The top cop in 1802 has a great-great-great-great-grandson in the NYPD

It is Jacob Hays, and his image is the first in a long series of framed portraits of the department’s police chiefs.

It is Jacob Hays, and his image is the first in a long series of framed portraits of the department’s police chiefs.

It is Jacob Hays, and his image is the first in a long series of framed portraits of the department’s police chiefs.

For four decades before the Police Department was formed in 1845, Hays served as New York City’s highest-ranking law enforcement official: a now-defunct position known as high constable — a “top cop” post that also required street-level patrol and detective work.

“You could probably more accurately describe him as the whole Police Department,” Ed Conlon, a communications director for the department, said. “He was doing the job that cops and detectives do.”


The department never had a photograph of Hays until recently, when a faded image appeared on the desk of Benjamin Singleton, 28, director of analytics for the department’s Detective Bureau.

Singleton, as it turns out, is Hays’ great-great-great-great-grandson.

Even in a department rife with so-called cop families boasting generations of service on the force, the connection between Hays and Singleton might reach back the longest.

At first glance, their law enforcement roles could not seem more dissimilar. The physically fearsome Hays became high constable in 1802, when the city was essentially 60,000 residents clustered in Lower Manhattan.

He was, as one contemporary newspaper put it, “the terror of rascals of every grade.”


The less imposing Singleton, on the other hand, dresses in a suit and tie and develops computer programs that identify crime patterns in a city of more than 8 million people spread across five boroughs.

But there are similarities. For one, neither man was a likely candidate for a career in law enforcement.

Born in 1772, Hays grew up in a family of Jewish shopkeepers in rural Westchester County with little education, while Singleton grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and attended Regis High School and Yale University.

His family members worked largely in finance, not law enforcement.

A college law enforcement class helped spark an interest in police work, as did this distant family connection to Hays, a mythical police figure Singleton heard about often from his grandmother.


“It just seemed serendipitous that I would go into law enforcement, having an ancestor who was one of the forefathers of modern American policing,” he said. “It was always in the back of my head and reinforced my connection to law enforcement in the city.”

But unlike his forebear, who was a law enforcement lifer, Singleton never saw police work as a lifelong vocation. And after four years at the Police Department, he is preparing to leave for an analytics job at an airline.

With a desk in the chief of detectives’ office, Singleton, a civilian in the department, has spent those four years walking past the drawing of Hays. But in December, his aunt found the old photograph of Hays — the only known portrait of him — in a family collection.

The family connection came to the attention of Conlon, 54.

Conlon, a Harvard-educated author and former detective who writes material for the department’s website, is a fourth-generation police officer whose great-grandfather was a New York City patrolman a century ago. He was fascinated by Singleton’s connection and began researching Hays, whose prominence in city history had been largely forgotten.


Conlon got in touch with Patrick Bringley, a writer who in 2014 wrote a thesis on Hays while at Hunter College in Manhattan.

Hays also served as a captain of the city’s Night Watch patrol, which kept a lookout for crime after dark. He gained international fame by tracking notorious criminals, including counterfeiters, across state lines and even into Canada.

For his longevity, he gained the nickname “Old Hays.” Parents used to warn misbehaving children that “Old Hays will get you.”

“Back then, everybody in New York City knew who Jacob Hays was,” Bringley said. “He was the dominant figure in law enforcement because his institutional knowledge trumped everyone else’s by miles.”

Hays had an exceptional understanding of the city’s criminal dynamics and had such an uncanny memory for criminals that he could spot them with a glance on a crowded street.


“Half a look is enough for old Jacob” was how one newspaper described it, Bringley said.

Hays, who is buried in Marble Cemetery in Manhattan’s East Village, has lineage that includes novelist John Dos Passos and A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times.

Conlon and Singleton recently met Bringley at the Museum of the City of New York in Manhattan, where they perused Hays’ personal indexes of criminals.

Even as an appointed high constable, Hays drew no base salary and had no official authority over the other constables assigned to each neighborhood.

Instead, the constables vied for rewards, bounties and fees to make a living. Essentially competing as individual freelancers, they were unlikely to share information on criminals.


“Hays was the top cop because he knew the most, and hoarded information on crooks and their patterns in ledgers and in his head,” Bringley said. “Nowadays you need a computer guy like Singleton for that and we call it data.”

Since citywide criminal records were not compiled at the time, Hays assembled his own.

One of his notebooks was a list of offenders of Sunday laws enforced to promote religious days of rest. This included selling alcohol on Sundays, using firecrackers, fishing and driving a horse and cart faster than 5 mph. The notebook listed Hays’ arrest of a young Cornelius Vanderbilt for ice skating on a Sunday, years before Vanderbilt would become a shipping magnate and one of the country’s wealthiest men.

Then there was a prison ledger Hays kept with some 6,000 inmate names, ages and crimes and sentences.

“It was kind of like his own intelligence ledger, his suspect book,” recalled Singleton, who compared it to a contemporary database of gang members and was struck that his forebear was essentially conducting an early form of police analytics, albeit using less sophisticated methods.


“All those things he logged are still important to us today as well,” Singleton said. “Like him, we try to filter out information in a systematic way to better understand the people who are driving crime patterns. We have a fancy database, but we still rely on the same techniques.”

Those methods include programs and algorithms developed by Singleton that analyze crime trends. One algorithm identifies crime spikes based upon type and location of offenses.

Hays, who died in 1850 at age 78, maintained a leadership role in the constabulary until it was replaced by the Police Department.

“He had an extraordinary memory and recognition abilities,” Singleton said, “but data still mattered back then.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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