Watchmen, Early Law Enforcement, and Old Hays, NYC’s Last High Constable


written by Dakota Scott

as part of a series to better know the history of policing in Lower Manhattan


Since 1647, there have been paid and voluntary positions for white men to walk the streets of Lower Manhattan at night as watchmen, looking out for suspicious activity. The funding for any paid positions came from the pockets of individual colonizers who wanted to protect their newly built homes and bring their sense of order to stolen Lenape land. Though night watchmen on the whole served many purposes (looking out for fires and working to retrieve stolen goods) given the lack of a formalized justice system and a guilty-till-proven-innocent attitude towards anyone without a certain social status discovered outside at night, paid watchmen mostly worked to uphold the wishes of those who paid them. Volunteer watchmen, on the other hand, gained a reputation over the years for being ineffective.   A picture is often painted of drunk men sleeping through their shifts. Nonetheless, the watchmen system established under Peter Stuyvesant in the settlement of New Amsterdam, served the colonizing population for nearly two hundred years. 


Prior to the Municipal Police Act in 1844 which established the first police force in New York City, the watchmen system was augmented by a group of appointed constables (two per ward; about 30 in total), and 100 marshal positions.  This occurred in response to both a population growth in Manhattan and the establishment of new courts of law after the American Revolution. Constables and marshals worked unpaid positions but could receive a fee or reward for any warrant they executed, stolen goods they retrieved, or “cases cracked.”, This led to them often spending their time pursuing leads on criminal activity, functioning more as vigilantes or detectives. Constables, however, were also asked to oversee their local ward’s watchmen, and were more likely to live in and have neighborly relationships with local residents of the area they oversaw than the marshals who worked for the court system of the city as a whole. In either position, despite their volunteer status, constable and marshals had opportunities for amassing wealth and growing relationships with those in political power. 


Perhaps the most notorious individual who served as a watchman, marshal and constable throughout his lifetime was Jacob Hays, otherwise known as “Old Hays”.  Hays, born in New York in 1772, was appointed in 1797 to his first position in law enforcement as a marshal by Aaron Burr who was then the United States Attorney General. After an exemplary five-year unpaid term, due in part to both the extent of his network of connections in New York and his commitment to serving as a night watchman even while he served as marshal, Hays had positioned himself to be the first man to establish a life-long career in law enforcement in Manhattan. The new mayor of New York City, Edward Livingston, who had practiced law with Burr, created the position of High Constable of New York City for Hays in 1802, empowering him to take the lead on catching bank robbers, solving murder cases and most notably head any charge to quell riots.


Over five decades as NYC’s High Constable, Hays became well known for his tactics suppressing street brawls and gained a reputation of having no apparent fear of danger. Instead of waiting on the sidelines for a fight to die down or turning a blind eye to avoid becoming the target of a gang, he often put himself in the middle of the brawls and ended them with the disruptors in custody. Hays made so many arrests throughout his long career that he became a household name (parents would tell their naughty children “Old Hays is going to get you!”) and managed to keep his position even after the 1845 Municipal Police Act which abolished the watchmen system and completely overhauled and professionalized law enforcement in New York City. Lower Manhattan would soon become the hub of heavy policing as population density and political activity grew…


References, Readings, Resources


Untapped Cities – 1647 Peter Stuyvesant Takes the Reins in New Netherland 

Encyclopedia Britannica – Early Police in the United States

Dr. Gary Potter – Eastern Kentucky University – Police Studies Online – History of Policing in US Pt 1

Bruce Chadwick – Law and Disorder: the Chaotic Birth of the NYPD 

Wilbur R. Miller – The Social History of Crime and Punishment in America: An Encyclopedia 

George J. Lankevich – American Metropolis

NYPD Website – Old Hays and His Descendants 

Daily Forward – High Constable Jacob Hays: New York’s Forgotten Jewish Super Cop (2019)

New Yorker – THAT WAS NEW YORK: OLD HAYS (1932)

New York Times – Old Hays’ Great-Great-Great-Great Grandson in NYPD (2019)