Iron claws & Oregon boots
Porter County, Ind. Sheriff David Lain refers to his historical collection of law enforcement equipment as “my old police stuff.” But said another way, it’s a private, carefully-researched, 200-year retrospective of police memorabilia.
Lain owns badges, bullets, guns, swords, handcuffs, lanterns, billy clubs, an Oregon boot and even a ball and chain. His collection is all about the preservation of the historically-significant items.
He caught the bug for collecting police antiquities about 23 years ago. At first, it was antique firearms that interested him — particularly early pocket pistols, pepperbox guns, revolvers and semiautomatic weapons.
“Although (I was) fascinated by them, prices at gun shows were pretty well set for these items,” he said. “They were no bargain, so collecting them wasn’t as much fun as I had thought.”
His interest turned instead to police restraints, including leg irons, handcuffs and a class of restraints that no longer exist, called come-alongs.
“Great varieties of these patented mechanics were employed to latch on the wrists of offenders, who would literally have to ‘come along’ with the officer,” explained Lain. Iron Claws and other come-alongs forced compliance by causing pain while simultaneously using the advantage of leverage to restrict movement.
“The problem was that they could do damage. And an officer always had that nagging matter of the prisoner having one free arm,” the sheriff said. Still, they remained standard equipment from the mid-19th to mid-20th century, until they were slowly replaced by handcuffs. Lain does a great deal of research on items and will sometimes spot old police paraphernalia when he least expects it.
“In an old Elvis Presley movie I noticed one of the officers had a come-along hanging from his equipment belt. That shows that they were still being used in the late 1950s.”
The inner workings of many antiquated police items are quite elaborate, which is what interests Lain the most.
“It’s amazing to see how far law enforcement equipment has come, and how people approached the same end result in very different mechanical ways,” he said.
Lain has a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He teaches police history to high school students and ethics and cultural diversity at the police academy. He presents workshops, lectures and seminars in Illinois and Indiana.
During demonstrations, he shares a look at his dark lantern with bull’s-eye lens. He also brings along a noisemaker, the forerunner to a whistle. Continually curious, the more personal the connection Lain can make with objects, the more he appreciates them. He also likes to look for distinct and subtle differences between one generation of police equipment and the next.
In his collection is an Oregon Boot, a heavy circular brass weight invented in the 1870s that latched around a prisoner’s ankle. He also has a ball-and-chain device that was still used on prisoners in the 1930s and early 1940s, which he acquired from a retired official of the Illinois Prison System after it was found in a sub-basement of the old Joliet Prison.
One friend entrusted Lain with a gun belonging to his grandfather, a Chicago police officer in 1900. Lain was then able to purchase other items of the same era and secure a box of cartridges and a police badge. He mounted them all together to tell a more complete story than the gun would have alone.
As the sheriff buys police memorabilia, he appreciates that each and every item has its own story. Sometimes he knows that story and sometimes he doesn’t. Investigating the items, how they were used, when they were used and by whom is fascinating to him. “Up until the 1840s in England and Ireland, it was commonplace for officers to be issued and carry swords,” he pointed out. He has one of those original swords and also owns several truncheons, or batons, dating back to the 1830s. Some are decoratively painted and even have a coat of arms.
“I’m blessed with good friends who have been donating to my collection for years,” said the sheriff. “They’re always on the lookout for me, knowing that any police items that come my way will always be respected and enjoyed.”
BY DEE DUNHEIM