Some Things Matter More

- by Bruce E. McKinney

Recently I received a message from Scott DeWolfe of DeWolfe and Wood and mentioned they had a Poughkeepsie imprint that is shabby but intact and wondered if I would accept it if sent to me.  And I thanked them as such materials are perfect additions for the 7 counties database I’m building around Ulster, Dutchess, Putnam, Orange, Sullivan, Greene and Columbia Counties that lay midway between New York City and Albany along the Hudson River.  It would to be incremental to my evolving understanding of Poughkeepsie.  And this book arrived!


It’s The Charter of the City of Poughkeepsie, also The Ordinances Passed by the Common Council of Poughkeepsie, to January 1st, 1866.  Published at Poughkeepsie by Platt & Son, Printers, Daily Eagle Office, 1866.


It’s a gem as a remarkable way to see how safety, sanitation, and population issues were incrementally influencing local policies.


As a developing place this volume provides census data from 1800 to 1865 that contextualizes subjects many of which became relevant only as the number of citizens increased:


1800     3,246

1810     4,669

1814     5,673

1820     5,726

1825     5,923

1830     7,222

1835      8,529

1840    10,006

1845    11,791

1850    13,944

1855    12,763

1860    14,726

1865    16,099


The Charter of the City is first of interest.


The keeping of the peace has a high priority with various paragraphs called out under the titles:  Riots, Gaming, Circuses, Disorderly Houses, Public nuisances, Gunpower, horse racing and Vagrants, Public pounds, Cattle at large, Ringing of bells, blowing of horns, and crying of wares, Dogs and Bills of morality.


As to the streets, “the Common Council shall have power to cause such of the streets, lanes, alleys, or roads used as highways in said city, or any part or parts thereof, as shall have been heretofore laid out,  but not [yet] recorded or sufficiently described, and such as shall have been used for twenty years but not recorded,  to be ascertained, described and entered and recorded in a book to be kept by the Chamberlain of said city.” [pp.39]


There is a poll tax, which in common understanding was used in the southern states to limit the franchise.  In this case it seems to differentiate from newer residents who benefit from the city’s services that were developed by previous residents.


The enumeration of the laws that govern and apply to the establishment of the fire department, explaining the authority and powers of its officials with rules enumerated about the purchasing of “Fire Machines,”  to make rules for the government of the Fire Department including who is required to act as fireman as well, who and why some may be exempted.


The establishment of a lamp district which precedes, in the enumeration of the laws, the establishment of schools and the creation of the Board of Education.


There is only a single reference of race, “The Board of Education may establish and cause to be kept a separate school for the instruction of colored children.” It is dated 1864.  [pp.61]


Thereafter follows a section to maintain a public library, forever after to be called the City Library of Poughkeepsie whose stipend is drawn from the School budget. To which is added, “the Board of Education may make regulations respecting the use and imposing fines or penalties for abuse of books belonging to the City Library, and any person incurring any such fine or penalty shall be liable to an action for the same by the city, and the amount received shall be applied as aforesaid to the use of the library.” [pp.62]


Of further interest, under the title Chapter II, there is an act for the better support of the Poor, Passed April 29th, 1863, as amended.  Subsequently the City of Poughkeepsie wanted to independently supervise their poor, rather than to have their activities managed at the county level.


As amended in 1864, “the said commissioners, may cause to be constructed within, or within the vicinity of an Alms-house a cell or cells, or other place or places of confinement for the temporary imprisonment or the detention of vagrants.  And the Recorder of the city of Poughkeepsie is hereby required by his warrant, to be directed to and executed by one of the Police Officers of said city, to commit to the custody of the keeper of the said alms-house, to be confined in such cells or places of confinement, all persons adjudged vagrants, according to the provisions of the act concerning beggars and vagrants, and sentenced by him to imprisonment therefor; and the keeper of said Alms-House is hereby authorized to require all persons, so committed to his charge, to do and perform such work and labor as the Superintendent of the Poor of said city shall direct.


Further paragraphs enumerate that lunatics and bastards will also be resident there.


Taken together this appears to be a parallel justice system for its citizens with the Alms House as a way to jail and penalize vagrants, paupers, lunatics and bastards [they of uncertain parentage] while the regular residents can access the regular justice system.


As well, within the Ordinances section there is perspective on the risk of fire, with details about how gun powder must be stored.  As well, there are rules about how animals will be controlled and sidewalks must be swept.  In particular note there is a paragraph suggesting geese are particularly a problem.


There is also a cloud above those who would be caught selling things by weight using scales without city certification.


Games are also under a cloud, as Ten Pin Alleys, as called, must be played only at 10:00am while being mindful that on Sundays all hours are prohibited.  Neither can any person race their horse or wagons subject to penalties calculated by distances, corners and intersections.  Neither are the firing of cannons, guns, pistols, squibs, crackers, rockets or any other fireworks, within certain parts of the city of Poughkeepsie will earn you a fine and official attention.


Beyond these rules are others,  An ordinance is provided that “No horses, neat cattle or swine,  are prohibited from going at large in the streets of the city.  To enforce such regulations this city has created a position, the Pound Master, to establish a pound or pounds should the number and variety of beasts may need incarceration [my paraphrase].


If needed, the pound master has opportunities for wealth, because he [or they] can sell the sequestered animals, be they horses, cows, cattle or swine.


As well, as the concern has been for the city to be orderly, there has been recurring concern; fire.  The City has fire trucks and requires a full complement of 70 firemen for each such truck.  And within the fire department there are titles and responsibilities, pay, penalties and hats.


And I’ll stop there.


This is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read.  That it’s in my possession is at the suggestion of Dewolfe and Wood, an experienced bookdealer whose experience with the printed word is even better matched with their prodigious memories and their understanding of what their clients appreciate.


To them I say thank you.  And to everyone reading this story please follow their weekly lists that are posted on Tuesdays, that are always interesting, and disappear, on average in about an hour.


Images:  A map of Poughkeepsie

A chart showing the population, increasing decade by decade [that suggests the place is always needing to provide new laws for the consequences and outcomes of grown and the changing types of their population.