Mayor Thomas A. Doyle
“I call him the Buddy Cianci of the 19th century,” Providence City Archivist Paul Campbell says, pointing to the portrait of Providence’s 9th, 11th, and 13th mayor, Thomas A. Doyle, hanging in Campbell’s office on the fifth floor of City Hall. In 1864, in his first inaugural address, Doyle — who held office through 1869, then again from 1870 to 1881, then again from 1884 to 1886 — called for the establishment of the Providence Police Department. He was, as Campbell explains, a micromanager who designed the badges and buttons on the city’s first police uniforms.
It’s rich, obscure details like these, combined with vivid images from Providence’s past, that fill the newly released book marking the PPD’s 150th anniversary, Images of America: Providence Police Department. Ever heard of John A. Murray? He’s the bareknuckle, brawling cop who helped clean up “Blood Alley,” the row of saloons near the corner of Westminster and Union streets in the late 1800s. What about Arthur “Daddy” Black? That would be the celebrated World War I veteran turned Jazz Age gangster who ran an illegal numbers pool that got him dubbed “Providence’s Richest Negro.”
Campbell co-authored the book along with two retired Providence police officers, John Glancy and George Pearson. And through pictures and captions, it provides a surprisingly comprehensive timeline of policing in Providence. Starting back in the colonial days when petty crimes were punishable by humiliation, the book oscillates from minutia (the first police badges were brass) to more significant developments like the evolving role for women on the force.
The Phoenix met with the authors last week to talk about their book, the history of the Providence Police Department, and what it was like to be part of Providence’s finest. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
PROVIDENCE IN THE LATER 19TH CENTURY SOUNDS LIKE THE MOVIE GANGS OF NEW YORK: DIVIDED ALONG ETHNIC LINES, AND FULL OF SALOONS, THIEVES, AND CAREER CRIMINALS. NOT AN EASY PLACE TO POLICE.
CAMPBELL: It was a challenge for the police to handle. The city [was] growing rapidly, almost quadrupling in population over a 40-year period. Alien peoples [were] coming in successive waves of immigration. And just communicating became a difficult problem.
An early mugshot of Raymond Patriarca.
YOU TELL THE STORY OF HOW, IN 1938, WITH HELP OF THE GOVERNOR’S OFFICE, INFAMOUS MOB BOSS RAYMOND PATRIARCA WAS RELEASED AFTER SERVING ONLY MONTHS OF AN ARMED ROBBERY SENTENCE. HOW MUCH OF PATRIARCA’S SUCCESS SHOULD BE ATTRIBUTED TO CORRUPTION?
PEARSON: There’s no doubt about it. He was a political entity — and not just in the city of Providence, but in the state of Rhode Island. You can’t overlook prohibition: the mingling of regular citizens and the criminal element, they had a coziness about them. The citizens wanted alcohol. After it became legalized those relationships continued. And he’s part of that.
I WAS SURPRISED TO READ HOW LITTLE VIOLENCE THERE WAS DURING PROHIBITION. TODAY’S PROVIDENCE HAS ALMOST 100,000 FEWER PEOPLE, BUT THE CITY AVERAGED ALMOST FIVE TIMES AS MANY HOMICIDES BETWEEN 2000 AND 2010 THAN IN THOSE YEARS.
CAMPBELL: Back then you had sort of crimes of opportunity. Now they’re almost crimes of necessity. You have people hooked on drugs. . . and also the breakdown of the family unit.
PEARSON: I also think you had institutions like the churches that kept people in line for the most part. And I think people felt upwardly mobile as well.
GLANCY: Providence [today] has a gang issue. The ages of these kids who are killing themselves are not 25, not 45, they’re all 19, 18, 17 year-old kids. It’s not even business, it’s turf.