The green lanterns outside city police precincts

Policelights10thprecinctWhether the precinct house is old or new, all New York police stations should have two green lights flanking their entrance.

There’s a story explaining why, and it has to do with the first men who patrolled New Amsterdam in the 1650s.

Peter Stuyvesant established an eight-member “rattle watch” who were “paid a small sum to keep an eye on the growing, bustling town,” and look out for pirates, vagabonds, and robbers, according to one source.

PolicelightsninthprecinctThe rattle watchmen carried green lanterns over their shoulders on a pole, like a hobo stick, so residents could identify them in the dark, unlit streets.

“When the watchmen returned to the watch house after patrol, they hung their lantern on a hook by the front door to show people seeking the watchman that he was in the watch house,” states this NYPD recruiting website.

Policelightsqueens“Today, green lights are hung outside the entrances of police precincts as a symbol that the ‘watch’ is present and vigilant,” explains the NYPD site.

The top two photos show the relatively modern green lights of a Chelsea police house, on West 20th Street, and the Ninth Precinct on East Fifth Street in the East Village.

The loveliest old police lantern I’ve ever seen has to be the one outside the 108th Precinct in Hunters Point, Queens.

The facade of the station house is currently undergoing construction, so my photo (left) of the cast-iron, crica-1903 lantern doesn’t do it justice. Luckily Forgotten New York has a much better shot here. It’s a beauty!

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13 Responses to “The green lanterns outside city police precincts”

  1. Joseph D'Agnese Says:

    Another cool thing about the rattle-watch was that they actually carried large wooden noisemakers—a clacking, gear-powered thing—which they would swing to make a noise to summon other watchmen, if needed. You can find some photos of these online. Citizens paid a rattle-watch tax to fund the men.

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Cool, thanks! I guess that’s where their name comes from.

  3. Dan Says:

    But who watches the watchmen?

  4. chas1133 Says:

    Love the history behind the NYPD (haters save your remarks)…I’m a MOS…for those who fit, check out my blog also

  5. Kazza Says:

    What lovely lanterns! Thank you for sharing this, I love the background story.

  6. Four beauties in a row an Upper East Side block | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] all precinct houses, this one has two green lights flanking the doorway—a tradition established by the men of the “rattle watch” of New Amsterdam, who carried green lanterns with them while on […]

  7. Steven D. Moore Says:

    I am looking for the older police lights that has a round ball with precint # on them. Can you help me locate them ? I am a retired Police Officer and would like a pair in my finished basement. Thanks, Steve

  8. Behind the Green Lights (1935, Mascot Pictures) — Immortal Ephemera Says:

    […] York City police precincts, a bit of tradition originating on Manhattan as far back as the 1650s: more on those origins here. The term itself, Behind the Green Lights, was used as the title of NYPD Captain Cornelius […]

  9. Pantone’s Color of the Year is Green—a Vastly Underappreciated Color | | completenews Says:

    […] Stuyvesant’s crew of “Rattle Watchman” (men paid to patrol) carried green lanterns as they walked the streets, and hung them on the front doors of the local watch house to let residents know they were being looked out for. Today, many of the […]

  10. A Bowery tinsmith paints his city of memory | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] sell food—buttermilk, strawberries, baked pears, bread. A watchman, one of the leather-helmeted patrolmen who predate the city’s first police force, walks his beat. Boats ferry people to Brooklyn […]

  11. Judy Lambert Says:

    My mother who is of Irish decent from the Bronx, learned a song from her mother that talked about the green light hotel that started with the words: when I was a bum, bum, bum, I used to travel Harlem, myself a mild chap”. We have tried to find the origin of this song. We would appreciate knowing if any one else knows if this song.

  12. Zoé Says:

    How interesting! I never heard this story before. And I lived five blocks from The Ninth & walked past it all the time but don’t remember those lights. I wonder if they were there in the 80s.

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