Rudyard Kipling may be wrong. Nightwatch could be the world’s most ancient profession. Watchmen, groups of men authorized by a state, government, or society to deter criminal activity and provide law enforcement, were found in Egyptian, Ottoman, Greek and Roman Empires.
The history of American law enforcement began in Boston. In April 1631, the city established a “watch” comprised of six watchmen, one constable, and several volunteers who patrolled at night without pay protecting the townspeople from criminals, wild animals and fire. New York and Jamestown followed suit in 1658.
Industrial expansion and accompanying urban sprawl gave rise to increased crime, public health issues, socio-economic divisions, and general disorder in the colonies’ cities. The Watchmen’s responsibilities grew and grew and more support was needed. In the 1800’s, many cities founded local police forces, and Watchmen were eventually absorbed into them. However, Watchmen still exist under Florida statutes and are recognized and given special dispensation in law.
Where Watchmen’s responsibilities were reactionary, the newly established police departments focused on crime prevention. And the officers received pay for their services.
With the Judiciary Act of 1789, The United States Congress created the first law enforcement officer at the federal level, the United States Marshal. Coupled with the other offices created by this act, United States Marshals would be among those charged with defining, administering and enforcing federal laws. Their duties included protection for federal judges, jurors and witnesses. Until the creation of the Secret Service in 1865, Marshals were frequently called upon to pursue counterfeiters.
The first Marshals were “an able group of men….representing on the whole a type that was politically active.” Their average age at the time of their appointment was 42. The youngest was 25, the oldest 57. They remained in office an average of approximately six years, though this ranged from tenure of one year to twenty years. After leaving office, five transferred to more lucrative posts within the federal government. One became Secretary of War under Thomas Jefferson, and three represented their communities in Congress. One was killed in the line of duty and one died of disease while in office. The remainder retired to their private affairs. The descendants of the first sixteen Marshals included a Supreme Court Justice, a Civil War general, and a Secretary of State.
Hang on to your glocks and check back with us. In the ensuing months, we will be profiling a few of the original sixteen in our Featured column. Here is a peek at your first U.S. Marshal.
Lieutenant Colonel Nathanial Ramsey, first Marshal of Maryland, was a war hero. Born in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Nathanial graduated from Princeton and moved to Maryland to practice law. He joined the militia as a captain soon after the start of the Revolutionary War later transferring to the Continental Army where he was quickly promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.
During the Battle of Monmouth, Ramsey fought against overwhelming numbers of British soldiers refusing to leave the battlefield until he was finally captured and made prisoner. In 1780, the British paroled him. He left the Army soon after, returning to the practice of law.
In recognition of his service and abilities, on September 26, 1789, Washington appointed him Marshal of the District of Maryland. He served in this capacity until 1794.
Twice married, Ramsey was quite tall for his time standing a few inches over six feet. It is said that in later years his girth matched his height. Former Marshal Ramsey had a fondness for cocked hats which he continued to wear long after they were no longer stylish.
Ramsey died on October 23, 1817 at the age of 76. His portrait hangs in Independence Hall in Philadelphia.