Police Riot of 1857

The year 1857 was a remarkable one in the history of New York City, and indeed of the whole country. The year previous had been characterized by intense political excitement, for the presidential campaign had been carried on as a sectional fight or a war between the upholders and enemies of the institution of slavery as it existed at the South. Pennsylvania alone by her vote defeated the antislavery party, and the South, seeing the danger that threatened it, had already begun to prepare for that tremendous struggle, that afterwards tested to the utmost the resources and strength of the North; while a financial storm overwhelmed the entire country in disaster. To these were added local causes, which affected New York City particularly, and made it a year of uncommon disturbance.

The Republican party being largely in the ascendant in the State, determined to revolutionize the municipal government, and place the Democratic city partially under Republican rule. Many bills were passed during the session of Legislature, peculiarly obnoxious to the city authorities, but that which excited the most bitter opposition was called the Metropolitan Police Act, by which the counties of New York, Kings, Westchester, and Richmond were made one police district, to be controlled by a board of commissioners, consisting of five members appointed by the Governor and Senate, and to hold office for five years. This board having organized, proceeded to create a police department. Mayor Wood denied the constitutionality of the act and retained the old police so that there were two police departments existing at the same time in the city. The Mayor resorted to all kinds of legal measures to defeat the action of the board, and the question was finally referred to the Court of Appeals for decision.

In the mean time the death of a street commissioner left a vacancy to be filled. Governor King, acting under the recent law, appointed Daniel D. Conover to fill it, while the Mayor appointed Charles Devlin. A third claimant for the place appeared in the deputy, who asserted his right to act until the decision of the Court of Appeals was rendered. Conover had no idea of waiting for this, and proceeded to assume the duties of his office. The Mayor of course resisted, and so Conover got out a warrant from the Recorder to arrest the former on the charge of inciting a riot, and another on the charge of personal violence. Armed with these papers, and backed by fifty of the new policemen, he proceeded to the City Hall. The Mayor, aware of the movement, had packed the building with his own police, who refused him admittance. The new police attempted to force an entrance, when a fight followed, in which twelve policemen were severely injured. While things were in this critical condition, the Seventh Regiment passed down Broadway on its way to the boat for Boston, whither it was going to receive an ovation. A request for its interference was promptly granted, and marching into the Park they quickly quelled the riot, and the writs were served on the Mayor.

Intense excitement followed, and so great was the fear of a terrible outbreak, that nine regiments were put under arms, ready to march at a moment’s notice.

But on the 1st of July the Court of Appeals decided the act to be constitutional, and the disturbance ended. But of course, while this strife was going on between the police, but little was done to arrest disorder in the city. The lawless became emboldened, and in the evening before the 4th of July a disturbance began, which for a time threatened the most serious consequences.



Headley, Joel Tyler. The great riots of New York, 1712 to 1873: including a full and complete account of the Four Days' Draft Riot of 1863. New York: E. B. Treat, 1873.

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