The Day There Were No Cops

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On March 22, 1861, Mayor “Long John” Wentworth fired the whole Chicago police force.

To see how this occurred, it’s necessary to review a little history of the Chicago Police Department and the relationship that Wentworth shared with it.

Before Chicago became a city, when it was still just a town, the State of Illinois authorized a three-man force on January 31, 1835. The town’s population was 3,200. When the town was incorporated as a city on March 4, 1837, the force consisted of the same three men.

An ordinance from May 17, 1851, assigned the City Marshal as the acting police chief, but the Mayor was the head of the police force. The Mayor could appoint officers and issue orders. In 1855, Police Captain Cyrus Bradley overhauled the department and expanded the number of police six times. It certainly beat three.

Elected as a reformer in 1857, Wentworth seized the opportunity to use his mayoral powers as the head of police. He personally joined raids in a vice district called the Sands.

Claiming budget concerns during his second term in 1861, Wentworth reduced the police force and imposed a midnight curfew. The curfew resulted in public disapproval and the arrest of three private detectives who had been hired to guard shops at night.

Outraged voters prompted the State of Illinois to become active in Chicago’s police politics again. On February 15, 1861, the State established a Board of Police Commissioners in the City of Chicago. It would be comprised of three commissioners, one for the north, south, and west districts divided by the Chicago River. The Governor appointed the initial commissioners and the successors would be elected. Wentworth did not cozy to the terms.


At 2:00 AM on March 22nd, he called all of the city’s police officers to City Hall, spoke out against the dictates of the Illinois Stage Legislature and fired the lot. For the next twelve hours, Chicago went without a police force.

The action was largely a show. Few people would have known that there was no active police force. The officers were reappointed later in the day. Wentworth claimed that the move would allow the Board of Commissioners to have a clean slate to begin appointing police.

During the hours of lawlessness, two burglaries were reported.

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Topics: Chicago, History

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