One of my great-grandfathers was a police officer in Albany, New York. Not just any police officer though. Great-grandfather Jake was something of a hero cop, famous around town for taking on criminals single-handedly and bare-handed. One time, he busted up a robbery of a jewelry store and hauled in two of the robbers, unarmed and by his lonesome. But his most notorious collar was a gangster known as Boston Blackie. I don’t know the details. In fact, I didn’t know any of this about Jake when I was growing up. His son, my grandfather, didn’t talk about him. He didn’t talk about his older brother the firefighter who died on a call or about his other brother who fought in the trenches in World War I or about his own time in the Army in World War II. And I didn’t know to ask. As far as I knew I came from a long line of engineers, tax accountants, and insurance salesmen and how Great-uncle Fred got that bonus by writing policies for the mayor’s cousins wasn’t a family story I was keen to hear told. But I inherited two of Jake’s billy clubs when my grandfather died. They’re formidable looking rounds of wood and holding one changes your thinking about what it would have meant that Jake went into these encounters “unarmed”.
One of Jake’s most heroic exploits, however, was a rescue. In 1899, he leaped from a bridge to save a man who’d fallen into the Hudson River. This was in winter. Actually, he may have done this twice in his career. We have the original newspaper account but we also have his obituary---he rated quite a big story when he died---and the details in the two accounts differ enough that they could have been two different rescues. People fall into rivers regularly. Jake might easily have responded to more than one splash in the night in his day. He was a cop for a long time. He died on the job. Well, at home, after a long day on the job. He was sixty-eight.
No pensions back then. No social security. You worked till you dropped. I guess. I’m not sure. It might have been that Jake loved being a cop so much he refused to retire. That’s a detail my brother Larry hasn’t turned up yet.
Larry’s the reason we have a lot of the details we do have about any of our ancestors. He’s been researching the family tree for several years now, and just the other day he dug up this:
It’s the police blottter from March 15, 1899. I’ll save you the trouble of enlarging it and trying to read it. The first two entries are about a pair of (I’m guessing) drunks named Coyle and Hogan brought in at one in the morning for “Breach of the peace” by an officer named (it looks like) Gormley. Then it says:
3:15 AM. Patrolman S----- pulled out of the river at the foot of Hamiliton street George Partridge, 21 years old, residence no. 321 First street. He was taken to his home in a carriage. In rescuing Partridge the Patrolman lost his cap in the river.
Now, what I want to know is why Jake’s losing his cap made the report. Was the cap regarded as a piece of equipment it would have been Jake’s responsibility to replace? Was it noted so that the city wouldn’t kick when Jake put in for a new cap? Was it Jake’s own response to what would have sounded at the moment, with Jake standing there in front of the desk sergeant’s dripping wet and shivering, a dumb question, “What happened to your cap?” or Jake’s taciturn and stoic answer to the sergeant’s concern when Jake showed up looking half-frozen and half-drowned?
Sergeant (who of course would have been Irish): Begora, Jake, are ye all roight now? Anything happen to yerself when ye joomped into the water like a idjit?”
Jake: Lost my cap.
If Jake was anything like his son, that would be my bet. My grandfather once wrestled with a rabid dog menacing the neighborhood and, in addition to having his hands all chewed up, had to undergo rabies shots, which as you know is no picnic and which is about what my grandfather replied when asked if the bites and the shots hurt.
Larry thinks the detail about the lost cap might have been something of inside joke because it made the newspaper story. Given Jake’s habit of charging into dangerous situations the cap that drowned in the river might have been just one in a long line of caps Jake had to replace over the course of his career.
Would be interesting to have the story in Jake’s own words, but it doesn’t appear that Albany cops in his day were required to write up individual incident reports. Maybe it’s out there and Larry just hasn’t come across it yet.
Our old friend Chris the Cop took pride in crafting his reports. You can tell from his comments that Chris writes well and he knows how to tell a good story. His fellow officers and the newspaper reporters who covered the cop shop admired his ability to make his reports succinct but full of lively detail and even work in some humor while he was it.
But Chris was Joe Friday compared to another cop he worked with and whose reports Chris had to wade through when Chris made sergeant. The blonde read some of this other cop’s reports when she was working for the newspaper and she remembers them as “beautifully written.”
“Beautifully written” isn’t a compliment many cops strive for when they file a report. But this cop was apparently a closet novelist and he couldn’t sit down at a keyboard without getting carried away by his Muse. He could churn out pages on a routine drunk and disorderly. If he’d had to report on a rescue like the one Jake made, we’d know the exact meaning of that lost cap. We’d see it too. It’d be the image closing out the report, the cap bobbing and swirling away on the frothing and foaming waters, spinning down the river and bouncing off ice flows until it disappeared in the murky darkness of the moonless night.