An Exceptional Man and an Inspiration: Theodore Roosevelt III

And now we come to the law-enforcement career of Theodore Roosevelt. In the last, I had told you that he had become a deputy sheriff.

And in March of 1886, he found out that it meant a little more than rounding up the town drunks on a Saturday night. It seems that a wild man named Mike Finnegan, who had a reputation for breaking laws and heads that stretched from one end of the badlands to the other, had gotten drunk and shot up the town of Medora, escaping – not that anyone dared to stop him – on a small flatboat with two confederates.

Anyone’s who ever been in Dakota in March knows that it’s still quite a few weeks away from the first signs of spring. Roosevelt, accompanied by Bill Sewell and Wilmot Dow, was ordered to bring Finnegan in, and took after him on a raft a couple of days later. They negotiated the ice-filled river and finally came to the spot where the gang had made camp.

Roosevelt, the accomplished hunter, he stood up, managed to approach silently and unseen until the moment he stood up, rifle in hands, and announced they were his prisoners. Not a shot had to be fired.

But capturing Finnegan and his friends was the easy part. They had to be transported overland more than 100 miles to the town of Dickenson, where they would stand trial. Within a couple of days the party of three lawmen and three outlaws was out of food. Finally Roosevelt set out for a ranch – any ranh – and came back a day later with a small wagon filled with enough food to keep them alive on the long trek. The wagon had a single horse, and given the weather and the conditions of the crude trails, the horse couldn’t be expected to pull all the six men, so Sewwll and Dow rode in the wagon while Roosevelt and the three captives walked behind it on a almost nonexistent trail, knee-deep in snow, in below freezing weather. The closer they got to Dickenson, the more likely that Finnegan would attempt to escape, so Roosevelt didn’t sleep the last two days and nights of the forced march.

But he delivered the outlaws, safe and reasonably sound.

He would be a lawman again in another nine years, but his turf would be as different from the badlands as night is from day.

He became the police commissioner of New York City.

New York was already a pretty crime-ridden city, even before the turn of the twentieth century. Roosevelt, who had already been a successful politician, lawman, lecturer, and author, was hired to change that – and change he did.

He hired the best people he could find. That included the first woman on the New York police force – and the next few dozen as well. (Before long every station had police matrons around the clock, thus assuring that any female prisoner would be booked by a member of her own sex.)

Then came another innovation: Roosevelt decided that most of the cops couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with their side arms; target practice was not merely encouraged but became mandatory for the first time in the force’s history.

When the rise of the automobile meant that police on foot could no longer catch some escaping lawbreakers, Roosevelt created a unit of bicycle police (who, in the 1890s, had no problems in keeping up with the cars of that era, which were traversing streets that had not been created with automobiles in mind.)

He hired Democrats as well as Republicans, men who disliked him as well as men who worshipped him. All he cared about was that they were able to get the job done.

He was intolerant only of intolerance. When the famed anti-Semitic preacher from Berlin, Rector Ahlwardt, came to America, New York’s Jewish population didn’t want to allow him in the city. Roosevelt couldn’t bar him, but came up with the prefect solution: Ahlwardt’s police bodyguard was composed entirely of very large, very unhappy Jewish cops whose presence caused the bigot to forgo his anti-Semitic harangues while he was in the city.

To be continued…..


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