Idaho History

Early Boise had no police, just a lone watchman, who had his hands more than full

Before Boise City had a police department, it had a night watchman with the high-sounding title of “city marshal,” even though he wasn’t paid by the city but by the merchants whose property he watched.

In December 1868, Ad Wales resigned the position and Jack Wyatt took over. In December 1869, M.W. McCarty took on the position. The Statesman reported that he was “as attentive to business as any man can well be, or as anyone can reasonably expect.” By 1875, when Jim Kimsey held the job, the Statesman reported that he was paid so little, he was thinking of resigning.

“It does not seem to be generally known that the City Marshal’s only pay (except $10 a month as Fire Warden) is what he can collect from the people. Some complain that the Marshal does not watch the whole city. It is a question whether he is obliged to watch property other than that which he is paid to watch? The Marshal makes his collections Monday evenings and those who expect to have any watching of their property must come down when the Marshal calls. Mr Kimsey will make an excellent officer, but he cannot work for nothing.”

That the marshal had his hands full controlling crime in Boise City is revealed in a Statesman article that appeared April 15, 1876: “To be compelled to speak in any manner or any degree disparagingly of the place where we live – wherein is centered our interests, our hopes, and our pride, is an extremely disagreeable duty. But the efforts that have been, and that are now being made to ferret out crime and to bring criminals to justice, show a state of things here in the capital, which every good citizen of Idaho, wherever he may reside, must deplore.”

There had been in the past year, and was “still flowing darkly, slimily and silently on, an undercurrent of criminal plans and practices – breaking occasionally through the crevices and startling the community with its inundations in the shape of bold, overt, dangerous crimes – no one can permit himself any longer to doubt.”

Three years later the Statesman deplored the fact that Boise still had only one night watchman, who could not possibly take care of the whole city. “He must have some time to sleep, and if he does not take the rest that nature demands, he is not more than half a man when he is on duty. Two watchmen can do three times as much as one, for they can manage to get a necessary amount of sleep, and when the occasion requires both can be on duty. It will be some additional expense, but we cannot afford to sacrifice good government and the reputation of our city for the sake of saving a few dollars in the treasury, which in the end is liable to result in theft, robbery, and possibly a large destruction of property.”

The most blatant crimes committed in the spring of 1876 were a series of stagecoach robberies, all in the same place, and all within sight of Boise. They occurred on Feb. 2, April 19 and May 13. The first stage was on its way to Silver City when stopped. The Wells Fargo box was opened and $35 in coins and $240 in currency was taken.

More of the story next week.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email

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