On the corner of... A 19th century policeman’s badge

Sun, 03/05/2017 - 8:30am

Ed. note: The Block Island Historical Society was founded in 1942. To help celebrate its 75th year. the Society’s Diamond Anniversary, The Block Island Times will be publishing sketches and photographs of items in its collection. For those interested in joining or donating to The Block Island Historical Society, please visit blockislandhistorical.org.

The isolated fishing and farming community of Block Island opened its doors to the world in the latter part of the 19th century. Breakwaters were built, steamers arrived, businesses flourished and a need for more policemen arose. 

A jail, the size of a garden shed — with a welcoming, covered stoop — stood on a narrow strip of  land roughly across from the Solviken site. In photos it never appears occupied, but it existed so there was a need for policemen to fill it with miscreants. Built on sand, it was rumored to have a high rate of escape by digging...

The badge and whistle shown belonged to a William Smith Sprague, “circa 1890,” according to the notation on the box in which it rests.

That date proves a starting place; the year cited other men were hired. A motion, amidst conversation of committees on plank walks to the beach and other seasonal amenities in the Town Records, reads:

“Resolved that Clarence Rose, Benjamin T. Coe and David M. Rose be and they are hereby appointed Special Police Constables to serve from the 10th day of July 1890, until the 1st day of September 1890, unless sooner discharged, for a salary of $1.75 per day, said police to be on duty from half past 7 o'clock a.m. until 12. o'clock p.m.”

The next year, when William S. Sprague's name appears mid-season, the rate had increased, his employment “to commence on the 1st day of August 1891 and continue to the first day of Sept 1891 unless sooner discharged, for a salary of $2 per day, said police to be on duty from 7 am to 9 pm.”

The records in the summer of 1892 are filled with a concern over possible smallpox outbreaks, but it is guessed that Smith was hired (as he was in 1893 and again in 1894), with no further alteration to pay or hours, but with the condition “that he provide himself with a police uniform” — which we presume included the badge and whistle which now reside in peace and quiet on the Corner of Past and Present.