Written and contributed by Ben Feld
Based on an 1886 newspaper article
Transgressions of the law were not lightly tolerated in the early days of Watertown, especially in the days of the “Railroad Bond Scandals” when the governing body for the city was the Board of Street Commissioners, a group which ran the city by default, brought about by the resignation of the elected City Council, a situation which existed for many years to avoid having “papers served on the city” which could have resulted in the entire city falling into the hand of certain bond-holders in payment for indebtedness they were in danger of being required to pay.
To the Board of Street Commissioners fell the annoying job of listening to complaints against the city or its employees and then making some kind of ruling on the complaints. Some of the complaints would sound petty to the ears of anyone living in the twenty-first century, but they were important to the people of the 1880’s, and perhaps it is lamentable that is no longer true. But one can only wonder what the reaction of people today would be if a couple living in adultery were to be coated with tar and feathers, as was one couple in Lake Mills in the early days.
On the other hand, would we prefer justice to be meted out slowly as it was in 1886 when a certain Mary Gruezmacher was charged with keeping a “disorderly house” and continued to do business for many months while the case was scheduled and rescheduled until nearly a year had gone by before Mary was convicted and fined $100 and costs, amounting to about $200? One cannot help but wonder if a certain amount of favoritism wasn’t being shown.
But in the eyes of the Board of
Street Commissioners, the city marshal, the mayor and other officials in the
city hall, it seemed to be the petty problems which, although not
earth-shaking, were by far the most irritating, annoying them like a swarm of
hungry mid-summer mosquitoes. The
greater part of the annoying complaints fell under the jurisdiction of the city
marshal but had to be brought before the Board of Street Commissioners for
consideration, which was done on a fairly regular basis. And many, too many, were handled like the one
brought to them on
Typical of the annoying complaints was one accusing Sheriff Illing of directing his deputies to “go a bit slow in making arrests” which was dismissed, as many complaints were dismissed, much as one dismisses a tattling child.
Night watchman sleeping while on duty
One complaint kept reappearing on the agenda week after week. Time after time some citizen expressed concern about the night watchman, (serving in lieu of night police force) being seen sleeping while on duty. Each time the complaint was perfunctorily dismissed until finally City Marshal Zautner, that honorable up-holder-of-the-law, could no longer ignore the situation. Finally, when night-watchman Jansen was caught, for the umpteenth time, blatantly sleeping on the job, the marshal prepared a formal complaint to present to the Board of Street Commissioners.
But his efforts were foiled when Jansen handed in his resignation at the beginning of the meeting, before Zautner had had a chance to make his complaint and demonstrate his dedication to his job.
The Board of Street Commissioners accepted Jansen’s resignation and unanimously appointed Charles Wendtlandt as the replacement, the councilmen congratulating themselves on handling the problem wisely and with dispatch. Now they could enjoy peaceful meetings dealing only with really important issues. No more annoying complaints about watchmen being derelict in their duty.
But the euphoria lasted less than a month. Soon complaints were again being submitted, (and dismissed) about the new watchman, Wendtlandt, also sleeping on the job. But this time Citizen Fred Behling got involved. Needing evidence for the complaint he planned to submit, evidence which would prove Charles Wendtlandt also had been found sleeping on the job, Behling stealthily crept up on him and, without disturbing his sleep, removed his night watchman’s badge.
Next morning he swore out an affidavit before Judge Halliger, swearing that he had not been bribed by the City Marshal to perform that dastardly act. At the meeting of the Board of Street Commissioners the next evening, Marshal Zautner presented the case to the board, which, after hearing Wendtlandt’s explanation, and deeming it satisfactory, dismissed the complaint.
But that was not the end of the case. A crime had been committed and justice must be served!
The next move was to arrest Fred Behling, the complainant, charge him with “stealing from a person” and place him under $200 bail for his appearance before Justice Halliger who, it seems, had the only clear head in the affair.
Justice Halliger, the clear-minded, fair-dealing justice, then proceeded to dismiss the accused night watchman. Why? “Because,” he said, “the evidence was not of a criminating nature.”