“The oldest active sergeant… Unquestionable integrity, loyalty to his duty… earned the utmost respect of every member of the department… Law abiding citizens respect and honor this man, lawbreakers fear him… with Rooseveltian persistency Sergeant Driscoll has always enforced the law.”—History of the Department of Police Services in New Haven, Conn. from 1638 to 1906, by Arthur V. Phillips (1906)
John Driscoll was born in Ireland on October 22, 1842, and arrived in America by 1861. Like many Irish immigrants at the time, he found himself fighting in the Civil War, first as part of the Ninth Regiment Connecticut Volunteer Infantry and later as a member of the First Regiment. After receiving his discharge on November 18, 1865, John married Mary, and the couple soon had three children: Michael, John and Joseph.
Driscoll’s career as a police officer started with his appointment to patrolman on June 19, 1871. The job was rough and Driscoll often came face-to-face with your typical 19th-century tough. On December 3, 1878, Driscoll was injured and out of work for a number of days after a drunk Irishman fought back during an arrest at a polling station, kicking him in the ankle, especially troublesome at a time when officers literally walked their beats. Driscoll’s centered around Grand Avenue, then chock-full of saloons and brothels.
The cop gained a reputation for cunning. In 1875, he set out to bust a suspected brothel, the Springfield Hotel, on the corner of Court & Orange Streets, only a few doors down from police headquarters. Disguising himself as a woodsman dressed in denim, smoking a pipe and carrying a large wad of bills, he gained entry only to pull off his disguise and close down the illegal “scarlet house.”
An endearing incident occurred at Police HQ on November 11, 1879. At the time there was a curious Scotch terrier who would follow officers around, and the dog had trotted into the station. Driscoll was playing around with the pooch when its head got caught in Driscoll’s nightstick strap. The alarmed dog became frenzied, dragging the nightstick all over the station, finally leaping through an open window onto Court Street. Driscoll was hot on the dog’s trail as amused pedestrians watched. The spooked dog outran Driscoll and was last seen heading up State Street, nightstick in tow.
On other occasions, Driscoll found himself in the right place at the right time. On the night of October 13, 1882 a robbery was underway at a Chapel Street millinery. Two officers noticed something fishy on the low roof in back. When one of them blew his whistle to attract the attention of other area officers, the robber crashed through the plate glass storefront. The closest officer was John Driscoll. Gun drawn, Driscoll hauled the culprit to the station, where the man claimed to be George Higgins. In fact, his name was John Francis, and he’d just been released from Sing Sing prison in New York. Francis earned a trip to a Wethersfield prison, where he stayed for five years; Driscoll earned a promotion.
On November 15, 1885 Driscoll and another officer busted through the rear door of William Killoy’s saloon on Grand Avenue, where they found 15 men illegally drinking on a Sunday. Killoy then surprised the cops by locking the door and announcing, “Now you’ve caught me,” at which time Killoy pounded Driscoll in the forehead with his fist. After a tussle and a death threat, the officers contained and arrested the man. At the court hearing on the following day, the judge asked Driscoll if he feared Killoy; the cop responded, “I’m not afraid of any living man if he comes at me square.” He attained the rank of sergeant in 1887.
In October of the following year, Driscoll led a plainclothes raid on a known gambling house in a building on Gregson Street. As he reported to the New Haven Register, “There are three rooms in that gaming establishment and they are all elegantly carpeted and sumptuous in appearance. The main door is plated and barred with iron and opens outwards. To break it in would be next to an impossibility. A peep-hole is arranged so that those without can be seen by the doorkeeper… we rushed from our hiding place in the hallway and effected an entrance before the heavy door could be closed. As soon as it was known who we were the men quietly submitted to arrest. The faro game was in progress.” The same building would be the scene of another raid by Driscoll and company on October 24, 1894, uncovering a large illegal lottery ring.
In 1888, an apartment dweller at 51 Crown Street complained to the cops about feeling lightheaded every time there was a gathering of men in the unit below her. The night of November 19, Driscoll gathered six officers and burst into the apartment, finding an opium den and gambling house run by a Chinese immigrant named Yup Foon. The police captured 19 men found in two gaming rooms. In an odd twist, all the arrested men were described as having ponytails and wearing blue shirts. Two years later, Driscoll earned another promotion, to the position of Inspector of Licensed Public Vehicles on April 23, 1890. In this new role, Driscoll had the task of stopping taxis and livery wagons to see if they had their proper papers and safety inspections, a much less taxing patrol for the aging cop.
On November 4, 1909 Driscoll passed away, working for the police until just six weeks before his death. Chief of Police Henry D. Cowles wrote in the police report for the City Year Book of 1910 that Driscoll “was of high moral character, honest and faithful in his duties, a true friend, respected by all who knew him, and a better officer never wore a uniform in this or any other department.”
Sometimes it takes a history of vice to tell such a tale of virtue.
Written by Colin Caplan. Image, courtesy of Colin Caplan, depicts John Driscoll circa 1892.