Saturday, August 13, 2016

Adventures of NYC "Bike Cop" of 1896

Illustration for first person narrative from a "bike cop" in New York City

Title-The Journal, June 28, 1896
Place of Publication-New York [N.Y.]

This newspaper is described as follows: The New York Journal is an example of "Yellow Journalism," where the newspapers competed for readers through bold headlines, illustrations, and activist journalism. During 1896, the year of the so-called "bicycle craze," I see significant coverage of cycling, although the emphasis in on human interest and odd-ball stories, not about bicycle racing.

This long report from a NYC bicycle police officer is interesting for what it says about the times.


New York's Fastest Bicycle Policeman Writes of His Exciting Struggles With Runaway Horses and Hot Pursuits of Habitual Scorchers.

The Cop has come to stay. There will be more and more of him. The experiment of a bicycle squad has been so eminently satisfactory that the force is about to be materially increased. The fastest rider and most skillful wheelman of the force is Patrolman John J. Gilles, who has written for the Journal readers a very interesting narrative of his experiences as a Cop.

To the Editor of the Journal: On December 10 last I was detailed as a member of the bicycle squad of the New lork City Police Department and assigned to duty on the Boulevard from One Hundred and Eighth Street south as far as Forty-second street and Eighth avenue. In nearly seven months' service I have made many arrests. Of that let the police records speak; but I may point to the fact that although I have ridden in that time about 1,400 hours and covered over 11,000 miles, I have had but three bicycles injured, and only one of them beyond the hope of repair. In these instances I was deliberately run over once by a drunken cabman, and in the other two the damage was caused by runaway horses, which I succeeded in stopping. Stopping runaways is as much in my line as overhauling scorchers.

I had been riding a wheel for seven years before I was detailed to the bicycle squad. Let me state for the benefit of ambitious young who intend to come my way that my wheel is geared to 77, and that I can pedal my fifth mile as fast as my first, and that they will discover that every bicycle policeman has been selected because he can do a little 'scorching' himself.

It has fallen to my lot to have had more sensational experiences with runaway horses than my associates. I wish I could describe in words the feelings that take possession of me when, on my wheel, I am making a run against a maddened horse, perhaps to save life, as has been my good fortune, or to convince some reckless and often malicious driver that laws are not made to be broken. I may briefly refer to a few of my experiences. One of the [missing text] I had out of the ordinary was [missing text] of Pat Flavey, a plumber, [missing text] stolen a pair of shoes down on [missing text] Avenue. He was on the run when [missing text] with a crowd in pursuit. He was a sprinter for fair, and was rapidly drawing away from the crowd, in half a block I was ordered him to stop. He kept right on. Then I made a quick turn and struck him fairly with my front wheel. He went down together. He was up first and about to make off, when I used the shoes which he had dropped as a billy, and that brought him around.

The most serious adventure I have yet had was in the arrest of Patrick Curry, a cabman, with a pair of horses. Curry was apparently drunk, and had lashed his horses into a dead run. Ho bore down directly after me. Before I could swerve he had run into me, and my wheel was a wreck, while I was thrown, cut and bruised, to the street, and narrowly escaped the horses' hoofs. I hailed a passing cab, and, mounting the seat, started in pursuit. Curry was too fast for me. He ran into me at Sixty-eighth street. At Sixty-third street I jumped from the cab very hastily, borrowed a wheel from an astonished cyclist, and then we had a pretty chase down to Fifty-ninth street, and thence east to Sixth avenue, where I ran alongside, grasped the reins, and soon stopped the panting, foam-covered horse. This man Curry, who had nearly killed me, was fined $3 - just the same amount as four young men whom I arrested later the same evening.

In the recent stoppage of a runaway team and carriage containing Louis Mack, a well-known Eighth avenue merchant, and his wife, my wheel was totally wrecked. A forefoot of the nigh horse became entangled in the spokes of the fore wheel when I ran alongside. I was able to hold on by the head strap, and the team dragged me less than forty feet. Of course it was a very unequal struggle for a while, but I brought the horses to a standstill without a scratch but my wheel was a sight.

In running alongside of a runaway the great danger is in the fouling of the fore wheel. If this happens, it means the destruction of your wheel, and your only salvation is to hold on to the bridle until the horse stops. If you retain your seat and keep a steady grip with one hand on the centre of your handle bar, the machine will swerve only with the movements of the horse. There is danger, of course, but that is all In the business.

The bicycle squad of four has now been enlarged to thirteen, and so well pleased are the Commissioners with the results of an innovation of which Commissioner Andrews was the chief advocate, that it is generally understood that the Board is prepared to increase the steel-mounted force to forty and ultimately to extend it through out the annexed district. The Park Com missioners are also delighted with the work of the bicycle detail from their special police force, as well they may be, for several of the gray-coated force have valiant deeds to their credit.

I do not believe that the equestrian branch of the police service will ever be entirely displaced by a cycle corps, but there is no question-and the United States Army authorities will bear testimony-that for much of the service that cavalry are supposed to be especially fitted for, cyclists are in many respects superior. The longer the journey the better do the cyclists show up in the comparison. I refer, of course, to foraging and courier service, exploration, laying of field telegraph and telephone lines, scouting, and Weather Bureau observations.

To keep the police idea in mind, and presupposing that a police force and good roads are found together, there can be no question as to the superiority of the silent steel steed over that of the steed that eats oats, drinks water and must pause every few miles for rest. The cyclist who has ridden fifty miles is in far better physical condition than the cavalryman who has made a forced march of one-third the distance.

In the matter of patrolling, the cyclist will cover four miles-yes, more than that the horseman's one, and still be fresh and ready for more work. Ton miles an hour is slow work for what I believe the public generally calls the "bike cop." The hours of duty of the bicycle police at present are from 10 a. m. to 5 p. m. and 5 p. m. to midnight. My cyclometer shows an average travel during the seven hours of fifty-five miles dally. During much of that time a proper performance of duty requires that I should pedal over my post as slowly as possible, keeping a careful eye out for violations of the law I am especially charged to enforce.

I must be ready always to do a little scorching on very short notice. When I need my speed, I am like the fellow and his pistol In Texas-I want it bad. I can make a road mile in two minutes and twenty-five seconds, and have had occasion to do so more than once in the performance of my duty. Two twenty-five will overhaul most any road scorching, and I will be pardoned when I indulge in a little self-congratulation on my ability to generally round up the fast young men who deliberately come out on to the Boulevard to have fun with the "cop."

There is not so much of that nowadays as there was early in the Spring. Then the young fellow who thought that he was a recqrd-breaker would notify his friends to be on hand to see the fun. I got so that I knew when there had been a little race informally arranged for and with me. I could tell it by the manner of the wheelmen who so innocently loafed about in my vicinity. I never let on, but waited until the "scoot" flashed by me. I don't want to boast, but no one of these has got away. I had the last, and consequently the best, laugh.

I have been given some very interesting and very long chases, especially when they have put tandems up against me. But I could afford the time for a stern chase, and sooner or later, I had my scorchers and let them make their excuses and apologies in court. Some of the men whom I have arrested for deliberately breaking the law were the most indignant, and denied flatly that they were moving at a rapid rate. I recall the case of one man who, when on trial before the Special Sessions, overdid the thing by swearing that his wheel was not going faster than three miles an hour. The Judge who knows something about wheeling, told the defendant that if he could prove his ability to ride a wheel at as slow a rate as three miles an hour, he would discharge him. As a matter of fact, it would take a trick rider to do that.

My observations on the Boulevard are that the average speed of the cyclist out for pleasure is fully ten miles an hour. He or she does not know it, but it is a fact.

For a lot of people above the average in intelligence, cyclists are very slow to learn that the regulations as to speed, alarm bells and lighted lamps are made for their own good. I will not say that I have found women unreasonable as a class. A lady need only be warned that she is violating [line repeats] need only be warned that she is violating [end repeat] is accidental. From others I have learned to expect a fine show of indignation. But the young men! Oh, the hundreds of times, to hear them tell it, I was to be broken for doing my plain duty! I did not realize how many influential people there were in New York, men who could make or unmake a policeman by a turn of the finger, until I began to enforce the lamp, bell and speed ordinance. But here I am still, what is left of me.

I will state right here that no one is going to get fat on the bicycle squad, Thirty pounds of my good adipose tissue has gone somewhere. The lot of the bicycle cop is not altogether a happy one, even if I he has but a seven hour watch. That seven hours is seven hours, and it often means a hundred miles of travel on a Sunday.

As to the cyclists themselves, they are no longer much trouble, except the 'scorchers' and I suppose there will be 'scorchers' as long as there are low foreheads. The lamps used now are less likely to go out than formerly. We have also succeeded in convincing the fancy trick riders that the stage and not the Boulevard is the place for them. It was necessary to arrest Ernest Nagle twice in one day before he learned his fault in this regard.

Teamsters make most of our trouble. The manner In which heavy trucks and freight wagons of all kinds swarm to the Boulevard in the morning hours, when there are thousands of cyclists, four out of five of whom are ladles, is most exasperating. On Sunday, when the asphalt is covered with wheel riders, what satisfaction can there be in driving a carriage or buggy into their midst? It looks like sheer contrariness. The hostility shown by many truck and wagon drivers against cyclists is of that mean nature that is found in envy of those who seem to be getting some pleasure out of life.

As a bicycle policeman I prefer to be looked upon as a defender of the rights of bicyclists. I am a believer in special bicycle paths. I would be glad to see the Boulevard turned over to the Park Department, and then heavy hauling or all vehicles drawn by horses can be excluded from it. That cannot be done now, and all that we can do is to try to enforce the spirit of the law of the road, which requires drivers to keep to the right. In the matter of the Boulevard, we construe this to mean to the right of the parked slip in the centre. In this the police have not been sustained by all the Police Magistrates. They differ materially in the treatment extended to offending cyclists and aggressive teamsters.

The public must have been surprised at the lightness of the penalties inflicted upon several drivers who were arrested after desperate resistance for imperiling the lives of hundreds of cyclists and pedestrians.

I hold that an expert on a bicycle can do more effective work in stopping runaway or recklessly driven horses than a man mounted on a horse, and he need not wreck a machine every time he makes a capture. The ability to protect his machine Is an essential qualification of the bicycle policeman. One of the original squad was sent back to patrol duty after wrecking five machines in less than that number of weeks.

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