Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Paddywagon

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 25, 2010

A Paddywagon is a van the police use to transport people who have been arrested and are en route to jail or who have been found guilty of a crime and are being transported to prison.  Since it’s a police vehicle, paddy surely must refer to the police in some way.

Paddy is slang from 1780 for an Irishman.  Paddy is a nickname for the very popular and proper Irish name, Patrick.   In fact, by 1881, the uncomplimentary slur Paddywhack was slang for an Irishman.

During the 1920s, a large number of Irishmen were police officers on various police forces across America so it would be easy to assume that this is the origin of the term paddywagon.  However, this is disputed with the use of the term dating back to at least the beginning of the 1900s.

The Seattle newspaper reported on that on during the evening hours of July 24, 1916:

… Seattle Police Sergeant John F. Weedin was shot and killed in the line of duty. Sergeant Weedin and Officer Robert Wiley were traveling in a paddywagon when a citizen stopped them to report that he had been accosted by a man with a gun.  The suspect produced a handgun and shot Officer Wiley. The gunman then turned the weapon on Sergeant Weedin and shot him. Officer Wiley returned fire and killed the suspect.

Sgt. Weedin and Officer Robert R. Wiley had been working 12-hour shifts during a Longshoremen’s strike.

But the term goes back to the Civil War era when Paddy was  slang for a policeman, especially in cities such as New York, where many officers were of Irish descent.  During the violent five-day Draft Riots in New York in 1863, the term Paddy wagon became slang for the horse drawn wagons the police used to round up protesters against the Civil War draft.

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