A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from July 05, 2004
Finest, Bravest, Strongest, Boldest
These terms are used quite often, especially after 9-11. They are rarely defined. I lectured on the origin of New York's "Finest" in an American Name Society Names Institute meeting at Baruch College a few years ago.

FINEST—police department
BRAVEST—fire department
STRONGEST—sanitation department
BOLDEST—corrections department

The "finest" is probably the oldest. Most sources claim that it was coined by police chief George W. Matsell. "Finest" ("best" was also used) probably dates to at least July 1874, when Matsell said, "I intend, sir, to make of this the finest police force in the world." The comedian Gus Williams starred in the play One of the Finest in the early 1880s. I believe that "the finest police in the world" is meant to be a similar phrase to Civil War General Joseph Hooker's "finest army on the planet."

The "bravest" probably dates from the 1890s.

The "strongest" and "boldest" are much newer; the first New York Times citation for "boldest" is in 1996, the first hit for "strongest" is in 1981.

17 November 1865, New York (NY) Times, "THE POLICE PARADE," pg. 4:
"Up town, they were better received; but whether better or worse, the display proved the gratifying fact that the Metropolitan Police force is the finest, best organized, best disciplined and most efficient body of men for similar duty in the world."

7 August 1870, New York (NY) Times, pg. 4:
When we consider that this great army of criminals is continually preying upon society, and as continually being hunted by a large body of the best-organized Police in the world, it is a little singular that the ranks are constantly swelling rather than diminishing.
(London - ed.)

10 July 1871, New York (NY) Herald, pg. 8:
The Police "Prepared for Anything That Comes."
In order to ascertain what precautions the police had taken a representative of the HERALD called on Superintendent Kelso, at his office in Police Headquarters.
"I see you're a persistent fellow. I'll tell you candidly. I've got the best police force in the world. I've seen the London police and all the others, and I tell you the men I've got are way up head. Now, I couldn't talk to every man in the force, but I've seen the representative man, and I know I can depend on every man."

27 March 1874, The Daily Graphic (New York, NY), pg. 200:
(Police brutality us shown. The phrase is not here in this cartoon -- ed.)

6 April 1874, The Daily Graphic (New York, NY), pg. 272:
(More police brutality is shown. Again, the phrase is not here, probably because it did not exist -- ed.)

Chronicling America
11 July 1874. The Sun (New York, NY), pg. 1, col. 1:
Mr. President George W. Matsell reached the Central Office at an hour early yesterday morning, and assuming his old uniform as Superintendent of Police, inspected the returns of the Capt. Ins. Mr. Matsell, although elevated to the position of President of the Board, still works in the interest of the force con amore, and is willing to give all his time and energies to the task of making the New York police force the finest in the world.
Pg. 1, col. 2:
Mr. President-Superintendent Matsell -- You need have no fear for the discipline of the department, sir. I have entered upon this work con amore. I intend, sir, to make of this the finest police force in the world.

13 July 1874, The Daily Graphic (New York, NY), pg. 86:
(Police Officer -- ed.)
President Matsell as he appeared airing his new office before Capt. Gunner.
Part of the "best force in the world."

28 September 1874, New York (NY) Times, pg. 2:
To the Editor of the New-York Times:
Seeing that you have taken an interest in behalf of the rank and file of the Police Department, I venture to address this note to you. After the issuing of that tyrannical order of the President of the so-styled best Police force in the world, I will give you my first and last day's experience, hoping you will published it for the benefit of the public, and let them know what we have got to contend with in case we go out with our families.

21 November 1874, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, pg. 172:
A squad of Mr. Matsell's "best police force in the world" would be required to prevent the gamins of the street practicing with the sparkling lumps the apple and banana game, which they probably adopted by seeing buckets of water passed along a line of farmers at a fire in the country.

19 December 1874, New York (NY) Times, pg. 5:
Hon. Thomas G. Alvord, member of Assembly from Onondaga County and Ex-Lieutenant Governor fo the State, lost his gold watch in a Broadway stage on Wednesday last. Capt. Irving, of the Detective Squad, was notified and began working around to recover his property. The watch was a present from the members of the Legislature of 1870, and was valued at $500. Yesterday afternoon a well-dressed young man called at the Metropolitan Hotel, and left a package for Mr. Alvord. The package contained the watch, which had the ring twisted out of it in the most approve fashion. Mr. Alvord last night said, "The New-York Police are the finest Police in the world."

14 January 1875, New York (NY) Herald, pg. 8:

6 February 1875, The Evening Post (New York, NY), pg. 2, col. 2:
It is a sorrowful thing to see the aspirations of great and good men defeated by adverse circumstances. George Washington Matsell, who has been connected with the police force since the early childhood of Mayor Havemayer, long ago announced his intention of providing New York with the "finest police in the world."

22 June 1875, New Orleans (LA) Picayune, pg. 4:
There are two hundred gambling houses in New York and "the finest police force in the world."

11 July 1875, New York (NY) Morning Telegraph, pg. 4:

14 July 1875, New York (NY) Times, pg. 8: ..."the finest Police force in the World."

31 August 1875, Georgia Weekly Telegraph and Georgia Journal & Messenger, pg. 1, col. 3:
We are informed that in the nineteen years ending with 1874 there were in New York 881 recorded homicides, of which 679 were committed by persons known, but not in every instance punished, and 202 were committed by persons unknown and never arrested. Yet New York claimed that she had the finest police in the country. The late exposures, however, killed that story.

27 August 1862, New York (NY) Times, pg. 4:
"'Our Guest,' the fourth regular toast, brought a dozen rousing cheers for Capt. JOHN DOWNEY, 'the bravest of the brave.'"
(Decker is mentioned in this story, but "the bravest of the brave" here appears to be Downey—ed.)

19 November 1892, New York Times, pg. 5:
"THE TIMES in describing those scenes said: 'Chief Engineer Decker showed himself one of the bravest of the brave.'"
(The article is "FIRE CHIEF DECKER DEAD." The scenes are the New York Draft Riots—ed.

25 May 1902, New York Times, pg. 28 headline:
(The article uses the phrase that the firemen are "the bravest of the brave." It's said here that this is what Napoleon called Marshal Ney. So it appears that both "Finest" and "Bravest" have military echoes—ed.)

28 September 1914, New York (NY) Times, pg. 10 headline:
(The Finest are also called "Coppers" and the Bravest are also called "Smoke Eaters"—ed.)

5 October 1914, New York (NY) Times, pg. 5:
"The annual series between the bravest and the finest started ten years ago."
(A police vs. fire baseball game—ed.)

6 July 1981, New York (NY) Times, p. B1
Since 1978, the department has helped finance a sanitationmen's football team.

It hopes to popularize the phrase "New York's strongest: to honor its men the way "New York's finest" honors the police. Harry Nespoli, a sanitationman, coined the term for the department's football players.

28 June 1996, New York (NY) Times, pg. B1:
But the stretch of that thoroughfare between Broadway and Centre Street was designated Avenue of the Strongest by the City Council this week. The Strongest are New York's garbage collectors and the Council decided they should be honored with a new name for the street in lower Manhattan where Sanitation Department plenipotentiaries preside. Other uniformed city workers are already acknowledged in superlatives. An Avenue of the Finest crosses Police Headquarters and there is Avenue of the Bravest in Brooklyn, home to the Fire Department. (...) An Avenue of the Boldest, for beleaguered correction officers, has been mentioned.
Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityWorkers/People • (0) Comments • Monday, July 05, 2004 • Permalink