Department of Records - City of Philadelphia

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From the Newsletter of the Philadelphia City Archives, Number 45 (February 1982)


by Ward J. Childs

In the last edition of the Newsletter we discussed the information included in records series pertaining to inmates. A specific example is the Sentence Docket entry for Hannah Jones, who was sentenced on July 8, 1825 by the Mayor's Court to imprisonment at hard labor for nine months and payment of the cost of prosecution for running a bawdy house and disorderly house, reveals that she was a thirty-three year old "Yellow woman, 5 ft. 32 inches, born in Smyrna, Delaware with a large scar in chin, mouth crooked, scrofulous scars under her jaw who kept a sailors boarding house, intends staying (in the City)"and who was an inmate for the first time. Occasionally, a pithy comment by the prison recorder provides a special insight into an inmate's life, as in the case of forty-three year old Sarah Brown whom the Mayor's Court, on March 28, 1825, also sentenced for running a bawdy house and disorderly bawdy house on two counts. After her physical description in the Receiving Description Docket, the prison recorder noted, in bold letters, that she was "BY PROFESSION A WHORE HOUSE KEEPER" and another hand added "commonly called Quaker Sal." In short, Sarah Brown or Quaker Sal must have been known as a notorious local procuress. Sometimes these records also tell us something about prison procedures. For example, it is obvious from the Receiving Description Docket that 19th Century Prison officials placed as great an emphasis on physical description as a means of identifying prisoners as present-day officials do on mug shots and fingerprints. As soon as the convicted criminal entered the County Prison, Prison officials measured his height and the size of his foot; noted the color of his skin, hair and eyes; described skin blemishes, physical deformities and tattoos in profuse detail; and collected information on the new inmate's occupation, marital status, and temperance or intemperance. It was probably as positive a means of identification as was possible in the years before Bertillion's System of anthropometry and, later, fingerprinting turned identification into a science. The inmate's description followed him through his period of incarceration. It was entered in the Prison's Sentence Docket and Convict Description Docket and, when the inmate was released, carried over to the Discharge Description Docket, 1830- 1933. Even a prisoner's discharge afforded an opportunity to enter further information concerning him. The Discharge Description Docket, 1830-1933, added the prisoner's intended residence; and, in the years after 1873, time added for misconduct, number of days punished, number of days commuted, education received in prison, and amount earned. To the Discharge Docket, 1835-1896, was added a description of the prisoner's clothing.

Information uncertain types of prisoners was entered in special record series. From 1790 to 1932 the County Prisons maintained a Vagrancy Docket, and from 1846 to 1915, an Intoxification Docket. Each of these series include the prisoner's name, sentence, cause of commitment and by whom committed, date of discharge and by whom discharged. Everyone examining these records will note that intoxification and vagrancy were considered broad classifications into which were fitted any number of behaviors unacceptable to society at large. It is obvious that a lot of people were sent to the County Prisons to clear the streets of undesirables. In fact, corner lounging and being a suspicious person are general charges common to both record series. In addition to the typical charge of being idle and vagrant, the Vagrancy Docket includes such charges as street walking, operating an auto without a license, swearing profane oaths, and gambling. The Intoxification Docket includes such charges as running away from home, begging, and lewd conduct among its typical entries of drunk and disorderly, breach of the peace and blasphemy and profanity. Another unexpected record series is the listings of U.S. Government Prisoners, Holmesburg Prison, 1902-1915. Under an Act of the Pennsylvania General Assembly of 1789 wardens of county prisons are obliged to accept United States prisoners and, therefore, we find persons confined to Holmesburg Prison, in this periods for crimes such as tampering with the mail, smuggling, and counterfeiting. Even records of female inmates are often found in special records series. Most of these, such as the Convicts Docket, Female, 1838-1891; the "Convicts and Sentenced Prisoners Docket, Female," 1895-1918; Sentence Docket, Female, 1889-1900; Entry Docket, Female, 1872-1929; and Commutation Calendar, Female, 1890-1950, include much o f the same information as corresponding records series for male inmates. However, an occasional series, such as Foreign-Born Female Convicts, 1897-1905; and Health Histories, Female Prisoners, 1891, provides special information about some female inmates. This is especially true concerning the Health Histories, Female Prisoners which not only provides the expected information of prisoner's name, age, race, marital status, height and weight, occupation, crime and sentence; but also such additional information as the prisoner's religion, next of kin, physical condition, illnesses, and other information concerning her health history, and health and personal data concerning her parents, siblings, children and husband. Unfortunately, like other special series' such valuable information is only available for a limited period of time. In this case, one year.

Information concerning criminals has also been the major weapon of the police in their fight against crime. Such information is not only necessary to apprehend criminals but is indispensable for their conviction. A professional police force crystalized in Philadelphia in the period from the early 1830s to the early 1850s. An ordinance of December 30, 1830 first established a police patrol which served both during the day and at night. In 1833 a bequest of Stephen Girard for the improvement of the police prompted Councils to pass the Ordinance of December 26 of that year, the first of a series, which provided for the division of the City into police districts. An Ordinance of December 23, 1841 established the City's first Police Department. The Act of Assembly of May 3, 1850, known as the "Marshall's Bill" merged the Philadelphia Police and those of adjoining Incorporated Districts of the County. Finally, the Consolidation of the City and County in 1854 extended the City's police system throughout the Consolidated City.

Unfortunately, we have no records, or information concerning the records, of the Philadelphia Police in the period before Consolidation. We have no idea of what types of information the Police may have collected concerning criminals, or whether they collected any at all. However, we do have firm evidence that shortly after Consolidation the Police had already developed a system of statistical reporting that would be perfected in the following thirty-five years. The first Annual Report of Mayor Richard Vaux of January 8, 1859 includes reports on crimes for which arrests were made and the nativities of persons arrested, which do not differ appreciatively in form from similar statistics still being collected in 1912. In fact, it is easy to speculate that the report on nativities of persons arrested, which lists the sex and national origin of each person arrested for a crime, may have had its origin as early as the administration of Mayor Robert T. Conrad, Vaux's predecessor, who was elected Mayor in 1854 on the platform of the Native American Party. As the Nineteenth Century progressed and moved into the Twentieth it is obvious from Philadelphia Police statistics, included in the Mayors' Annual Messages and Reports of Departments, that the Philadelphia Police not only were collecting more categories of information, but also using them more and more to reflect the scope of their activities (which is fortunate for historians since so few Philadelphia Police records of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries have survived). In the years beginning with 1859 the Annual Reports of the Police Department add statistics on the color, age, sex and marital status of persons arrested each month; the number of arrests made and the various offenses charged in each police district during the year; the race and national origin of persons lodged at night each month in Police district station houses; and a report of the number of arrests for each offense per month by officers of the Detective Department. The 1859 annual report and annual reports for the years 1863 to 1869 add reports of the Beggar or Vagrant Detectives which list the number of men, women, boys and girls of each race arrested for begging each month and the institutions to which they were committed. Beginning with the year 7861 the annual reports also include the values of goods recovered each month by officers of the Detective Department. In contrast with these reports the annual reports for the years 1866 and 1867 could almost be termed a new plateau in reporting. In addition to the information provided in the earlier reports, these reports, for the first time, add a personal element, previously absent. The 1866 and 1867 reports of the Detective Department include monthly statistics of arrests and of the value of property recovered by each officer of the Detective Department, by name; reports of property recovered for the months of July to December which list the date the property was recovered, for whom it was recovered, kind of property, its value and the name of the officer making the recovery; and, perhaps more importantly, reports for the months of October, November and December of arrests by Detectives which list the date of arrest, the name of persons arrested, the charge, the arrested's age, place of birth, and color, and names of arresting officers. These reports also add a synopsis of higher crimes which describe specific crimes, the victims, the perpetrators and arresting officers. The police reports for the five subsequent years are a decline from this plateau. Although they continued to include statistics on arrests and the recovery of property by individual detectives, the individuals arrested again appear only as nameless statistics.

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Click here for Part IV.

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