Stories from an American Postcard

As a child I collected post cards. My parents traveled a lot and sent me pictures from where they visited. I saved them all. As I got older, I began to buy postcards as remembrances of my trips. Post cards continued to interest me as an adult, and in my current position, they help document the work of law enforcement. But I had forgotten the amazing stories a post card can hold—especially one without a picture!

In the NLEM collection is a run-of-the-mill postcard mailed by the Chief of Police in Sacramento to the Chief of Police in San Francisco in August 1880. The card, originally one of many such cards sent to Chiefs of Police (and most likely Sheriffs), described at length the items taken during a robbery. But with a little more research, the post card brought to life two important California citizens: the man who sent the card—Matthew Karcher—and the man who received it—Patrick Crowley.

Geo. Bates and Co. robbery postcard, 1880. 2006.79.1. Collection of the NLEM, Washington, DC.

Matthew Karcher was an American success story. Born in Baden, Germany, in 1832, he emigrated to the United States and eventually made his way to Sacramento. That same year, 1851, he opened a bakery which he ran for 14 years until it was destroyed by flood and fire. Having a family and no work, he was offered a position on the Sacramento police force and accepted it. Apparently he did well, running for and being elected Chief of Police for almost 10 years. He later served as a deputy sheriff.

Patrick Crowley, the San Francisco Chief to whom Karcher sent the card, is an even larger figure in western law enforcement history. In a 1929 article on her father, Kate Hays Crowley stated, “the story of my father’s life as chief of police of San Francisco is the story of the organization of the department and its development into an efficient unit of protection of the life and property of a great city.” Crowley was elected Chief in 1866 and served until 1897; his tenure as Chief saw many changes in the city. His daughter wrote, “He was chief of less than a hundred men in a community where interested citizens believed it their duty to get out and take an active, and often violent part in righting the wrongs or wronging the rights of their time.”

Little did the Museum staff know when we acquired the post card that it would shed light on two important settlers, as well as important California peace officers. Karcher, the immigrant who realized the American dream , and Crowley, an individual who experience the dramatic growth of an American city—captured on a small postcard.