Days Of Town Sergeants And Constables

The Days of Town Sergeants and Constables

By Jim Ignasher   

Worn By Sayles Williams.

     On the afternoon of June 26, 1855, the battered body of a 22-year-old man was found along the shore of the Blackstone River near the Globe Bridge which in those days connected Smithfield to Woonsocket. Coroner Spencer Mowry examined the body and determined that the man had been murdered. Investigation revealed he was last seen alive on the Smithfield side of the bridge, visiting what could politely be called a “red light district” which existed at the time.

     In 1855, Woonsocket was still a village within the town of Cumberland, and its southern border was denoted by the Blackstone River. Across the river lay the fledgling mill villages of Globe, Bernon, and Hamlet, all (then) located in Smithfield.

    Law enforcement in northern Rhode Island during this era was haphazard at best. Both Woonsocket and Smithfield had police constables who came under the direction of a town sergeant, but theses men didn’t perform police duties in the way we think of officers doing today. They didn’t wear uniforms, and most didn’t even have badges. And they didn’t regularly patrol a beat or answer “calls” the way their modern counterparts do. When it came to pay, some may have received small stipends, but more often than not they were paid from fees collected for serving legal papers and warrants, or for guarding and transporting prisoners to court.

    Constables received their appointments by elected town officials, and their tenure was subject to change with new administrations. There was no training for the job, and forensic science as we know it today was non-existent. Thus when it came to the discovery of the murder victim, determining what happened rested with the Coroner, who impaneled a Jury of Inquest. If this crime was solved, it’s not recorded.

     On March 17, 1730, the newly established town of Smithfield held its first town meeting during which town officials were elected. Uriah Mowry was chosen Town Sergeant, and three constables were appointed. What Smithfield lacked in population at the time it made up for in land, for at the time of incorporation the present day municipalities of North Smithfield, Lincoln, Central Falls, and Woonsocket south of the Blackstone River were all part of Smithfield. Therefore, it seems laughable that keeping the peace was left to only four officers.

     The system of employing town sergeants and constables had been carried over to the colonies from England, and Smithfield retained a constabulary into the 20th century. Smithfield town sergeants were appointed by the town council for one year terms ending in November. Constables were also appointed at that time from a list of names submitted by the town sergeant. The town sergeant also had the authority to temporarily appoint special constables in the event more manpower was needed. These special constables would be paid by the day.

     There were also constables who carried specific titles such as “Special Constable to Prosecute Tramps”, or “Special Constable to Enforce Bird Laws”, each of which were paid fifty dollars per year.

     In 1914 there was an up-tick in crime in the Georgiaville and Esmond neighborhoods prompting residents to petition the town council for night patrolmen. The request was eventually granted, but the constables only patrolled on alternate weekends and were paid a flat rate of $100 a year. Meanwhile, the town sergeant was authorized to regularly patrol Greenville on weekends for $200 per year. This was the first time regular police patrols began in Smithfield.   

Worn prior to 1976

     There was no police headquarters at that time, and any prisoners were lodged in one of two make-shit jails known as bridewells. One bridewell was in Georgiaville and the other in Greenville. Town records show constables were paid extra to guard, feed, and transport prisoners to court. Documentation exists that indicates these bridewells were in use as late as 1937.

     In 1915 Smithfield began to move away from a constable system to an organized police department. Over the next few years more night patrolmen were added, the town sergeant was referred to in council records as “Chief of Police”, and by 1919 officers began wearing uniforms for the first time. By 1922, the Smithfield Police Department consisted of a chief, six regular officers, and twenty-six constables.

     In 1923 the town purchased its first police motorcycle, and Officer Robert E. Tobin became the town’s first motor patrol officer. He was paid one dollar an hour to enforce traffic laws.

     In 1937, the town council passed an extensive police ordinance which outlined duties, pay, and rules and regulations of the police department. At that time Alfred N. Lacroix was appointed Smithfield’s first full-time chief with a yearly salary of $1,450.

     Although the town council had established a police department via ordinance, it wasn’t until 1950 that the Rhode Island General Assembly passed an act which created the full-time and permanent police department we know today.




Rhode Island’s First State Police

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine, July – 2013

By Jim Ignasher

In 1874, the Rhode Island Legislature created a special squad of state police constables to enforce newly enacted prohibition laws.

In 1874, the Rhode Island Legislature created a special squad of state police constables to enforce newly enacted prohibition laws.

This is not an article about the present-day Rhode Island State Police, an agency which was established in 1925, but rather it‘s about the state’s first statewide police force, a long defunct organization which existed nearly fifty years earlier that few have ever heard of.   

The Rhode Island State Police Constabulary, as it was called, was established by an act of the Rhode Island General Assembly on June 25, 1874.  The organization was not a state police agency as we know it today, for their authority was limited to the enforcement of Rhode Island’s liquor prohibition laws.    

 The formation of a state police force was in response to political pressure brought by certain religious and civic organizations who believed that alcohol consumption led to a host of social problems and immoral behavior, and should therefore be banned.  They highlighted cases where men squandered their paychecks on booze while their families went hungry, and declared that money wasted in saloons hurt the economy via unsold merchandise in local stores.  

One may be surprised to learn that these well meaning groups began their crusade in the early 1800s, nearly one-hundred years before the infamous “Prohibition Era” of the 1920s. 

Of course, not everyone considered the consumption of alcohol to be a problem, particularly those who made their living from producing, transporting, or serving it, or by those who enjoyed consuming it, which seemed to be the majority of the voting block.  Even religious leaders disagreed on the issue with some preaching total abstinence, while others urged moderation.  It was for reasons such as these that little action was taken by state politicians for the first half of the 19th century.  Then in 1852, those involved with the temperance movement succeeded in getting the “Maine Law” passed, which essentially banned the sale and consumption of “spirits” in Rhode Island.  Enforcement of the law was left to county sheriffs and local police, and was often selective at best, until the law was finally repealed in 1863. 

Undaunted, temperance advocates succeeded in getting another prohibition law passed in 1874, only this time enforcement would be carried out by a group of special state constables.  “Dry” advocates felt that a statewide police force was necessary to ensure success of the new law since in many municipalities local authorities seemed reluctant to take action. 

 The newly formed state police force consisted of a Chief Constable and seven deputies.  Appointments to the agency were political, as they were to virtually all law enforcement agencies of the time, for civil service laws were not in existence yet. The appointees came from all corners of the state; Warwick, Pawtucket, Newport, Providence, Bristol, and Westerly.  At least one constable was a church minister, and all presumably did not drink alcohol. 

The new state police organization wasted little time in getting started.  On August 16, 1874, they raided a saloon in West Greenwich and seized a considerable quantity of alcohol.  This action was quickly followed by more raids in Warwick and Providence.  In Providence however, the state police learned that local officials were unwilling to assist them in any way, and refused to recognize the authority of the new state agency. Furthermore, liquor peddlers in that city had discovered what they believed to be a legal loophole to circumvent the prohibition law by enlisting the help of Rhode Island’s United States Marshal.  

The validity of this “loophole” was tested when the state police raided a Providence saloon and seized a large quantity of alcohol.  The saloon owner cried foul, claiming that the Rhode Island Marshal had already “seized” the alcohol on his premises.   However, the seizure was in name only, for the saloon owner had been allowed to maintain possession of his alleged illegal property courtesy of the U.S. Marshal!  The owner thereby continued to sell the “seized” liquor in violation of state law.  Acting on this information, the state police took possession of the illicit stock, which was within their legal purview to do, but when they asked for assistance from Providence’s Chief of Police, the chief refused, and sided with the Marshal.  

A month later the case was heard before the Rhode Island General Assembly which directed, “That his Excellency the Governor be requested to cause to be prepared and transmitted to the President of the United states a statement of facts relating to interference of the United States marshal for the District of Rhode Island with the State Constables in the discharge of their duty.” 

In other words, the Governor was asked to contact the White House and let the President settle the dispute.  Unfortunately the final outcome is not recorded, but one can certainly surmise the politics surrounding this case.

 When the prohibition law of 1874 was repealed the state police were disbanded.  However, another state prohibition law was enacted in 1886, and with it the legislature reconstituted the Rhode Island State Police, this time with a force of one Chief, and ten officers. 

Under the new law, the state police had the authority to enter an establishment or private home to search for alcoholic beverages without a warrant, and could hold any homeowner or business owner for up to twelve hours while they investigated the allegations against them!  Many breathed a sigh of relief when this law was also repealed, and the state police were once again disbanded.

In 1919, the Federal Government instituted the unpopular Volstead Act by passing the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which ushered in the “Prohibition Era” for the entire country.  Ironically, Rhode Island was one of two states that refused to ratify the amendment; the other being Connecticut. 

In September of 1922, two of the most infamous Prohibition Agents to ever work for the Federal Government, Izzy Einstein, and Moe Smith, came to Rhode Island to assist local agents in shutting down the numerous establishments that openly served alcohol apparently without fear of local authorities.  Izzy and Moe were known for using various disguises to gain entrance to “speak easys”, yet evidently in “Little Rhody” such ploys were unnecessary.   

After conducting several raids in Providence, the duo reported that patrons and bartenders alike simply laughed at them, and in one case a pitcher of beer was thrown in Izzy’s face! 

Yet the worst insult occurred on September 9th when they were both arrested by sheriff’s deputies and charged with assault and trespassing due to a complaint filed by a bar owner whose establishment they had raided!  When news of the arrests reached Washington, a team of lawyers descended on Providence to defend the agents. Agent Einstein later described Providence as a “wide open town” that was worse than New York in its disregard of the Prohibition laws.  

The colorful exploits of Izzy and Moe were depicted in a Hollywood movie starring Jackie Gleason and Art Carney in 1985.

The Rhode Island State Police organization that we know today was established in 1925, and although apprehending “bootleggers” and enforcing prohibition laws of the 1920s may have been part of their duties, it was not their sole mission. 

The “Prohibition Era” ended in 1933 with repeal of the Volstead Act.   Even today, there are some who would like to see a “dry” America, but the chances of such an occurrence are slim.  History has proven that prohibition of a product doesn’t work, for as long as there is a demand there will always be those willing to supply the want.

Click here for a newspaper article about the State Police: Rhode Island Liquor Law  – 1887

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