SERGEANT FRANK W. NORTHERN
SDCMO 06/28/1887 - 05/30/1889
SDPD 11/13/1889 - 01/04/1911
07/15/1844 - 01/17/1941
Frank Walter Northern was born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana but came to San Diego in 1885. He later wrote in his memoirs that when he arrived San Diego was a dusty town with lawlessness everywhere and as soon as he stepped off the train he witnessed a Mexican gambler stab a city constable to death. It’s not known if that spirit of adventure was what inspired Northern to seek a career in law enforcement however, on July 23, 1887, he was hired as a Deputy City Marshal. On September 8, 1888, he was made a jailer and worked at that job until the marshal’s office folded in May 1889. To make ends meet Northern found work as a carpenter where one day he witnessed a co-worker being robbed. Northern captured the robber and turned him over to the police. His act caught the attention of Chief Coyne who personally asked him to come back to work as a lawman. Northern officially began his career with the SDPD as a patrolman on November 13, 1889. At 43, married and a veteran of the Civil War, he was a bit more seasoned than the other officers of the department. Because of his age, he quickly picked up the nickname “Dad”, a moniker he would be known by for the next 22 years.
Assigned to the most dangerous beat in the city, Northern walked alone on the overnight shift. His first night on the job he found himself involved in six fistfights and made 17 arrests. This in a day before a patrol wagon when officers were required to walk, drag or carry the arrested individuals to the police station. It was not uncommon for officers to be shot at by the suspect’s friends as the person was escorted to the station.
Northern was a large man standing 6’-2” and weighing well over 200 pounds. He quickly showed his age was not a factor when he was involved in several bar fights with suspects much younger than he was. It didn’t take long before he picked up the reputation as a tough cop who wouldn’t be intimidated.
Northern had only been on the job a few months when San Diego began to experience a problem with a prolific gang of safecrackers from San Francisco. It didn’t take long for the gang and Northern to meet. He was walking his beat when he saw a burglary in progress.
Being alone with no way to call for backup placed him at a disadvantage, but Northern didn’t want the burglars to escape so he moved in to make the arrests. It would prove to be a costly mistake when the gang quickly overpowered and disarmed him. During the fight he was stabbed in the side and blacked out. When he woke, he found his arms and legs had been tied together and a gag had been placed in his mouth. As he looked around Northern quickly came to realize that he was being held in a cave or some other type of underground cellar and escape was not likely. Worse yet, it would be at least another 5 hours before the end of his shift and he would be noticed missing. As he sat trying to figure his next move, thoughts of dying by starvation or worse began to creep into his mind. Eventually he was able to work the ropes free by rubbing them against a sharp piece of metal along the wall. Almost as soon as he freed himself, the door to the cellar opened and three of the burglars came in. They immediately attacked Northern and re-tied him. This time so tight he could not escape. Northern blacked out again.
This time when he awoke, the situation had gone from bad to worse. He was now in a casket with the lid being nailed shut. The casket was then thrown into the back of a wagon. At this point Northern had no idea what time it was or even how long he had been held captive. Thoughts of being thrown into the bay began to creep into his mind. As he lay in the cramped box Northern listened to the hoofs of the horse and guessed the wagon was leaving town. It wasn’t much longer before the wagon stopped and the coffin was thrown off the back. It wasn’t long after that he could hear dirt being shoveled onto the casket. He was being buried alive!
After what must have seen like an eternity, the shoveling stopped and Northern heard shouting and fighting. The casket was lifted up and the lid pried open. A group of cowboys on a nearby hillside had witnessed what was happening and thought it all a bit suspicious. After hearing Northern’s story, the cowboys rode with him to chase down the kidnappers. When it was over one kidnapper had been killed and another captured. The others were never to be seen again.
In 1903 Chief Thomas promoted Northern to sergeant for his leadership and bravery in combating crime in the city. He spent the next several years working the overnight desk. By 1911 Northern was 66-years-old and made it known he was ready to retire. Not exactly a simple task because up until that time no one had ever taken a paid retirement from the police department. Apparently not wanting to change precedent, several members of the City Council started looking for a way for him not to make it. It was soon discovered he had a habit of bringing a patrolman in from the field so he could take a walk around the block. Never mind his doing this had the blessing of Keno Wilson, to the council it was dereliction of duty and he needed to be punished. As a result the city recommended that he be fired. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Wilson countered with a recommendation of suspension. In the end Northern wound up serving a four-month suspension without pay.
If the city was hoping he would go away, it didn’t happen. While Northern was serving his suspension, newspapers got wind of what was happening to the popular officer. Exactly four months later he returned to duty and filed his retirement papers. At this point the city had no choice, they could not refuse the retirement of a local hero. His retirement was granted at $55.00 per month and he was issued a gold six-point star that read, “San Diego Police Retired” across the front. At the bottom of the badge was the number one.
If the city was hoping they wouldn’t have to pay Northern very long because of his age, they were wrong there as well. He lived another 30 years before dying in 1941 at the age of 96.
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Promoted to Sergeant 08/03/1903
Demoted to Patrolman 09/05/1905
Retired as Sergeant 01/04/1911