“In Counting There is Strength” – The Rise of Tammany Hall, A Growing Immigrant Population, and the Birth & Abolishment of NYC’s First Police Force
written by Dakota Scott
as part of a series to better know the history of policing in Lower Manhattan
Tammany Hall. The infamous political force.
In 1798, the Tammany Society moved into their own meeting space in Lower Manhattan on Spruce and Nassau Streets. It was a long room and became known as Tammany’s “Hall”, but society members called it “The Wigwam”. Appropriating Indigenous culture wasn’t new to them–their society was already named after the Lenape leader Tamanand even though Tammany members had no apparent connection to Lenape people and banned anyone who was not an American-born white male from membership.
As the years passed and the population of Lower Manhattan grew, Tammany shifted from a ‘patriotic’ social club to direct involvement in New York politics, taking advantage of their connections and influence on voters (landowning white men). It became an entrenched power in the Democratic-Republican Party and was called upon by candidates for campaign support as early as the presidential election of 1800.
Aaron Burr enlisted the help of Tammany to secure Thomas Jefferson’s position as the third president of the United States. Some historians believe that without Tammany, Jefferson would not have defeated John Adams. Jefferson only won by a small margin of eight electoral votes; without Tammany’s influence on New York, which held twelve votes, the election could have easily swung the other way. Tammany, which had always known the power of wealth and influence, was learning the power of numbers. Perhaps the rapidly growing population of the changing New York they saw around them wasn’t such a bad thing.
Tammany continued to expand for another two decades while keeping its exclusive club mentality, barring any and all immigrant men from joining, but when the growing population of New York became dominated by floods of German and Irish immigrants, Tammany struggled to retain a positive public opinion. Their record of elitism was no longer beneficial. They were forced to change and widen their membership. The question was, what tangible influence could the immigrant population have on the growth of Tammany’s power in politics if they could not vote? Tammany began to push for a legislative change to voting rights ramping up to the New York State constitutional convention of 1821.
From the 1821 convention came the second constitution of New York. It was a historic win. Property qualifications were removed for white men so that every single white male who did not own land (American-born or immigrant) gained the right to vote in the state of New York. Free Black men were also given the right to vote, but the constitution tightened property qualifications for the Black community, effectively blocking the vast majority of Black men from actually being able to exercise their voting rights.
In Lower Manhattan, and more specifically in the dense, impoverished Five Points neighborhood, immigrant white men who did not own land (mostly Irish) and free Black men were neighbors. Five Points was New York City’s first free Black settlement as well as the hub of Irish immigrant life. There are stories of the brilliant, positive explosions of energy in mixed-race dance halls. Irish jigs and African-American vernacular dance giving birth to tap dance. There are even early accounts of interracial marriage in the U.S. taking place between Irish immigrants and African-American free people. But there was also tension.
In the 1840s, due to the Great Famine in Ireland, nearly two million Irish people immigrated to the United States (an estimated one million to New York). They were poor, hungry, and fighting to survive. At the same time, Five Points continued to attract free Black people. Tension grew from the scarcity of resources and opportunities. Tammany Hall, seeing one group as voters, began to see a way to get the Irish vote.
Jobs. Favors. Positions.
Tammany Hall had just secured Fernando Wood’s election as New York City Mayor. After promising to reduce crime and corruption, Mayor Wood was handed the reins in staffing the first New York City Police Force (established by the 1845 Municipal Police Act). Taking advantage of his decision-making power, Wood hired officers exclusively from the Democratic Republican party, politicizing the police force from the start. Want a job that is a position of power and requires little to no training? Be a Democratic Republican. Vote Tammany. With the Irish making up 34% of the vote in New York City by 1855, many started their rise out of poverty as Municipal Police officers.
Some irony: the Municipal Police Act and establishment of the force was in large part due to the uptick in crime that came with rapid population growth. Since that growth was dominated by Irish arrivals, the Irish were almost immediately perceived as disorderly, troublesome, and even criminal in the eyes of City Hall. The new system of policing was established as a way to handle the changing urban dynamics and, put simply, control crowds. Particularly Irish crowds. But Tammany knew how to pivot.
As the first police force of New York City was developing from infancy to adolescence in the 1840s and 50s, criminal activity was growing and dozens of gangs were appearing in Five Points, producing its notorious reputation. The Dead Rabbits (Irish, famous brawlers). Bowery Boys (Anti-Catholic, Anti-Irish, nativist, political). The Forty Thieves (Irish, proud pickpockets). The Daybreak Boys (“river pirates” who required murder for initiation). There is no claim to be made that anyone actually traded in their brass knuckles for a bobby hat and a baton (the Irish community was huge) but it was common for Irish police officers to join forces with Irish gangs during public brawls. Since their jobs consisted mostly of quelling riots with physical force, Irish police officers could always argue that ‘quelling’ the anti-Irish was legal, not criminal.
Enter William Tweed. The man who would become the king of political corruption. Born in the Lower East Side in 1823, Tweed was third-generation Scottish, which didn’t offend the nativist Bowery Boys, and grew up Quaker, which didn’t seem to offend either the Protestant or the Catholic populations of Five Points.
At 25-years old, Tweed headed a volunteer fire department known as the “Big Six”. Volunteer fire departments at the time competed with one another, at first like sports teams but then devolving into something more resembling a gang battle–staking a claim on dousing the fire meant a claim on the opportunity for stealing goods in the chaos and destruction. The rivalries between departments could become violent and sometimes the fire would rage on as Tweed and others fought with their competition to be the first to put it out.
An “Us vs. Them” mentality permeated Lower Manhattan. Almost anything seemed to have the potential to set off a riot. A strange and interesting moment in the history of policing in New York City did just that.
In 1857, a bill was passed to abolish the Municipal Police force and establish a new one, The Metropolitan Police. The Metropolitan Police force would have jurisdiction over all of the boroughs of New York City and would be controlled by five commissioners appointed by the Governor of New York. Mayor Wood was ordered to disband the Municipal Police and there was no plan to rehire the officers. The corruption was too entrenched after only a short 12 years that New York needed a whole new vetting process in a whole new system.
However, when the newly appointed Metropolitan Police commissioner Daniel Conover arrived at City Hall in June 1857, Mayor Wood refused to cede power. Tammany’s strength was behind him and the Municipal force, aggravated by losing their coveted jobs, continued to take commands from Wood. Municipal officers removed Daniel Conover from the building. Conover returned with the Metropolitan force and a warrant for Mayor Wood’s arrest. A riot broke out, now known as the New York City Police Riot, and 53 men were injured.
The two police forces continued an active rivalry that affected the city for the entire summer of 1857. The chaos of law enforcement gave space for crime sprees and the biggest gang brawl New York had ever seen which took place in Five Points that July. Finally, that fall, the New York Court of Appeals ruled in favor of abolishing the Municipal force and Wood did so.
Only a few years later, in 1861, William Tweed leaves behind his fire department and runs for sheriff of the Metropolitan police. He loses. Instead, he becomes the chairman of the Democratic General Committee. The head of Tammany. Boss.
Oliver E. Allen – The Tiger: The Rise and Fall of Tammany Hall
Bruce Chadwick – Law and Disorder: the Chaotic Birth of the NYPD
New York Times – The First Slum in America
New York Times – Noted Riots in New York
Black Past – Five Points District New York City, 1830s-1860s
The Irish Times – Scary Tales of New York Life in the Irish Slums
Encyclopedia Britannica – Tammany Hall
History.com – 7 Infamous Gangs of New York