The Earliest Badge of the Los Angeles Police Department

Many years ago I came across a very early photograph of a uniformed Los Angeles police officer, standing proudly alongside his family. At first glance, it appears he is wearing the “Series One” badge that was first issued in 1876. But with closer examination, the unidentified officer is wearing a badge that has seven points as compared to Series One badge which has eight points. Why is this important you ask; because there is

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A. C. Golsh cabinet card of an unidentified LAPD officer wearing the “1869” style badge and military uniform. Circa 1875-1876.

no official record of LAPD officers wearing a metal badge prior to 1876. Accordingly, this photograph is an extremely rare record of the earliest known badge worn by and LAPD officer.

In 1869, Los Angeles was being overrun by gangs, prostitution, gamblers, murderers and plain drunks. As one visitor stated, “The name of this city is in Spanish, the city of Angels, but with much more truth might it be called at present the city of Demons. While I have been here in Los Angeles only two weeks, there have been eleven deaths and only one of them a natural”

To combat these undesirables, the city council sought full-time police protection. This was a decisive moment in Los Angeles history as this allowed the establishment of a city police department. To lead the new department, the council hired William C. Warren who was the town marshal and gave him the added title of chief of police. (Warren was gunned down by one of his officers involving a dispute over reward money one year later.) The police department consisting of six officers were not paid a salary but were compensated with a commission for the collection of fees by serving writs, for arrests, and for returning stolen property.

With a budget of just $75 to furnish his office and pay rent, there is no record of any funds being allotted for uniforms or badges. So what is this officer in the photograph wearing? That mystery first began to be solved with the help of Policewomen Alice Stebbins Wells who most agree is American’s first paid policewomen. Wells served on the LAPD from 1910 until 1940 and died in 1957. In her later years of service, she was the department’s official historian. Years later, another figure entered the discussion, when retired Commander Keith Bushey was fortunate enough to steward a number of police badges from the estate of Wells. It was Bushey who saw the historical importance of the non-descript badge many others at first thought insignificant.

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The “1869” style badge. Photo courteous of Keith Bushey.

Bushey determined through his expertise as the predominant collector and historian on badges that this “City Police – 1869” was skillfully hand cut and fit the standard for metal badges worn during this era. The seven point star was used by police departments across the nation including cities in California such as San Diego, San Francisco and Sacramento. It only stands to reason, LAPD officers also wore some type of metal badge.

Bushey believes that a number of different types of badges were worn during this period from 1869 and the establishment of LAPD as a paid and uniformed department in 1876. Some were individually made such as this 1869 badge while others could have been ordered through the mail which were merely generic and had “POLICE” stamped on them.

There would have been little standardization on the fledgling department as officers were required to purchase their own equipment, uniform, and sidearm. Consequently, officers equipped themselves as best they could and with what they could afford. The fact that the 1869 badge has a “2” would suggest that there was also a number “1” badge. The “1869” on the badge is significant. It was a time in Los Angeles that the formation of a police department would have been the talk of the town. Going from volunteers attempting to enforce the law to a force of six armed officers and a chief of police, would have been something to document, in this case, inscribing the “1869” as the centerpiece of the badge.

As Bushey quantified: “In the case of this [1869] badge, the evidence is very compelling that this badge was used prior to the standardization of the uniform in 1876, and may in fact be representative of a Los Angeles Police badge design that had not been previously acknowledged.” I would agree. In doing my research for Guardians of Angels: A History of the Los Angeles Police Department, I found no documentation of the “1869” badge until I located the rare photograph of the LAPD officer wearing just such a badge. In conjunction with Bushey’s research, his acquisition of the “1869” badge, the likely history of the department’s first badge comes to light. It is an important discovery as it pre-dates the Series One badge of 1876 that historians steadfastly attribute as the first metal badge worn by members of the LAPD.

To bolster this argument, it is important to qualify the cabinet card photograph as a LAPD

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Officer Frank Lemon wearing the regulation uniform and Series One badge. Photo by Golsh. Circa 1879.

officer. The image was taken by A. C. Golsh, an immigrant from Prussia. Golsh settled down in Los Angeles and established a photographic business in heart of Los Angeles at 411 Main Street across the street from the now famous Pico House. The cabinet card style was first introduced in 1866 and had its peak in the United States from 1875 to 1895. Golsh was active in Los Angeles from approximately 1870 to 1893. Photographing policemen was not new to Golsh as evidenced by an outstanding cabinet card of Officer Frank Lemon with a detailed view of the Series One badge. Based on the style of the image and other factors noted, I would date the image circa 1875-1876. At this time there were 12 officers on the LAPD.

The uniform the officer is wearing is most likely military that he either wore during the Civil War or bought from a military surplus dealer. Note his series “1869” styled seven point badge on his jacket. Collectively taken with Bushey’s research, his seven point badge, in conjunction with the photograph of this LAPD officer wearing the early badge, we have the best evidence to date of the transformation of the Los Angeles Police Department from 1869 until 1876. It allows a rare peak into what at least one officer choose to wear until standardization of equipment took place in 1876. Please contact me with your comments and thoughts, I would enjoy hearing from you-jabultema@lapdhistory.com.

 

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What’s In a Picture: Historical Research Using Vintage Photographs

I love old photographs. I relish the stories that emanate from every pixel. It’s a moment in time that can never be duplicated. It allows the viewer to travel back to that instant and share with the people pictured whatever was occurring at that particular second in time. Fortunately for historians, LAPD was very photogenic. Taken by the press or a local photographer and, later, the department’s own photographers, thousands of images record the history of the Los Angeles Police Department from the Wild West era through to today’s digital age.

Photographs contain a treasure-trove of information just waiting to be discovered and used effectively in historical research. I believe these images are underused as a primary historical research tool—yet it’s a resource I enjoyed taking full advantage of through a variety of techniques. In compiling Guardians of Angels: A History of the Los Angeles Police Department, I used historical images to help illustrate the story of the department. As I wrote, I would always strive to locate the precise photograph to support the text. Once discovered, the real work began.

Most photographs from the earlier era of the department have no identifying inscriptions, such as handwritten captions identifying the occasion and the people in the shot. But with a little research, the details captured in the photograph can lead to very precise dating. LAPD has worn six badges since its formation in 1869. Since the time span for each badge is readily available, date ranges can be narrowed down simply by examining the particular badge being worn as well as by the type of uniform. Once I have that information I can look up who was chief of police during that span and narrow it down further by examining the image to see which chief might be pictured. Most made sure to be included in the photograph. By using today’s digital enlargement, fine details barely discernible in the original image can now be brought to life. It might be a close-up of weapons used, the uniform or an individual. Finally, if the image in question is vintage (not a copy), the researcher can date the photograph by the format and type of photograph taken further closing in on the year of the image.

Case in point. In researching for Guardians of Angels, I discovered a very old, unassuming vintage photograph showing two men in suits (above). The image was a carte-de-visite (also known as a CDV), which was a common style of photography from the 1860s to the early 1870s. This fact allowed narrowing down the date of the image. Further research of an old newspaper article accompanying the photo identified one of the individuals pictured as William “Billy” Sands.

sands earlyWilliam Sands, on the right, wearing the earliest known uniform of the Los Angeles Police Department, circa 1870.

In one of the oldest police annual reports of the LAPD, in October 1883, 16 officers were listed as employed, one of whom was: “William Sands, age 57, entered service February, 1870.” Subsequent investigation led to a glimpse into the life of Billy Sands, who posed for this photograph more than 140 years ago. Sands was born in Tennessee in 1826 and grew up in Arkansas. With the discovery of gold in California, the 23-year-old headed west. Briefly involved with the Civil War in 1861, Sands eventually settled in Los Angeles and became one of the earliest known city firemen.

Eight years later in 1869, LAPD hired its first six full-time paid officers. A few months later, Sands was hired as a replacement officer for one of the original six officers. Because LAPD did not adopt an official police uniform until several years later, the photograph of Sands standing with an unidentified individual (almost certainly another officer) is vital to the history of the department. It appears that the clothes worn by these two men are the earliest known example of what the LAPD uniforms resembled, before the official formal uniform was adopted in 1876.

The fact that both men are very similarly dressed, including their hats, jackets and pants, has to be more than a coincidence. Additionally, while most histories of the LAPD credit Chief William Warren with development of the sunburst-designed badge in 1869, I would argue that the first badge was not issued until 1877, under Chief of Police Jacob Gerkens. If these officers took the time to have their photograph taken in uniform, they most definitely would have displayed a metal badge on their lapels.

Officer Billy Sands remained on active duty until his death on November 9, 1885, at the age of 59. At this time, he was the most senior officer in the young department. The photograph, hidden from sight and deliberation for years, represent the founding officers’ uniform of the 1870 LAPD.

Over the next few months, I want to share just “What’s in a Picture” and several of the photographs I discovered in writing Guardians of Angels. Each one makes for interesting viewing, reading and historical research. Please comment on my blog and share if you have any special interest you would like to see in this column.