Awesome Men Throughout History: Henry Durkee

This week’s column is a special one to me, mostly because it involved some actual research on my part. A lot of my subjects, though obscure, have some kind of online presence that I can comb through for interesting details, but this time? Not so much. The only reason I know anything at all about the Awesome Man you’re about to meet is because he was my great-great-great-great grandfather. Or no, maybe it’s five greats. Or three. In any case, his name was Henry Durkee, and he was a bad ass.

Can't find any photos, so this'll have to do

Henry Durkee was born in the 1830s, and was a huckster (aka a guy selling stuff on the street) and a volunteer fireman before joining the Baltimore Police Department. He worked the city’s Eastern district (which includes the Barclay and Broadway East neighborhoods, as well as Greenmount Cemetery) for thirty years, and his obituary in the Baltimore Sun noted that his was a familiar voice in the area. Back then, city cops were responsible for shouting out news and weather updates as they walked their beat. Think of it as live-action Twitter.

Henry was in the Baltimore Sun a lot, usually for notable accomplishments or arrests made in the line of duty. He was said to be the fastest sprinter in the police department as a young officer, and his obituary notes that he ?was a terror to all slow-footed crooks,? not to be confused with the fleet-footed ones mentioned in Ron Paul’s crazy newsletter. Actually, given the prevalence of gout back then, criminals probably were slower than they are now.

Anyway, Durkee was also written up in the paper for his involvement in a rumble near Bond St., which would have been in the Northeastern district when that article was written. A fight broke out at a ball in a carpenter shop, of all places, and a few officers were called in to break up a crew of rowdies who were smashing up furniture and generally making violent spectacles of themselves. Those few officers weren’t enough, and their sergeant was getting the boots put to him when Durkee came in through a window (according to the Sun’s write-up) and started throwing punches, saving the sergeant. They eventually broke up the mob by shooting at them, and everyone involved was arrested. Not bad.

Henry’s eventual retirement from the police force didn’t mean he’d run out of asses to kick. He took a special assignment as a guard at Round Bay, near the Annapolis Short Line railroad, and broke up a lot of ?blind tiger? establishments during his tenure there. A blind tiger, by the way, is an illegal (meaning unlicensed) bar that, at least during the 19th century, would charge money for an attraction and serve ?complimentary? drinks to circumvent liquor laws. Unlike speakeasies, blind tigers were a lower and working-class phenomenon, so who knows how many more windows poor Henry had to break through before his death in 1901.

I’m not sure whether to thank Henry for my comfortable first world lifestyle or apologize to him for being such a wuss by comparison, but I’m glad his genetics are floating around in the family bloodline somewhere. He was an Awesome Man, and he stands as proof that it’s always worth poking through your family history. You might find an Awesome Man in there, too.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at