May 17, 2019
For as long as there has been a police department in New York City, there have been police families. Some relatives seemed to have arrived arm in arm, like the McCormack brothers, Christopher and Timothy, both now assistant chiefs, or the Holmes sisters—retired Chief Juanita, Deputy Inspector Janice, Sgt. Selena, and retired sergeants Bernice and Estella—or the five Klein siblings: Inspector James, Lt. Dennis, detectives Michael and Lizabeth, and retired Police Officer Christopher. Others reach back across generations, such as Sgt. Conor McDonald, who follows in the footsteps of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, and Detective Walter Harkins, who also comes from an unbroken paternal police line that extends to his great-grandfather—Patrolman Patrick J. Harkins, appointed in 1884—and may continue through his son, Christopher, who took the NYPD test in 2018.
Strictly speaking, there were police families even before there was a police department. For the half century before the NYPD was founded, in 1845, public safety was largely the responsibility of a singularly formidable figure, the High Constable Jacob Hays, "the terror of rascals of every grade." Though Hays was ostensibly supported by a haphazard arrangement of night watchmen and daytime constables, his most reliable ally was his son, Benjamin. In 1834, a journalist wrote of a jewelry robbery that took place on a Tuesday night: "[B]efore noon on Wednesday Jacob Hays, with the sole assistance of his son Benjamin, and with no other clue to the thieves than his own shrewdness and natural sagacity furnished, had recovered the greater part of the property, which was buried in the earth about six miles from the city, and the ensuing day Benjamin Hays arrested two of the thieves, in whose possession he found the remainder of the property, except two watches."
At a casual appraisal, these random bonds of kinship appear to be the only similarities between the city and its police, then and now. In 1800, three years after Hays was first appointed to city service, New York City had some 60,000 residents, most of them living in less than two square miles at the southern tip of Manhattan. There was one hotel. Philadelphia had a busier port than New York, and it was a larger and more prosperous urban area until after the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. The new country was far more countrified then: only around one in ten New Yorkers lived in New York City, and the populations of the Hudson Valley farm counties of Dutchess and Columbia were far larger—47,000 and 35,000, respectively—than that of rustic Brooklyn, which had less than 6,000 residents. Manhattan was accessible only by boat, save for the King's Bridge, far to the north, which connected it to the woods and fields of the Bronx.
Even for city history buffs, the interval between the American Revolution and the mid-century advent of industrialization and large-scale immigration is somewhat hazy, an in-between time following the powdered wigs and tricorne hats of the Founders, but before the newsboy caps and babushkas of the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. In the imaginations of those inclined to imagine it, New York of the Knickerbocker era was as quaintly picturesque as a sepia-toned etching. There were no elevators, and hence no apartment buildings; no railroads, and so obviously no mass transit on the cobblestoned streets. Manufacturing had yet to arrive in any recognizably modern form: shoes were made by shoemakers, tables and chairs by carpenters, soap and candles by chandlers. The maiden voyage of the Clermont, the first steamboat to provide regular service up the Hudson to Albany, took place in 1807, but the Age of Sail would endure through the end of the century, and ordinary people could tell the brigantines from the schooners amid the fleets of tall-masted ships that crowded the harbor. The surrounding waters also provided a seemingly inexhaustible supply of the oysters that rich and poor devoured daily. This was the New York of Washington Irving, who coined the term Knickerbocker, and the city, as he saw it, combined the fusty propriety of the old Dutch burghers with the bumptiously egalitarian Spirit of '76. Wealthy people didn't advertise their wealth, at least as much as they later would, and the poor deemed unworthy or unsightly were packed off to almshouses and work houses. New Yorkers hustled and jostled and went to church on Sundays. The city was more intimate and orderly, more homogenous, safer and fairer, at least in comparison to the immense and messy behemoth it later became.
According to Benjamin Singleton, director of analytics for the Detective Bureau of the NYPD, "While exact figures aren't known, the crime rate appears to have been considerably lower than even our current Modern Era lows. Presumably few crimes were solved—clearance rates certainly weren't formally recorded. As we know, crime rates and perception of crime often do not correlate, and the writings of the period don't seem to suggest that crime dominated the political discussion."
This image of old Gotham—also an abiding nickname of Irving's invention—was half-true, at best. Population growth was explosive from the first days of the republic, tripling from 1790 to 1810, and tripling again by 1840. By that time, the Five Points neighborhood, located just north of City Hall, had long been known as the first and worst slum in the nation. Charles Dickens wrote of Five Points, "the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays." You know a neighborhood is rough when even the windows are frightening. And the rest of Manhattan stank, to put it bluntly: a report from 1832 stated that a traveler could smell the place from six miles away. Trash and waste were dumped in the river or in the streets. Horses were the primary mode of transportation, and many of the city's poor kept pigs, which were allowed to forage freely during the day. Attempts to ban the practice by confiscating the swine led to pig riots, primarily by the African-American and Irish women who kept them, in 1821, 1825, 1826, 1830, and 1832. Sanitary conditions contributed to epidemics of yellow fever and cholera that killed thousands.
At the turn of the 19th century, one in ten New Yorkers were African-American, and two-thirds of them were slaves. Though there were prosperous and prominent citizens among them, such as the restaurateur Thomas Downing, known as the "Oyster King" in the 1820s, slavery was not banned in the state until 1827. Records were not kept of the number of foreign-born in the city in the first decades of the century, but nativist sentiment—primarily anti-Catholic and anti-Irish—was rising, leading to riots and mob violence in the 1830s. In the diary of Mayor Philip Hone, who was elected in 1826, the Irish are compared to locusts and lice.
As such, Jacob Hays would not have recognized the city he served as the cozy and clubbable place of legend, at least in its poorer districts, and especially not at the end of his long career. By that time, he was half-legendary himself, his name invoked by parents who warned misbehaving children, "Old Hays will get you!" A citizen watch formed in White Plains in 1828 to "look out for rogues" was incorporated as the "Jacob Hays Club." Contemporary accounts are almost unfailingly laudatory, describing him as a sleuth of "unusual sagacity," with an uncanny memory for names and faces, as well as an action hero of the first order, capable of dispersing unruly crowds with a stern word, or, failing that, wading in and swinging his staff. He was "of the strictest integrity, of a generous and frank nature, warm-hearted, kind and true." In short, an ideal police officer, for his time and any other.
And a forgotten one, by and large. When a graduate student at Hunter College named Patrick Bringley came across a handful of references to the high constable in the 1,383 pages of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, by Edwin G. Burroughs and Mike Wallace, he decided to write his thesis on Hays. The most recent prior appraisal of Hays was in The New Yorker, in 1932, by Herbert Asbury, best known for The Gangs of New York, which loosely inspired the Martin Scorsese movie. Asbury's own histories are generally reckoned to be a loose business as well; Bringley finds him to be "wonderful and completely unreliable." And so Bringley found himself, like Hays and his many descendants, at the outset of an investigation in which what little was known was mostly untrue.
What became clear in the research was that Hays was held in such high regard in large part because his colleagues were not. Bringley writes, "Hays' story is largely one of a person making great use of an old and maladapted apparatus." Working as a constable was more akin to jury duty than it was to modern civil service; citizens were expected to take their turns at it, and their annual salaries were the roundest of numbers: zero. Wealthy men could hire substitutes, as they later would to escape the Civil War draft. There were two constables elected for each ward, and a high constable, appointed by the mayor, with no greater power or authority than the others. They were charged with suppressing breaches of the peace and enforcing the Sabbath laws. There were minimal fees attached to serving writs or warrants, and for transporting prisoners, but constables were expected to maintain their previous trades to support themselves through their terms. There was greater financial potential in obtaining rewards for the return of lost or stolen property—the newspapers were full of advertisements offering such rewards—but the potential for corruption was obvious. As Bringley notes, "Constables were invited to profit from a crime they were meant to contain."
A salary would have addressed some of these problems—to be unpaid is, by definition, to be unprofessional—and Hays petitioned for one in 1802. In 1812 it was granted; in 1816, it was taken away, and it was not restored until 1825. For ten years, Hays supplemented his income by joining the Night Watch. There were far more watchmen than constables—eighteen in one ward, when Hays was its captain—and they were salaried, though the pay was meager. As Director Singleton noted, "The difference in compensation and stark difference in staffing between constables and watchmen is probably indicative of the temporal distribution of crime. City government was clearly invested in maintaining order at night."
Of all the bewilderments a visitor from our time to theirs would likely experience—horror at what passed for medical treatment, awe at the depth of religiosity, amazement at how much brandy was consumed, so early and so often—the most profound might be prompted by the most ordinary of events: when the sun went down, it got very, very dark. To see true nighttime hasn't been possible in New York City in many generations. The gas streetlights that began to appear in the late 1820s represented a vast improvement over the whale-oil vessels they replaced, but the lamps themselves—not to mention the oil and candles and wood stoves that filled every house—were a source of danger, and watchmen were charged with raising the alarm in the event of fire as well as violence. Then as now, nightfall inspired fear, in uneasy and uneven relation with the actual threat of crime.
The threat was not altogether imaginary. Bringley studied Night Watch reports from 1814, and the contrast with daily constabulary duties of writ-serving is acute: "The overwhelming share of Watch Returns are concerned with assaults (a large number on women), vagrancy, and prostitution, with theft and 'riotous conduct' trailing somewhat behind. Other crimes include murder, counterfeiting, exhuming bodies from potters' field (probably by medical students), defacement, gambling, and in the case of apprentices and slaves, running away."
Though the responsibilities of the Night Watch were serious, the institution as whole was not. It mostly comprised moonlighting tradesmen, many of whom were dismissed for drinking or sleeping on duty. Still, the experience was likely of great value to Hays, as it provided an immersive education in crime—how it was committed, and who was committing it—and his knowledge of lawbreaking became magisterial.
"Newspaper accounts are full of Hays recognizing 'in the face of one the features of an old acquaintance,' or else hearing of a crime and instantaneously developing a theory. Fetched to a burglarized store in 1826 'he immediately stated who had done it,' and proved correct. 'Walking leisurely down Beekman Street' in 1831 he 'observed a man very fashionably attired... whose countenance he immediately recollected as that of a notorious pick-pocket;' Hays 'collared' him and found $500 in ill-got bills on his person. On first inspecting a lock fitted with false keys, Hays testified, 'I thought I knew who had done it.' And whenever he was out searching for a suspect, 'half a look is enough for old Jacob,' wrote a newspaper."
To a modern observer, the most striking aspect of Hays' caseload was how it overwhelmingly focused on property crime. The newspapers related relatively few accounts of crimes of violence—burglaries, larcenies, and particularly counterfeiting were the chief public concerns. There was no national paper currency until 1862; paper money took the form of bank notes issued by scores of private financial institutions. A Manhattan merchant might conduct business with five-dollar notes from the Bank of Utica, tens from the Farmers and Mechanics Bank of Albany, twenties from the New Haven Bank. Estimates of how much bad paper was in circulation during the mid-19th century vary from ten to fifty percent. Counterfeiting was punishable by a life sentence.
Bringley finds abundant examples of Hays' success against counterfeiting: "On Christmas Day, 1820, he was presumably enjoying the holiday with his sizable family when an informant tipped him off to an imminent counterfeit-bill exchange 'in the suburbs of the city.' Hays rode out with his informant, observed the handoff, and arrested the perpetrator with $986 in forged bills, enough to earn the man a life sentence. In 1819, he passed along information—a description of a suspect 'in the most particular manner'—that led to a $450,000 counterfeiting bust in Savannah, Georgia. In 1821, he almost lost his life when a 'small pilot boat' flipped over in the harbor of Quebec where he had travelled to track down a 'counterfeiter by the name of Milligan.' In 1824, the city was 'inundated with a flood of counterfeit bank paper, and at last our vigilant Police Officers have found out the mint from which it was issued,' sending Hays to Stamford, Connecticut, where he tracked the bills to men whom the neighbors had supposed to be 'very studious, literary characters, astronomers, &c., living in retirement.'"
In what might have been his most celebrated investigation, Hays discovered that a rural area of Ontario had developed, somewhat unaccountably, into an "expansive production center" that sent a significant volume of fraudulent notes into the American economy. In 1818, he arrested a local wholesaler—there were believed to be sixteen major distributers in the city at the time—with $100,000 in counterfeit money. After securing information about his suppliers, Hays travelled to Ontario, where he partnered with authorities to lead raids, seizing notes and engraving plates. It would have been a notable case in any era, but Hays' relentlessness and ingenuity stood out all the more for taking on international criminal organizations when his colleagues were wrangling stray hogs. And it highlighted both the exceptional nature of the high constable and the inadequacy of the system.
By the 1830s, it became increasingly clear that policing New York was not a one-man job, especially when that man was in his sixties. Bringley writes, "Hays headed a small and scarcely visible force, well equipped for occasional, significant arrests but not for wide and consistent coverage of the city." He cites the work of the historian Eric H. Monkonnen, whose Murder in New York City argues that, until the second half of the 20th century, rates of urban violence were lower than that of the nation as a whole. ("In the preindustrial era, everyone knew that the countryside was dangerous and that the cities were safer.") Still, the sheer growth of Manhattan led validity to the popular belief that things were increasingly out of control. A cholera epidemic swept through the city in 1832. There were major riots in 1834 and 1837. In 1835, the "Great Fire of New York" destroyed over 500 buildings, and recession struck with the Panic of 1837. Gangs began to coalesce by the end of the decade, typically Irish or anti-Irish, often associated with political factions for which violence was an ordinary part of electioneering. After two sensational murders—of Helen Jewett, in 1838, and Mary Rogers in 1842—public sentiment shifted sufficiently for the legislature to disband the Night Watch and the constabulary, replacing them with a full-time, salaried police department.
Still, Jacob Hays was held in such esteem that he was allowed to keep his title until he chose to retire, in 1849, fifty-two years after he began to patrol the streets. As Bringley observes, "Hays held an 18th century office in 19th century New York; in important ways he innovated, but mainly he was a 'last lion,' a figure whose fame derived in part from his unlikely success, and also, perhaps, from an elegiac awareness that his like would not be seen again. Hays policed New York at a time when it was becoming unpoliceable… The police department that succeeded Hays was not a collection of superheroes—it was impersonal, bureaucratized, uniform, and uniformed, the very antithesis of Old Hays."
It is unclear what Hays' son, Benjamin, did after the constabulary was abolished. He turned forty-seven in 1845, and may have been too old to join the new police department, even if he was inclined to do so. None of Hays' other children—he had ten of them—displayed any interest in criminal justice, and one, at least, did not have to worry about making do on a city salary: DeWitt Clinton Hays became president of the Bank of Manhattan—later known as Chase Manhattan—and treasurer of the New York Stock Exchange. DeWitt's daughter, Mary, married John Randolph Dos Passos, an eminent attorney who specialized in trusts (and father of the novelist John Dos Passos). John R. practiced criminal law earlier in his career, and in his obituary in The New York Times (whose later publisher, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, was Jacob's great-grandnephew) noted his opposition to the Fifth Amendment, and included this police-pleasing quote: "If you are guilty, you should be made to speak. If you are innocent, you are ready to do so. If you have knowledge or evidence of a crime, you should be forced to reveal it. If it convicts you, so much the better for society."
Louis Hays Dos Passos, the son of John and Mary, was an investor, though he lost the family fortune in The Depression. He married a woman named Grace Quinn, and they had a daughter named Mary Hays Dos Passos. Mary married the son of an Irish-American bricklayer named William F. Singleton, and they had a son named James, and James had a son named Benjamin.
And Benjamin Singleton grew up to become the Director of Analytics for the Detective Bureau of the NYPD. Jacob Hays is his great-great-great-great-grandfather. In some families, the police gene is more recessive than in others.
In February 2019, Singleton met Patrick Bringley at the Museum of the City of New York, on Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street. "My grandmother grew up in a mansion on Park Avenue," Singleton told him. "Her father lost everything in the Crash. He'd speculated on gold mines at the time, and he was caught up short when it happened."
Bringley pointed out that there was generational precedent for that: "When Jacob Hays' grandfather emigrated from the Netherlands, he bought land in Rye, in Westchester County, to mine silver." Needless to say, his grandfather did not strike it rich. His grandmother supported the family by running a boarding house in the city. Their son ran a grocery store and then an inn.
Singleton had many questions for Bringley, but among the first was one his grandmother, a devout Catholic, might have posed in a more anxious tone: "Was he Jewish?"
By his grandmother's generation, Jacob's religious roots were a rumor, but Singleton had noticed that the names of Hays' children included Aaron, Benjamin, and Esther. Still, Aaron was named after Aaron Burr, and it was a time of large, Bible-reading families: parents deciding whether their twelfth child should be called Obadiah, Boaz, or Eliezer didn't necessarily keep kosher homes.
"He was definitely Jewish," Bringley replied. Hays parents and grandparents were active in the New York Jewish community in colonial days, which centered around Shearith Israel, the oldest synagogue in the country (the congregation, founded in 1645, continues to this day on the Upper West Side). Bringley went on to explain that Hays' childhood coincided with a period of hiatus in Jewish life of the city, as the rabbi of Shearith Israel was a patriot who decamped to Philadelphia during the British occupation. As an adult, Hays seems to have left his religion behind: he married a Presbyterian woman named Catherine Conroy, and "almost certainly" converted himself. There is no reference to his Jewish ancestry in any of his public statements, or in any of the New York newspaper stories about him.
From there, the two men examined the items in the museum archives that provided the reason for the visit. The archivist, Emily Chapin, produced two notebooks for inspection. The smaller was the size of an index card, and it contained the forty-three names of those cited for Sabbath law violations in 1815. Most of the citations were for selling alcohol, which doesn't seem terribly archaic—New York State only allowed liquor stores to open on Sundays in 2016—but others were for innocuous activities such as fishing, ice-skating, or setting off firecrackers. Sundays were not for fun then. The story the book tells is of a Puritanical society that wasn't terribly punitive; less than one person a week is charged for violations that were certainly more widespread. One blue-law-breaker is Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose arrest record did not prove an impediment to his becoming one of the three wealthiest men in U.S. history.
The catalogue of minor transgressions doesn't make for interesting reading, but a jotted addendum at the back of the book provides a fascinating insight into how Jacob Hays worked. The note is written at least sixteen years later in a clear, fluid cursive.
"January 20th 1831—Thomaston
The Bank was Robbed—there was $11,000 taken. Isaac Smith is in gaol to await his trial. *Valorous Drew who Board with Wm. Herrick* who is of a bad character is supposed to be concerned Herrick live on the Corner of 6th Street and Avenue D—Drew was seen about 1 year since with a quantity of Thomaston Bills in Limerick & Newfield in this state offering to Exchange in a very suspicious manner There was found in Smith Possession from five to Eight Thousand Dollars in Bills Smith is the first rate machinist & no doubt made the Keys"
These few lines tell a great deal about the nature of the investigator and the investigation. There is the matter of "Thomaston Bills," likely from a town in Maine, then a thriving shipbuilding center; the private bank notes that made counterfeiting so easy proved of value in tracing the proceeds in robberies in which real money was taken. (Or burglaries, as seems probable here, since keys were involved). But there was no systematic circulation of criminal information among jurisdictions; people found out about crimes from reading newspapers, and they shared what they knew by writing letters. Newfield is a village near Ithaca, over two hundred miles away from 6th Street and Avenue D, and Limerick is even further, near the Canadian border. Someone in these villages—the mayor, a merchant—was sufficiently concerned by the dubious stranger with pockets full of cash to make a report of his appearance, perhaps to Hays directly, given his reputation. Regardless of how Hays learned of Herrick's shady activities in two remote rural hamlets, he knew what was going on around the city—who ran with whom, who specialized in what—and could take action on the tip.
Next, Bringley and Singleton examined a larger leather-bound ledger that contained the names of every inmate admitted to Newgate Prison in Greenwich Village from 1797 through 1821. Newgate was the first state prison, and, for twenty years, the only one; convicted felons from all over New York served their sentences there. (Real estate values prompted its replacement in 1824 by Sing Sing, in Ossining, which inspired the phrase "up the river" as slang for serving time.) The 297 pages of the ledger contained some 6,000 names, by Bringley's count, along with their ages, the crimes for which they were convicted, the county of conviction, the sentence imposed, and the time served. The ledger was organized alphabetically, then chronologically, so the first section contained all the Allens and Andersons admitted during the period, the next all the Browns and Bakers, and so on.
As Singleton examined the entries, he noted, "You don't see a lot of violence here."
On page after page, by far the most common charge was grand larceny, with forgery a distant second. A casual appraisal of the intake lists had twenty or thirty thieves for every forger, and twice that for every inmate convicted of robbery, assault, murder or manslaughter. Now and then, there was a rarity—"jailbreak" or perjury—as well as several cases of rape, sometimes plainly stated, otherwise couched in euphemism: "Assault with intent to ravish."
According to Bringley, the state saw itself more as an arbiter than as an advocate in crimes of interpersonal violence: "Most prosecutions for robbery or assault, even for murder, were brought by private individuals. You had to pay for a prosecution and rent the courtroom. The constable would help, but he had to be paid as well."
Still, the Night Watch records he viewed indicated that arrests for assault were frequent, and presumably severe on occasion. Why were the assailants sent to prison so infrequently?
"People arrested for assault might have been fined or flogged, or stashed in the Bridewell, which was a short-term jail," Bringley said. "A lot of times, they—or their friends and families—had to post sureties to guarantee good behavior in the future."
As he wrote in his thesis, "The English system of justice, mirrored in colonial New York, was one of general leniency punctuated by incredible brutality." In one entry, both aspects were represented, as a twelve-year-old boy named James Alexander was sentenced to a year in prison for grand larceny, though he only served a single day.
Few of the inmates in the ledger appeared to have served their full sentences, and many were confined for a small fraction of them. Bringley added that Newgate was originally designed with Quaker ideals in mind, with a rehabilitative program centered on work and worship; overcrowding led to its abandonment, and was a factor in the early releases.
The provenance of these two notebooks was telling, as well. They were not in the Municipal Archives, because they were not government documents; rather, they were private property, created and held by Hays and donated by his descendants to the museum.
"Constables competed with each other," Bringley said. "They only really made money with rewards. This was proprietary information that Hays collected for his own cases."
"This is his Gang Database," said Singleton, a remark which lent Hays' old brown ledger a sudden aspect of modernity.
There was something timeless as well in the family heirloom Singleton had brought with him. It was a small leather case, three by three-and-a-half inches, coffee-brown with faint decorative engraving, which had been passed on by his grandmother. When its delicate brass clasp was opened, it revealed a portrait of Jacob Hays. It is a daguerreotype, the earliest form of popular photography, made from treating a polished sheet of silver-plated copper with mercury vapor and sealing it behind glass. The image shifts from positive to negative, depending on the angle of view.
Hays does not appear pleased to have his picture taken. Aside from the owlish tufts of hair that stick out from his temples, his most distinctive features are his "you-don't-fool-me" scowl and his "don't-even-think-about-running" stare. Once you lock eyes with him, the past falls away: Jacob Hays is watching. He doesn't forget. He doesn't even blink. And nothing is likely to surprise him, no matter the miracles and miseries that attend the passage of the years.
The past is sometimes predictive, sometimes not. Crime rates, like the economy, can be seen as a series of cycles, but that view can lend itself to a passive and fatalistic perspective that ignores the policies and practices that drive the downturns and upswings. There is nothing normal or natural about any given level of physical threat on city streets, though it seems so if things have been that way for long enough. New Yorkers who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s watched the city get more dangerous, and many assumed that it would never improve, at least not by much. In the 1990s, there was an abrupt reversal, and the decline of violence continues, twenty-five years later. The NYPD is justifiably proud of its achievements, and critics who claim that we have merely mirrored national trends should bear in mind that, had New York City's murder rate dropped at the national average, we'd have around 1,200 killings per year, instead of fewer than three hundred.
Still, for cops of a certain age, there are always doubts: Can this really last? Is this really how things are supposed to be? That skepticism extends to Hays' era, at least in terms of the low level of violence suggested by newspaper accounts and the Newgate Prison ledger. And though it bespeaks a cynical sensibility to pose the question, "Why weren't more people killing each other?"—as opposed to, "Why did people kill each other?"—it is nonetheless worth asking.
The scarcity of murderers at Newgate might be explained by a number of less-than-uplifting reasons. Not all homicides were solved, and some likely weren't even necessarily recorded; in a port city full of transient sailors and rowdy waterfront taverns, it isn't far-fetched to assume that a certain number of bar-fight fatalities ended with the victim in the harbor instead of the mortuary. And many convicted of murder were sent to the gallows instead of prison.
But the death penalty had been abolished for a host of crimes when Newgate opened—in the 17th and 18th centuries, criminals were hanged for housebreaking and forgery; after the turn of the 19th century, capital convictions were almost always for murder. According to researchers John Ortiz Smykla and M. Watt Espy, who compiled an exhaustive list of executions in America from 1608 through 2002, there were forty-three people put to death in New York State in the Newgate period. Only eight were from New York City, an average of one execution every three years.
In Murder in New York City, Eric H. Monkonnen estimates that the murder rate varied between three and six per 100,000 people until the second half of the 20th century, when it soared to nearly 30 per 100,000. Guns account for a significant measure of the increase—in 1968, firearms caused 42 percent of New York City murders; by 1992, they caused 81 percent. Until after the Civil War, handguns were luxury items, owned only by a few, and exceedingly unreliable. But Monkonnen concludes that guns "only partly" explain the increase—they proliferated for many years before. There is never a single cause for any broad social phenomenon. But weapons mattered, as did alcohol and drugs. The historical constant is that murders occur more often when spirited young men come together after nightfall.
Now, we're back at a Knickerbocker-era rate of just over three murders per 100,000 residents. According to several popular explanations for crime, we shouldn't be: the poverty rate has seen mild fluctuations since the 1990s that bear no relation to the dramatic drop in crime since then. Poverty fell in New York City as violence rose in the 1960s. Aside from the first two years of the Depression, the 1930s were not a period of high homicide rates, in New York or nationally. Drug epidemics—heroin in the 1960s and 1970s, and crack in the 1980s and 1990s—are also accounted as primary causes of the homicide spikes of the period. But we're in the midst of an opioid crisis now, and its casualties have been overdoses instead of murders. Guns remain readily available despite local and state restrictions.
Maybe middle-aged New Yorkers and their parents lived through what later historians will call the Great Crime Aberration, a four-decade version of The Purge. Or maybe we're reaching the end of a low-crime cycle, a valley or trough in the data, and the bad old days are coming back. Many have predicted as much for the past five years, but violent crime has continued to decline: robberies and burglaries, the number of shooting victims and shooting incidents are all down by more than 30 percent over the period. Nationally, the murder rate rose 23 percent from 2014 through 2016, levelled off in 2017, and is estimated to have dropped by around five percent in 2018. To view the statistics another way, between 2014 and 2018, there have been ten thousand more murders in the United States than there would have been, had the number of killings held steady at the 2014 figure; in New York City, there have been sixty-three fewer.
Since 2014, the NYPD has drastically reduced enforcement as a matter of policy—arrests, tickets, stops—but views with dismay certain current trends in the rest of the criminal justice system. Singleton co-authored a report that found that in 2010, defendants arrested for violent felonies were offered misdemeanor-or-lower pleas in 38.5 percent of their cases; by 2016, the proportion had risen to 47.7 percent. In 2010, one in three people arrested for an index felony—robbery, burglary, grand larceny, auto theft, felony assault, rape, and murder or manslaughter—received a supervisory sentence of prison or probation. By 2016, it was one in five. Fewer people are being arrested, but the percentage of recidivists is increasing: the average arrestee in New York City had three prior felony arrests in 2010; by 2017, it was four.
Legislatures all over the country are seeking to devise less punitive means of responding to crime. Can violence be controlled without the cruelty of incarceration? At the very least, new polices will produce a great deal of data for Singleton to study.
What can be reliably foreseen is that, sometime in the 22nd century—the 23rd, latest—a descendant of Ben Singleton will lose the family fortune again, likely prospecting for platinum on Mars, and his or her grandchild will come back to law enforcement in New York City. Whatever problems or prospects they face, they would do well to consider what Old Hays would have done.