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The Late 19th Century Bridgeport Police Controversy

By Michael Treadwell, May 1, 2018

In the last decade of the 19th Century Bridgeport experienced a traumatic event with their Police Department. The press referred to it as the police muddle.[1] The dispute was unsettling for the individuals involved, and for the citizens of Bridgeport.

In January of 1890 a new police chief named John Rylands was sworn in. For some reason, there was friction between Rylands and some of the Police Commissioners. The reasons for the friction had to have been complicated, but to research further on that specific issue, while interesting, would go beyond the scope of this article.

A relatively minor incident occurred, which subsequently erupted into a major Police Department controversy. Nobody could have possibly predicted what that minor incident would lead to. It started when Chief Rylands suspended John Murphy, one of his officers, for being intoxicated while on duty.

But the Board of Police Commissioners held a meeting and adopted the following resolution with instructions for Rylands to carry out. The resolution adopted was:  “That Officer Murphy be and is hereby reinstated until such time that the Commissioners hear charges that are pending against him”. [2]

Mayor William H. Marigold then countermanded the order of the Police Commissioners. Marigold drew up his own instructions for Rylands to follow:

I hereby give you [Rylands] notice that any business done by anybody purporting to be the Board of Police Commissioners of the City of Bridgeport at any meeting held Saturday evening May 16, 1891, was void. You will therefore govern yourself accordingly and refuse to execute any orders issued at any such meeting. [3]

Rylands obeyed the orders of Marigold and refused to reinstate Murphy.

The Police Commissioners quickly followed up and adopted another resolution in response to Marigold’s instructions:  “That John Rylands be dismissed from the police for gross, willful, and continued disobedience of the instructions and orders of the Board of Police Commissioners”.[4]  Since Rylands defied the commissioners by not reinstating Murphy, they fired him.

1 Bridgeport Evening Farmer, June 13, 1891, p. 5.
2 Bridgeport Daily Leader, May 18, 1891, p. 3.
3 Bridgeport Daily Leader, May 18, 1891, p. 3.
4 Bridgeport Evening Farmer, June 17, 1891, p. 2.

After Rylands was dismissed, the commissioners appointed police captain John P. Pinkerman as the acting Chief of Police, on or about June 15, 1891. Shortly thereafter, on June 16, 1891, the commissioners appointed Sergeant Eugene Birmingham, to succeed Rylands as Chief of Police. Birmingham accepted the appointment, and was sworn in.

In the space of only two to three days a police chief had been dismissed, [Rylands], an acting chief was appointed for barely one day, [Pinkerman], and a new chief was hired. [Birmingham]. What happened next was bizarre. Birmingham said to Rylands, “When you vacate I am ready to fill your place, until then I will continue to obey your orders as Chief. You can trust me in this”.

Birmingham had accepted the offer of Chief of Police from the Police Commissioners, was sworn in, and then refused to challenge Rylands for the job, as long as Rylands continued to ignore the order from the Police Commissioners, who dismissed him!

Therefore, Rylands carried on as chief, at least for a little while. Three months later the Bridgeport Common Council took matters into their own hands.  “A yea and nay vote was taken [by the Common Council], on the matter which resulted in the adoption of the ordinance abolishing the office of Chief of Police by a vote of 10 to 4”. Upon the passing of this ordinance, Rylands could not possibly remain as the Chief of Police, because the common council had just abolished the position.

The common council then chose Captain John P. Pinkerman, who had briefly been the acting chief immediately after Rylands had been dismissed in June of 1891, to take command. Pinkerman kept his title of captain. Pinkerman officially took charge of the Police Department on September 23, 1891. Rylands was now the ex-chief.

Journalist Elsie Danenberg wrote a book about the history of Bridgeport, which included the following summary of the police controversy: “The political heads then in power found a solution for the problem by prevailing upon the state legislature to abolish the office of Chief of Police, thereby abolishing also, Rylands”.

The state legislature did no such thing. Danenberg’s conclusion that the state legislature abolished the office of Chief of Police was inaccurate. The Bridgeport Common Council was the only legislative body to have abolished the office of Chief of Police, by passing their own ordinance, with a vote of 10 to 4.

5 Bridgeport Evening Farmer, June 15, 1891, p. 5.
6 Bridgeport Daily Leader, June 16, 1891, p. 2.
7 Bridgeport Evening Farmer, September 11, 1891, p. 4.
8 Bridgeport Evening Farmer, September 23, 1891, p.4.
9 Elsie Danenberg, The Story of Bridgeport, (Bridgeport, CT., Bridgeport Centennial, Inc., 1936),
p. 106.
10 Bridgeport Evening Farmer, September 11, 1891, p. 4.

Rylands did not give up. With the advice of his attorneys he objected to the Common Council’s ordinance that abolished the office of Chief of Police. His objection focused on whether the Common Council had the authority to abolish the office.

On December 15, 1891, Judge Charles Andrews sustained the objection of Rylands. Judge Andrews ruled that “the Common Council had not in fact abolished the office”. Was Rylands chief again?  A subsequent trial was held in 1892. On March 23, 1892, Judge Samuel Prentice issued an important ruling at the conclusion of the trial. His decision was as follows:

The result of my conclusions is, that Mr. Rylands was not lawfully dismissed, as alleged by the respondent. He is therefore entitled to reinstatement in the office of Chief of Police, of which he has been unlawfully deprived by the respondent.

Judge Prentice focused strictly on Rylands being illegally dismissed by the Police Commissioners back on June 17, 1891. Judge Prentice did not address the separate issue of the Common Council’s ordinance that abolished the office of Chief of Police. That was because Judge Andrews had previously decided that issue on December 15, 1891, when he sustained the objection of Rylands and his attorney’s.

Although not certain, based on the fact that Judge Prentice had ordered Rylands reinstated, on March 23, 1892, it seems likely that Captain Pinkerman was in charge of the Police Department since September 23, 1891, when the Common Council selected him, after abolishing the office of Chief of Police.  However, it was certain that Rylands was now chief of the Police Department again, after the ruling by Judge Prentice in March of 1892, and that Pinkerman was no longer in charge.

The opponents of Rylands refused to give up. Appeals were filed, and were being heard by the Supreme Court. Fifteen months passed before the Supreme Court issued its ruling. In a 4 to 1 decision, the majority ruled that the Bridgeport Common council definitely had the authority to abolish, or create, the office of Chief of Police, by ordinance back on September 9, 1891. The Court’s decision was final and ended the controversy once and for all. The office of Chief of Police was extinct.

The Police Commissioners acted upon the Supreme Court’s decision by informing Rylands “that he would not in the future be expected to perform the functions of the office that had been abolished”.

11 Bridgeport Evening Farmer, December 15, 1891, p. 5.
12 Bridgeport Evening Farmer, March 23, 1892, p. 1.
13 Bridgeport Evening Post, June 8, 1893, p. 1.
14 Bridgeport Evening Post, June 12, 1893, p. 1.

Rylands seemed to take the news fairly well. Upon leaving his meeting with the commissioners he said: “Well I am a citizen again, gentlemen”. Perhaps he welcomed the fact that he did not have the job any longer.

Rylands was gone, but the Police Department was still there. Who was in charge? It certainly was not Captain Pinkerman. One year before Rylands was removed, in June of 1892, Pinkerman himself had been dismissed by the Police Commissioners, in a controversial decision, for being insubordinate to Rylands.
However, Eugene Birmingham was still on the force. Back in June of 1891, Birmingham had been appointed chief by the Police Commissioners, after Rylands had been dismissed the first time, and then refused to challenge Rylands for the job.

With Rylands out of the picture, the situation had changed. In June of 1893, the Police Commissioners “informed Captain Birmingham that he was in command of the department for the present and would be expected to perform the duties which formerly devolved on the chief officer of the department”.

In The Story of Bridgeport Elsie Danenberg wrote the following about the course of events: “Political unrest culminated in a veritable upheaval in 1895 and the incumbent police chief, John Rylands was slated to go”. Rylands could not have been dismissed in 1895 because he was no longer a member of the Police Department. His dismissal took place in 1893.

With Captain Birmingham in charge of the department, the Common Council, 10 months later, in April of 1894, created the title of Superintendent of Police. In section 2 of the ordinance, the Common Council wrote: “That said superintendent of police shall be vested with all the powers and responsibilities, and shall perform all the duties formerly exercised by and imposed upon the Chief of Police”.

In section 3 the Common Council went even further: “That wherever in the ordinance of the city of Bridgeport the words Chief of Police occur the same are hereby stricken out and the words superintendent of police are hereby inserted in lieu thereof”. The common council Could not have been clearer. By a vote of 8 to 2, the ordinance was passed.

15 Bridgeport Evening Post, June 12, 1893, p. 1.
16 Bridgeport Evening Farmer, June 27, 1892, p. 5.
17 Bridgeport Evening Post, June 12, 1893, p. 1.
18 Danenberg, p. 106.
19 Bridgeport Evening Post, June 12, 1893, p. 1.
20 Bridgeport Evening Post, April 3, 1894, p. 2.
21 Bridgeport Evening Post, April 3, 1894, p. 2.
22 Bridgeport Evening Post, April 3, 1894, p. 2.

The wheels of government tend to move slowly, and this was no exception. The citizens of Bridgeport waited another year before Captain Birmingham became Superintendent Birmingham, Bridgeport’s first Superintendent of Police. He was sworn in on April 24, 1895.

The long drawn out controversy and uncertainty of who was actually in charge of the Police Department, and what title he held, was finally over. The citizens of Bridgeport must have been relieved.

Michael Treadwell
Michael Treadwell - Grassroots Historian Michael Treadwell is interested in the history of Bridgeport and other local history topics. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History from Sacred Heart University and recently wrote a paper on a 19th Century dispute between Episcopal churches in Weston and Easton and the lawsuit that entangled them. He may be reached at: