Brooklyn Rising: Potee’s Army

From lamplighter to magistrate to sheriff of Baltimore, the colorful Brooklyn figure was a populist leader unlike any other

Rik Forgo
Rik Forgo
Feb 18 · 20 min read

When motorists traveling in South Baltimore toward Brooklyn cross over the Hanover Street Bridge through the easternmost portion of Cherry Hill, they may scarcely realize that they are on Potee Street. That short stretch of highway between South Hanover Street and Ritchie Highway was known as Race Street for a short time in the early 1940s, but Brooklyn residents there asked for it to be renamed to honor of one of the town’s founding families, the Potees.

John E. Potee

And while the street’s name recognizes the entire family, one specific family member was on residents’ minds when the request was made of the Baltimore City Council in 1943: former Baltimore Sheriff John E. Potee.

John Potee was a popular and enigmatic figure in Anne Arundel County and Baltimore for nearly 40 years. He ascended a political ladder that his powerful father helped build, but started out as a lowly but affable lamplighter in his hometown of Brooklyn. He became a favorite of the local political machine and climbed from magistrate to sheriff of Anne Arundel County, and then to sheriff of Baltimore in post-annexation Baltimore. He achieved success through his own unique brand of populism that endeared him to the working class and later to industrial leaders and political heavyweights. But his initial success was built on the business and political foundation that his father, George, built in Brooklyn.

A Powerful Father Builds an Elite Family

The Potee family arrived in America in the early 1700s, supposedly on one of the Mayflower voyages. The family was said to have settled in the area that became Washington D.C. and then fanned out across Maryland. Family patriarch Lewis Potee was born in 1716 in Joppa, Maryland, just northwest of Baltimore, according to Ancestry.com. His great-grandson, George Needham Potee, was born in 1830, and as an adolescent, he trained as a plasterer. With his brother Isaac, George took a job as apprentice at the brickyards of George R. Rea on the Washington Road in Curtis Bay. By the time he was 18, he had become foreman of William H. Pitcher’s brickyard in Baltimore and married the former Sarah Roche in 1850; the couple moved south of Baltimore to a then-emerging community, Brooklyn.

George and Sarah became one of the town’s first residents, and he started a successful business there as a well digger and brickmaker. Brooklyn was just forming and homes were being built steadily; his skills were in high demand. The Potee Brick Company made bricks for most of the construction in northern Anne Arundel County and southern Baltimore for more than 40 years. The business made him very wealthy, and, as its proprietor, George developed a knack for making powerful friends. Those friends trusted him well, and over the years, he was appointed to an array of high-level positions in northern Anne Arundel County, including tax collector, county commissioner, tobacco inspector, treasurer of the Brooklyn Banking Association, and chairman for Anne Arundel’s Democratic Committee. In 1884 and 1885, he was elected to represent Anne Arundel County’s District 5 as a member of the Maryland State Legislature.

George and Sarah settled in at 11 South First Street in Brooklyn in the mid-1850s and had 16 children: 13 sons and three daughters. George continued to grow the business, and worked with Richard Crisp and John Cromwell to secure approval for the Long Bridge, which connected Brooklyn to Baltimore. Meanwhile Sarah, who was a leader in the temperance movement, led church campaigns to reign in drinking on the Sabbath. She was especially vocal against other Brooklyn figures who provided the temptations of alcohol to the working class, including, most prominently, John. T. Flood, proprietor of the notorious Flood’s Park in Curtis Bay, and Chief of Police Harry Acton, whose son, Samuel G. Acton, owned Acton’s Park, another riverside park near the Long Bridge on the shores of the Patapsco River.

All 13 of the Potee boys helped out in the family business in some capacity and many left for college after working in the family’s brickmaking plant. Their second-to-last child, John Edgar, was born in 1873. He was a gregarious boy and, like his father, he had a gift for making friends. He went to school at the well-regarded Knapp’s German and English School in Baltimore, studied at New Windsor College in Carroll County, and graduated from the Bryant & Stratton Business College in Baltimore in 1895.

John joined his father’s brickmaking business in Brooklyn after graduating. He was just a few months into his apprenticeship when his father George died from a stroke in 1895 at 65 years old. His passing was a somber event in Brooklyn, where he was the oldest and most well-known resident at the time, according to the Baltimore Sun. More than 750 people attended his funeral.

Tragedy in Brooklyn

Roughly a decade after George’s death, his family remained a revered presence in Brooklyn. But troubled times loomed for the family on dueling fronts, personally and for the brickmaking business.

One of his sons, Walter, contracted scarlet fever in 1905 and his resulting psychosis would very nearly end John’s life. Walter was a mild-mannered, respected man employed as a timekeeper by the B&O Railroad yard in Curtis Bay. But he was never quite the same after his illness, which left him suffering from paranoia and depression for nearly a year. His relationship with his family, especially his mother, became strained. His behavior became erratic and he would disappear for weeks on end; he was once arrested in northern Maryland on vagrancy charges after unlawfully riding as a hobo on a Pennsylvania and Maryland freight train in Bel Air, Maryland. His family described one incident where he barged into the home of one of his brother’s and threatened them with two pistols.

Headline for a full-page story in the March 24, 1906 Baltimore Sun.

But on March 23, 1920, Walter’s behavior was the least of the Potee’s concerns. John’s nearly two-year-old son, John Edgar Jr., had died of an unspecified illness on March 20, 1906, and the grieving family held a well-attended wake in their First Street family home. Walter showed up to pay his respects that Saturday afternoon and showed no signs of violence; but he had three loaded pistols and a shotgun in the house. John was despondent as the wake started and Walter offered him a handkerchief, according to a detailed account of the day in the Baltimore Sun. But mere seconds after consoling his brother, he pulled his two pistols from his trousers and shot John in the back. The shots set off a panic in the house and Walter went on a shooting spree.

In just minutes, he had wounded eight more people, including his two brothers-in-law William Miller and Walter McPherson, Chief of Police Tom Irwin, and two of his patrolmen, who had responded to the gunfire. As Irwin and more officers made plans to apprehend the gunman, Walter had cornered his mother and sister-in-law and aimed his pistols at them, but couldn’t pull the triggers. He ran upstairs, barricaded himself inside the bedroom of the now-empty house, and set it ablaze. Firemen from Brooklyn’s #12 Engine Company didn’t arrive in time to save the entire house but managed to control the fire and keep it from spreading to neighboring homes.

When the fire was finally put out, Irwin scaled a ladder and crawled through an upstairs window to search for Walter but found that he had fallen through the burnt timbers into the parlor below; he had died not from the fire, but rather from a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the chest. It was a tragic day for the Potees. Services were held for the baby later in the week, and a private ceremony was held for Walter days later. Things settled down in the days after the shooting, and despite severe wounds, all those injured recovered. But bad news was on the horizon for the family brickmaking business.

The Popular Lamplighter

After his father’s death in 1895, the Potee Brick Company was taken over by John and his brothers, George H. and Peter. His elder brothers carried the load and taught John the business, and together they operated the company for nearly a decade more before a series of lawsuits forced the company into liquidation in late 1906.

Now in his mid-twenties, John was married with a growing family. He had started his own building contracting business and his many contacts from his father’s brick business proved helpful. Some of those contacts proved useful in other ways too, as he was able to secure a political appointment as the town’s lamplighter.

Electricity had not made it to Brooklyn by the early 1900s, but the community had an assortment of gas, oil, and candle lamps on poles to keep the village’s streets illuminated at night. Potee, with a ladder under one arm and a box of matches under the other, would traverse these neighborhoods lighting the lamps at dusk, and then putting them out again every morning. People would spend time on their front porches chatting and looking forward to Potee’s daily rounds and cheerful banter. His charm and dedication earned him praise and admiration from residents and local officials. He served on the board of directors for both the Industrial Bank of Curtis Bay and, later, the Brooklyn and Curtis Bay Bank. Encouraged by friends, he threw his hat in the ring to become magistrate in Brooklyn. His influential political friends recommended him to a newly elected Maryland Gov. Austin L. Cruthers, who then appointed him to that role in 1908.

‘Judge’ Potee Takes the Bench

As magistrate, Potee operated as a judge who dealt with lower-level crime cases, such as minor theft, criminal damages, and drunk and disorderly cases, along with traffic offenses, death certifications, and minor domestic disputes that didn’t warrant attention from Anne Arundel County’s legal leaders in Annapolis. Friends started calling him “Judge Potee,” a nickname that he vigorously embraced and that would follow him for the rest of his life.

Magistrate Potee throws the first pitch at an East Brooklyn Athletics baseball game.

Potee served as Brooklyn’s magistrate for two short years, but he had his eye on a bigger prize. He ran for sheriff of Anne Arundel County and won the election in 1913, a position he held for two years. Winning proved he could land a bigger political office; he was clearly burnishing his reputation as an emerging political power player. People were attracted to his brand of populism and his influence was growing. After completing two years as Anne Arundel’s sheriff, he was reappointed as magistrate of Brooklyn by new Gov. Emerson C. Harrington in 1916, a job that paid him the tidy sum of $85 per month.

From his bench in the local police station in Brooklyn, which had been expanded to accommodate his new office, Potee made decisions and performed his duties in ways that the everyman of the day, especially those in his district, simply loved:

  • When the local dog catcher rode into Brooklyn and gathered up more than 500 stray dogs, Potee granted a pardon for every dog claimed by anyone willing to stand before him and ask;
  • He threw out first pitches at baseball games for the local amateur clubs in East Brooklyn and Curtis Bay;
  • He used his growing voice to influence local issues popular with the public, like loudly protesting high water rates being foisted upon Brooklyn and Curtis Bay residents by the Curtis Bay Light and Water Company;
  • With a nod to the church and his temperance movement-driven mother, he arrested, booked, and fined saloon keepers who illegally sold liquor on Sundays; and
  • He dismissed drunk driving charges for a horse-drawn wagon driver who was under the influence — a conviction that at the time would have drawn 30 days in jail — because “a horse has some brains, whether a driver has or not, whereas the same is by no means true of an automobile.”

Annexation Anxiety

There was rampant political uncertainty in Baltimore and northern Anne Arundel County in 1916 and 1917. Baltimore was steadily losing its place among the most populated metropolises in the nation and the loss of national stature was threatening its bond rating with major banks. Cities in the top 10 could easily borrow money to fund projects, but lower-ranking cities had more challenges and, as a result, fewer resources to choose from. Other industrial cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland were busily inflating their populations by annexing neighboring towns, and Baltimore had been considering doing the same. After studying the issue for nearly a decade, Baltimore City got the State’s approval to annex Brooklyn and Curtis Bay over the strident objections of Anne Arundel County.

Potee opposed Baltimore’s annexation, likely because of the uncertainty that it brought to local politics. The “Wells Machine,” named for Dr. George Wells, a former Anne Arundel County tax collector and treasurer who controlled much of the county’s Democratic political apparatus from the mid-1800s to just after the turn of the century, had opposed annexation and Potee echoed the party line. But when the Maryland State Legislature approved the City’s power play at the end of 1917, it was a fait accompli and Potee found a way to make it work for him.

After annexation occurred, “Judge Potee” was assigned the magistracy of Baltimore’s Southern Police District. Back in the familiar role of magistrate, he returned to dispensing his own brand of justice, and some of his notions were very progressive.

While he still lived in his family home in Brooklyn, he had also bought a farm in Hawkins Point and grew produce for the markets in Baltimore. When older, broken men were brought before his bench in Brooklyn for vagrancy, he would suspend their sentences and send them to his farm to pick and plow, and he paid them a working wage. “The first man he sent there stayed and worked an entire season, delighted to be self-supporting once more,” Katherine Scarborough wrote in her column in the Baltimore Sun in April 1945. “Another, after earning a few dollars and eating his fill of good food, left for a better job. Once [Potee] received a letter from an 18-year-old Negro who, after a week at the farm, had earned enough money to take him back to the home in Cincinnati he had left.”

Potee’s Army

While he was still dispensing justice in Brooklyn and Curtis Bay, his new position required him to spend more time in Baltimore City, and he began making new political friends there. After serving his second go-round as magistrate, this time for six years, he decided to take another political risk: he campaigned for and won the office of sheriff of Baltimore City in 1923.

Baltimore had a robust police force in the mid-1920s, and Potee’s role as sheriff was as process server. His office served writs, warrants, and subpoenas, and he presided over sheriff’s juries that heard domestic cases. His staff was relatively small, with just four or five funded deputy sheriffs and some support staff. But he drew considerable support from his army of unpaid, armed deputies that he anointed — as many as 1,500 at one point in his tenure. And that’s where Sheriff Potee’s political rivals took aim.

Questions began arising about the sheriff’s office shortly after Potee took office in early 1924. In February, he swore in his first 29 “special” deputies, all of whom were assigned to oversee the “industrial plants and other places where they are employed,” the Baltimore Sun reported. The special deputies did not serve summonses or writs, and they had no authority to act as regular sheriff’s deputies. Potee compared them to special policemen on railroads, who, he said, were frequently commissioned. They were each issue a badge, authorized to carry a gun, and were tasked with “preserving order among their fellow employees.”

The notion of deputized citizens was not novel to Baltimore. In times of public danger, Baltimore’s sheriff and police commissioner were authorized to appoint special policemen, though doing so was rare. The Commissioner of Motor Vehicles in Baltimore had a small cadre of deputies, and Potee alleged that his predecessor, Sheriff Thomas F. McNulty, had his own team of 250; Potee, citing the precedent, steadfastly defended his approach.

“If the people who are heads of the [industrial] plants come to me and say they want somebody appointed special deputy sheriff for their protection, what am I going to do? I can’t turn them down, can I? The moving-picture men say that a special deputy sheriff’s badge keep fellows from loafing around the moving-picture places.”

— Sheriff John Potee, August 1924

Some alleged that the special deputies were “heavies” and “spies” for the industries. Those who patrolled the factories and packing plants in Curtis Bay, Fairfield, and Brooklyn were often managers and foremen for these companies too. Pro-labor allies alleged that these men were union busters who were given special powers by the government.

When asked if it was necessary to appoint special deputies at plants and moving picture theaters when Baltimore already had a police force to protect it, Potee defended the practice. “The badge that special deputies are entitled to wear is one of the best preservers of peace to be found,” Potee told the Baltimore Evening Sun in March 1924. “Frequent [fights] that begin in moving-picture theaters would be avoided if all the managers were equipped with them. The rowdy who would be likely to start a fight would be cowed by the presence of authority and remain peaceful. If more … theater managers were made special deputies, it would relieve the regular policemen of the necessity of visiting … theaters and increase police protection on the street.”

Some in Baltimore’s government complained that special deputy selections were being made as political favors, which Potee and his supporters dismissed as mere posturing since the granting of choice positions to political allies was a regular practice in Baltimore and Anne Arundel County. But Potee’s use of special deputies was more worrisome than other white-collar appointments because his deputies carried a badge and gun. Moreover, considerable concern grew because of the shear number of deputies he was appointing. Just three months after being elected, there were already 250 special deputies, and within two years, “Potee’s Army” would reach an unwieldy size of more than 600. The administration, vetting, and policing of these special deputies would eventually come to haunt him.

The appointment of deputies was managed by the self-funded Deputy Sheriff’s Association, which levied a $5 fee on men (and one woman) who applied to become one, along with an annual $12 assessment for members if selected ($74.27 and $178, respectively, in 2020 dollars according to DollarTimes.com). The group’s membership committee, managed by Arthur B. Price, ironically the owner of the Wizard Moving Picture Theater in Baltimore, reviewed and conveyed all applicants to Potee for his blessing. Potee said the men chosen as deputies “are all passed on by the membership committee of the association and are known to be responsible men before they are appointed.” This seemed largely true at the outset, but the behavior of some deputies became questionable later.

Potee’s deputy troubles started in earnest in August 1924 when a Baltimore City patrolman spotted special deputy James Ringgold illegally directing traffic at the intersection of Light and Camden Streets. When the patrolman approached him and asked him what he was doing, Ringgold declared he had the right; the patrolman insisted that he was not authorized, a dispute erupted, and Ringgold punched the officer in the nose. Ringgold was arrested and dragged before the city’s district magistrate. But when Ringgold told the judge that he was a special deputy for the sheriff, the disorderly charges against him were summarily dismissed and he was released. Ringgold was, indeed, a proper deputy, but no one had explained the boundaries of the role to him. Sheriff Potee didn’t know Ringgold and initially thought he was masquerading as a deputy. Later he learned that he had approved the paperwork granting him the position.

Other embarrassing incidents followed. One special deputy exceeded his authority by arresting a man for carrying a flask of whiskey in violation of the Volstead Act (Prohibition). Another former special deputy illegally sold his special deputy badge to a con man who used it to extort money from a local business. Another deputy broke up an illicit craps game, chased a youth involved, and fired his weapon on a crowded street while in pursuit. Still another pulled a gun on a Baltimore patrolman and threatened to “blow his head off” for willfully parking in a prohibited area. The deputy association wasn’t vetting its deputies well, and the sheriff’s office was getting a black eye over it. The press was having a field day.

Court-Ordered Prisoner Whipping

Amidst the unwanted attention that had arisen over his deputy army, Potee found himself thrust into another unwanted high-profile situation in the spring of 1926. Baltimore Criminal Court Judge Eugene O’Dunne sentenced convicted wife beater James Kingsmore to receive 60 days in jail and five lashes at Baltimore’s whipping post for an assault on his wife. It was an unusual order, since only two public floggings had occurred in the city since the mid-1880s. Further, the statute O’Dunne drew from made the brutal act optional. Deputy State’s Attorney Rowland K. Andrews pled with the jury to render a verdict that carried the whipping penalty, and the jury unanimously obliged.

Sheriff John Potee

Potee was clearly not thrilled. “It is an unpleasant duty,” he said, “but it is a duty imposed on the sheriff and I will perform it.” Letters to the editor of the Baltimore Evening Sun implored the sheriff to ignore the order, or to simply delegate the duty to a deputy sheriff, but he declined. Other letter writers were angry and advised him to resign rather that perform the lashing, while some simply warned him they would remember him at the polls if he went through it. But on April 29 at 10 a.m., before a crowd of more than 150 people at the Baltimore City Jail, Potee gave Kingsmore five lashings as required by the order. The task, carried out using a whip with leather thongs known as the “cat-o’-nine-tails,” occurred so quickly that those in attendance barely realized it was over. The Evening Sun reported that “the blows seemed to be light ones” and that “the whipping left no welts that were visible a few feet away.”

Attending physician, Dr. Frank J. Powers, said that apart from nervous strain before the lashing, Kingsmore did not suffer. When it was over, Potee simply walked back to into the jail, hung the whip on its perch, and proceeded with his daily duties. While outwardly, Potee seemed reluctant to engage in the task, his office did sell tickets to the event. And, notably, in his early days as a Anne Arundel County magistrate, he recommended the whipping post for man who attempted to murder his wife in a drunken rage. But his statements and actions suggested he was a reluctant participant.

Other ‘Armies’ and Deputy Infighting

Despite the negative press from his deputy army and the whipping sentence he carried out, the popular Potee ran unopposed for sheriff in 1926. He was temporarily successful in tamping down the furor over his deputy army in the year leading up to the election, but the bad press returned in 1927. Potee’s deputy association, a private organization, had become a very profitable enterprise. And although E. Austin Baughman, the city’s Commissioner of Motor Vehicles, already had been using special deputies for years, he advertised for deputies in a move some believed was intent on mirroring Potee’s success. In February 1927, more than 3,000 people applied to be “special deputy automobile commissioners,” which drew a flood of negative attention from state lawmakers concerned about scores of deputies “running around with tin badges and guns.”

Potee focused on his duties, but more trouble was brewing with his deputy association, which by late 1928 was brimming with more than 1,500 members and burnished sardonic nicknames like “Potee’s Army,” “the Patapsco Valley Army of Occupation,” and “the Gold Badge Boys.” The association was profitable for its chiefs, and rivaling factions within the group increasingly wanted more say in the selection of its leadership. Personal dustups, infighting, and jealous arguments were becoming commonplace. The organization was collapsing under its own enormous weight, and Potee could only watch as bickering consumed the group. Then the wheels fell off. The association reorganized into two separate organizations, each vying to draw members from the other, with Potee squarely in the middle. But the reality was that by then it was essentially over.

As the group’s dysfunction played out, Potee’s political rivals in Baltimore were vying to remove him. The Wells Machine’s grip on power in Anne Arundel County was loosening as its leaders aged, and it wielded less influence in Baltimore. Things were changing in the electorate chemistry. Potee depended on commercial and industrial interests that helped him win the election in 1924 and 1926, but those forces were ineffective in 1930. Unopposed at the ballot box in 1926, Potee had seven challengers as sheriff in the Democratic primary in 1929, and he was narrowly unseated by former deputy sheriff Joseph C. Deegan, who campaigned heavily on eliminating the special deputies.

The primary vote was split among Deegan, Potee, and another deputy sheriff, August Klecka, and Potee lost by fewer than 2,000 votes. He requested and received a recount, but it didn’t change the results. The era of Potee’s political reign had ended; he would not hold another elected office. As promised, Deegan dismantled the special deputy operation a year after he took office, and he emerged as a popular, colorful figure in Baltimore. He held onto the sheriff’s office for more than 30 years.

Potee Street

Judge Potee returned to Brooklyn after his loss. His new bench was his front porch at the 3611 Hanover Street (formerly 11 First Street) home where he was born. Despite his political fall, he remained a popular figure in his hometown. His health was failing, even as he campaigned for sheriff, and the inactivity of being constantly at home didn’t seem to help his condition. A year after the loss, the Baltimore Sun reported that he was frequently seen on his porch as neighbors waved and chatted, but he was barely able to respond. A shell of his former outgoing self, he died of an unspecified illness November 19, 1933, in that same house.

Though he was gone, he was not forgotten. In 1942, Baltimore City constructed Race Street as a southern connection point to what would eventually connect to Ritchie Highway. A year later, a group of residents from Brooklyn approached the city council seeking a name change for two streets. They wanted Race Street renamed “Revell Street” in honor of the longtime Anne Arundel County Democratic boss Frank Revell, and they wanted Leadenhall Street renamed “Potee Street.” The city’s Bureau of Plans and Surveys approved a change to Race Street, since it was so new, but it ruled against the change to Leadenhall Street because it was already so well established. Given the choice of renaming the one street they were allowed to change between Potee or Revell, they dropped Revell and chose to honor the Potee family instead. So in March 1945, the city council approved an ordinance changing the name of Race Street, between Hanover and Jack Street, to Potee Street.

John Potee dispensed his version of justice from varying roles in Brooklyn and Baltimore, and he became an icon in pre-World War II Baltimore. His contributions have been somewhat forgotten, but he was a larger-than-life man of the people who had an outsized populist appeal. Not too bad for a lamplighter.


Brooklyn Rising

Brooklyn Rising, Part 1: Pristine Town Emerges on the Shores of the Patapsco
Brooklyn Rising, Part 2: The Long Bridge
Brooklyn Rising, Part 3: The Lost City of Pennington
Brooklyn Rising, Part 4: The Great Walnut Tree
Flood’s Park
King Johnson
Acton’s Park
Andy Youngbar
Bill Hohman
Orioles Break the Sunday Baseball Taboo in Brooklyn

Editor’s Note: This history of Brooklyn was compiled from research conducted at the University of Maryland-College Park, University of Maryland-Baltimore County, and through a thorough review of dozens of articles in the Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore Evening Sun, the Washington Post, Annapolis Capital, and Maryland Gazette through the mid-1800s, the Kuethe Library in Glen Burnie, Maryland State Archives, Anne Arundel County’s Planning and Zoning Department, and several local histories written by area historians, including the Bible of the area’s history, A History of Brooklyn-Curtis Bay, 1776–1976, which was written by Brooklyn’s Centennial Committee in 1976. Thanks also go out to Horton and Maryann McCormick, Carole Kenny, Frank Bittner, Rick Arnold, Elaine Borrison, the USCG’s Dottie Mitchell, Geraldine Bates, the Chesapeake Arts Center’s Belinda Fraley-Huesman and Nicole Caracia, and a host of others.

Time Passages

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Rik Forgo

Written by

Rik Forgo

Writer, editor and entrepreneur. Owns and operates Time Passages LLC, a independent book publisher near Annapolis, Md. Fan of history and classic rock music.

Time Passages

Walking through history one season at at time.

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