1918: A Hard-boiled, Cigar-chomping Jewish Chief of Detectives Is Born

Albert Seedman solved some of the strangest cases in New York history, including the bullet that ricocheted off the ocean, killing Nancy McEwen.

New York City Police Det. Albert Seedman, cigar stub in mouth (left), holding up the face of Tony Dellernia, a suspect in the Borough Park Tobacco robbery, for photographers during a perp walk.
NY Herald Tribune, Wikimedia Commons

August 9, 1918, is the birthdate of Albert Seedman, a legendary New York policeman who for a brief period in 1971-72, served as the city’s first and only Jewish chief of detectives. Seedman had a hand in solving some of the most challenging, if not bizarre, crimes in the city’s history, and he played his part as if selected by central casting, starting with the stub of a cigar that always seemed to be poking out of his mouth.

Albert A. Seedman was born and raised in the Bronx. His father, David Seedman, was a cab driver, and his mother, Rose, worked in New York’s garment district.

Not a job for a Jew

Seedman claimed throughout his life that it was his experience as a stairwell monitor, at Bronx Public School 93, that first inspired him to enter law enforcement. He loved the assignment, he wrote in his 1974 memoir, “Chief,” “not because it gave me a chance to boss other kids around, but because it made me feel good to see things happen right, with order and authority.”

When studying at Townsend Harris High School, in Queens, he considered applying to either West Point or Annapolis, the service academies for the U.S. Army and Navy, respectively. His mother told him there was no place for a Jew in institutions like that.

Seedman wound up studying accounting at City College of New York, earning a degree in 1941. He took the entrance exam for the police academy almost as a lark, with no expectation of passing.

When he did, and later passed the physical, his law enforcement career was under way.

Almost as soon as Seedman hit the street as a patrolman, however, in 1942, he was drafted into the army. After a year studying French, he was sent to Europe as a military policeman, landing in France just days after D-Day.

The  murder of Kitty Genovese

In his army position, he had solved a wide range of crimes, and discovered he had an intuition for detection. When Seedman returned to civilian life in December 1945, he decided fairly quickly that he wanted to become a detective.

During his nearly three decades as a detective, beginning in 1946, Seedman helped solve some notorious cases: He headed the team that cracked the murder of Kitty Genovese in a residential Queens neighborhood in 1964, a crime that supposedly was witnessed by 38 neighbors, none of whom lifted a finger to help the victim. (In fact, years later, it became clear that this was a scenario that was largely imposed on the incident by a press in search of a story of urban fear and alienation.)  It was Seedman who figured out that the bullet that killed 17-year-old Nancy McEwen while she was driving on the Belt Parkway, in Brooklyn, in 1967, had been fired by a man on a fishing boat who had been taking potshots at a beer can floating in the ocean. One of his bullets had ricocheted off the surface of the water and through Nancy’s car window into her head.

Fifty Years After Kitty Genovese by Albert A. Seedman and Peter Hellman YouTube

Seedman was appointed chief of detectives – in which he oversaw a team of detectives numbering more than 3,000, second in size only to the FBI – in March 1971. But he resigned from the position and the force a year later, in April 1972, following an incident in a Nation of Islam mosque in Harlem in which a policeman was shot to death.

Arriving on the scene, Seedman soon was ordered by his superiors, fearful of civil unrest, to stand down, and allow the people within the mosque, led by Louis Farrakhan, to leave without being questioned by police.

Seedman, shocked that both the mayor and the commissioner were willing to put political considerations ahead of the enforcement of the law -- and the safety of their police officers -- decided on the spot to retire. Though it was only in 2012, when his memoir “Chief” was reissued, that he revealed, in a new introduction, the details of what had happened at the mosque.

Following his retirement, Seedman became head of security for the Alexander’s department-store chain, and when that company closed its doors, in 1992, he moved to South Florida, where he died of congestive heart failure on May 17, 2013, at age 94.