A look at NYC Mayor Fernando Wood and the 1857 police riot — ‘Blue versus blue as City Hall steps ran red’

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An illustration of fighting at City Hall between Municipal and Metropolitan police officers during the Police Riot of 1857 from "Recollections of a New York Chief of Police" (1887) by George W. Walling.

New York City in the antebellum days was not dissimilar to the concrete jungle during the rather contradictory Gilded Age just a few decades later.

That is, in the 1850s, Tammany Hall was an influential political machine and corruption was rampant within the city’s police department.

Tensions soared in these days over states’ rights and the ability of a governing body to intervene on one of the most important social issues of the millennium (the amendment passed to abolish slavery wasn’t ratified until late 1865).

Within this political landscape, especially New York City’s, power vacuums were filled by vociferous politicians either propped up by Tammany or crusading against it.

And then there was the question of enforcement: was a city mayor beholden to the rulings of a state legislative body? What about a state supreme court ruling? How could the higher branches make their decision the law of the land?

Such was the complex case of Fernando Wood, mayor of New York City from 1855-58 and again from 1860-1862. He also served multiple terms in Congress, and returned to the nation’s legislative branch after his mayoralty.

During his tenure as the city’s most powerful politician, a vicious brawl ensued between two police forces sworn to uphold the law. It was blue versus blue, and the steps outside City Hall ran red.

In order to properly explain the riot that ensued between the two departments — the Municipal Police force and the Metropolitan Police force — we must first examine the other highlights of Wood’s time in office.

He assumed his new role in 1855 and was immediately faced with either doubling down on or turning a blind eye to the corrupt police force.

In the 1856-57 session of the State Legislature in Albany, lawmakers shortened Wood’s second term from two years to one after Wood failed to revitalize the patronage-heavy city government. And with that, the Legislature created a Metropolitan Police department. Republican Governor John King signed it into law, as noted in a 2008 special to the Daily News written by Michael Bosak.

Frederick A. Tallmadge was appointed as its superintendent. In theory, the new force would oust Wood’s corrupt Municipal Police. One of Tallmadge’s first orders of business was ensuring that the New York Municipal Police was dissolved.

No doubt seeing this as a political and personal sleight, Wood refused to get rid of the Municipal force (henceforth called the “Municipals,” while the Metropolitan Police will be dubbed “Metropolitans”). The Metropolitans were supposed to absorb the duties and property of its predecessor, but Wood kept the Municipals around, in a move that created a battle of jurisdiction in the nation’s largest city.

Even after the State Supreme Court upheld the law establishing the new police commission, Wood failed to recognize it. By vote, many Municipals chose to support the mayor — their numbers were around 15 police captains and 800 patrolmen, under the guidance of Superintendent George Washington Matsell. Those 800 officers were, Bosak wrote for the News in 2008, Democrats. Other officers, such as Captain George W. Walling, opted to follow state law and join the Metropolitans. As the new agency set up shop on White Street, Wood quickly filled the vacant Municipal positions.

As Bosak wrote for the News, the drama heightened when “Gov. King saw an opportunity and erroneously assumed that he had the power to appoint the new street commissioner. He appointed his own man…”

The new Street Commissioner, Daniel D. Conover, arrived on June 16, 1857 to take office but was informed that Wood had instead chosen Charles Devlin for the position. (Many believe the mayor was paid off.)

In response, Wood sent Conover, the governor’s pick, out of the building with Municipals on hand, and Conover obtained two warrants for the arrest of the mayor (for inciting a riot and violence against the appointee’s person).

Walling was tasked with arresting the defiant mayor. Wood refused and Walling attempted force. Soon, City Hall Park became occupied by 300-plus Municipals. As Bosak wrote, Wood also called upon “his chits with the local gangs, such as the Plug Uglies, Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits.” They tossed Walling, who’d been fired by Wood the year before, into the street as he tried to administer the arrest.

Around 50 Metropolitans decided to march on City Hall Park with night sticks as their weapon of choice. The Municipals overpowered the Metropolitans in a fight lasting over a half-hour, in two waves. Fifty-three officers were injured in the mayhem.

But the Metropolitan Police Board soon called upon the National Guard, which sent in the 7th Regiment. The soldiers were on their way to Boston for commemorative ceremonies honoring the Battle of Bunker Hill, the News wrote in its Justice Story.

The regiment surrounded City Hall, and with their bayonets fixed, encircled the mayor, who begrudgingly gave in. He was charged with inciting a riot and was released on minimal bail about an hour later. He was apparently never brought to trial, as civil courts claimed that the governor had no legal right to interfere with the mayor’s municipal appointments.

The feuding police forces continued to patrol the streets during the summer of 1857, destabilizing the arresting power of both departments.

Gangs inside the city thrived on the bad blood, often taking matters into their own hands. They looted and plundered, and became engaged in vicious turf wars. This came to a head on the Fourth of July, when the Dead Rabbits and other Five Points gangs entered Bayard Street in the Bowery and confronted the Bowery Boys and the Atlantic Guards. As the melee ensued, the Metropolitans tried to intervene, but were physically attacked. It served as inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s film, “The Gangs of New York.”

In 1858, Wood was denied a third term in a narrow defeat, but he returned to the office in a two-year term in 1860. A southern sympathizer, he wanted New York to secede from the Union to preserve its relationship with the southern cotton trade.

Following this, Wood went back to Congress, where he served as one of the most vocal supporters of the Confederacy and opponents of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. As a “Copperhead” New York Democrat, Wood vehemently opposed northern Unionists. He is said to have been critical in blocking the amendment measure when it came to a vote in the House in June 1864.