State Police, founded by a Kingstonian, celebrates centennial

A photo from the mid-1960s heralds the use of a light plane to patrol the state Thruway. (photos courtesy New York State Police)

Col. George F. Chandler

One hundred years after its founding, the office of superintendent of state police seems to have come full circle. The division’s first superintendent, Colonel George F. Chandler, was a Kingston physician and surgeon. The current and 15th superintendent, George Beach II, lives in Hurley.

Beach visited the Chandler monument in front of the County Office Building on Fair Street in Kingston last Friday to pay his respects. The monument was erected by the county legislature on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the troopers. Chandler, who lived at the Gov. Clinton Hotel in his latter years, died in 1964. Chandler Drive, which connects Kingston with the Thruway, was named for him in 1965.

Advertisement

The State Police launched a year-long celebration of the organization’s centenary with the dedication of a monument at the former National Guard Camp Newayo near Manlius.

Chandler (1872-1964), born near Syracuse, recruited and equipped that first class of troopers, known as “the camp men,” established regional zones with barracks, and designed their uniforms. According to Beach, appointed superintendent last June, Chandler established the ethics and rules that govern the near 5,000-person force to this day.

“It’s quite amazing,” said Beach, a 34-year member of the force and a former local zone commander and staff inspector in internal affairs, “that the precepts Colonel Chandler set down for us, that we are to ‘serve, protect and defend the people while preserving the rights and dignity of all’ have guided us all these years. He wanted a special kind of people, an organization that was strong from within.”

At Chandler’s request, his ashes were spread over Glenerie Falls in the Town of Ulster.

The history of the troopers originates with a spectacular crime, a 1913 robbery/murder in Westchester County of a construction foreman delivering a payroll. The victim was able to identify his three assailants before dying from multiple gunshot wounds, but owing to the lack of a local police force, they escaped, never to be apprehended.

One of the man’s employers, a Miss Moyca Newell and her companion, wealthy author Katherine Mayo, began lobbying state officials to form a statewide police force to patrol rural areas. The duo was apparently influential, counting among their acquaintances Franklin D. Roosevelt and Charles Whitman, a future governor of New York. Their quest came at a time when women were not allowed to vote in New York; that came in 1917.

Their campaign was not without resistance. Other police agencies opposed the notion of a state police force impeding on their territory. Union leaders worried that state police under direct command of the governor might be used as strike breakers. County sheriffs, not yet organized as a lobbying force, were less of a factor, according to trooper and state police historian Maj. Robin Benziger of Kinderhook.

The trooper bill, which appropriated $500,000, passed on March 20, 1917.  Whitman signed the bill on April 11. Chandler was appointed superintendent April 30.

However heralded in hindsight, the 45-year-old Kingston physician and National Guard officer with no police experience seemed an unlikely choice. But Chandler had an important connection: he and Charles Whitman had roomed in the same building during their college student days in New York City and had remained friends over the years. After discussing plans for the force with Chandler and seeking his advice, the governor realized he had his man sitting right in front of him.

Chandler, who had campaigned in Mexico with Gen. John J. Pershing in 1916 as a New York National Guard officer, had a keen interest in military organization. “He seemed to have a natural gift for organization and administration,” Benziger said.

Whitman gave Chandler a free hand to recruit, organize and equip a statewide police force. Chandler’s imprint is everywhere. Demanding men “of high moral character,” he recruited primarily unmarried veterans and other police officers. Chandler personally examined every candidate. As to their distinctive uniforms, Chandler preferred National Guard attire, but equipped his men in gray uniforms with purple trim and Stetson hats. Trooper legend has it that Mrs. Chandler preferred purple, the color of royalty.

Beach has another theory on the origin of the color. “We’re the governor’s personal detail, a praetorian guard as it were,” he said. Gov. Thomas Dewey’s wife continued the theme, but wanted the division dressed in royal blue, an experiment with Thruway Troop T that ended shortly after he left office.

Current Superintendent George Beach II with the monument to Chandler at the County Office Building. (photo by Hugh Reynolds)

Popular Rockefeller

Trooper history indicates the division almost died shortly after its founding. Republican Whitman, its chief advocate, was defeated for reelection in 1918. Two years later, Democrat Al Smith of New York City took a dim view of the fledging state police force. Chandler, however, was able to personally lobby Smith and win the governor’s support.

One of the division’s favorite governors, according to Benziger, was Nelson Rockefeller, during whose tenure force manpower almost tripled. The first four women were assigned duty in January 1974.

“It was more than that,” said Benziger, who as historian conferred with troopers and administrators who served during the Rockefeller years. “They said he seemed to genuinely care about us, cared for our welfare. He would routinely inquire about our families.”

Rockefeller ordered troopers into Attica state prison to quell rioting in 1973, one of the darkest chapters in state police history.

Chandler prescribed strenuous training for his recruits, something uncommon in police work in those days. The first corps of troopers trained for almost three months before riding out on its first assignment, the 1917 state fair.

Mounted troopers soon became a common sight around the state. Troopers have statewide jurisdiction, but only enter other police jurisdictions upon official request. “Colonel Chandler always wanted us to be highly visible. Troopers patrolled,” Benziger said. “He believed contact with the public instilled trust.”

Mounted troopers in procession. (photo courtesy New York State Police)

Horses gave way to cars and motorcycles in the early 1920s. “Open cars,” Benziger said.

It was Chandler’s belief that troopers were no better than the populace they served, that no one was above the law. The inscription on his Kingston memorial reads, “Obedience to law is liberty.”

Chandler expected his troopers to act independently and decisively when they arrived on the scene. “Each man is an army unto himself,” Chandler said.

“We’re there to assess the situation, sort things out and act. One riot, one trooper, as it were,” Beach said with a smile a century later.

“Contact is everything,” said Benziger, a patrol officer for the first six years of her career. “For the trooper, it may be only one of many calls during a day or night. For the person, it could be the most important call they make, something they might remember for the rest of their life. That’s how we treat these calls.”

Complaints against troopers are swiftly and vigorously pursued by an internal affairs division, Benziger said.

Chandler, who described himself as “a noted surgeon and soldier and founder of the New York State Troopers” in a 1938 history of the division, retired in 1923. “My work here is done,” he declared, having set the division “on a firm foundation.”

Chandler returned to his medical practice at his home and office on East Chestnut Street on Kingston, fondly remembered by those of a certain age. “He took out my brother’s tonsils,” recalled Kingston city historian Ed Ford, who turns 99 on Saturday.

County historian Geoff Miller said formal celebrations of the troopers’ anniversary would take place later this year.

The first female state troopers started work in 1974. (photo courtesy New York State Police)

There is one comment

Post Your Thoughts