The Elkton Police Department carefully and meticulously chronicled day-to-day happenings for the rural Maryland law enforcement agency in five-pound ledger books from 1955 to 1993. As patrolman went on and off duty, requests for police aid came in, suspects were arrested, weather conditions changed, or accidents happened, officers filled the pages of these heavy blotters with the details, completing a volume for each passing year.
These valuable records, a significant source of information about social conditions and changing times, municipal government, weather, crime patterns, and individual information, were added to the archives at the Historical Society of Cecil County by the Town of Elkton a few years ago. Spanning five decades, historians, social scientists, and family researchers have a long run of complete data, which can be used to understand the past.
Providing a cops-eye view, the handwritten logs began on August 6, 1955. On that Saturday Officer Harry Minker penned the initial entry in the otherwise blank book noting that it was clear and hot at 8:00 a.m. He scrawled nine additional notations during his watch, but only five involved police calls. A few days later, he penned one saying “call to get mayor coffee.”
The Mayor and Commissioners put a push on to increase the efficiency of its force about this time, and these records are evidence of the focus on better police practices. The “thin blue line,” four full-time and 2 part-time men, crisscrossed the town in a new Ford patrol car, responding to calls from the water plant operator who signaled them on the town’s two-year-old radio system. In a few months, the officers would have their own dedicated police station, replacing the desk and shared telephone they used in the town hall.
At first Elkton police work was by and large routine. Traffic problems, simple assaults, drunkenness, loitering, minor thefts, and a little disorderly conduct made up the bulk of the work, but serious crimes and alarming incidents sometimes jolted the routine. Take November 22, 1963. As a thick Chesapeake Bay fog blanketed the town, the day-man, Officer Jerry Secor, signed on watch at 8:00 a.m. On this Friday, as police work goes, things were quiet as he handled two unremarkable calls. Then, abruptly at 1:30 p.m., everything in this Eastern Shore town and the nation changed for someone, in a careful hand, wrote in the register: “President Kennedy shot and killed in Dallas Texas.” For the remainder of that heartbreaking day, there is something about the unsettling quiet reflected in the activity report as a deep dark, sadness penetrates the town and few calls come in for the remainder of the evening and night.
There were others. On December 8, 1963, a commercial airliner crashed just outside town killing 81-people, the blotter notes. On a quiet Sunday in May 1965, as two cruisers prowled the sleeping town, a fire-ball suddenly loomed high up into the sky at the edge of Hollingsworth Manor. A chemical train jumped the tracks and exploded.
When storms threatened the county seat, the force was busy. As Patrolman Alton Crawford took to the streets on December 11, 1960, an early snowstorm was sweeping toward Cecil County. For the next two days, the men in blue noted that heavy snow was falling as they rescued stranded motorists, transported doctors and nurses to the hospital, and eventually began reporting that traffic was tied up and all activity had stopped. At the height of the powerful blast, the night watch noted that the power was off all over town.
In August 1955, hurricanes Connie and Diane charged through the mid-Atlantic unleashing devastating floods. Throughout those wind-swept days the men noted the water was rising, trees were blown down, and significant flooding was occurring. When Officer Edgar Startt signed off as midnight neared on August 12, 1955, he put pen to paper and simply scribbled, “bad night, off duty.”
On the evening of December 1, 1974, burglar alarms across town rang out as a severe thunderstorm blew through, taking out power lines and disrupting electrical service. Then at 11:35 p.m. as Officer Terry Lewis cruised East Main a large tree blew over on the patrol car, trapping the officer and his partner. The fire department extricated the men with the Jaws of Life rescue tools.
Just as the nation struggled to clean up air pollution, the night watch, officers, Hawley and Sharpless, reported that a thick smog from a chemical plant drifted over the town during the predawn hours of December 23, 1965. The visibility plummeted to zero as the two officers prowled the darkness looking for trouble.
November 17, 1993, marked the last time someone wrote a note in the old police logs. The department converted to a computerized system and the journals were discontinued as the agency entered the digital recordkeeping age. The last entry occurred at 11:32 a.m. when officers responded to a domestic disturbance. It was the 8,577 call of the year. That year, the Maryland Uniform Crime Report reported the force of 23 officers investigated 555 serious crimes and made 799 arrests. In 1973, there were 461 serious crimes, 278 arrests, and 12-officers.
As one reads the blotters, books now preserved for researchers, you get a detailed cops-eye-view of what life was like on a particular day in Elkton as you fall swiftly back in time with each receding year. The growth and development of the Elkton Police and the community and changes in the nature of crime and social conditions, all unfold in these pages. Minor disturbances, drunkenness, petty larceny, and domestic trouble made up the bulk of the complaints in the early years, reflecting the nature of crime in a rural community in the 1950s. As that quiet decade gave way to the troubling ‘60s and ‘70s, the volumes start reflecting changes in society, the drug culture, social unrest, and the rapid increase in crime. While most of the time the men recorded routine complaints, there were a few spectacular crimes. During the 1990s, the notations sometimes overflowed the pages because of the number of calls.
Now, in conjunction with the Elkton Police Oral History Project, former detective Willis Mae is combing through those old pages, extracting key information to support the history initiative. The Society will provide updates on this project as it moves along.