Wednesday, December 26, 2012

What Is It Wednesday – Mystery Chain

Sometimes our ancestors leave us the strangest things.  As a kid, I remember walking into my grandfather’s tool shed, looking at all the weird implements tucked into corners and hanging on the walls.  Occasionally my father would explain what they were for.  “That?  It’s a cant dog.  Used to use that to move logs.  Those?  Ice tongs to carry chunks of ice for the icebox.”

One item that was handed down to me by my mother is the chain pictured to the left.  The story she told is that they belonged to her father, who had been a cop.  The chain was used to restrain prisoner’s hands, similar to modern-day handcuffs.  The narrow T on one end of the chain fits into a groove in the wider T on the other end.  The handles are locked together by another groove, and then the chain is twisted to control the prisoner.

I never questioned the provenance of this item till I began seriously researching my family.  So far, I’ve found my grandfather’s occupations listed as a hired man on a farm, a general laborer, a laborer in an electrical plant, and a worker in a grocery store.  No documentation of police work anywhere.  He moved around a lot between western Massachusetts, eastern New York, and southern Vermont.  He was married a few times, and never really seemed to settle down.  He just doesn’t seem like he was the “protect and serve” type.

Lacking any printed evidence that my grandfather was a police officer of some sort, I decided to research the item itself.  After some false Internet searches on “handcuffs”, “chain restraints”, and so on, I found that this particular artifact is called a “chain nipper”.[1]  They were first manufactured in the late 1800s, and continued to be used until the late 1950s, and early 1960s.  It appears that there were several types made by a few different manufacturers.  I’ll need to do some more research to see if I can identify the particular type that I have, but the timeframe of the late 1950s would fit with my grandfather’s timeline.  I have documentation of him on the 1940 Federal Census, and the newspaper story of his death in a car accident in 1959.  It’s possible that he did some form of police work between those two dates.

The trick, of course, is finding documentation.

[1] Matthew G. Forte, American Police Equipment: A Guide to Early Restraints, Clubs and Lanterns, (Upper Montclair, NJ: Turn of the Century Publishers, 2000), chap. 5.

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