of entertainments: tea or coffee in the afternoon, summer concerts, shady trees and hedges, a variety of flowers, an outdoor wax museum, and at night, a fireworks show.

Vauxhall Gardens have been newly fitted up in a very genteel pleasing Manner... now open for the Reception of Ladies, Gentlemen, etc., and will be illuminated every evening in the Week; Coffee, Tea, and Hot Rolls at any hour in the day, neat Wines and other Liquors, with Cakes, as usual... also Dinners or Suppers, dressed in the most Elegant manner on timely Notice.
(Hallie Alexander)

Vauxhall was considered a summer resort at the “most rural retreat any way near this city” (advertisement, New York Gazette, 1766), though in actuality, it was all of a mile from the tip of Manhattan.

A map layout of  Vauxhall Garden.
Vauxhall Garden: originally on Greenwich Street, it moved to Broadway and the Bowery in 1803. (Source: Wikimedia)

It operated until the American Revolution when much of it was destroyed. When Fraunces sold it in 1773, before the War, it had “two large gardens, a house with four rooms per floor and twelve fireplaces, and a dining hall that was 56 feet long and 26 feet wide, with a kitchen below.”3

As the city expanded, many of these gardens were demolished for commercial buildings. Ranelagh became the New York Hospital with Royal Governor Tryon witnessing the laying of the corner-stone. Vauxhall became the Cupula Iron Furnace. Not that it was the end of New York’s pleasure gardens, but the industrial revolution and urban spread created a shift in how New Yorkers lived, worked, and relaxed.

Spoiler Alert:
New Yorkers still needed a green space to retreat from the city. Plans for developing Central Park began in 1840. But that’s a rabbit hole for another day.

View of Central Park
Central Park, New York 1875 (Source: NYPL)

Sources:

1 Caldwell, Mark (2005). New York Night: The Mystique and Its History. New York City: Scribner.

2 Bayles, W. Harrison (2020). Old Taverns of New York. Outlook Verlag.

3 Singleton, E. (2008). Social New York Under the Georges, 1714-1776: Houses, Streets and Country Homes (1902). United States: Lightning Source.


Maiden Lane

Down Maiden Lane, where clover grew,
Sweet-scented in the early air,
Where sparkling rills went shining through
Their grassy banks, so green, so fair,
Blithe little maids from Holland land
Went tripping, laughing each to each,
To bathe the flax, or spread a band
Of linen in the sun to bleach… 

“In Sun or ShadeLouise Morgan Sill, 1906.

Maiden Lane, in New York’s financial district, stretches from the South Street Seaport to the World Trade Center Site. Over three hundred years ago, when New York was New Amsterdam, a rippling brook wended the same path as the lane. Known as Maagde Paatje, it was named for the women who washed their clothes there. It was also a place where lovers met and gadded about the pebbly brook.

An illustration from the 1921 book A History of the United States by Henry Eldridge Bourne. A brookside path with the name of Maiden Lane followed a valley to the East River

When the British took over Manhattan, they changed the name to English as Maiden Lane. In 1696, the path was paved with cobbles, but the stream continued to flow down the center of it until 1827 when it was engineered to flow under the streets. It still runs under Lower Manhattan today.

Continue reading “Maiden Lane”

The Collect Pond

Once upon a time, a forested countryside expanded into a lush valley that emptied into a sizable and deep freshwater pond fed by underground springs, emptying into salt marshes that would one day become meadows, reaching all the way to the Hudson River.

Can you imagine this? If you are standing in Foley Square near Chinatown in Lower Manhattan today, close your eyes and transport yourself back 400 years.

Lower Manhattan of 1609 - lush and green, compared to 2009 - all city
https://blog.bighistoryproject.com/2018/01/02/the-old-collect/
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Love, Liberty, and Quarantine: The Story of Bedloe’s Island

In 1956, the United States Congress officially named the outcrop of land surrounded by New York Bay, and home of the Statue of Liberty, Liberty Island. For almost 300 years prior to this, it was called Bedloe’s Island, for Isaac Bedloe, a Dutch colonist, merchant, and shipowner born in New Amsterdam. By the time he purchased it, the Dutch had already forced out the Lenape Indians who had used the island for seasonal hunting and fishing for hundreds of years. Because of its vast oyster beds, the Lenape called it Oyster Island.

That makes for a neat, linear history of a small holding of the Borough of Manhattan situated in the middle of New Jersey waters. There is so much more to tell.

Continue reading “Love, Liberty, and Quarantine: The Story of Bedloe’s Island”