Portrait courtesy of Find-A-Grave.
A descendant of one of New York's prominent political families, Minthorne Dyckman Tompkins' story is one of the more interesting ones you'll read about here, as he is the first political figure to have been a fireman by occupation. A member of Hook and Ladder Engine Company No. 1 in New York City, Tompkins etched his name into New York fire department history when he became the first man to be award a medal of valor, this award extending from his heroic actions a year prior while rescuing a woman from a burning hotel building. Following his retirement from the department in 1883 Tompkins and his family removed to Connecticut, and in 1885 was elected to that state's house of representatives from Stonington.
The son of George Clinton and Sarah Minthorne (Watson) Tompkins, Minthorne Dyckman Tompkins was born in New York City on July 20, 1841. A member of one of New York's most prestigious families, Tompkins' uncle was none other than Daniel D. Tompkins (1774-1825), former New York Governor, Congressman and Vice President of the United States under James Monroe. In addition to the Vice President, the family could count Westchester County Judge and U.S. Representative Caleb Tompkins amongst their ranks and sported another odd name politician in Mangle Minthorne Tompkins (1807-1881), a former state senator and candidate for Governor in 1852.
Young Minthorne's early education occurred at Grammar School No. 13 in New York City and he later attended the Forsyth Academy at White Plains. After leaving that school in 1860 Tompkins began a five-year clerkship in the Quartermaster's Department in New York City, from which he resigned in 1865. In that year he was appointed to the New York City Fire Department, which had become a paid force just three years prior.
By 1868 Tompkins had attained the rank of assistant foreman for the Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, and on November 14th of that year he and other department members were dispatched to combat a rapidly spreading fire that had broken out at the Stewart House, a restaurant and hotel located at 480 Broadway in lower Manhattan. Fourteen of the hotel's occupants had become trapped by the flames, with no escape routes possible. After ladders had been positioned against the building, Tompkins began a trek to the building's upper floors. Hearing screams and seeing a woman trapped by flames above him, Tompkins reached the top rung of the long wooden ladder and amongst the smoke, steadied himself on the top rung. After positioning his frame against the side of the building, Tompkins directed the woman out of the window and onto his shoulders, after which he precariously made the climb downward to the street.
After seeing that the woman had been attended to, Tompkins led his fellow firefighters back into the building to continue search and rescue operations, while hose teams contained the fire to the "rear portion of the building." Their efforts led to several more people being rescued and extracted from the building, with Tompkins himself continuing work even though he had received injury early in the rescue operation.
Tompkins as he appeared in the New York Herald in November 1910.
Several months after the Stewart House fire New York Herald publisher James Russell Bennett Sr. (1795-1872) endowed fifteen hundred dollars to be used towards the striking of a medal to be issued annually to a fire department member who had exhibited an exemplary act of heroism. The then recently established FDNY Board of Merit, knowing of Tompkins' actions, awarded him the Bennett Medal in April 1869, making Tompkins the first FDNY officer to be so honored.
Promoted to Lieutenant in 1868, Tompkins attained the rank of Captain three years later and in November 1871 married in Groton, Connecticut to Ellen Wilcox (1846-1889), a resident of Stonington. The couple would have at least one son, Odell Dyckman (1872-1962). In 1883 Tompkins was honorably discharged from the fire department due to physical disability. In the following year he and his family removed to Mystic, Connecticut, and within a short period of his resettlement had become a leading figure in the area, becoming a Grand Juror for the city of Stonington and a founder of Mystic Hook and Ladder Company No. 1.
In 1885 Tompkins was elected to the Connecticut General Assembly as a representative from Stonington and during the 1886 session would be named to the committee on claims. Widowed in 1889, Tompkins died in Stonington on March 15, 1904, at age 62. He and his wife (as well as their son Odell) were all interred at the Elm Grove Cemetery in Stonington.