William H. Balls and the Founding of the Rye Police Department
In the history of law enforcement in Rye, William H. Balls stands out as having played a central role in the police department from the very beginning. When Rye joined other communities in establishing its own incorporated police department at the turn of the century, the Balls family, a growing Irish family who settled in Rye in the mid-1800s, had put down roots and had many family members engaged in civic roles. Balls was working as a blacksmith’s apprentice at the time. He was a young married man with a growing family when he made the defining decision to join Rye’s police department, a career he continued for over 30 years. The lifelong commitment of William H. Balls shaped law enforcement here in Rye and left a legacy that went beyond the police department to enrich the larger community.
Oral family history, local history books and primary sources from the time tell many stories of William H. Balls, many of which highlight his leadership and accomplishments. They also tell the stories of a family man who, above all else, worked hard to set a good example not only for his own children, but for the many other children in Rye who needed that extra push. As Rye’s first Chief of Police and the father of twelve children, Balls had the distinctive position of addressing problems in our town while raising a generation of Rye residents who would continue to care as deeply as he did about building a strong community.
William H. Balls joined the Rye police force as a patrolman in 1905 and was promoted to sergeant in 1908 before being named Chief of Police. Balls set a high standard of personal integrity, community responsibility, courage and fairness when it came to enforcing the laws in our small but quickly growing town. At the time that Chief Balls led the police department, Rye was evolving from a small village surrounded by farms to a bustling community. During his time of leadership, the 18th Amendment was passed, and it was his job to enforce prohibition, even when old friends from the neighborhood asked him to make an exception or turn a blind eye to a growing underground liquor business. The automobile replaced horse-and-buggy as the most common means of transportation, and the location of the Boston Post Road and growing popularity of the railroad brought many people into downtown Rye. Yet at the time, there were no traffic rules, no driver’s licenses, the stop sign had not yet been invented, and the city was still made up of mostly dirt roads as paving was only starting to become affordable for small towns.
Balls was not personally a fan of cars. His daughter, Kathleen, recalled going for Sunday rides with her father, mother and her brother Cornelius when they were very young, dressed in their Sunday best. They rode in the buggy behind their horse named Kid, her father commenting often that there was no style in driving a car. While he may not have liked cars, it was horses, or more specifically a middle-of-the-night chasing down of a horse thief, that resulted in the most legendary story of William H. Balls.
On the night of April 21st, 1909, a horse thief by the name of Thomas Miler stole a horse and delivery wagon in Port Chester while Balls was on patrol duty on Purchase Street. Alerted to the crime, Balls went out into the night and quickly spotted the thief. When he called him to stop, the thief darted off, and Balls, hopped into the wagon of a familiar neighbor and drove it in pursuit of the criminal. They rode off into the night and closed in on the horse thief in Purchase, where Balls once again ordered Miller to stop. Miller put his hands in the air, but as Balls put his gun away to get his handcuffs, Miller fired at Balls, striking him in the head. Despite the gunshot wound that nearly cost him his life, Balls tackled Miller to the ground, took his weapon and cuffed him. The excitement of the horse chase is overshadowed only by the story of Balls’ survival. With no phones and few houses in the area, he walked to United Hospital, bleeding from the head, and ordered the doctors and other officers not to tell his wife until morning. His children found out about the shooting from other children at school, as the news of his heroism and his survival spread quickly through the town.
Off-duty, Balls invested his time in building the community of Rye, one person at a time. His daughter tells of his belief in crime prevention, specifically when he could have a positive influence on the young men in the community. He would call in a young man and his father if he was concerned about the boy’s behavior and thought he showed “a tendency to go astray.” After one meeting with Chief Balls, many of these boys never had reason to return to his office again. To promote wholesome youth activities, Balls joined others in developing Community Day, a tradition in which he participated for decades. After battling a sudden illness, Balls’ death in 1938 devastated the people of Rye, and the many people who came to speak at his memorial service were a testament to his broad influence and life of service. Field Day was put on hold for a few years during World War II, but when it was reinstated in the mid-1940s, it was renamed William H. Balls Memorial Field Day in his honor to celebrate his strength, courage and dedication as a lifelong pillar of the Rye community.