The First Among The Many
The name Isaac Smith is not necessarily a household word for most people. He died on May 17, 1792. From various accounts we learn that he was a man of many talents including a war hero, farmer, doctor, and politician.
He was also a deputy sheriff who died in the line of duty when he answered the call to help a fellow officer in a tavern owned by Levi Hunt in what was then Westchester County just outside New York City.
In response to my June 16, column on TheTentacle.com, “To preserve the American Dream,” several sharp-eyed readers asked for more information about the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) observation, “Crime fighting has taken its toll. Since the first recorded police death in 1792, there have been more than 15,000 law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty.”
As a matter of fact, many news articles about tragedies that befall police officers in the line of duty will state, “Since the first recorded police death in 1792…” but never mention Deputy Smith.
So, what happened in 1792? Who was Deputy Smith and what were the circumstances of his death?
For many years, it was believed that U.S. Marshal Robert Forsyth, killed in 1794, was the first officer to die in the line of duty,” according to a May 1, 2000, New York Daily News article.
“However, a police historian, retired NYPD Sgt. Michael Bosak from the Bronx, discovered Deputy Smith while paging through court records in Westchester County,” says The Daily News.
Although some historical accounts I read in researching the life and death of Deputy Smith identify him as a member of the New York City sheriff’s office – that is not exactly true.
The Daily News got it right; Deputy Smith was killed “while investigating a disturbance at Hunt's Inn, a tavern near what is now West Farms Road and 167th St. in the Bronx. The area was part of Westchester until it was annexed by (New York City) in 1874.”
It is a great irony that the Bronx 46th Precinct stationhouse is located today on what is now known as Ryer Avenue, named after the family of the man who killed Deputy Smith – John Ryer.
“In the late 18th Century, the area was rural. Hunt's Inn served as a stopping place for stagecoaches from Danbury and Mamaroneck. The inn was a one story wooden building with a pitched roof that was used for numerous public purposes such as public hearings,” according to a detailed account of the circumstances involved in the death of Deputy Smith published by the New York Correction History Society (NYCHS) Timeline on Executions by Hanging in New York State.”
Ryer was hanged October 2, 1793, in White Plains, New York, for killing Deputy Smith.
On the evening of Thursday, May 17, 1792, “Ryer was a member of a prominent Westchester farming and cattle-raising family with extensive holdings in the region. On this occasion he was drunk and unruly. Deputy Smith responded to a request from Hunt for help. Ryer, who had two flintlock pistols, used one of them to shoot the deputy and then fled northward, eventually crossing into Canada,” according to the NYCHS.
Other accounts identified Ryer as a “drunken cattleman and British Loyalist.” However, perhaps the best description of Ryer may be found at the May 25 to December 17, 2004, exhibition at the “Library Company of Philadelphia,” “From the Bottom – Section IV: Crime.”
Ryer was “A Revolutionary veteran on the Tory side. Ryer was guilty of ‘excess drinking, card-playing, cock-fighting, cursing, swearing, together with almost every kind of vice, wickedness and debauchery.’ ”
However, on the other hand, Deputy Smith “was highly regarded in the county for his service during the Revolution as well as his civic and political activities,” says the NYCHS. The year before his death he became the Town of New Castle’s first supervisor.
“More than a decade earlier, along with dozens of other Westchester patriot leaders, Isaac Smith signed a petition to (New York) Gov. George Clinton noting that ‘the gaol [has been] removed to Bedford since the burning of White Plains’ and (asked for) help to set up ‘a guard of 30 necessary to look after prisoners.’ ”
A week after “Isaac Smith, deputy sheriff … was inhumanly murdered,” Governor Clinton issued a proclamation which offered a $500 reward for the “apprehension and delivery” to the “keeper of the Common Jail” of “a certain John Ryer [who] stands charged with the commission of the said horrid crime.”
In 1792, $500 was the equivalent of a worker’s entire annual income.
The NYCHS reports, “A Westchester man, aware of the case and perhaps also aware of the reward, reported to authorities that he had spotted Ryer working as a chainbearer for surveyors mapping the wilds of Quebec. Ryer was arrested, extradited, and jailed in White Plains where he was tried, convicted, and executed” on October 2, 1793.
Swift justice by today’s standards…
Hopefully now the story of Isaac Smith, who died so others may be safe, will not be forgotten.
Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.