To Serve and Protect: Learning About the Police in Your Family Tree, by Juliana Smith

Police  Badge.jpgIt came in the form of a research/writing assignment for the July issue of Ancestry Magazine. The assignment was to learn about a local police department after a reader sent in a photograph of some policemen, with an inquiry as to where she could find more information about the police department. Since I’ve had some experience in this area researching my great-great-grandfather, who was a captain in the Brooklyn Police Department, I figured this was right up my alley.

What I found reminded of the incredible resources we can find at local repositories. Since there are probably quite a few of you out there with law enforcement officials in your family trees, this week, I thought I’d go beyond this one police department and explore some ways to learn more about the police in your family tree.

Investigate the Municipality
Your first step is to investigate the area in which your ancestor served. In this case, the photograph was labeled with the name of a village that had been annexed to the city of Philadelphia around the time that the individual became a police officer. So my searches focused on searching for historical information on the Philadelphia Police Department.

I lucked out there. I found a book called, “The Philadelphia Police, Past and Present,” by Howard O. Sprogle. Originally published in 1887, it was reprinted in 1971. I went to WorldCat and searched for philadelphia police. When I located the book and clicked on it, it came up with my zip code already entered from my last visit, and the first library it mentioned was a local university library ten minutes from my house. I hopped in the car with a print-out of the catalog entry and in no time at all, I was in a quiet corner browsing through the book.

What a gem! The first chapters of the book were dedicated to the emergence and evolution of the police force in that area. It listed the 1854 salary for policemen as $500 a year, which breaks down to a little less than $42 a month. It discussed the various gangs that they fought and the need for a unified police force around 1850. One passage read,

The spirit of misrule and disorder which had been growing for fifteen or sixteen years was at its height. The miserable system of a city with adjacent districts each independent of each other was a protection to the disorderly and encouragement to them to united for the purpose of showing their disregard of law. Organized gangs of ruffians and thieves were associated under such names as Killers, Blood Tubs, Schuylkill Rangers, and other euphonious appellations.

A list of requirements from 1854 mentions that to hold a place on the police force, the applicant had to be of “American birth; between the ages of twenty-three and fifty; in good physical health and vigor; with the ability to read and write; have purity of moral character and habits; invariable temperance; unquestionable courage; peaceable and courteous manners; decorous and genteel attire; zeal for the service; respect for superior officers; and promptness and decision in action.” The requirement of American birth was inspired by the current mayors support from the Know-Nothing Nativist party, but was not enforced for long.

The end of the book was priceless. It contained the names of policemen on the force at the time of publication (1887). For high ranking officials, like precinct captains, there was often a full page of biographical information included. Many of these entries even detailed arrests made by the officer. But the entries for lower ranking officers also included details like birth dates and places, the date they joined the force, promotions, and even Civil War service. Take this entry for example:

House-Sargeant Thomas H. Keho was born in Cohoes, N.Y. on March 10, 1848. He entered the department under Mayor Stokley on March 7, 1872. He was promoted to House-Sargeant by Mayor Smith January 1, 1886. He entered the army when thirteen years of age as a drummer boy and served four years and three months, and was shot in the knee at Fredericksburg.

After an hour or so flew by in browsing the book, I returned it to the shelf and looked around at some of the other nearby titles. A similar book “History of the Chicago Police: From Settlement to the Present Time,” by John J. Flinn was another in the series that had been reprinted in 1871 by Arno Press and the New York Times. It was set up in a very similar manner and had been originally published in that same year of 1887.

More Online
When I got home, I decided to see if I could find more online. At, searching the card catalog for the keyword police, I found the following:

History of the Police Department of Rochester, N.Y.
Our Police: A History of the Pittsburgh [Pa.] Police Force
History of the Police Force of Albany [N.Y.] from 1609 to 1902
Souvenir History, McKeesport [Pa.] Police Department

I found some great newspaper clippings relating to my great-great-grandfather, Edwin Brough Dyer. One of my favorites puts my ancestor on the scene of “Still Another Midnight Assassination–Horror Piled on Horror.” It’s a quite dramatic account of how after witnessing a former police officer killing a man in a robbery, he apprehends the suspect. The article tells us that “Officer Dyer jumped from his place of concealment and ran for the assassin, who in turn found himself in a very dangerous locality. Those who know Officer Dyer, need not be told that he has speed as well as determination…” It goes on in great detail tracing the route the chase took and how the assassin was disguised in a “a pair of false whiskers and a small cap.”

I also have a wonderful biographical sketch of him from the Brooklyn Eagle:

 . . .[Captain Dyer’s] manner is courteous and obliging, but when asked to talk about himself or his official record no clam fished up from Jamaica bay was ever half so uncommunicative. In fact his modesty in regard to subjects purely personal is painful to an excessive degree. From all this it may be surmised that Captain Dyer is a man whose chief aim in life is to attend strictly to business and return to the municipality a fair remuneration for the salary it pays him. The gold shield on his left breast was not placed there by political influences alone because his promotion came only after he had spent long and arduous years as a patrolman, roundsman and sergeant. . . .

Not Just for Descendants of Police
If you have firemen, politicians, or other public officials in your family, you may find similar records for them in governmental histories, firehouse histories, and other local history publications. And these histories are not just for the descendants of these prominent members of the community. They have value to all residents by including details of neighborhoods, and in describing historical events that may not be readily found elsewhere.

If your ancestor occasionally, er . . . shall we say, “ran afoul of the law,” you may find mention of him or her there as well. The Chicago and Philadelphia histories I mentioned before, included names associated with arrests made by some of the police officers.

To illustrate, I’ll leave you with this look at some of the arrests recorded, along with a commentary by the author as found in the “History of the Police Department of Rochester, N.Y.” database at Ancestry: It reads:

…I have before me a little book, intended for carrying in the pocket, kept by Francis Dana, who was captain of the watch during 1837 as well as 1835…the items being such as these: ‘John Whaling, found beastly drunk near number 2 engine house,’ ‘Benjamin Simmons, a boy, taken before the police, charged with everything but honesty’–a rather vague accusation, it would seem–‘Jane Doe, with a red face, found alone in the streets, gave no account of herself, taken before the police, charged disorderly, committed’–how the possession of a florid countenance constitutes in itself disorderly conduct doth not plainly appear…

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Juliana Smith has been an editor of newsletters for more than eight years and is author of The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book. She has written for Ancestry Magazine and wrote the “Computers and Technology” chapter in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy, rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.


5 thoughts on “To Serve and Protect: Learning About the Police in Your Family Tree, by Juliana Smith

  1. Hi Julia,

    I am wondering if you could lead your little flock in the way of learning more about the Railroads, and where such records might be found. I would like to learn about the lines around Chicago in the 1850’s and 1860’s, as I know some of my ancestors were Locomotive engineers at that time.

    The article about the police was most fascinating.

    Nancy Berg

  2. Hi Juliana — I sent another email to you as I was so excited to see that your gggrandfather was in the Brooklyn Police Force. My grandfather Samuel Pierson was a Sgt. in Brooklyn in the NY Police Force and I have been trying to find information about his service and also about the oral history which says he one of the founders of the organization that aided the widows and orphans of Jewish Brooklyn policemen. Both my daughter and I have written to the NY Police Department but never heard anything back. Would appreciate any other avenues of research. I did so enjoy the article. Many thanks, Sallie Cauchon

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