Long before high-rise buildings and high-end shops dotted every block and families pushing strollers became the norm, the Upper East Side was a seedy place where even police officers weren’t safe. Patrolman William McAuliffe was one such cop, ambushed and gunned down in cold blood. His sacrifice for our community was little known for decades, but now his legacy will live on forever.
“This neighborhood is safe and beautiful, and it’s safe and beautiful because of people like William McAuliffe,” said NYPD Deputy Inspector William Gallagher, commanding officer of the 19th Precinct, during a special ceremony Saturday morning to honor the slain cop.
“The Upper East Side of Manhattan was one of the most violent and dangerous places in the United States,” explained Gallagher. “Police Officer William McAuliffe gave his life for the protection of his neighborhood.”
It was a chilly afternoon, Wednesday, March 18, 1916, with temperatures below freezing. Patrolman McAuliffe, 35, was walking his beat, heading south on Second Avenue between East 67th and 68th Streets, unaware of the peril lurking in the shadows under the elevated train tracks steps away.
An Irish immigrant who came to America in 1902, McAuliffe had been with the NYPD just five years when he was ambushed in broad daylight by two rouges lying in wait, a report in the New York Sun explained at the time.
“There’s the (expletive)!” one of the gunmen shouted before firing his first shot at McAuliffe, striking the cop in the right side of his head and sending him tumbling to the sidewalk.
The two suspects then ran up to the wounded officer, cursing at him, the Sun report says. The gunmen stood over the prone patrolman briefly and fired three more shots — two into his body and one more in McAuliffe’s face.
Despite the block being filled with witnesses during the grisly ambush, no one dared interfere with the cold-blooded killers and instead took cover in doorways. A fighter to his core, McAuliffe didn’t pass until a half hour after the callous bloodshed, the report explained.
“That uniform cost him his life. He was ambushed and assassinated for what that uniform stood for — what he stood for,” Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Hendry said Saturday, standing just steps from where Patrolman McAuliffe took his final breaths more than a century ago, “He stood for all that is good in New York City.”
NYPD officers quickly flooded the block, conducting a house-to-house search for the patrolman’s assassins, but it was too late — the gunmen were already in the wind.
Four days later, McAuliffe would be laid to rest with 200 of his fellow officers in attendance.
Monsignor Henry Brann “declared that the prevalence of gangsters such as those that killed McAuliffe is the result of lenient laws permitting the entrance of this country of ‘vagabonds, blackguards and cutthroats’ who should ‘be dropped into the oceans before entering our harbors,'” the New York Sun reported.
Unfortunately, a reward offering $1,000 for information leading to his killers — the equivalent of more than $28,000 today — did not lead to any convictions.
“107 years later, we are here, and we’re grateful that finally, our hero brother is getting the recognition that he truly deserves,” Hendry added.
The modest crowd — including McAuliffe’s descendants who traveled from Ireland to New York as well as current and retired NYPD officers — gathered in the rain Saturday morning for a solemn ceremony forever co-naming the corner of East 67th Street and Second Avenue as Patrolman William McAuliffe Way.
“Someone’s gonna walk by and look up at that sign and wonder who that was and go look it up,” said Council Member Keith Powers, who sponsored the street’s co-naming.
“It’ll be another reminder of the sacrifices that have been made for us to be here and sacrifices that are being made every single day on behalf of folks who serve in this city,” Powers added.
“We knew him as Uncle Willie,” said Helen Mulcahy, Patrolman McAuliffe’s grandniece.
“My mother was his niece, and she was very proud of that photograph in our house. It’s from his memorial card, and it was hanging in our house and in his parents’ house,” Mulcahy added in a thick Irish accent.
“My mother would have been absolutely delighted. He was held up as a model to us,” she continued. “It’s a great honor.”
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The efforts to recognize Patrolman McAuliffe’s sacrifice were led by Detective Anthony Nuccio, who contacted McAuliffe’s family abroad. Nuccio previously led a push to honor another fallen UES police officer, Patrolman John Flood, killed in the line of duty just 16 months after McAuliffe.
Two of seven NYPD officers to lose their lives in the line of duty serving the Upper East Side, Flood and McAuliffe’s faces are among those displayed proudly on a memorial wall of honor inside the 19th Precinct station house, located on East 67th Street.
“Like every single New York City police officer today,” Deputy Inspector Gallagher told the crowd, “William McAuliffe stood ready, with his own life, to protect the people of New York City.”