Tuesday, May 18, 2010

First officer down: Highbinder riots at St Peter's Church



Broadway and City Hall, in 1809. The mobs of the so-called 'Augustus Street Riot' would have scuffled just to the west of this illustration. (Courtesy NYPL)

According to the Officer Down Memorial Page, there have been 778 New York law enforcement officers who have died in the course of duty. Fourteen of the last fifteen were those men and women who succumbed to 9/11-related illnesses. The last firearm-related death, Omar J. Edwards, came almost a year ago, in a strange, tragic case of mistaken identity.

The official count considers all officers from as far back as 1802 and the days of the New York City watch under the supervision of its renown High Constable Jacob Hays. (See our podcast below for more information.) Hays would be the sole administrator of this early form of law enforcement and would lead the group until the formation of the New York Municipal Police in 1845.

The watch's first casualty came in 1806. The man's name was Christian Luswanger, murdered in the line of duty during a very curious riot.

This was still a city shaking off its colonial trappings and still finding its identity. The mayor of New York that year was 37-year-old DeWitt Clinton, the well connected nephew to the former governor of New York and a man with great things in his future. The British had been gone for over two decades, and the city and its port were rapidly growing. But the real jump starts to the city's economy and expansion -- the Erie Canal, the debut of the steamboat, the Commissioners Plan -- would come in the next decade.

New York was small but restless. When mayor Edward Livingston formed the night watch in 1801, it required only a handful of men, overseen by a Watch Committee on the city council (or Common Council). By 1806, all watchmen reported to Hays, and the constable reported to the council, who often directly advised on priorities. "The Captains of Watch in the first district [should] be particularly attentive to the neighborhood of Burling Slip," according to the minutes of one council meeting.

Hays supervised a couple captains for each of New York's wards -- captains with such sturdy names as Magnus Beekman, Nicholas Lawrence, Gad Dumbolton and William Van Wart. Those captains had other men reporting to them, including Christian Luswanger, of which almost nothing is known -- regular watchmen didn't appear in the council payrolls, only the captains -- nothing at all, except for the event which took his life. An event sometimes referred to as the Augustus Street Riots*.

In 1806, St Peter's Church was the only parish in town if you were a practicing Catholic. (The current building, sometimes called Old St. Peter's, a simple, neo-classical gem near the WTC site, was built over the old structure in 1840.) It's most famous congregant would be Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American to be declared a saint.

Built in 1785, the church (at right) was a perpetual target of anti-Catholic sentiment, and violence would erupt here on Christmas morning, 1806. As worshippers gathered for midnight mass, a group of rowdies gathered outside, prepared to disrupt services.

One source, perhaps drawing from a contemporary New York Evening Post article, calls the group of about fifty a 'gang' called the Highbinders. However I'm not exactly sure it was any kind of an organized gang. The word 'highbinder' would eventually come to mean any kind of gangster and would even be slang for a corrupt politician. The first 'gang' of New York is commonly thought to be the Forty Thieves, who wouldn't surface for at least another twenty years.

Simply consider them a massive of drunken, anti-Catholic thugs -- sailors according to one source, "a nativist gang of apprentices and propertyless journeyman butchers" according to Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace -- all looking to cause trouble. Parishioners ran to get their alderman who eventually broke up the crowd. However they returned the next night -- Christmas night -- far more incensed, only this time the churchgoers were ready, armed with weapons. Certainly the defenders were not merely parishioners than other Irish immigrants who had heard about the prior evening's altercation and came looking for a fight.

They got one. The two groups clashed through the street, a few dozen men on each side, travelling from the church's doorsteps up to the Irish neighborhood in the Sixth Ward -- many, many years before it would be called Five Points.

In this melee, the watch were called to quell the violence and arrest the rioters. Jacob Hays may have been there; several of his captains certainly were. Watchman Luswanger was called to join them. Somewhere along the way, a rioter stabbed Luswanger, and the watchman died of his injuries. Apparently, this did nothing but bring more rioters into the chaos.

Diarist William Otter presents a vivid recollection of these events, although he does not mention Luswanger: "The church was surrounded with a motley crew of Irish and sailors...engaged in deadly conflict.....The mob fought from the door of the church to Irish town, being the distance of about a fourth of a mile....A great deal of property was destroyed by the mob and a great deal of human blood shed."

It took most of the night watch and the light of day to dissolve the rioters. Ten men, all Irishmen, were arrested. The mayor offered a reward for any information on Luswanger's demise, but danced around firm condemnation of either group. I'm gathering from the lack of evidence that the case of who stabbed the watchman remains unsolved.

NOTE: One of my prime sources on this article states that the watchman's name was Christopher Newfanger, not Christian Luswanger. I believe the latter is correct, and it is the name officially recognized by the police department.

*According to Forgotten New York, Augustus Street "was later called City Hall Place and in 1941 it was again renamed for Patrick Cardinal Hayes who had died in 1938."

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