Curator, writer and historian, working across the fields of design, craft and contemporary art.


Objects of Dispute

Since Spring 2016 I have been contributing a regular column to The Magazine Antiques on ‘Critical Thinking and Difficult Issues.’ At a time of dramatic political upheaval, this has been an opportunity to write about historical material culture from the perspective of current debates. The following column comments on police violence, using a nineteenth century ‘ceremonial nightstick’ as a totemic artifact. Other essays in the series have dealt with such issues as the refugee crisis, fake news, and health care reform.  

Do Not Resist , directed by Craig Atkinson, 2016

Do Not Resist, directed by Craig Atkinson, 2016

There is an astonishing scene in the new documentary Do Not Resist, in which an enormous military vehicle drives slowly down a side street in a Wisconsin suburb. It is thickly armored, the color of desert sand, and the size of a tank—or for that matter, nearly the size of the houses it rolls past, with their plastic swing sets on the front lawns. The sequence seems like something from a dystopian science fiction movie. Has some dreadful calamity prompted the authorities to place the Midwest under martial law? No: scenes like this one are entirely real, and becoming commonplace.  

The documentary, directed by Craig Atkinson, is an enlightening account of the recent militarization of the American police. Through the federal government’s 1033 Program, billions of dollars’ worth of military hardware—much of it recently decommissioned from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—has been distributed for free to local police departments. Many towns and cities across the United States now have an armored vehicle like the one in Wisconsin, which is technically called an MRAP (it stands for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected). What a suburban police department might want to do with such a thing is hard to say. But as Do Not Resist also shows, such vehicles and other military-grade equipment are already being put to use in bigger cities, including in tense situations like the recent riots in Ferguson, Missouri, or the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. 

Armament is just one aspect of a widespread debate about policing in America. The summer has seen a dismaying spate of new instances of violence, in which young black men have lost their lives and officers have been killed in heinous reprisals. It is a situation that should cause us all to reflect—all the more so as it is hardly without precedent. Like many of our contemporary political issues, this one is often discussed using catchphrases: warrior cops, police brutality, and of course, Black Lives Matter. Language like this is powerful, but it does not provide context for informed debate. That context should include the lessons of history. Another scene in Do Not Resist features Danny Brown, an African-American man who was wrongly convicted of rape and murder in Toledo, and served nineteen years in prison before he was freed thanks to DNA testing. (Though Brown was released in 2001, he is still fighting to get compensation from the state of Ohio.) Providing testimony at a government hearing on violence between police and the public, he comments in a mild tone: “Well shoot, this country was founded on riots.”  

Brown is absolutely right, of course. Since the Boston Massacre of 1770, the history of America has been inseparable from the history of civil disobedience. So, too, is the history of American policing. Consider the artifact shown on the facing page. It is made of lathe-turned and painted wood, rather like an architectural baluster or the stile of a ladder-back chair, and is topped with a star-shaped policeman’s badge. Since 1949 it has resided in the New-York Historical Society, which describes it as a “ceremonial nightstick.” The original owner was George Washington Matsell, New York City’s first chief of police. Matsell’s service truncheon also survives in the historical society: a nasty, blunt object, accompanied with a belt and holster, like today’s police revolvers. 

Though little remembered today, Matsell was one of the great characters of nineteenth-century New York. He began his career as one of the city’s bolder booksellers, carrying (as his New York Times obituary would later put it) “infidel productions,” including the works of Thomas Paine, Robert Dale Owen, Fanny Wright, and “other exponents of atheism, spiritualism, and advanced philosophy.”(1) Thanks to political connections, he was appointed to his post soon after the city’s informal night watch was officially constituted into the Municipal Police in 1844. He implemented new standards of professionalism, insisting on uniforms for all officers, publishing a book of regulations, and working to raise awareness of child prostitution and other social ills.  

For all his virtues, Matsell was also an ally of the corrupt mayor of the day, Fernando Wood. As “Grand Sachem” of the political machine Tammany Hall, Wood enlisted the support of Irish immigrants and other working-class New Yorkers to consolidate Democratic control of the city. Matsell’s police were essentially the enforcers of this system. E. L. Doctorow memorably describes them in his novel The Waterworks: “an organization of licensed thieves [who] occasionally interrupted their graft-gathering for practice with nightsticks on the human skull.”(2)  

In 1857 the Republican-controlled state legislature moved to break up Democratic control of the New York constabulary. They constituted a new force, the Metropolitan Police, who were aligned to the city’s elite rather than its immigrant population. The Municipals were not willing to go without a fight, and there was a so-called Police Riot which culminated in bloody hand-to-hand combat at City Hall, fought with truncheons on both sides. Matsell himself stood at the head of the Municipals’ ranks. 

The Municipals won that battle, but not the war, and Matsell was forced out of office. Though he would briefly return as police chief in the 1870s, he was not present for New York’s next round of riots. These occurred in 1863 during the Civil War, and remain the largest urban riot in American history. They were instigated by working-class resentment against the Union draft—a position that Mayor Wood, a “copperhead” (or Southern sympathizer) who opposed ending slavery—thoroughly supported. The rioters quickly became a racist mob, in which Irish-Americans and other whites attacked black New Yorkers. The police sought to maintain control but were quickly overwhelmed, and horrific scenes that followed have been described by one historian as “more vicious than [the fighting] at Gettysburg.”(3) There were lynchings across the city, and the rioters stormed the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue and burned it to the ground. The editor and staff of the New York Times were obliged to defend Newspaper Row with Gatling guns. Only the arrival of the military managed to quell the uprising. 

Matsell meanwhile had moved to Iowa and returned to the print trade, this time as an author and editor. He took over the National Police Gazette, a tabloid journal that featured sensationalist accounts of urban crime; and published Vocabulum; or, the Rogue’s Lexicon, a compendium of slang used by New York’s criminals.(4) It is enduringly fascinating thanks to the colorful language that Matsell captured, which included Cockney rhymes (apples and pears, for stairs), Yiddish (gonnoff, for thief), and Irish endearments (those for a lockpick included bettycharmdub, and katey). Some phrases we still have today, like block-house for prison. Others have a more exotic flavor, such as stick-flams (gloves), peddler’s pony (walking stick) and the wonderful fogle-hunting (stealing pocket handkerchiefs). A few one can imagine being reinstated, such as black-box, for lawyer. And then there is lambo, meaning “to beat with a club.”

Matsell’s Vocabulum speaks to the cosmopolitan mixture of mid-nineteenth-century New York, a fact he acknowledged in his introduction: “The rogue fraternity have a language peculiarly their own, which is understood and spoken by them no matter what their dialect, or the nation where they were reared.” His dictionary also richly captures the culture of violence that policing involved at that time. Matsell’s ceremonial nightstick speaks to that culture too, in a different and more unsettling way. It is a modern emblem of authority, the equivalent of a ruler’s scepter or staff, topped quite literally with a badge of office. Yet one can certainly imagine it used to lambo a gonnoff.  

It is a long way from the 1840s to today, and a long way from a billy club to an MRAP. Yet Matsell’s nightsticks, both ceremonial and functional, serve as a reminder that American policing has been weaponized from its inception. Matsell’s biography also attests to the way that the police have been drawn into conflicts across lines of race, class and political party. He was a man enmeshed in the power structure of his day, which in turn existed within a deeply ingrained culture of brutality. Yet he also sought, no doubt in earnest, to keep his city safe. Moreover, he tried to understand the motivations and even the psychology of criminality in his day.  

Matsell wrote in his Vocabulum that “any man engaged in police business can not excel without understanding the rogues’ language.” His curious foray into linguistics was hardly scientific, but in his own way, Matsell was trying to strike the balance that all policing must somehow negotiate: on the one hand, the mentality of “us versus them,” and the aggression that goes with that oppositional mindset; on the other, a desire to truly understand and thereby reduce criminal behavior. Matsell’s nightstick rests at the fulcrum between those two goals. It is a symbol of civic order that is also a primitive bludgeon. The object embodies the inherent contradiction of law enforcement, the fact that a policeman’s official status as a keeper of the peace is necessarily backed by the possibility of violence. This is a very hard balance to get right, but the challenge is not unique to our times. 

  1. Obituary of George Washington Matsell, New York Times, July 26, 1877.
  2. E. L. Doctorow, The Waterworks (Random House, New York, 1994), p. 85.
  3. Thomas Repetto, Battleground New York City: Countering Spies, Saboteurs, and Terrorists Since 1861 (Washington, D. C.: Potomac Books, 2012). (Potomac Books, Dulles, Va., 2012), p. 4.
  4. George W. Matsell, Vocabulum; or, the Rogue’s Lexicon (New York, 1859). 
WritingMarci LeBrun