Enforcing the law, we need a marshal

Sandy Vasko

    When prosperity hit Wilmington in the 1860's and 1870's it brought with it more than money. Between the coal mines and opening of navigation on the river many young men moved into the area for the jobs.
    With them they brought the typical problems of civilization, including crime.
    At the time there was no permanent police force, just part-time law officers.  There were several of them, and they were called when problems arose.
    The following story was printed in the Oct. 7, 1868 edition of the Wilmington Advocate. “For a long time Wilmington has been infested with some of the worst rowdies in the country. Their practice has been to get drunk about once a week, and kick up a row with some of our citizens.
    “On Sunday night the 20th, they knocked down and abused several persons who were on their way home from church, and insulted every lady who happened to be in the street. They defied our officers, and boasted that none of them had pluck enough to arrest them.
    “On Thursday evening four men, named Jim Maloney, Garrett Cushing, Tom Kelly and John Daley, at about half past six, went over on the island, and attacked Mr. Henry Stebbins in his own door.”
    “After assaulting and beating him, drawing revolvers and threatening to blow his brains out, they returned to town, went into several saloons, drank freely, showing their revolvers, and in one instance, firing a charge off, “just for fun,” and daring officers to arrest them.”
    “Later in the evening they again visited the island and smashed in the windows of Mr. Stebbins' house, whereupon Stebbins brought out his shotgun, and put a full charge of birdshot into the thigh of Cushing. The party then ran off.
    “Officer Whitson soon after arrested Jim Maloney, near the Episcopal Church. Maloney broke from the officer and tried to escape, but Whitson drew on him and fired three times - one ball entered his hip, and another went through his hat, taking a lock of hair. Maloney thought this too warm, and gave up. He is now in jail to await trial. The other three escaped, but will no doubt soon be arrested.
    “In this affair officer Whitson has shown good grit, and a determination to break up the rowdyism that so injures the reputation of out city. The good name of Wilmington, and the safety of our citizen's demand that a change be made in our police affairs. We want a thorough and efficient Marshal, who should be well paid for his services, and be required to devote his whole time to the maintenance of peace, quiet, law, and order.”
    This article was not unusual. With many saloons in town, almost every week's papers contained articles about fights. The combatants were either ignored or fined a few dollars and sent back to drink some more. It would be another four years before a single man would be hired to work full time enforcing the law.
    But to be fair, this kind of disregard for law and order was not confined to the poor working man in a saloon fight. In March 4, 1871, Andrew Whitten, son a prominent banker, was tried for torching the barn of John Daniels, who was at the time a rival banker and mayor of the town.  
    Whitten hired Oscar P. Livingstone, alias “Oshkosh,” to do the job. He paid him the grand sum of $2 before, and a free drink at O'Connell's saloon afterwards. At the trial, Livingstone testified what he did, admitted that he did it, but no one was ever found guilty. The judge was no doubt bribed, and returned a verdict, which said that because alcohol was involved none of the testimony could be believed.
    It seems that in 1878 however, they had found a solution to crime in the shape of a permanent marshal. We read a tongue-in-cheek article by Ed Conley on May 17, 1878, “Since Felix Keeley has been marshal we have not had any police items. Now, this is all wrong; even a good, lively knockdown would do something toward breaking the monotony. What's the use of having a calaboose if this thing continues? In the name of political economy, down with it! Reform! Retrenchment!”