Yester-Heroes: Handling the ‘Idle and Dissolute’

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Merchants Exchange building early 1870s.

Stories from the History of Nashua’s Police and Fire-Rescue Departments.

Nashua’s Annual Report for 1857 for the Police Dept. showed the term “Constable” seemingly dropped in favor of “City Watch Officer.” It is unknown if this was purposely done by the City Marshal, or a product of whoever was writing up the Annual Report.

With some variations, the terms Constable, and Police Officer would change many times until the department was more professionally run in the 1890s. They almost seemed to be interchangeable, even within the same Annual Report, different nomenclature was used. In 1857, there were 11 City Watch officers and 25 Police Officers. However, in many cases the same person served both jobs. The specific duties of each were not enumerated. In 1859, the nomenclature changed again. This year’s report shows Nashua with 10 Constables, 16 Police Officers and 2 Night Watchmen.

A growing textile industry brought more people, more attendant businesses, and a new set of social ills that Nashua Police had to contend with. Before the days of television and the internet, people, especially working people, needed a release from the grinding hours of running a textile machine in a hot factory. Some found solace at the bottom of a bottle.

Nashua’s 1859 report makes mention, for the first time, of 39 “intoxicated persons assisted home.” The practice of helping intoxicated persons home would go on for years. In 1859 this was not too difficult when most people lived south of the Nashua River only a block or two off Main St. The main area of the city only went as far south as Kinsley St. The last time this “service” would be mentioned was in the 1949 Annual Report.

In 1860, Nashua’s population was 10,100, having increased 174% in the previous 10 years due primarily to the mills and attendant businesses. That year, the annual salary for the City Marshal, Thomas Banks, was $200. Two-hundred dollars in 1860 is worth about $7,180 in 2022 dollars. By comparison, Nashua’s Mayor, A. W. Sawyer made $300 per year.  

From about 1866 to 1872, a new wave of new French-Canadian immigrants began arriving in Nashua, most will be employed by the mills. Many settled around what is today, High St. in boarding houses. Some are reported to have as many as 8 or 10 children.  For a time, this area would be known as French Village and another area of high-density living quarters to be protected by police and fire departments.

By 1870, Nashua’s population had grown to 10,500. Between 1870 and 1880, Nashua’s population will grow to 13,400. There were now 36 streets to be patrolled and more being added. Yet, the police department still did not have an official budget appropriation. It was still funded primarily by the fines and costs associated with an arrest. Subsequently, the police force had little equipment. However, the budget for the City Watch (then limited to night-time patrol) grew from $1,500 in 1870 to $3,800 in 1880. It is assumed that the City Watch budget came from the city but it could have come from private funds; although there is no record in the Annual Reports to confirm either. 

Among the 204 arrests made in 1870, was the first arrest for passing counterfeit money and three arrests for “abuse of a horse.”

In 1871, City Marshal Charles Robinson was replaced by E.P. Brown. Again, terminology changed and the term “Constable” was dropped. Now the city had 18 Special Police and 4 Watchmen.

Now, being a more metropolitan area, serviced by surface roads and railroads, with the “promise” of providing a job for anyone looking for employment, or at least, being able to receive a “hand-out” from those who were already working, more people were drawn to Nashua. 

Among the 216 people arrested in 1871, four were arrested for adultery, four for lewdness and 12 for being “idle and dissolute”… in other words, vagrants. One number that stands out in the arrest record is “339 Provided with Lodging.” In his annual report, City Marshal Brown explains, “The number of lodgers (vagrants staying overnight in the city jail) for the past six months has been quite large, owing perhaps in part to the opening of the Acton Railroad. They are mostly tramps or traveling vagrants. These are provided with lodging, supper and breakfast, at the expense of the police department, thereby preventing begging from door to door, and in some cases, petty thieving. Occasionally a few worthy persons apply for lodging, but the greater portion are rendered homeless by their own improvidence and intemperance.” 

Brown continues about Nashua’s vagrancy problem, “Many requests are made that the police attend to keeping the sidewalks of Factory Street and other business streets free from boys and loafers during the day. This difficulty can only be remedied by the appointment of one or more day police, which arrangement, I think, would be approved by most of the businessmen.” With that, it would appear that during this period, the Nashua Police Dept. patrolled primarily at night, with a minimum of daytime coverage.

It is also worth noting that at this time (1870) Nashua’s venerable Merchants Exchange Building is built on the west side of Main St. between High St. and Pearl St. The brick building replaced a similar wood-frame building. For years this has been the home to Martha’s Sweet Shop and now Martha’s Exchange restaurant. 

Excerpted from “Nashua’s Finest: The History of Law Enforcement in Nashua NH” 

Yester-Heroes author Gary Ledoux grew up in Nashua’s Crown Hill area, attending Nashua schools and graduating from Nashua High in 1970. He attended NH Vo-Tech for a time, then moved to Amherst, then Manchester, and Weare. He served as a volunteer on the Amherst Fire Dept from 1974 to 1977. A career in the automotive business took him to Florida and then to southern California. After 48 years, he retired in 2017, moving back to Florida with his wife, Rachel, and two dogs. He has published seven books, including two about Nashua history, and has been a contributing editor or contributor to 10 different magazines. Gary can be reached at

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