My mom’s mom’s dad was a New York City police officer back in the early 1900s. When my grandmother, his daughter, died a few years ago, my mother inherited some of his effects. Among them, she found the notebook in which my great-grandfather entered his patrol reports for late 1907 and almost all of 1908. Recently, mom gave this notebook to me.
I never met my great-grandfather, George Brewster. He died in the 1950s. From what mom and my grandmother have told me, he was a very interesting person. A strikingly good-looking man, much like his great-grandson, he worked as a police officer for a time, but quit to run a nickelodeon shortly after my grandmother was born. Because my grandmother managed to survive this transition, our family now looks back on this decision and calls it “bold.” But I’m pretty sure that in 1909, my great-grandmother used other, less complimentary terms to describe the forfeiture of a steady job, and the investment of the family’s savings on hand-cranked moving pictures.
Anyway, the notebook measures about five inches high by three inches wide, small enough to fit inside a jacket or pants pocket. The precise year printed on each ruled page happens to be 1899, not 1907 or 1908; I wonder whether my great-grandfather bought the book secondhand, and whether a modern defense attorney could make something out of the disconnect between the pre-printed dates and the days, months, and years recorded by hand. As its frontispiece, the notebook has a glued-in photograph–black and white, of course–of my grandmother. The caption reads “Laura M. Brewster age 11 months and 8 days when taken.” I’d say it’s strange to see a baby picture of a woman whom I knew best when she was in her 80s, but grandma told me so many stories about her childhood–usually juxtaposing her labors with my privileges–that it’s not difficult for me to find the proper mental spot for the photo.
My great-grandfather was stationed within the 84th Precinct, which back at that time encompassed that part of the Lower East Side closest to the Williamsburg Bridge’s Manhattan Landing. Most of the residents of this precinct were Jewish, recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. If this neighborhood witnessed much violent crime, my great-grandfather displayed a tremendous knack for avoiding it. Most of the daily entries within the notebook relate only his hours of service, followed by “no report,” and his lieutenant’s stamp of approval. These entries are all written in a beautiful, steady cursive, pressed into the page with the calm hand of a man who has just spent several hours casually strolling around the city.
At the same time, I wonder what’s hidden behind those “no reports.” The Lower East Side wasn’t exactly a tranquil place back then, and mom and grandma have always described my great-grandfather as a gregarious man. Between the street vendors and merchants, the children playing in the streets, the women running errands, and the men making deliveries, a policeman on beat couldn’t have helped but to have spoken to dozens of people over an eight-hour shift. But the notebook makes no mention of these encounters.
The few substantive reports mostly document traffic hazards and accidents on the busy city streets. On December 3, 1907, my great-grandfather “stopped a one horse express wagon driven by Jacob Hass [on the Williamsburg Bridge] as he was heavily laden also owing to snow and ice.” Another report, for a different day, relates that one P.M. Joseph, a 35-year-old laborer, was knocked down by a streetcar. Joseph suffered some contusions; an ambulance was called, took him away, and that was that. A similar accident occurred a few weeks later, when two streetcars collided, injuring three passengers. All three refused first aid and simply went on their respective ways. Another report relates a citation for double-parking a motor car; this is the only mention of automobiles within the entire notebook.
My great-grandfather made a few arrests, but only a few. In fact, only five arrests appear in the entire notebook. I suppose this means he was doing his job very well, or very poorly. None of these arrests involved a violent crime. Consider, instead, these entries:
July 22, 1908: Arrested Benjamin Cohen 28 yrs Married. W.S. theatre ticket speculator #472 – 41 Street Brooklyn on complaint of Richard Pendergas #59 West 44th St who charged the above mentioned with obtaining money under false pretense by selling him four theatre tickets and said they were worth $8. The actual price at the box office was six dollars as complainant had no witnesses the prisoner was discharged by Magistrate Cornell
October 17, 1908: At 9:00 PM arrested Vaturin Yayeruant. 20 yrs. Single Peddler Armenia. Residence 323 East 28th St Manhattan. Charge Peddling chewing gum from a box at Cor of 42nd St & 7 ave Disposition fine of $1.00
So, we’re not exactly dealing with CSI: New York here. All in all, if one were to rely solely upon the notebook for a portrait of turn-of-the-century New York, one would perceive the city as Eden: the few traffic accidents never produced serious injuries; what crimes occurred were no more serious than those that appear on the pages of a Richard Scarry children’s book.
Yayeruant was peddling gum outside the old Victoria Theatre, a major vaudeville venue of that era. Even though it was located quite far away from my great-grandfather’s regular beat, in December 1907 he started to get assigned to a traffic detail in front of the theater. My guess is that he peeked inside pretty often, and that the crowds, and maybe the smiling faces, that he saw convinced him to quit the police force, and go into the nickelodeon business.
Not every record, or heirloom, tells the fantastic tales one might imagine they will. But I appreciate the notebook, and its entries, because of their prosaic nature. I’ve already been told lots of great stories about my great-grandfather. Sometimes, though, it’s easier to connect with what’s in between.