Recent scandals involving police shooting unarmed suspects and getting off recalls the fact that there is nothing new in the stories. One of the most infamous occurrences involved the shooting death of an Irishman by a fellow Irish-born cop in 1858.
On November 10, 1858 officer Robert Cairnes, a new cop with two years service, was on patrol in the old First Ward when he was summoned to a ship at the foot of Wall Street to look for a one-eyed longshoreman, 28-year-old Robert Hollis, also known as Sailor Jack, who was accused of threatening to murder the captain.
Cairnes, 40, arrested Hollis, an Irish-born father of four, who slugged the officer and ran off. Cairnes, also Irish-born and a father of six, gave chase, firing his pistol into the crowd. He caught up with Hollis and fired a fatal shot into his back at such close range that Hollis’s coat caught fire.
“A policeman has no right to shoot a man for running away from him,” argued the NY Times in a contemporary editorial. The newspaper went on to cite a rash of such cases and questioned whether officers should be armed at all.
At the time the New York police had yet to officially carry guns, although many officers did.
According to a transcript of the coroner’s inquisition, the killing of Hollis stemmed from a dispute on Nov. 9, 1858 when Hollis, later described by The Times as a “ruffian” with prior arrests for violent assaults, and his mate visited the ship – the St Charles – asking for work as crewman. Capt. Thomas Conway told them that he had a full crew and could not give them work.
The pair encountered Captain Conway the next day and again asked for work. When the captain refused they followed him to the ship, where Hollis hurled a brick at Conway, who chased them off at gunpoint and sent for police.
Hollis was tracked down by Officer Cairnes and the captain, when Hollis “suddenly turned upon the officer and struck him a violent blow, knocking him down and then ran away,” the captain would later testify.
Cairnes fired two shots in pursuit. A cooper, John Thrall, seized Hollis, but becoming afraid, let him go. Then a cartman at Fulton Market, Charles W. Degendorf, grabbed a hold of Hollis’s collar and held him.
In his testimony, Degendorf said that Cairnes, ran up exclaiming, “You will get away from me, will you?,” and fired into Hollis’s back – “so near that the back of the man’s coat was scorched.”
A Second Ward officer, Joseph A. Perkins, was drawn by the shots and saw Hollis’s coat ablaze and put out the fire, demanding of Officer Cairnes, “Are you crazy?”
“I thought it very singular that he should shoot in the reckless manner he did, when there were so many about who would have assisted him,” Perkins later testified.
As Hollis was dying on a cart en route to the hospital, Officer Perkins said Cairnes admitted “that if he had the thing to do over again, he would not do as he had done.”
Perkins had to rescue Cairnes from a lynch mob desiring to avenge the executed longshoreman.
The New York Times writes that Officer Cairnes was locked up pending a coroner’s inquisition. As was his right, he did not testify and never seemed to claim self-defense.
“The following day, a coroner’s jury ruled that Mr. Hollis died from a pistol ball in the heart, discharged ‘in close contact with the body.’ It ruled the shooting ‘not justifiable’ and ordered Officer Cairnes held for a grand jury,” writes the Times.
“On Nov. 16, 1858 his bail was set at $10,000 (equal to about $270,000 today). He made bail the next day – the same day a grand jury declined to indict him. Without elaboration, a handwritten court record in the Municipal Archives notes: ‘Dismissed by grand jury.’”