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Collections | Digital Collections | Vanderbilt University History | Early Campus Police

Early Campus Police:
James Henry "Cap" Alley (1854-1927)

Research:  Lyle Lankford
Summer 2009

Campus security began at Vanderbilt with the hiring of a night watchman in 1885 (1).  Two years later, James Henry Alley (2) was officially employed by the Board of Trust as the first full-time campus policeman on May 1, 1887 (3).  Upon the death of the university’s first Superintendent of Grounds (4), Mr. Alley assumed those responsibilities as well.  Known by students, faculty, and administrators alike as “Cap” Alley, he took his jobs very seriously, Cap Alley supervising workers by day using his pony cart for transportation and walking his beat by night.  Complete with badge, billet, and pistol, “Cap” was known for his “silent and sudden appearances.”  Proud of his post, Mr. Alley was said to be tireless in enforcing law and order on campus having made more than 550 “arrests” according to his count.  Students took his reprimands good-naturedly and, along with alumni, loved and respected the man who “cherished no rancor.”

Although there were signs posted on campus, “No shooting of birds or plucking of flowers,” “Cap” was granted the privilege of waging a never-ending war against the English sparrows which seemed to invade the grounds.  According to his records he killed 14,765 of the birds.  When asked what he did with them, he replied, “We eat English sparrow pie at our house!”

He often related the incident in which he encountered an “intruder” one night in University Hall (now Kirkland Hall).  Discovering lights on after hours in the library located on the third floor above the front entrance, he called up to a man standing with his back to the window.  Getting no response, “Cap” began tossing pebbles at the window to get the man’s attention.  The figure did not budge.  Frustrated and a bit angry, “Cap” hurriedly made his way up the stairs to the library where he discovered sitting on the windowsill a bust of Benjamin Franklin!

Perhaps, his sight was already beginning to fail.  In later years, extremely poor sight, along with other age related health issues, brought an end to his tenure at Vanderbilt.  Mr. Alley died a short time later on May 31, 1927 having served the university he loved for well over half of his 73 years (5).  His obituary appeared on the front page of the Nashville Banner on the afternoon of his deathAnother obituary’s headlines read, “’Cap’ Alley, the Beloved Campus ‘Monarch’ and Foe of Sparrows, Dies.”  Many articles and photographs have appeared in the Vanderbilt Alumnus (now the Vanderbilt Magazine), including a Resolution adopted in June 1927 by the Chicago Vanderbilt Club, honoring “Cap” Alley’s faithful service to the university community.

  1. From Stella Vaughn’s “memoirs,” a Mr. Spain, who lived across from the campus on West End, was the first night watchman.  (This was very likely Littleberry K. Spain, a carpenter who lived on Hayes Street until he became a “worker” at Vanderbilt, and his wife, Mary P. Spain, became a matron in Wesley Hall, where they then made their home for a short time, according to the 1886 City Directory.  The 1887 City Directory locates the Spains on “West End Avenue across from V.U.” where Mr. Spain is listed as a “watchman.”)
  2. There are varying accounts of Mr. Alley’s first year of Vanderbilt employment found in the Vanderbilt Alumnus.  These range from 1885 to 1887.  Board of Trust minutes indicate in the 1885 – 86 budget a line for “Partolman” with $360 allocated for the year.  The budget for 1886 – 87 has a line under “Wages” for “Patrol Service” with $480 allocated.  (Using the City Directories as a guide, these funds were most likely the wages of Littleberry K. Spain, but could have been combined/total wages for “Patrol Service.”)  
  3. From the President’s annual message to the full board on June 13, 1887, Holland McTyeire states, “The extent of our grounds and their attractiveness to visitors, made it necessary that a regular police-man, clothed with full powers and in regular uniform as such, be employed for our protection.”  He goes on to state that the “City Authorities” had granted the University an officer provided his regular salary of $67 per month be paid by Vanderbilt.  The officer (no name given, but assumed to be James H. Alley) had begun in May and had shown “fitness to meet our wants.”
  4. David Douglas
  5. Obituaries and tributes give Alley’s years of service as 42.  This would put his original employment date at 1885 or earlier if the service were broken.  (See footnote 2.)