The Ghost Patrol

The Ghost Patrol  (1917) 
by Sinclair Lewis


Donald Patrick Dorgan had served forty-four years on the police force of Northernapolis, and during all but five of that time he had patrolled the Forest Park section.

Don Dorgan might have been a sergeant, or even a captain, but it had early been seen at headquarters that he was a crank about Forest Park. For hither he had brought his young wife, and here he had built their shack; here his wife had died, and here she was buried. It was so great a relief in the whirl of department politics to have a man who was contented with his job that the Big Fellows were glad of Dorgan, and kept him there where he wanted to be, year after year, patrolling Forest Park.

For Don Pat Dorgan had the immense gift of loving people, all people. In a day before anyone in Northernapolis had heard of scientific criminology, Dorgan believed that the duty of a policeman with clean gloves and a clean heart was to keep people from needing to be arrested. He argued with drunken men and persuaded them to hide out in an alley and sleep off the drunk. When he did arrest them it was because they were sedately staggering home intent on beating up the wives of their bosoms. Any homeless man could get a nickel from Dorgan and a road-map of the doss-houses. To big bruisers he spoke slowly, and he beat them with his nightstick where it would hurt the most but injure the least. Along his beat, small boys might play baseball, provided they did not break windows or get themselves in front of motor cars. The pocket in his coat-tail was a mine; here were secreted not only his midnight sandwiches, his revolver and handcuffs and a comic supplement, but also a bag of striped candy and a red rubber ball.

When the Widow Maclester’s son took to the booze, it was Don Dorgan who made him enlist in the navy. Such things were Don’s work—his art. Joy of his art he had when Kitty Silva repented and became clean-living; when Micky Connors, whom Dorgan had known ever since Micky was a squawking orphan, became a doctor, with a large glass sign lettered J. J. Connors, M.D., and a nurse to let a poor man in to see the great Doctor Connors!

Dorgan did have for one boy and girl a sneaking fondness that transcended the kindliness he felt toward the others. They were Polo Magenta, son of the Italian–English-Danish jockey who had died of the coke, and Effie Kugler, daughter of that Jewish delicatessen man who knew more of the Talmud than any man in the Ghetto—Effie the pretty and plump, black-haired and quick-eyed, a perfect armful for anyone.

Polo Magenta had the stuff of a man in him. The boy worshiped motors as his father had worshiped horses. At fourteen, when his father died, he was washer at McManus’ Garage; at eighteen he was one of the smoothest taxi-drivers in the city. At nineteen, dropping into Kugler’s Delicatessen for sausages and crackers for his midnight lunch, he was waited upon by Effie.

Thereafter he hung about the little shop nightly, till old Kugler frowned upon them—upon Polo, the gallantest lad in Little Hell, supple in his chauffeur’s uniform, straight-backed as the English sergeant who had been his grandfather, pale-haired like a Dane, altogether a soldierly figure, whispering across the counter to blushing Effie.

Kugler lurked at the door and prevented Polo from driving past and picking her up. So Effie became pale with longing to see her boy; Polo took to straight Bourbon, which is not good for a taxi-driver racing to catch trains. He had an accident, once; he merely smashed the fenders of another car; but one more of the like, and the taxi-company would let him out.

Then Patrolman Don Dorgan sat in on the game. He decided that Polo Magenta should marry Effie. He told Polo that he would bear a message from him to the girl, and while he was meticulously selecting a cut of sausage for sandwich, he whispered to her that Polo was waiting, with his car, in the alley off Minnis Place. Aloud he bawled: “Come walk the block with me, Effie, you little divvle, if your father will let you. Mr. Kugler, it isn’t often that Don Dorgan invites the ladies to go a-walking with him, but it’s spring, and you know how it is with us wicked cops. The girl looks as if she needed a breath of fresh air.”

“That’s r-r-r-right,” said Kugler. “You go valk a block with Mr. Dorgan, Effie, and mind you come r-r-r-right back.”

Dorgan stood like a lion at the mouth of the alley where, beside his taxi, Polo Magenta was waiting. As he caught the cry with which Effie came to her lover, he remembered the evenings long gone when he and his own sweetheart had met in the maple lane that was now the scrofulous Minnis Place.

“Oh, Polo, I’ve just felt dead, never seeing you nowhere.”

“Gee, it hurts, kid, to get up in the morning and have everything empty, knowing I won’t see you any time. I could run the machine off the Boulevard and end everything, my heart’s so cold without you.”

“Oh, is it, Polo, is it really?”

“Say, we only got a couple minutes. I’ve got a look in on a partnership in a repair shop in Thornwood Addition. If I can swing it, we can beat it and get hitched, and when your old man sees I’m prospering—”

While Dorgan heard Polo’s voice grow crisp with practical hopes, he bristled and felt sick. For Kugler was coming along Minnis Place, peering ahead, hunched with suspicion. Dorgan dared not turn to warn the lovers, nor even shout.

Dorgan smiled. “Evening again,” he said. “It was a fine walk I had with Effie. Is she got back yet?”

He was standing between Kugler and the alley-mouth, his arms akimbo.

Kugler ducked under his arm, and saw Effie cuddled beside her lover, the two of them sitting on the running-board of Polo’s machine.

“Effie, you will come home now,” said the old man. There was terrible wrath in the quietness of his graybeard voice.

The lovers looked shamed and frightened.

Dorgan swaggered up toward the group. “Look here, Mr. Kugler: Polo’s a fine upstanding lad. He ain’t got no bad habits—to speak of. He’s promised me he’ll lay off the booze. He’ll make a fine man for Effie—”

“Mr. Dorgan, years I have respected you, but—Effie, you come home now,” said Kugler.

“Oh, what will I do, Mr. Dorgan?” wailed Effie. “Should I do like Papa wants I should, or should I go off with Polo?”

Dorgan respected the divine rights of love, but also he had an old-fashioned respect for the rights of parents with their offspring.

“I guess maybe you better go with your papa, Effie. I’ll talk to him—”

“Yes, you’ll talk, and everybody will talk, and I’ll be dead,” cried young Polo. “Get out of my way, all of you.”

Already he was in the driver’s seat and backing his machine out. It went rocking round the corner.

Dorgan heard that Polo had been discharged by the taxi-company for speeding through traffic and smashing the tail-lights of another machine; then that he had got a position as private chauffeur in the suburbs, been discharged for impudence, got another position and been arrested for joy-riding with a bunch of young toughs from Little Hell. He was to be tried on the charge of stealing his employer’s machine.

Dorgan brushed his citizen’s clothes, got an expensive haircut and shampoo and went to call on the employer, who refused to listen to maundering defenses of the boy.

Dorgan called on Polo in his cell.

“It’s all right,” Polo said. “I’m glad I was pinched. I needed something to stop me, hard. I was going nutty, and if somebody hadn’t slammed on the emergency, I don’t know what I would have done. Now I’ve sat here reading and thinking, and I’m right again. I always gotta do things hard, booze or be good. And now I’m going to think hard, and I ain’t sorry to have the chanct to be quiet.”

Dorgan brought away a small note in which, with much misspelling and tenderness, Polo sent to Effie his oath of deathless love. To the delivery of this note Dorgan devoted one bribery and one shocking burglarious entrance.

Polo was sentenced to three years in prison, on a charge of grand larceny.

That evening Dorgan climbed, panting, to the cathedral, and for an hour he knelt with his lips moving, his spine cold, as he pictured young Polo shamed and crushed in prison, and as he discovered himself hating the law that he served.

One month later Dorgan reached the age-limit, and was automatically retired from the Force, on pension. He protested; but the retirement rule was inviolable.

Dorgan went to petition the commissioner himself. It was the first time in five years, except on the occasions of the annual police parades, that he had gone near headquarters, and he was given a triumphal reception. Inspectors and captains, reporters and aldermen, and the commissioner himself, shook his hand, congratulated him on his forty-five years of clean service. But to his plea they did not listen. It was impossible to find a place for him. They heartily told him to rest, because he had earned it.

Dorgan nagged them. He came to headquarters again and again, till he became a bore, and the commissioner refused to see him. Dorgan was not a fool. He went shamefacedly back to his shack, and there he remained.

For two years he huddled by the fire and slowly became melancholy mad—gray-faced, gray-haired, a gray ghost of himself.

From time to time, during his two years of hermitage, Dorgan came out to visit his old neighbors. They welcomed him, gave him drinks and news, but they did not ask his advice. So he had become a living ghost before two years had gone by, and he talked to himself, aloud.

During these two years the police force was metropolitanized. There were a smart new commissioner and smart new inspectors and a smart new uniform—a blue military uniform with flat cap and puttees and shaped coats. After his first view of that uniform, at the police parade, Dorgan went home and took down from behind the sheet-iron stove a photograph of ten years before—the Force of that day, proudly posed on the granite steps of the city hall. They had seemed efficient and impressive then, but—his honest soul confessed it—they were like rural constables beside the crack corps of today.

Presently he took out from the redwood chest his own uniform, but he could not get himself to put on its shapeless gray coat and trousers, its gray helmet and spotless white gloves. Yet its presence comforted him, proved to him that, improbable though it seemed, the secluded old man had once been an active member of the Force.

With big, clumsy, tender hands he darned a frayed spot at the bottom of the trousers and carefully folded the uniform away. He took out his nightstick and revolver and the sapphire-studded star the Department had given him for saving two lives in the collapse of the Anthony building. He fingered them and longed to be permitted to carry them. . . . All night, in a dream and half-dream and tossing wakefulness, he pictured himself patrolling again, the father of his people.

Next morning he again took his uniform, his nightstick and gun and shield out of the redwood chest, and he hung them in the wardrobe, where they had hung when he was off duty in his days of active service. He whistled cheerfully and muttered: “I’ll be seeing to them Tenth Street devils, the rotten gang of them.”

Rumors began to come into the newspaper offices of a “ghost-scare” out in the Forest Park section. An old man had looked out of his window at midnight and seen a dead man, in a uniform of years before, standing on nothing at all. A stranger to the city, having come to his apartment-hotel, the Forest Arms, some ten blocks above Little Hell, at about two in the morning, stopped to talk with a strange-looking patrolman whose face he described as a drift of fog about burning, unearthly eyes. The patrolman had courteously told him of the building up of Forest Park, and at parting had saluted, an erect, somewhat touching figure. Later the stranger was surprised to note that the regulation uniform was blue, not gray.

After this there were dozens who saw the “Ghost Patrol,” as the Chronicle dubbed the apparition; some spoke to him, and importantly reported him to be fat, thin, tall, short, old, young, and composed of mist, of shadows, of optical illusions and of ordinary human flesh.

Then a society elopement and a foreign war broke, and Ghost Patrol stories were forgotten.

One evening of early summer the agitated voice of a woman telephoned to headquarters from the best residence section of Forest Park that she had seen a burglar entering the window of the house next door, which was closed for the season. The chief himself took six huskies in his machine, and they roared out to Forest Park and surrounded the house. The owner of the agitated voice stalked out to inform the chief that just after she had telephoned, she had seen another figure crawling into the window after the burglar. She had thought that the second figure had a revolver and a policeman’s club.

So the chief and the lieutenant crawled nonchalantly through an unquestionably open window giving on the pantry at the side of the house. Their electric torches showed the dining room to be a wreck—glass scattered and broken, drawers of the buffet on the floor, curtains torn down. They remarked “Some scrap!” and shouted: “Come out here, whoever’s in this house. We got it surrounded. Kendall, are you there? Have you pinched the guy?”

There was an unearthly silence, as of someone breathing in terror, a silence more thick and anxious than any mere absence of sound. They tiptoed into the drawing room, where, tied to a davenport, was that celebrated character, Butte Benny.

“My Gawd, Chief,” he wailed, “get me outa this. De place is haunted. A bleeding ghost comes and grabs me and ties me up. Gee, honest, Chief, he was a dead man, and he was dressed like a has-been cop, and he didn’t say nawthin’ at all. I tried to wrastle him, and he got me down; and oh, Chief, he beat me crool, he did, but he was dead as me great-grandad, and you could see de light t’rough him. Let’s get outa this—frame me up and I’ll sign de confession. Me for a nice, safe cell for keeps!”

“Some amateur cop done this, to keep his hand in. Ghost me eye!” said the chief. But his own flesh felt icy, and he couldn’t help looking about for the unknown.

“Let’s get out of this, Chief,” said Lieutenant Saxon, the bravest man in the strong-arm squad; and with Butte Benny between them they fled through the front door, leaving the pantry window still open. They didn’t handcuff Benny. They couldn’t have lost him!

Next morning when a captain came to look over the damages in the burglarized house he found the dining room crudely straightened up and the pantry window locked.

When the baby daughter of Simmons, the plumber of Little Hell, was lost, two men distinctly saw a gray-faced figure in an old-time police helmet leading the lost girl through unfrequented back alleys. They tried to follow, but the mysterious figure knew the egresses better than they did; and they went to report at the station house. Meantime there was a ring at the Simmons’ door, and Simmons found his child on the doormat, crying but safe. In her hand, tight clutched, was the white-cotton glove of a policeman.

Simmons gratefully took the glove to the precinct station. It was a regulation service glove; it had been darned with white-cotton thread till the original fabric was almost overlaid with short, inexpert stitches; it had been whitened with pipe-clay, and from one slight brown spot it must have been pressed out with a hot iron. Inside it was stamped, in faded rubber stamping: Dorgan, Patrol, 9th Precinct. The chief took the glove to the commissioner, and between these two harsh, abrupt men there was a pitying silence surcharged with respect.

“We’ll have to take care of the old man,” said the chief at last.

A detective was assigned to the trail of the Ghost Patrol. The detective saw Don Dorgan come out of his shack at three in the morning, stand stretching out his long arms, sniff the late-night dampness, smile as a man will when he starts in on the routine of work that he loves. He was erect; his old uniform was clean-brushed, his linen collar spotless; in his hand he carried one lone glove. He looked to right and left, slipped into an alley, prowled through the darkness, so fleet and soft-stepping that the shadow almost lost him. He stopped at a shutter left open and prodded it shut with his old-time long nightstick. Then he stole back to his shack and went in.

The next day the chief, the commissioner, and a self-appointed committee of inspectors and captains came calling on Don Dorgan at his shack. The old man was a slovenly figure, in open-necked flannel shirt and broken-backed slippers. Yet Dorgan straightened up when they came, and faced them like an old soldier called to duty. The dignitaries sat about awkwardly, while the commissioner tried to explain that the Big Fellows had heard Dorgan was lonely here, and that the department fund was, unofficially, going to send him to Dr. Bristow’s Private Asylum for the Aged and Mentally Infirm—which he euphemistically called “Doc Bristow’s Home.”

“No,” said Dorgan, “that’s a private booby-hatch. I don’t want to go there. Maybe they got swell rooms, but I don’t want to be stowed away with a bunch of nuts.”

They had to tell him, at last, that he was frightening the neighborhood with his ghostly patrol and warn him that if he did not give it up they would have to put him away some place.

“But I got to patrol!” he said. “My boys and girls here, they need me to look after them. I sit and I hear voices—voices, I tell you, and they order me out on the beat. . . . Stick me in the bughouse. I guess maybe it’s better. Say, tell Doc Bristow to not try any shenanigans wit’ me, but let me alone, or I’ll hand him something; I got a wallop like a probationer yet—I have so, Chief.”

The embarrassed committee left Captain Luccetti with him, to close up the old man’s shack and take him to the asylum in a taxi. The Captain suggested that the old uniform be left behind.

Dr. Davis Bristow was a conscientious but crotchety man who needed mental easement more than did any of his patients. The chief had put the fear of God into him, and he treated Dorgan with respect at first.

The chief had kind-heartedly arranged that Dorgan was to have a “rest,” that he should be given no work about the farm; and all day long Dorgan had nothing to do but pretend to read, and worry about his children.

Two men had been assigned to the beat, in succession, since his time; and the second man, though he was a good officer, came from among the respectable and did not understand the surly wistfulness of Little Hell. Dorgan was sure that the man wasn’t watching to lure Matty Carlson from her periodical desire to run away from her decent, patient husband.

So one night, distraught, Dorgan lowered himself from his window and ran, skulking, stumbling, muttering across the outskirts and around to Little Hell. He didn’t have his old instinct for concealing his secret patrolling. A policeman saw him, in citizen’s clothes, swaying down his old beat, trying doors, humming to himself. And when they put him in the ambulance and drove him back to the asylum, he wept and begged to be allowed to return to duty.

Dr. Bristow telephoned to the chief of police, demanding permission to put Dorgan to work, and set him at gardening.

This was very well indeed. For through the rest of that summer, in the widespread gardens, and half the winter, in the greenhouses, Dorgan dug and sweated and learned the names of flowers. But early in January he began to worry once more. He told the super that he had figured out that, with good behavior, Polo Magenta would be out of the pen now, and need looking after. “Yes, yes—well, I’m busy; sometime you tell me all about it,” Dr. Bristow jabbered, “but just this minute I’m very busy.”

One day in mid-January Dorgan prowled uneasily all day long—the more uneasy as a blizzard blew up and the world was shut off by a curtain of weaving snow. He went up to his room early in the evening. A nurse came to take away his shoes and overcoat, and cheerily bid him go to bed.

But once he was alone he deliberately tore a cotton blanket to strips and wound the strips about his thin slippers. He wadded newspapers and a sheet between his vest and his shirt. He found his thickest gardening cap. He quietly raised the window. He knocked out the light wooden bars with his big fist. He put his feet over the windowsill and dropped into the storm, and set out across the lawn. With his gaunt form huddled, his hands rammed into his coat pockets, his large feet moving slowly, certainly, in their moccasinlike covering of cloth and thin slippers, he plowed through to the street and down toward Little Hell.

Don Dorgan knew that the blizzard would keep him from being traced by the asylum authorities for a day or two, but he also knew that he could be overpowered by it. He turned into a series of alleys, and found a stable with a snowbound delivery wagon beside it. He brought hay from the stable, covered himself with it in the wagon, and promptly went to sleep. When he awoke the next afternoon the blizzard had ceased and he went on.

He came to the outskirts of Little Hell. Sneaking through alleys, he entered the back of McManus’ red-light-district garage.

McManus, the boss, was getting his machines out into the last gasps of the storm, for the street-car service was still tied up, and motors were at a premium. He saw Dorgan and yelled: “Hello there, Don. Where did you blow in from? Ain’t seen you these six months. T’ought you was living soft at some old-folks’ home or other.”

“No,” said Dorgan, with a gravity which forbade trifling, “I’m a— I’m a kind of a watchman. Say, what’s this I hear, young Magenta is out of the pen?”

“Yes, the young whelp. I always said he was no good, when he used to work here, and—”

“What’s become of him?”

“He had the nerve to come here when he got out, looking for a job; suppose he wanted the chanct to smash up a few of my machines too! I hear he’s got a job wiping, at the K. N. roundhouse. Pretty rough joint, but good enough for the likes o’ him. Say, Don, things is slow since you went, what with these dirty agitators campaigning for prohibition—”

“Well,” said Dorgan, “I must be moseying along, John.”

Three men of hurried manner and rough natures threw Dorgan out of three various entrances to the roundhouse, but he sneaked in on the tender of a locomotive and saw Polo Magenta at work, wiping brass— or a wraith of Polo Magenta. He was thin, his eyes large and passionate. He took one look at Dorgan, and leaped to meet him.

“Dad—thunder—you old son of a gun.”

“Sure! Well, boy, how’s it coming?”



“Oh, the old stuff. Keepin’ the wanderin’ boy tonight wanderin’. The warden gives me good advice, and I thinks I’ve paid for bein’ a fool kid, and I pikes back to Little Hell with two bucks and lots of good intentions and—they seen me coming. The crooks was the only ones that welcomed me. McManus offered me a job, plain and fancy driving for guns. I turned it down and looks for decent work, which it didn’t look for me none. There’s a new cop on your old beat. Helpin’ Hand Henry, he is. He gets me up and tells me the surprisin’ news that I’m a desprit young jailbird, and he’s onto me—see; and if I chokes any old women or beats up any babes in arms, he’ll be there with the nippers—see: so I better quit my career of murder.

“I gets a job over in Milldale, driving a motor-truck, and he tips ’em off I’m a forger and an arson and I dunno what all, and they lets me out—wit’ some more good advice. Same wit’ other jobs.”


“Ain’t seen her yet. But say, Dad, I got a letter from her that’s the real stuff—says she’ll stick by me till her dad croaks, and then come to me if it’s through fire. I got it here—it keeps me from going nutty. And a picture postcard of her. You see, I planned to nip in and see her before her old man knew I was out of the hoosegow, but this cop I was tellin’ you about wises up Kugler, and he sits on the doorstep with the Revolutionary musket loaded up with horseshoes and cobblestones, and so—get me? But I gets a letter through to her by one of the boys.”

“Well, what are you going to do?”

“Search me. . . . There ain’t nobody to put us guys next, since you got off the beat, Dad.”

“I ain’t off it! Will you do what I tell you to?”


“Then listen: You got to start in right here in Northernapolis, like you’re doing, and build up again. They didn’t sentence you to three years but to six—three of ’em here, getting folks to trust you again. It ain’t fair, but it is. See? You lasted there because the bars kep’ you in. Are you man enough to make your own bars, and to not have ’em wished onto you?”


“You are! You know how it is in the pen—you can’t pick and choose your cell or your work. Then listen: I’m middlin’ well off, for a bull—savin’s and pension. We’ll go partners in a fine little garage, and buck John McManus—he’s a crook, and we’ll run him out of business. But you got to be prepared to wait, and that’s the hardest thing a man can do. Will you?”


“When you get through here, meet me in that hallway behint Mullins’ Casino. So long, boy.”

“So long, Dad.”

When Polo came to him in the hallway behind Mullins’ Casino, Dorgan demanded: “I been thinking; have you seen old Kugler?”

“Ain’t dared to lay an eye on him, Dad. Trouble enough without stirrin’ up more. Gettin’ diplomatic.”

“I been thinking. Sometimes the most diplomatic thing a guy can do is to go right to the point and surprise ’em. Come on.”

They came into Kugler’s shop, without parley or trembling; and Dorgan’s face was impassive, as befits a patrolman, as he thrust open the door and bellowed “Evenin’!” at the horrified old Jewish scholar and the maid.

Don Dorgan laid his hands on the counter and spoke.

“Kugler,” said he, “you’re going to listen to me, because if you don’t, I’ll wreck the works. You’ve spoiled four lives. You’ve made this boy a criminal, forbidding him a good, fine love, and now you’re planning to keep him one. You’ve kilt Effie the same way— look at the longing in the poor little pigeon’s face! You’ve made me an unhappy old man. You’ve made yourself, that’s meanin’ to be good and decent, unhappy by a row with your own flesh and blood. Some said I been off me nut, Kugler, but I know I been out beyont, where they understand everything and forgive everything—and I’ve learnt that it’s harder to be bad than to be good, that you been working harder to make us all unhappy than you could of to make us all happy.”

Dorgan’s gaunt, shabby bigness seemed to swell and fill the shop; his voice boomed and his eyes glowed with a will unassailable.

The tyrant Kugler was wordless, and he listened with respect as Dorgan went on, more gently:

“You’re a godly man among the sinners, but that’s made you think you must always be right. Are you willing to kill us all just to prove you can’t never be wrong? Man, man, that’s a fiendish thing to do. And oh, how much easier it would be to give way, onct, and let this poor cold boy creep home to the warmness that he do be longing so for, with the blizzard bitter around him, and every man’s hand ag’in’ him. Look—look at them poor, good children!”

Kugler looked, and he beheld Polo and Effie—still separated by the chill marble counter—with their hands clasped across it, their eyes met in utter frankness.

“Vell—” said Kugler wistfully.

“So!” said Patrolman Dorgan. “Well, I must be back on me beat—at the asylum . . . There’s things that’d bear watching there!”

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1927.

The author died in 1951, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.