Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Justice for Uncle Justin?

Josephine Patten was my paternal great grandmother. These Pattens, as far as I know, aren't related to  General George. However, we don't know that for sure. They are in fact thought to be descended from a family whose origins are Scottish, as were the General's but our immigrant came from Somerset, England prior to the Revolution to settle in Chelsea and Malden, Massachusetts before relocating in New York City in the early 1800s.

In researching this branch of the family I have become acquainted with another genealogist in the Patten family who has been gathering information about them for years. Her name is Janet and during our first exchange of email, she told me, rather apologetically, that she had learned something about one of our ancestors that might not be welcome news. However, I assured her that it was always fun to find an interesting story, be it about a horse thief or a king.

These are the stories for which we all hope. They are the tales that usually supply us with lots of information about our ancestors. When there is a famous person or, as in this case, an infamous person up there in the branches, the low hanging fruit in the form of newspaper articles, historical accounts and family stories and the like, is much closer to the ground and with just a little shaking of the limbs, it falls at our feet where if we want we can just pluck it up and run with it. It might not be quite that easy, for there is always more research to be done and puzzles to be put together, but you get the picture.

This is the story of Uncle Justin Patten, one of Josephine's father's younger brothers, just an average guy. Justin was born in New York City in 1838, the eleventh child of 16 born to James and Sara Arden Patten.  New York City at that time was in some respects a pretty dangerous place to live, at least in some neighborhoods. The Gangs of New York that Scorcese made a movie about were in full swing. The Daybreak gang, the Dead Rabbits, The Slaughterhouse Gang and more, were actively preying on citizens and the newspapers were full of stories that made for great reading and extra editions.

When Justin was just 16 years old, Logan's Bakery, a place not far from his home in the 11th ward, was robbed between 2:30 and 3:00 the morning of September 29, 1854. When the baker and some of his employees surprised the two culprits, they ran. A foot chase began, the baker and his employees yelled "Watch!", the term people shouted to alert the neighborhood and the local constabulary that something was happening. Before the The New York City Police Department was formed in 1845, for 60 or more years after the British left the city, citizen patrols kept order and upheld the laws under what was called the "Watch System".

The robbery seemed fairly benign until a patrolman, James Cahill, 50 years old with only a year on the NYPD, joined the pursuit. Austin Lake, another police officer on duty,  heard shouts of  "Watch!" "Stop Thief" and ran toward the shouts. Shots rang out and as he ran toward where the sounds had originated, he met three bakers who said the shots had been fired at them. He saw no one until he rounded a corner and saw a man, "clinging to a tree, alive at the time but speechless and was in the act of falling to the ground." Lake went on as quoted in the New York Times: "I recognized him as one of our police officers, James Cahill. He groaned slightly as he sank to the ground; that was all the sound he made. By this time, 3 officers arrived and brought a wagon and we brought his body to the Station House."

Officer James Cahill has been officially recognized as the first New York City Police officer to die in the line of duty. There is a memorial to him at the NYPD Museum, along with other fallen Police Officers. Some dispute the distinction, stating that at least two others had been killed in the line of duty prior to Officer Cahill, but the official record states he was the first.

Now young Justin and a friend, James Ryan, were out sitting on a bench about sun-up the morning of the robbery. When a police officer stopped to talk to them, they both ran. The officer assumed that they had something to do with the crime and soon they were both arrested and charged with the murder. Five others who were in a nearby bar, all known to the police, were also arrested, but they were released.

Justin and James, however, had differing stories as to their whereabouts earlier that morning. In fact when Ryan was shown the corpse, he was reported to have asked repeatedly, "Did I do that?" Although there were no witnesses who could say they actually saw either James or Justin, they were indicted by the grand jury for the murder of officer Cahill. They were sent to jail to await trial. The New York City Jail was referred to as the Tombs, a building modeled after the Egyptian tombs. There they would sit among the hardened criminals for six months until April of the next year,when their trial would take place.
The Tombs

On March 29, 1855, just before they were to go to trial, an article appeared in the New York Times with the headline: Murderers in the Tombs.  This article provided a brief profile of the worst most fearsome prisoners in the Tombs beginning with a man who "murdered an old man and then stabbed the deceased's two sons with the same dagger that pierced their father's heart"; another fellow who killed his wife by "putting arsenic in her coffee"; another man who shot someone in the head with a musket; a man who kicked his wife to death and several others awaiting their trials for their horrible deeds, all murderers. And of course, Justin and James Ryan are profiled as well. Here is the actual account.

The two people that Justin and James were being compared to, Nicholas Saul and William Howlett were two boys who headed up the Daybreak Gang and were said to have done so at the ages of 15 and 16. Members of the gang went by names like Slobbery Jim. Sow Madden, Cow-legged Sam McCarthy and Patsy the Barber. The rumor was that each member of the gang committed at least one murder and many robberies before the age of 16. The river front was their main target, killing crew members and robbing these vessels, usually before dawn, thus the name the Daybreak gang. They had been credited with over 40 murders. Saul and Howlett's reign of terror ended with a bloody battle after they killed the watchman on a yacht. The Daybreak boys, trying to protect their leaders, put up a good fight, but Saul and Howlett were arrested and sentence to Death in 1852. They were hanged in the yard of "The Tombs" in January of 1853.  I only can assume that the police and the neighborhoods were hyper vigilant about anything that seemed to be gang related. But, the write of the article may have embellished some on just how "hardened" these two boys, Justin and James, really were.

Imagine reading that article about your 16 year old brother, or son? Well, Justin's older brother, Jefferson, a well-respected successful Machine Shop owner in New York was no doubt infuriated by what the reporter had to say about his young brother. In fact, the next day this appeared in the Times.

After a very brief trial, the judge said any evidence to personal identity was so vague and just because the boys weren't at home that night didn't justify a guilty verdict. Even the District Attorney "expressed the satisfaction with which he heard any intimation that might fall from His Honor's lips, but this case was so serious that  it deserved a formal trial, although certainly  he had no doubt that if he sat as a  juror on the case, he would join in the verdict of acquittal." " His honor then briefly addressed the prisoners, warning them of the consequences of habits that might lead even to suspicion, and after a friendly admonition as to their future conduct, ordered them to be discharged, to the infinite satisfaction of themselves and their friends." I'd be curious to find out how they felt about all that after sitting in the Tombs all those months. 

Lest anyone be wondering if Justin became a hardened criminal after all or ended up back in prison, please be assured that he did not. Justin had been a gilder by trade before all this happened and he went back to that profession. He was married within 4 years of the incident to a girl named Cecilia Selmer. They had  5 children, 3 of whom were born before he enlisted in the 73rd New York Infantry during the Civil War. When he returned to  his family in 1866, he became a member of the Metropolitan City Fire Department where he received meritorious commendations on several occasions, including one incident during which he was singled out for having rescued people from a burning building. 

After, or perhaps during the same time he served on the fire department, he got a job as a street cleaner and I am sure he did what he could to keep a roof over his family's head and food on the table. In an article that appeared in the Times in 1895 he and a veteran fireman who were dismissed from the Street Cleaning Department, filed suit in the Supreme Court to see if they had the right to discharge veterans to reduce expenses while retaining non-vets. They were discharged about 3 months before the suit but no charges had been brought against them. It was strictly a budgetary decision. Their lawyer contended that as they were veterans, they could only be dismissed for cause. I don't know what happened with that lawsuit. I have a feeling he may not have prevailed as about that same time he became disabled due to an umbilical hernia and painful varicose veins and in his application for a Civil War Veteran's pension, he stated that he was unable to work and that he nearly lost his life twice due to these maladies. He was approved and received a Civil War Veteran's pension for a few short years before he died in 1899 at the age of 61. His wife received, after his death, a widow's pension of $8 a month. She lived with her daughter and her son-in-law until her death.

I think Justin was just an average guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time; out when he shouldn't have been out; hanging around in a bad part of town, probably with the wrong characters and sowing some wild oats. From the full accounts in the newspaper, (which I'd be happy to share with you if you would like to read them,) I am not convinced that James Ryan didn't actually fire that shot, nor am I convinced that Justin was there at all. And, I wonder how all that affected him and the choices he made during the rest of his life. Yes, just  an average guy: a gilder, a war veteran, street sweeper, and a hero. Not a king. Not a horse thief. But what an interesting ancestor.

Josephine Patten, my great grandmother and Justin's niece, was born when Justin was on the fire department. She would grow up to marry my great grandfather George Willett, a New York City Police Officer.