Once, on a Christmas Eve in
, a tail light ignited a street fight between village residents and New
York State Troopers. At its
climax, the Troopers were backed against a wall by a crowd of 40 men,
some of them armed, and many of them likely half-drunk.
By the time the ruckus was over, several Hicksvillians had been
arrested for their part in the riot.
During the subsequent arraignment (at which guns once again were
drawn) there was talk of charging some of the villagers with sedition.
After all, this was 1917, and unpatriotic remarks uttered in time
of war could not be tolerated.
Curiously, those arrested were among the leading
citizens of the village. One
was a dental surgeon; others were Special Reserve Sheriff’s Deputies.
Even more remarkable was the identity of the man charged with
instigating the riot: William J. Duffy, past President of the Board of
Education, respected member of
’s Democratic Party, and Chief of the Fire Department.
He would later serve as President of the Long Island National
For men such as these to have rioted seems
unfathomable; there must be more to the story.
Let’s begin by looking at what else had happened in
Multiple things conspired to make people in
edgy that December. There
were two major factors, both of which had first arisen eight months
earlier. One was the
’ participation in World War I; the other was
’s new mounted police force. These
two phenomena set the stage for the riot – but there also was
something else at work: two of the key characters in the developing
drama had a personal history.
By now, over-zealous excitement about
’s entry into the war had faded, and people were worrying.
Family members were in uniform, and soon they would be in
harm’s way. Troop trains
rolled through Hicksville, each carrying a thousand men – draftees to,
or brand-new soldiers from,
. The war’s continuing
carnage made the future of young men like these less certain every day.
According to the White House,
’s entry into the war had been reluctant.
Regardless of whether or not that was true, the country’s
sympathies had been clear for a long time.
During its three years of official neutrality,
had openly paraded – sometimes literally, as illustrated by the flags
in this 1916 painting of
– its feelings, which lay not with
, but instead with
Childe Hassam, Preparedness Day Parade 1916
One of the explanations that historians give for the
earlier neutrality is the
administration’s concerns about the reactions of American citizens of
German descent. On that
ranked higher than most places; during the 19th century, its
Quaker roots had receded before an influx of German farmers and
businessmen. In 1917, the
notable residents mentioned most often in the local press had names like
Huettner, Herzog, Kroemer, Puvogel,
Steinert, Wetterauer, or Braun.
Many of the clerics in the village were German, and not just the
Lutheran ones; Fathers Goetz and Fuchs were early priests at St.
Ignatius. Most of the owners
of the village’s hotels, where people socialized each evening and
exchanged news, were German-Americans, like Messrs. Reinhardt, Wolgast, Fleischbein, and Vogel. The hotels’ décor
was often German-themed, as were the menus; hasenpfeffer was a
specialty. Despite the
preponderance of German ancestry,
rallied behind the nation’s decision to join in the war.
It must have been hard, however, for many of its
citizens to stomach the propaganda campaign that soon flooded the
country. Some of the
village’s German immigrants, like the venerable Herman Menge, had
served with the Union Army during the Civil War.
Now, the descendants of their fellow soldiers were doing their
best to vilify and insult all things German – sometimes, all things
“foreign” – making life painful for anyone who was
Army Recruiting Poster
Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010652057/
For example, this poster (pre King Kong, incidentally) depicts
as a gorilla, standing on the word
as he wades ashore, having already found a young American woman to
molest. Note that his
bloodied club bears the word Kultur.
This probably is a reference to
’s one-time (but by 1917 long abandoned) Kulturkampf
policy, devised to drive people of “undesirable” ethnicities from
the then-Prussian lands in which their ancestors had lived.
Note that when the story of the
rioters appeared in the New York
Tribune, these news items could be found on the same page:
The American Defense Society was lobbying
New York City
to cease teaching German to its language students, because doing
so posed “a serious threat to the city.”
branch of the National German-American Alliance resolved to
fight the attempts to end
public school instruction in
all foreign languages, saying that German-Americans were
stronger than all the “narrow minded people who are behind the
An aeronautical engineer at Wright Aircraft with a
German name had been arrested on suspicions of draft-dodging and
suspected of having “ordered” the International Workers of
the World to sabotage American grain silos in order to weaken
– even though the IWW tended to be socialist or communist, and
was not a likely ally of
The country was polarized.
German-Americans felt persecuted, and too many other Americans
seemed willing to persecute them.
of the State Police
In the years leading up to 1917,
had become persuaded – ironically, because of a high-visibility crime
– that the state’s rural counties and towns were not providing
adequate policing, especially to those who lived in growing communities.
Had policing been deficient in
? Not by the prevailing
local standards. The village
had hired its own constables; if needed, it could call upon the Town’s
local Reserve Deputies; its Court House did not seem overly neglected.
Local newspapers suggested that the police had the habit of
overlooking unlicensed dogs, and children riding horseback in town after
dark, but these were offenses about which few villagers cared.
The local constabulary also rarely enforced the state-imposed
11:00 PM curfew for establishments that served liquor – a failure
which many people in
Some of the first
Regardless of whether communities in New York liked or
disliked the idea of getting an additional layer of policing in their
streets, as soon as the new police (called “Troopers” by their
founder) were fully trained, 232 mounted officers were deployed in rural
areas across the state.
was divided into State Police regions; within each region were multiple
announced that the local detachment eventually would be based in Mineola,
it first was housed at
’s Grand Central Hotel.
In some – in many – communities, the Troopers were
resented by local law enforcement. Rumors
were circulated, most of them likely false; some depicted the new police
as arrogant. It did not help
that the Troopers had been ordered to wear their holstered firearms
outside their uniform – a practice almost unheard of then, and one
which suggested swagger to the average citizen.
Locals were told that “the Troopers had been kicked out” of
the village of Glen Cove (not true), and that
should do the same. Citizens’
trust in the State Police was not bolstered when a
physician testified in court that while he was driving home one night, a
Trooper shot at his tires – to stop him because his car’s tail light
was not lit.
Troopers and the townspeople were at odds at the
beginning, and everyone admitted it.
The official online State Police history notes that
“One of the earliest challenges facing the Troopers
was to overcome the natural suspicions of the rural population they were
sent out to protect. Many rural newspapers voiced the common belief that
the force was unneeded and an unnecessary expense.”
Daily Eagle wrote that the riot in
was indicative of feelings in much of the County:
had a second reason to be polarized.
Suspicion and resentment were near the surface of any
confrontation between State Troopers (and their supporters) and those
citizens who favored the old status quo.
It seems unlikely that William Duffy would normally
have been very upset to receive a summons for an unlit tail lamp.
In this case, however, he was rankled, because the summons had
been issued in
. That meant he would have
to appear before the bench of widely-respected Justice Joseph Steinert. (Note that more information about Justice Steinert appeared in
September’s Ancient Hixtory, which is still available at http://hixnews.com/1809/hixtory.htm
By several accounts, the men disdained each other.
A letter published in the
Long Islander, sympathetic to those who had been arrested, spoke of
“the long-standing political enmity between Justice Steinert and Mr.
Duffy.” Steinert was an
established leader of the Town of
’s Democratic Party, but a bloc of younger Democrats viewed him as
part of the Town’s “old guard.”
Duffy had publicly criticized him in the past, hoping to stir the
village’s Democrats into seeking new leadership.
Now he probably expected Steinert to take pleasure in watching
him sweat in court.
Mutual mistrust may also have arisen because of the two
men’s different origins. Both
had worked hard to attain positions of esteem in
, but compared to Duffy’s origins in a farming family, Steinert had
something of a head start. He
was born into a family of lawyers, and he had arrived in
possessed of both a good education and useful connections.
Duffy’s being much younger would have amplified their
differences; it seems likely that the Judge would have seemed
condescending when dealing with the Fire Chief.
How did Duffy get to be a prominent citizen of
? He had been born late in
1882, the son of Henry Orth, a German immigrant, and Margaret Duffy, the
daughter of an Irish family who farmed land situated along what people
already were calling “Duffy’s Lane.”
For reasons unknown to me, the 1900 U.S. Census does not list Mr.
and Mrs. Orth as residing in
. It does, however, show
their son, listed as farm laborer William
Orth, living on the farm of his widowed grandmother, Catherine
Duffy. At some point between
that census and 1905, he had his name changed legally to William
Among his earliest impacts upon
was the transformation of well-used but decrepit Duffy’s Lane into a
proper public thoroughfare. By
1905, after decades of neglect – either the Town had been derelict in
its duties, or perhaps it had never realized the lane was not private
property – not everyone agreed on where the boundaries were between
the lane and the adjoining farms.
Long Islander, October 7, 1902
Beginning that year, Duffy worked with the Town Board
to resolve the disputed boundaries, and to get landowners along the lane
to agree on its becoming a public road, one which would be supported by
the TOBAY Highway Department. In
May 1908, the Town accepted responsibility for maintaining the road, and
the village powers agreed that the road should be renamed
, in honor of the man who had worked for more than three years to effect
the change. William J. Duffy
was not yet finished, however. He
then began working to get street lights installed along the full length
of the avenue, ensuring that the light nearest his own property was
installed last, after those near all his neighbors’ properties.
More public achievements soon followed.
Still a farmer, he was elected to the Board of Education, and for
a time served as its President. He
became Fire Chief. He served
as a member of the Nassau County Farm Bureau, on the Hicksville Board of
Trade, and he became increasingly active in the Town of
’s Democratic Party.
Happened, and Then What Happened
of the incident on Christmas Eve differ substantially; some of the
reported allegations and quotations simply are not credible. I find it
impossible to offer a definitive version of events – for instance,
some reports say that the Troopers were on horseback, and others say
that they were “back on their heels.”
The following paragraphs try to stitch together pieces of several
conflicting versions, plugging holes as necessary, to create a coherent
narrative. Doubtless, some
of it remains inaccurate.
Early on Monday evening, December 24th, men began to
gather in the saloon at Frank Reinhardt’s Broadway Hotel, on the southeast corner of Broadway and
. The Broadway
was the preferred meeting venue and tavern for the Fire Department, and
for local members of the
. William Duffy’s presence
would have been a given – not only was he Fire Chief, but he also was
trying to advance his position among Town Democrats.
By 7:00 PM, there were about 35 men in the saloon.
A Trooper, patrolling
’s streets with a partner, entered the room to ask about a car that was parked outside.
William Duffy said it was his, and he was told it needed to have
its lights lit. (Apparently,
in 1917 lights had to remain lit when a vehicle was parked at night on a
public street; this seems to have been among the regulations that local
police had not enforced.) Duffy
went outside with the Trooper and lighted the vehicle’s lights.
One report states there was an irritated exchange between the two
at this point; when he asked Duffy to identify himself, the Trooper was
told to use the license plate number to find out whose car it was.
Duffy then went back inside.
About 90 minutes later, the Troopers returned, this
time to report that the tail light on Duffy’s car was out.
(One assumes that the tail
light – in 1917, likely one that burned kerosene – had been lit
during the earlier encounter between the men, as there had been no
dispute about it then.) Duffy
probably felt harassed. Outside
again, he and the Troopers exchanged words.
Things escalated when a Trooper attempted to issue him a summons;
other men, likely “full of holiday cheer,” had come out to watch,
and a fight broke out.
One does not need an excess of imagination to
understand the confrontation in the context of wartime
. Most of the men involved
had German blood, and were celebrating the holiday as they always had,
at a German-American hotel. Duffy
himself was half-German. They
likely felt persecuted – because of a tail light, and on Christmas
Eve, for Heaven’s sake! They
were growing tired of the helplessness with which this new anti-German
persecution burdened them.
Grand Central Hotel
ebay.com; a better copy of this picture is found in
Richard and Anne Evers’ book ‘Hicksville’ in the Images of
William J. Duffy
For their part, the Troopers also felt persecuted, for
they were constantly greeted with suspicion.
Moreover, the laws that the local police left for them to enforce
were primarily ones which annoyed the public they were trying to serve,
making confrontations with the public more likely.
As the crowd grew in size and belligerence, the
Troopers slowly retreated northward along Broadway, towards their
temporary barracks at the Grand Central.
Mob-like, the crowd moved with them, its size fluctuating.
Reaching the hotel, about 40 men backed the Troopers against a
wall. One of them drew a
gun, and a few in the crowd shouted about lynching or shooting the
besieged Troopers. The
latter called up to the hotel’s windows, trying to get help from the
other Troopers billeted in the rooms.
Two Troopers soon emerged and joined in the fray.
Fearing that more might do so, the crowd began to disperse.
Things finally quieted down at 2:00 AM.
Tuesday, Christmas Day, was deceptively quiet.
Unknown to the residents of the village, the local Troopers had
communicated with their State Headquarters, and their Captain was en
for the next day’s appearance in
’s Court House.
Wednesday morning, State Police swore out warrants
before Judge Steinert. There
were multiple charges, including inciting a riot, resisting arrest, and
assaulting an officer who was discharging his duty.
The six men facing charges were Herman Ofenloch, Osborn Curtis,
Charles Van Wickler, Adolph Lauck, William Duffy, and Christian Brengel.
The last two named were the first two sought, and they resisted
arrest. Once subdued, they
were handcuffed and taken to Justice Steinert’s private office.
Over the course of the afternoon, the others were also
apprehended. Each was held
in $1,000 bail, pending arraignment two days later.
The arraignment on Friday was not at all a quiet
Perhaps shaken by the hubbub, Justice Steinert reserved
decision, and he postponed the arraignment for a week, those who had
been arrested being “bound over” until then.
Comments made at the Court House led to reports that some of the
men charged had uttered “disparaging remarks concerning the State of
, and the Constitution,” and thus might face additional charges of
On January 4, 1918, the arraignment resumed.
According to the Daily Long Island Farmer, the Deputy Sheriffs among those being
arraigned had already been stripped of their badges.
After hearing all the testimony, Justice Steinert increased the
defendants’ bail to $2,000. Four
“villagers” (presumably not among those already held) who had
threatened to lynch the Troopers were scheduled to face a separate
hearing. Justice Steinert
indicated that Grand Jury indictments were likely, and that the men who
had been charged could be imprisoned for up to five years, and fined
In a twist symptomatic of the day’s anti-German
feelings, the Farmer appended
this gratuitous coda to the arraignment story:
Perhaps it felt that the more Germans who were shown to
be involved in such activity, the more people could feel vindicated for
hating Germans so much.
Newspapers reported that on January 19th,
the six men who had been charged appeared in County Court in
. The Grand Jury returned
indictments against seven men (i.e., testimony had brought to light the
actions of one additional man, Daniel Dempsey).
The charges seemed less aggressive than those discussed at the
time of Judge Steinert’s predictions.
The men were indicted for unlawful assembly, for rioting, and for
refusing to assist in an arrest. Bail
was reduced from $2,000 to $500.
Another situation came to light during the Grand
Jury’s deliberations, one which arose from a factual error in earlier
testimony at the Hicksville Court House.
One of the Troopers had misidentified the village street on which
part of the incident occurred. Afterwards,
a newspaper received a letter which falsely alleged that the Trooper who
misspoke had privately admitted to perjury.
The letter did not identify its author, but for reasons not
stated, the newspaper believed it had been written by
dental surgeon Elwood A. Curtis. He
was a brother of one of the men arrested, but he also was a credible,
highly respected member of village government.
It printed the letter.
The now-public letter was considered
libelous. His purported connection to
it led to the indictment of Dr. Curtis for criminal libel.
His bail was also set at $500.
All of those charged entered pleas of not
guilty, and their trials – Elwood Curtis was to be tried
separately from the others – were scheduled for February.
In the interim, they all went free on bail.
The trial of the seven accused, finally conducted in
mid-March, proved uneventful, and in comparison to the riot and the
exciting first attempt at arraignment, it was anticlimactic.
After nearly a full week of testimony from “a great many
witnesses” (the press neither described their testimony nor identified
them), and then four hours of deliberating, the jury rendered a verdict
of guilty on a single charge:
unlawful assembly. Strangely,
the press does not seem to have reported on the disposition of the more
salient indictments that had precipitated the trial.
County Judge Lewis J. Smith, notable at the time for
his recent work as prosecutor on a high-profile murder case, dealt with
the convicted rioters – perhaps one should instead refer to them as
“convicted unlawful assemblers” – as follows:
reprimand; fined $100
reprimand; fined $50
reprimand; fined $50
Charles Van Wickler
reprimand; fined $50
reprimand; fined $50
reprimand; fined $25
reprimand; sentence suspended
Judge Lewis J. Smith
What became of the charge against Dr. Curtis?
I have found no reference in any newspaper to his trial for
libel, other than its having been scheduled to commence on March 8, 1918
. This “exclusive” from
the Eagle may provide a clue.
To recap, the
Long Islander had reported on
“So-called Rioters,” and in return, it had received the libelous
letter from “So-called Voters.”
Apparently, the editors were led to believe that Dr. Curtis was
its author, and printed the letter, thereby setting off a sequence of
events which brought about the charge of criminal libel.
Obviously, the prosecutor would have needed evidence to
counter Elwood Curtis’ public denial of responsibility.
As can be seen above, the Sergeant’s admirable expression of
confidence in his Troopers does not imply that there was any such
evidence. He must have been
well versed in the facts of the case, and yet he did not even hint that
any proof of the author’s identity had come to light.
If there really was no evidence, then the scheduled
trial of Dr. Curtis could not have moved forward.
I suspect that it was not held at all.
Like the earlier allegations of sedition, and the indictments for
rioting and for assaulting a law officer, his indictment for criminal
libel seems to have simply evaporated during the two months that
followed that tumultuous Christmas Eve.
Duffy’s rising star seems not to have been dimmed by
this incident, for the people in and around
still trusted him. Within a
few years, he became a Vice-President for the National Seed Company,
joined the Board of Directors of the Bank of Hicksville, and became
Treasurer of the local Knights of Columbus Council.
In 1927, he became President of the Long Island National Bank.
He did not forsake farming.
’s farms were being attacked by nematodes (microscopic roundworms,
which potentially can destroy entire crops) its farmers needed guidance.
Duffy was named to
’s Nematode Committee, which was able to give the farmers access to
the best current thinking about the pests’ impact, and about possible
ways to deal with them.
In 1948, three years before his death, William J. Duffy
was chosen to serve as
’s Honorary Mayor during the celebration of the village’s
Even as Dr. Curtis faced fallout from his being
indicted for criminal libel, he was waging a year-long conflict with the
NYS Education Department.
had approved a plan to address the overcrowding of
’s lone school, which at the time was operating with split sessions.
Curtis felt that the plan – which would build a new school, but
in so doing eliminate a village park – was short-sighted.
He persuaded the Department to study the situation first-hand,
and the subsequent visits by State officials proved persuasive.
The plan was rescinded. An
alternative approach was devised, one which Dr. Curtis felt would be of
significantly greater benefit to
Throughout his lifetime, Elwood Curtis continued to
serve the Town and the village in various elected and appointed
capacities (e.g., he headed the local Draft Board during the second
World War). Among all his
accomplishments, he is most remembered for winning another hard-fought
: in the 1930s, he led the fight to limit Robert Moses’ acquisition of
Town beach properties by the State of
As far as I know, that’s the whole story.
If any reader can provide more information or insight about this
incident, please email me at email@example.com