Those who read this blog regularly or follow our Twitter feed religiously are no doubt familiar with the diary of public transit enthusiast, Brooklyn Dodger fan, and assiduous scribe of the everday, Arthur Lonto. His daily observations, scrawled in minute cursive or blocky capital letters, range from the mundane to the monumental -- the news that Jackie Robinson debuted as the "FIRST NEGRO to PLAY ON A MAJOR LEAGUE TEAM" shares a page with the less historically important note that Lonto spent the day polishing his family's car. This is the value of diaries as historical artifacts; they not only document the trends and movements of the past, but they also give a sense of what it was like to live through those events.
We give Mr. Lonto a lot of attention because his diary is so much fun to read, but it is high time we turn our attention to other journals in the Brooklyn Collection. One of these is the daily log of New York City police officer Louis F. Welge.
Left, Welge scratched his name into the soft leather cover of his 1911-1912 log.
He served in what was then the 155th Precinct in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood -- the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac of 1911 cites the precinct boundaries as Bedford Avenue to the west, Fulton Street to the south, Stuyvesant Avenue to the east and Dekalb Avenue to the north.
Detail from the 1921 Belcher Hyde desk atlas of Brooklyn, showing the 155th precinct headquarters at the northwest corner of Gates and Throop.
Departing from his station house at Gates Avenue and Throop Avenue, Welge patrolled the tree- and brownstone-lined streets of Bed-Stuy and recorded any and all occurences in his daily logs, of which we have four, covering the years 1903, 1907, 1908, 1911, 1912, 1915 and 1916.
The earlier years of Welge's service seem to have been largely uneventful ones. From the 1903 and 1907/1908 logs, Welge's daily report often read, merely, "no report." Bedford-Stuyvesant was at that time, apparently, a quiet residential neighborhood, and even when Welge is assigned in other neighborhoods his daily log lacks the drama we may expect from a New York City police officer.
Slow news week, above, Sept 27 - 30, 1907.
A disturbing frequency of dead cat, dog and horse corpses notwithstanding, many of Welge's logs document only minor nuisances -- the kind of things you notice when you spend a large portion of your workday walking the sidewalks of a community. In the summer of 1907, for example, Welge saw and dutifully reported "dangerous holes in street pavement between car-tracks", a stretch of broken sidewalk, and a few out-of-order gas and electric street lights. Each day's entry is accompanied by a police lieutenant's signature, usually in bright blue ink and every bit as florid as Welge's own handwriting, apparently verifying the reports.
But not every day was a Mayberry-esque stroll through an urban paradise. Kidnappings, prison breaks, and larceny abound in Welge's later journals. His 1915 log book is full of accounts of arrests he made and descriptions of the men (and sometimes women) he collared. On September 9th of that year, Welge arrested a man wanted for homicide and noted his appearance: "25 years old, 5'10" - 150 lbs - blond wavy hair, blue eyes & suit, straw hat ... looks like Swede ... good looking, hair combed back, gold tooth upper right jaw, shows when he laughs." Why the man laughed as he was being arrested for murder, we'll never know.
This entry from Welge's 1907 journal, written with a just-the-facts brevity that belies the awful scene Welge must have witnessed, reminds us also of the human tragedies that policeman encounter every day.
"At 3:30AM found W. H. Stackman - 51 - NS Agent - Married - 96 Heyward St - in bath-tub in his apts - and gas tube connected to fixture, pronounced dead by Dr. Snyder E.D. Hosp." An article from that day's New York Evening Telegram corroborates Welge's terse account of the suicide and elaborates on the reasons for the man's sad ending. William Stackman, a "wealthy coal dealer" was grief-stricken after the death of his oldest son and, upon taking his life, was found by his daughter, Florence. The family's woeful tale continues, as told in the September 11, 1907 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
The widow Stackman killed herself as her husband did, by inhaling gas, and left a note for her daughter Florence, who had the horrible luck of twice discovering a beloved parent, dead. The note read, "Dear Florence: If you cannot get in, my darling, use your key, but for God's sake don't use a match. Your loving mother."
Although Florence declared at the time that she, in the Eagle's summation, "had nothing further to live for and would join her parents at the first opportunity," census records indicate that the poor girl moved in with an aunt and grew up to become a bookkeeper, eventually defying the family curse and living to the ripe old age of 99 1/2.
As for Welge, he continued jotting down the daily goings on of the borough around him -- the dangerous potholes, the busted streetlights, the stolen Studebakers -- and interceding with a helping hand when needed, as any good cop would.