Walling, George Washington

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George Washington Walling

Born May 1, 1823 (New York)

Died December 31, 1891 (New York)

New York City police chief

George Washington Walling was the police chief of New York City from July 1874 until June 1885. Walling gained a reputation as a tough but fair and honest law officer during his decades on the force. He was elevated to the position of chief of police because of his personal heroics during the New York City Draft Riots of 1863 while serving as captain of the twentieth precinct on the lower West Side of the city. His able leadership helped restore order to a city in crisis during the American Civil War (1861–65; war in the United States between the Union [North], who was opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [South], who was in favor of slavery). Throughout his law career Walling worked toward bringing professionalism to the New York police force by freeing it from connections to corrupt city politics. Professionalism in policing made giant strides in the later half of the nineteenth century due to the work of Walling and others.

"All the sneaks, hypocrites and higher grade of criminals . . . almost invariably lay claim to be adherents of the Republican Party . . . criminals of the lower order, those who rob by violence and brute force, lay claim . . . to . . . true Democratic principles."

To protect and serve

Walling was the son of Leonard Sr. and Catherine Aumack Walling. He joined the New York City police department at a time when badges were made of stamped copper. Since policemen wore civilian clothes while on duty, their only identification was their patrolman's badge. It earned the officers the nickname "coppers" which, over time, was shortened to "cops." During Walling's time on the force, police saw a steady trend toward increased professionalism, even in their dress. A uniform was eventually required, consisting of a blue coat with a velvet collar and nine black buttons. The black buttons were later replaced with brass ones. Each patrolman was supposed to wear gray trousers with a one-inch black stripe down the sides to complete the uniform.

The police force of New York City was largely made up of urban laboring classes who were largely Irish in the early 1800s. Corruption was extensive and well known to the public. An aspiring patrolman was required to pay a fee in order to receive an appointment from the New York City Common Council. By the mid-1800s gangs were a real problem in the city as they robbed and assaulted at will. The New York City Municipal Police District had thirty-two precincts when it was created in 1853. George Walling became captain of the twentieth precinct at that time.

When Walling took command of the twentieth precinct he found the district living in fear of a group of particularly violent thugs called the Honeymoon Gang. Because of political graft (politicians paid by criminals), arresting the criminals was useless because they were immediately released and the abuses quickly resumed. Walling took a different approach. He assembled his largest officers into a squad armed with wooden clubs to enforce the law in his precinct. Seeing that the policemen meant business, the Honeymoon Gang fled to other areas.

The mayor's office

In 1854 Fernando Wood (1812–1881) was elected mayor of New York City. During his first term of office conditions went from bad to worse because of his corrupt administration. In a rigged election in 1857, Wood won a second term in office and the state legislature stepped in. They shortened his term from two years to one and created a Metropolitan police force to replace Wood's corrupt Municipal police. A board of
commissioners appointed by the governor replaced the Common Council to hire law enforcement agents. Wood contended the amending legislative act was unconstitutional and refused to step down even when faced with a Supreme Court order.

George Walling was one of the lawmen who signed on with the new state-created Metropolitan police. Fifteen other captains, along with hundreds of their patrolmen, elected to stay with Wood and the Municipal police. While the politicians sorted out the mess, New Yorkers were faced with rival patrolmen as both forces patrolled the city's precincts. Those arrested by one police force were often set free by aldermen (city councilmen) or magistrates (local judges) whose loyalties were with the opposite side. Gangs took advantage of the weakness in law enforcement and were soon joined by criminals from elsewhere.

Walling was personally assigned the task of arresting Mayor Wood. Armed with a warrant, he entered City Hall alone and was allowed to reach Wood's office. When Walling attempted to arrest Wood, he was thrown out into the street by Municipal policemen Wood had stationed at City Hall. Walling, soon joined by fifty Metropolitan officers, attempted to go back in but was badly outnumbered. The Board of Commissioners called out the National Guard, and the Seventh Regiment surrounded City Hall. Wood surrendered and was charged with inciting a riot. He was soon released on bail and returned to his office.

The feud continued throughout the summer of 1857. Disorder spread throughout the city as gangs turned on one another in turf wars. National Guard units were brought in to restore order. Everyone was waiting for a court decision to end the chaos. Early in the fall the courts finally handed down a decisive verdict against the Municipal police. Mayor Wood surrendered and the Municipals were disbanded. The legal status of the Metropolitan Board of Commissioners was affirmed and they began the long process of building an agency and restoring public trust. They began by adopting a new white metal badge that unified all departments in the system.

The American Civil War began in 1861 and by 1863 the federal government passed the Conscription Act, which empowered a bureau to draft those who had not volunteered for the war (see sidebar) in order to provide soldiers for its army. Draft offices opened in July and were unwelcome in New York City. Fourth of July political speeches raised public feeling against the draft as broiling summer temperatures lowered people's patience. Saturday, July 11, was the day chosen to begin the draft in the city. People talked of nothing else all weekend and the growing discontent was serious enough that Captain George Walling spent Sunday night at his station house. The still relatively new police force would soon be forced to protect the city's citizens from social unrest.

By early Monday morning on July 13 a draft riot had begun. Laborers gathered in the streets. Instead of going to their jobs they worked their way up Eighth and Ninth Avenues, closing shops and factories along the way. Other workmen joined the procession. They headed toward Central Park on the march downtown toward the ninth district provost marshal's office. The office was where the draft lottery was to be held at ten-thirty that morning.

Along the way the crowds tore down telegraph poles and lines to disrupt communication. Others used crowbars to pull up railroad tracks in an attempt to isolate the city. Rioters caught the superintendent of police, John A. Kennedy, out alone on the street. They attacked him and delivered him nearly dead to police headquarters.

A city in crisis The Conscription Act

The U.S. Congress passed the Conscription Act in March of 1863. The Civil War had been going on for almost two years with no end in sight. The Union Army lacked new recruits to join the fight but also needed to control the vast number of deserters who were leaving the battlefields illegally. The new law, called the "Act for Enrolling and Calling Out the National Forces," created a national Provost Marshal Bureau. The bureau was empowered to draft those who had not volunteered, and to keep them in the army once they were enlisted under threat of criminal penalties.

Government agents conducted a census of all able-bodied, male citizens of the United States and set up a lottery in each congressional district. The new soldiers were drawn from this pool of men but there were still several ways to avoid military service. Drafted men could pay three hundred dollars, or they could provide an "acceptablesubstitute," if someone else would take their place.

The new law met with a great deal of opposition in New York City. To begin with, the federal government's involvement in state and local politics was not welcomed by many New Yorkers. The exemption fee seemed to favor the wealthy while leaving the poor to do battle. Most harmful in the end was the way the law escalated racial tensions in the city. New York was a Northern city with longstanding commercial ties to Southern slavery, leaving it very sensitive to racial issues.

New York City was the national press capital for both the abolitionist (those who opposed slavery) and anti-abolitionist causes. In 1863 only whites were considered citizens of the United States and susceptible to the draft. The tension between blacks and whites grew dangerous when poor, lower-class whites felt the federal government was giving privileges to blacks while they themselves were called to risk life and livelihood in the war effort. By mid-July, New York City itself would be a battleground.

Thousands of people arrived at the district office, many carrying signs saying "No Draft." The lottery began but before it could be completed the mob rushed the building and destroyed its contents, setting fire to the remains. By this time the crowds on the Upper East Side numbered over twelve thousand. Men, women, and children of every social class had shut down work in order to participate or simply watch the disturbance and see what would happen. The rioters had virtually halted all business in the city and were targeting government representatives, especially the police.

Policing a riot and earning respect

The Metropolitan police district was without a superintendent and communication lines had been cut off throughout the city. Authorities began mobilizing larger units of several hundred police to control troubled areas. By midafternoon the rioters had divided into those who had gathered for antidraft protesting and those who were inclined to looting, arson, and murder. After Monday the crowds turned increasingly violent toward the black community. Some associated blacks with slavery and slavery to the war, somehow making blacks responsible for the draft and the easiest target to lash out at. Blacks bore the brunt of much of the bloody violence.

With the police rising to the occasion, Walling and his patrols protected factories used for the manufacture or storage of weapons. They dispersed gangs of looters and cleared barricades off of city streets in preparation for the anticipated arrival of military help. On Wednesday, Union troops were transported to the city to restore order. The combination of troops and police collapsed the rebellion and the riots were over. Troops remained in the city for several weeks but only pockets of resistance remained.

Walling was regarded as one of the heroes of the West Side forces for his part in the draft riots. He was elevated to the rank of police inspector, and eight years later he drew on his former experiences to contain a labor strike in 1871. The strike showed many of the same elements of the laborers' uprising of 1863, but it lacked the brutal racial assaults of the draft riots. Violence threatened again the following year and it was only the appearance of Inspector Walling that prevented a physical confrontation between the two sides of the strike.

On July 23, 1874, Walling was named chief of police for New York City. His wife, Sarah Bennett Walling, died several months later on November 25. Walling remained in his position as police chief until June 9, 1885. Walling held a dim view of politicians and included these reflections in his 1887 memoirs. He promoted removal of political control from the police. Since formation of the department earlier in the century, patrolmen were generally appointed through political influence.

Walling argued that the failings of the police department could be traced to the democratic process (public election of public officials) where the vote and the dollar kept a cop from honest performance of his duty. Walling died in 1891 and was buried at the family burial ground, known as Miller Avenue Cemetery in New Jersey.

For More Information


Astor, Gerald. The New York Cops: An Informal History. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971.

Bernstein, Iver. The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

McCague, James. The Second Rebellion: The Story of the New York City DraftRiots of 1863. New York: Dial Press, Inc., 1968.

Walling, George W. Recollections of a New York City Chief of Police. New York: Caxton Book Concern Limited, 1887.

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