Policing Lower Merion was a team effort

by David Schmidt
Special to Main Line Life

In the history of the Main Line, there’s always been a belief in the basic goodness of man. Early Quakers knew that they and their brethren were trying to be good people. Later, with the arrival of the industrial revolution, this was no longer a matter that could be left in God’s hands.

Policing in the 19th; century was a lot less formal than now, and application ofthe laws and justice were often accomplished without bothering the judicial system. In the rowdy halls of the mill workers and the taverns of the teamsters, order waskept by citizens with the help of a certain amount of physical persuasion. Those who didn’t comply with local rules would find themselves escorted to the nearest border and admonished on pain of continued good health not to return. It was a harsh period, and conciliatory discussions weren’t to be depended on to keep the peace. Even the most genteel knew there were men who simply needed thrashing to control their behavior and maintain good order in the community.

Since most men at that time had to work for a living, there weren’t many lawyers available to handle cases for laborers who felt they’d been unfairly treated at the hands of the local constabulary. Until about 1877 the township had to rely upon its lone constable for protection from crime. He was John Whiteman, evidently a legendary terror to those would-be evildoers. Earlier he’d been a wheelwright, but quickly realized constabulary was a full-time job. Soon after closing his shop he was also made tax collector.

Josiah S. Pearce, in his 1906 reminiscences, says Whiteman used to traverse the township with the accouterments of both his offices: tax books and receipts, a revolver, a blackjack, a pair of handcuffs and a piece of rope — the latter for tying up troublesome prisoners. One night in 1876 he singlehandedly arrested three men for robbing a store in Ardmore. To discover the whereabouts of the booty, Whiteman tied the legs of one prisoner and then hanged the man head down from a store porch. The thief quickly revealed where the stolen goods could be found. In their trial before Judge Henry P. Ross, the judge admonished Whiteman against excessive zeal in his good work.

Whiteman’s most notable case resulted from an arrest he attempted in January 1877. He had a warrant to arrest a David Mundell, living near Bryn Mawr. When the crippled constable appeared at Mundell’s home, the accused man refused to go along. Whiteman summoned George Litzenberg, constable in adjoining Radnor Township, and also George H. Mowrer, a citizen of Ardmore. When they broke down his door Mundell attacked them with a corn cutter. As he swung the cutter towards Whiteman’s head, a shot rang out, killing Mundell.

The three were tried and convicted of manslaughter. Judge Ross sentenced them to short terms in jail but commended them for their actions. He also explained that if they hadn’t broken down Mundell’s door, there would have been no conviction. No one knew which of them fired the shot that killed Mundell, as all three had fired their revolvers. The people of Lower Merion took care of the men’s families while they were in prison, and at the next election Whiteman was re-elected without opposition. He was constable of the township for thirty years, and he died in 1900.

As the railroad barons and other wealthy men moved their families to the Main Line, the need for law enforcemnt became even greater. These were the times when if you were a stranger it was healthy to be outside the township by dark. There were too many men with too much to lose for it to be otherwise. Lower Merion’s first police force resulted in reaction to the actions of tramps along the Main Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad during the industrial depression of 1877. Bryn Mawr and Rosemont citizens formed societies for policing their areas. John H. Converse was president ofthe former and John G. Garrett was the leading spirit in the latter.

Each employed several policemen. The Rosemont society tried to induce tramps to refrain from stealing food by opening a soup kitchen for them. The police force was popular with residents, and the two societies merged in 1888 as the Main Line Citizens’ Association. They were the township’s police until Lower Merion became a first-class township, when one of the new entity’s first acts was to institute a township police force supervised by the Township Commissioners.

That first police department consisted of 7 officers led by Charles D. Moore, first LMPD police chief. Several members of the old police force joined the new one, and the force grew to keep pace with the needs of the expanding population of the township. By 1934 there were three lieutenants, six sergeants and 82 patrolmen.

One of them was a fellow named William F. Denson, who joined the force in 1928 and served for 25 years before retiring to his Ardmore home. He had two daughters, Anne and Fran, and Fran still lives in the house. She’s kept a lot of the mementoes of that early police department, including a number of trophies from the pistol team, for whom he father shot. “The department was getting rid of some of this old stuff and asked me if I wanted them, and of course I said yes,” she says.

Two years before he joined the force, the department received its first radio system, which was installed in five automobiles. Twelve of the officers were trained to dispatch using the radio system, but officers in the cars could only receive calls. That didn’t really matter to Denson because he patrolled on a bicycle for two years, before being assigned a motorcycle, which he rode for 15 years. “A lot of the time his beat took him along River Road, which at that time wasn’t a very good area,” his daughter relates. “One time he was standing looking down into the river and was shocked to see a safe under water. Someone had emptied it and thrown it into the river.”

Denson had been raised on a farm and his daughter has the BB gun he was given when he was 12. “He was always a small game hunter, and I think that started on the farm when he’d hunt to fill the pot,” she recalls. Because of that, he joined the force’s pistol team. The team formed in 1930 and soon became a first-class team.

The team traveled to meets in New York, New Jersey, Georgia and Pennsylvania. “Dad became a member of the “300” club after scoring a perfect 30 bull’s-eyes in one match,” Fran says. “There were very nice medals and trophies and Lower Merion’s team always came home with a fair share. As a girl, I remember the pistol range down where the Shortridge tract is now in Wynnewood. I can still hear ‘Ready on the Right, Ready on the Left, Ready on the firing line’, then ‘Bang – Bang-Bang’.” The team continued until the early 1960s and Fran is quick to point out that her father was just one of the team, not a standout: “It was really a team effort and everybody did well. My dad was no different than any of the other.”

In 1937 Samuel W. Gearhart became superintendent and instituted the police code of Lower Merion Township. In addition, he required officers to graduate from the Pennsylvania State Police Academy prior to service. For all of this the annual salary for a recruit was $1500.00.

One thing Fran remembers well is the police drills which were held on Rittenhouse Place in Ardmore. “I don’t remember if it was once a year, or just every so often, but there wasn’t nearly as much to do then as there is today, and lots of people would come to review them,” she remembers. “I guess no one worried about burglaries, because all of the police would be there and pictures were taken.”

She also remembers how heavy the uniform her father wore was. “It was 100% wool shirts and jodhpurs and leather leggings and was really hot in summer,” she says.” They also carried a wooden billy stick, too.”

Eventually Denson left patrolling on a motorcycle, and the two-wheeled vehicles were used less and less by police departments. As with everything else technology has improved and modified the methods of police work. But good shooting is still something all policemen respect. Although most go through their entire careers without ever firing their weapons in the line of duty, they must be prepared to do so. Today it is called qualifying, and each member of the police force must regularly demonstrate their proficiency.

For Bill Denson and his comrades on the pistol team it was more than just qualifying. It was a way to show others just how professional Main Line policemen could be.