Philadelphia Information Locator Service
From the Newsletter of the Philadelphia City Archives, Number 44 (October 1981)
by Ward J. Childs
The major complaint by researchers about criminal court records is their paucity of information. This is especially true in the period before transcripts of testimony became common. In Philadelphia our earliest notes of testimony are the year 1875. Before that, the principal record of any criminal trial consisted of docket entries which essentially are an abstract of the trial proceedings. While such a record has always been sufficient for court purposes, it usually confounds the researcher who uses it for the first time. The typical reaction is the question "Is that all there is?" This is understandable. The docket includes no description of the circumstances in which the crime took place, no information concerning the defendant or witnesses, and no summary of the Commonwealth's and defendant's evidence on which the verdict of the jury is expected to rest. In fact, in some of our very earliest dockets, the general term, "Felony" is listed as the charge rather than some specific crime.
Despite these drawbacks criminal court records can be, and are, used. The circumstances of a crime can be filled in from newspaper accounts. City directories can be used for background information on jurors and witnesses. Where indictments are in narrative form they often provide us with at least the prosecution's side of the evidence. In murder cases the Coroner's records, which the City Archives holds for varying years from 1854 to 1908, and the Medical Examiner's records, which are held by the Medical Examiner's Office from 1934 to the present, provide information concerning the victim, and witnesses' statements. For information concerning criminals the records of the Philadelphia County Prisons are an especially fertile source. The City Archives holds almost all the surviving records of the Walnut street Prison, 1773-1835; the Arch Street Prison, 1809-1836; and Moyamensing Prison, 1835-1963; and some of the very early records of Holmesburg Prison, 1894-the present. These records cover the period 1790 to 1956. The earliest records, those of the Walnut Street Prison and Arch Street Prison, are of particular interest because these two institutions served as State prisons until they were closed in late 1935 and early 1836, respectively. These records usually include very detailed information about inmates and there seems to have been a record for every aspect of an inmate's incarceration.
On the basis of the volume of records, it would seem that most inmates were committed to the County Prisons before they were ever convicted of crime. Before the erection of Philadelphia's Detention Center in the early 1960's the County Prisons were used to hold prisoners awaiting trial. Prisoners detained for trial were registered in the Prisoner For Trial Docket, 1790-1948. There are 164 volumes of this record series, by far the largest of eighty-six series of the Inspectors of the Jail and Penitentiary House and Inspectors of County Prison. Unfortunately, prison authorities only recorded the barest minimum information about the individuals who made up this great underbelly of society, probably because of the transitory stay of most of these prisoners. For most of this period entries include Philadelphia City Archives' Newsletter only the prisoner's naves charge, date and by whom committed, and date and by whom discharged. Only in 1942 is there entered information such as the age, race and address of the inmate, which would be so useful to historians. This same policy of entering minimum necessary information was carried over when the Untried Department Discharge Index, 1863-1929 was instituted. The ninety-nine volumes of this series include much or the same information. Thus, two of OUI- most voluminous records series provide us with the least information. it is interesting to compare these records zenith one of the inmate folders from the present-day Detention Center which includes a commitment order which lists the inmate's name, address, names of witnesses, charge; date, time and location of trial; name of judge, and amount of bail; a copy of charge; and extract of the inmate's part criminal record listing his aliases, date of birth, sex, race, address, record of past arrests and disposition of each case; a record of his clothing and personal belongings, a visitors' record; a detentioner's summary which lists the inmate's name, address, age, birth date, birthplace, race, sex, religion, charge, source of commitment, bill of indictment number, and the names and addresses of immediate relatives; a classification profile which includes medical information; prison, parole or probation experience; employment and marital status; a work assignment questionnaire, drug questionnaires, reports of medical and psychiatric examinations; a chronological record showing disciplinary actions, court appearances, complaints, and observations; the inmate's photograph, and sometimes, even other items. Of course, such an embarrassment of riches has its own price, as we shall discuss later.
In contrast, records series pertaining to inmates, who were tried and sentenced, are full of
information. The Receiving Description Docket, 1825-1864, which was the record of first entry
for incoming prisoners; and the Sentence Docket 1794-1923; and Convict Description Docket,
1826-1931; to which entries from the Receiving Description Docket were entered, provide us
with a rounded picture of the inmate which includes the inmate's name age, race, place of birth,
occupation, physical description, crime, sentence, court in which tried, date or sentence, number
of convictions, degree of literacy, and date and method of discharge
Click here for Part I.
Click here for Part III.