Telegraph Bureau

One thing Commissioners Acton and Bergen in their consultation settled must be done at all hazards telegraphic communication must he kept open with the different precincts. Otherwise it would be impossible to concentrate men at any given point, quick enough to arrest the mob before they spread devastation and conflagration far and wide. Every hour gained by a mob in accumulating or organizing its forces, increases the difficulty of dispersing it. The rioters understood this partially, and had acted accordingly; but the rich spoils they had come across during the day, had driven, for the time being, all other thoughts but plunder out of their heads. Some communications had already been destroyed, and the rioters would evidently by morning have their eyes open to the importance of doing this everywhere, and their efforts must be foiled, no matter what the risk or sacrifice might be. They had already cut down over sixty poles, and rendered upwards of twelve miles of wire useless; and how much more would share the same fate the next day, no one could tell.

The superintendent and deputy of the Telegraph Bureau, Messrs. Crowley and Polhamus, with the operators mentioned before, were, therefore, set at work this very evening in the storm, to restore the broken lines.

This was a perilous undertaking, for if once discovered, their lives would be instantly sacrificed.

The details of their operations, their disguises, ingenious contrivances, deceptions, and boldness in carrying out their object, would make an attractive chapter in itself. Often compelled to mingle with the mob, always obliged to conceal what they were about, not daring to raise a pole or handle a wire unless cautiously or secretly, they yet restored the lines in the north section by morning, and those in the south by Wednesday evening. Sometimes they were compelled to carry a wire over the top of a house, sometimes round it, through a back yard; in short, every device and expedient was resorted to by these daring, sharp witted men. Once Polhamus had his boots burned off in tramping through the burning ruins of a building after the wires. Once he and Mr. Crowley came near being clubbed to death by the police, who mistook them for rioters, so ingeniously and like them were they at work among the ruins. Captain Brower rescued them, or their services might have ended on the spot.

This work was kept steadily up during the continuation of the riots. On one occasion, Mr. Crowley, hearing that the wires were down in the Ninth and Tenth Avenues, hastened thither alone, when he encountered a large mob. Fearing to pass through it he hesitated a moment, when he noticed a carriage driving in the direction he wished to go, in which was a Catholic priest. He immediately hailed it and was taken in. As the carriage entered the mob, the latter surrounded it, and supposing the inmates were reporters, began to yell “Down with the d d reporters;” but the moment they recognized the priest, they allowed it to pass. Often the two would take a hack; and passing themselves off as drivers, go through infected districts, and search points to which they otherwise could not have gone. One time they were returning from an expedition through Third Avenue, and had reached Houston Street, when they were hailed by a gang of rioters, who demanded to be taken downtown. They had to comply, for the men were armed with pistols, and so took them in and kept along Houston Street, under the pretence of going down through Broadway, knowing that when they reached Mulberry Street they would be in hailing distance of the head-quarters of the police. It was just after daybreak, and Crowley and Polhamus urged on the horses, expecting in a few minutes to have their load safely locked up. The fellows evidently not liking the vicinity to which the drivers were taking them, ordered them to wheel about, which they were compelled to do, and drive under their direction to an old house in the Tenth Ward. There they got out, and offering the drivers a drink and fifty cents, let them go. On one occasion, Crowley, while examining the wires in Second Avenue, was suspected by the mob, who fell upon him, and it was only by the greatest coolness and adroitness he convinced them he was a rioter himself, and so escaped. At another time they were going along in a common wagon, when they were hemmed in by a crowd, and escaped by passing themselves off as farmers from Westchester. Had they been discovered, they would have been killed on the spot.

Detective Force

The duties of this force are well known, but during the riots they had something more important to do than to work up individual cases. The force, with John Young as chief, and M. B. Morse as clerk, consisted in all of seventeen persons. These men are selected for their superior intelligence, shrewdness, sagacity, and undoubted courage. Full of resources, they must also be cool, collected, and fearless. During the riots they were kept at work day and night, obtaining knowledge of facts that no others could get, and thus supplying the different precincts and head-quarters with invaluable information. Their duty was a most perilous one, for it called them to go into the very heart of the turbulent districts; nay, into the very midst of the mob, where detection would have been followed by death, and that of the most horrible kind. Chief Young, with his clerk, was engaged at head-quarters, so that fifteen men had to perform the required work for the whole city. Sometimes alone, sometimes two or three together, they seemed omnipresent. In all sorts of disguises, feigning all sorts of employments and characters, sometimes on horseback and again driving an old cart or a hack, they pressed with the most imperturbable effrontery into the very vortex of danger. Ever on the watch, and accustomed to notice every expression of the countenance, they would discover at a single glance when they were suspected, and remove the suspicion at once by some clever device. Sometimes one of them, seeing himself watched, would quietly ascend the steps of a residence, and ringing the bell, make some inquiry as though he were on business, and then deliberately walk off; or if he thought it would not do to have his face too closely scanned, he would step inside and wait till the crowd moved on. Sometimes, with a stone or club in their hands, they would shout with the loudest, and engaging in conversation with the ringleaders themselves, ascertain their next move; then quietly slip away to the nearest station, and telegraph to head-quarters the information. When the telegraph had been cut off, they had to take the place of the wires, and carry through the very heart of the crowd their news to the department.

On their ears again and again would ring the fearful cry, “There goes Kennedy’s spies;” and it required the most consummate acting and self possession to allay the suspicion. Often on a single word or act hinged their very lives. Some of these men were in the mob that made the first attack on Mayor Opdyke’s house, and while apparently acting with it, learned of the intended movement down to police head-quarters, and at once telegraphed the fact, which enabled Carpenter to prepare for them, and give them the terrible beating we have described. At the burning and sacking of different buildings they were present, and often would follow unnoticed the ringleaders for hours, tracking them with the tireless tenacity of a sleuth hound, until they got them separate from the crowd, and then pounce suddenly upon them, and run them into the nearest station. The lawlessness that prevailed not only let loose all the thieves and burglars of the city, but attracted those from other places, who practiced their vocation with impunity. To lessen this evil, the detectives one night quietly made visits to some half a dozen “lushing cribs,” as they are called, in Eighth and Fourteenth Streets, and seized about thirty noted thieves, burglars, and garroters, and locked them up for safe keeping. They also warned the Negroes of threatened danger, and directed them, to places of safety; and in case of emergency acted as guides to the military in their operations. In short, they were ubiquitous, indefatigable, and of immense service. They played the part of unerring pointers to the commissioners, telling them when and where to strike; yet strange to say, such was their skill, their ingenuity, and exhaustless resources, that they all escaped being assaulted, save one named Slowly. He was passing through the very heart of the riotous district, in Second Avenue, when some one who had evidently been once in his clutches, recognized him, and pointing him out, shouted “Detective!” Instantly a rush was made for him, and he was knocked down, and kicked and stamped upon. Regaining, with a desperate effort, his feet, he sprang up the steps of a house, and fought his assailants fiercely, till the lady of the house, seeing his perilous situation, courageously opened the door and let him in, and then bolted and barred it in the face of the mob. Through some strange apprehension, the baffled wretches, though they howled, and swore, and threatened, did not force an entrance, and he escaped.

In this connection, while speaking of those whose duties were uniform and running through the whole period of the riots, might be mentioned Seth C. Hawley, the chief clerk. Like Acton, he has a nervous, wiry temperament. This often makes a man rash and headlong, and hence not reliable; but when combined, as in him, with perfect self possession and self control, imparts enormous power. It matters not how nervous and excitable a man is, if danger and responsibility instead of confusing and unsettling him, only winds him up to a higher tension, till he becomes like a tightly drawn steel spring. Excitement then not only steadies him, but it quickens his perceptions, clears his judgment, gives rapidity to his decisions, and terrible force to his blow. Mr. Hawley’s duties were of a various and exhausting kind, so that during all the riots, he allowed himself only one hours’ rest out of every twenty-four. Besides his ordinary supervisory duties over the clerks, etc., he had to see to the execution of the almost incessant orders of the commissioners, provide and issue arms, see to the refugees and prisoners, and act as commissary to over four thousand men on duty in and around head-quarters. Two men more perfectly fitted to work together in such a crisis as this, than he and Acton, could not well be found.



MLA Source Citation:

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. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 29 November 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/new-york/telegraph-bureau.htm - Last updated on Mar 2nd, 2013


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