Department of Records - City of Philadelphia

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From the Newsletter of the Philadelphia City Archives, Number 43 (June 1981)


by Ward J. Childs

Unfortunately, crime like death and taxes, is a phenomenon that never seems to go away. And, since the urban environment is the predominant breeding ground for crime, Philadelphia, which has been a major urban area for almost three centuries, has had more than its share of criminal activity. This criminal activity and its punishment from the mid-Eighteenth Century to the period immediately after the Second World War is amply documented in the records held by the City Archives, and we can assert, without boasting that every person held for trial on a criminal charge from 1790 to 1948 has found his way into our records. We think we can also safely assert that everyone held for trial on a criminal charge after 1948 and into the future will one day, in the form of one type of record or another also appear in the City Archives.

The initial link in the long chain of paperwork that leads to the City Archives is a report of the perpetration of a crime. A report of a robbery or a murder, for example, is investigated by the police who may apprehend a suspect. The suspect is then tried by the court to determine his guilt or innocence. If adjudged guilty, the criminal is incarcerated for the purpose of punishment and/or rehabilitation. At each step paperwork is generated. The police make incident and investigation reports, write descriptions of property stolen, register arrests, and keep a record of the Court's disposition of arrests. In the court the grand jury issues an indictment, minutes and notes of testimony are taken, and the case is docketed. The incarcerated prisoner is entered in receiving, sentence and convict dockets. A record is made of his clothing and personal belongings. There are reports of his medical and psychiatric examination. His punishments for infractions of prison regulations are registered. If he is lucky enough to have his sentence commuted, a notation is made in a commutation calendar. When discharged, the discharge is docketed. If the prisoner dies while incarcerated, the death is entered in a death register. When the crime is murder there is an additional step. The coroner or medical examiner, who is charged by law to investigate sudden, mysterious or violent deaths, performs an autopsy and receives evidence in inquest proceedings. These records become important evidence in the trial of the suspect. Even when released from prison on probation, the probationer's status stimulates a paper flow, such as the probation officer's correspondence with the probationer and the court, his journal of contacts, and investigative reports. Finally, when the active life of these records ceases and they are no longer required to be retained for legal or administrative purposes, the records, are transferred to the City Archives where they will be screened, and either accessioned, described and made available for public research; or destroyed.

Of course, our brief description of criminal justice is general. It telescopes a system that varies over three centuries and scarcely does justice to it. For example, there were hardly any police to speak of in the Eighteenth Century while today they form the largest contingent of municipal civil service employees, transcripts of trials were not made in Philadelphia County until the third quarter of the Nineteenth Century, and psychiatric examinations for criminals were not common until the twentieth century. Despite such differences our description is generally true. While police, legal and penal procedures and philosophies may change, they still stay very much the same. Records of each reflect both continuity and change because, like all records, they mirror the practices of the age that creates them.

The City Archives' earliest records relating to crime, criminals and the enforcement of law are records of Philadelphia's criminal Courts. The Quarter Sessions Court was the criminal court which had jurisdiction within the County, exclusive of the City of Philadelphia. The Court had been established by Penn's Frame of Government of 1682, but, in fact, was the successor of the Quarter Sessions Court that exercised authority in this area under the Duke of York's Laws. Within the City of Philadelphia the Mayor's Court exercised the same jurisdiction. It had been established under the City's Charter of 1701. Although such a City-County separation of judicial powers may seem unusual to anyone familiar with our present court system it was quite common in the Seventeenth Century England which Penn used far his model of government. On June 16, 1836 an Act of Assembly established a third court, the Recorder's Court of the Incorporated District of the Northern Liberties, and the Districts of Spring Garden and Kensington which exercised quarter sessions jurisdiction within those growing areas. These three courts either were abolished or lost their criminal jurisdiction under an Act of March 19, 1838. In the following five year period, criminal jurisdiction passed successively -to the Court of Criminal Sessions 1838-1840; the Court of General Sessions, 1840 - 1843; and finally to the newly-created Court of Quarter Sessions for the City and County of Philadelphia which would continue its exercise of criminal jurisdiction until the court reorganization of the mid-1960's.

Despite jurisdictional changes, procedures in criminal trials have not changed appreciatively since those early years when the Duke of York's justices first held their sessions in the local public house. The magistrate issues a warrant and the police arrest a suspect. The accused appears at a preliminary hearing at which the committing magistrate or judge determines if there is sufficient evidence to hold him for the grand jury. If so, the accused is committed or released on bail. The grand jury examines the prosecution's evidence and, if it is sufficient for a prima facie case, the accused is indicted. Sometimes the District Attorney petitions the Court for a special grand jury to investigate a reputed crime or public abuse. The special grand jury holds hearings, takes testimony and issues a presentation which is a statement in writing that in their opinion a crime has taken place. An indictment or presentation results in a trial in which the accused's guilt or innocence is determined in a trial in which the District Attorney acts as prosecutor, a judge rules on law and pronounces sentence and a jury of twelve determines the guilt or innocense of the accused.

Each step in the judicial process becomes a matter of record. In the committing magistrate's criminal docket are entered the name of the defendant, the date of the warrant the name of the person on whose oath the warrant is issued, date of arrest and name of arresting officer, the charge, date of hearing and disposition of the case. In the case of minor crimes such as public drunkenness a prostitution, the magistrate's docket is usually the final judicial record because the magistrate acts as sentencing judge. Bail is recorded in the magistrate's bail bond docket. If the accused considers it prudent to jump bail, the bond is forfeited and entered as a forfeited recognizance in the Quarter Sessions Court, and the bailor becomes liable for the full amount of the sum. Judgement against the bailor is entered in the Court's Recognizance Forfeitures Judgment Docket. If the bailor fails to pay, the judgment is executed and is recorded in Recognizance Forfeitures, Execution Docket. Occasionally, a defendant may feel he has been committed illegally and will petition the Court of Quarter sessions for a writ of habeas corpus. The resultant hearing and the action of the Court are entered in the Court's Habeas Corpus Docket. And, finally, everything pertaining to the defendant's trial, including the finding of the grand jury, the names of grand jury members and witnesses, the verdict and sentence, are entered in the Court's minutes and later transcribed into its appearance docket or, if there is a separate docket for capital cases, its Oyer and Terminer Docket.

The City Archives holds Dockets and Minutes of the Quarter Sessions Court, Court of Criminal Sessions, and Court of General Sessions for the respective periods of 1753 to 1879 and 1799 to 1933; Dockets and Minutes of the Mayor's Court for the respective periods of 1759 to 1837 and 1803 to 1838; Quarter Sessions, Bail Bond Forfeitures, 1911-1916; and Recognizance Forfeitures, Judgment Docket, 1846-1868 and Execution Docket 1846-1879; Mayor's Court, Forfeited Recognizances, 1830-1836; and Forfeited Recognizances, Judgment and Execution Dockets from 1819 to mid-1830's; the Quarter Sessions Court's Habeas Corpus Docket, 1867-1911, and Petitions, 1906-1944. Bills of Indictment, 1838-1915; Oyer and Terminer Docket, 1794-1840; and Notes of Testimony, 1875-1913. Pertinent records on the magistrate's level include the Aldermen's Court, Criminal and Civil Docket, 1845-1857, which includes criminal case entries For the years 1845 to 1847; its Criminal Transcript, 1876, which lists the date of warrant, deponent, charge, defendant deposition, bail and witnesses; and its Bail Bond Docket, 1870-1876; and Magistrates' Criminal Dockets, for various magistrates' courts, in the period 1886-1901; and Bail Bond Dockets for various Courts, 1870-1959. The City Archives also holds records of special grand juries for the years 1934, 1937, 1950 and 1951 which respectively investigated weights and measures regulation; the District Attorney's office and crime, vice and law enforcement; the Bureaus of Water and Building Inspection and City issuance of licenses and permits, and the Coroner's Office. Later records of Criminal trials are in the custody of the Clerk of Quarter Sessions. Any records earlier than those held by the City Archives are probably included among the court records which the Historical Society of Pennsylvania holds for the period 1688 to 1821. Since Oyer and Terminer trials before 1791 were held exclusively before justices of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and, since this jurisdiction continued for a long period after the Quarter Sessions Court undertook such jurisdiction, records are also in the custody of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission which has custody of the archives of the Supreme Court. However, the City Archives does hold a microfilm copy of the Supreme Court's Oyer and Terminer Docket for the years 1778-1827.

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