Department of Records - City of Philadelphia

Philadelphia Information Locator Service

From the Newsletter of the Philadelphia City Archives, # 32 (October 1977)


by Ward J. Childs

Many researchers working for the first time with Philadelphia Court records of the 18th and early 19th centuries find their research complicated by the proliferation of courts and overlapping jurisdictions. The similarity in judicial jurisdiction but difference in geographical jurisdiction between the Mayor's and Quarter Sessions Courts which we have described, is an example of this. The accuracy of a researcher's data can often be influenced by so small a detail as the side of the street on which the crime took place. Those who approach court records of this period with some preconceived notion of a simple division into criminal and civil cases very soon find that reality is not quite so cut and dried. But this should not surprise us. When we take into consideration that the usual method of government reform in the executive branch consisted of the creation of some new administrative body it seems only natural that the same type of approach would also be applied to the judiciary. Fragmentation of authority seems to have been the norm of governmental evolution and it should not be unexpected in the history of the Philadelphia Courts.

We already have seen, in the case of the Mayor's and Quarter Sessions Court, one way in which judicial authority could be fragmented. Both were criminal courts, which also engaged in certain housekeeping functions. The same type of defendants appeared before each bench. In fact the only real difference between the two was the geographic area in which each exercised its authority. This geographical division originated in Penn's grant to the Mayor's Court, in the Charter of 1701, of powers similar to those of the Court of Quarter Sessions. More remotely, it reflected the evolution of the English judicial system from the time of the re-emergence of the town in medieval England. Penn just transplanted to this side the Atlantic a relationship between the courts of borough and county which had existed in seventeenth century England. This City and County duality of quarter sessions jurisdiction continued, virtually unbroken, from 1701 to 1838, the year that the Mayor's Court was abolished. Even during the suspension of the Corporation between 1776 and 1789 a separate criminal jurisdiction, distinct from, but resembling that of the Quarter Sessions, was carried on in the City, at first by the City Court, and then by popularly elected justices of the peace. In fact, the Revolution tended to make the distinction between the two jurisdictions more pronounced by removing the Mayor and Recorder from the quorum of the Quarter Sessions bench. The Charter of 1789 fixed this division for almost the next half century by foreclosing members of either bench from sitting as justices in the other court.

In 1836 the fragmentation of quarter sessions jurisdiction within Philadelphia County was increased by Act of the Legislature which established the Recorder's Court for the Incorporated Districts of the Northern Liberties, Spring Garden and Kensington. In these districts the Recorder's Court, composed of a Recorder, appointed by the Governor, the Mayor of the Northern Liberties and the aldermen of the three districts, had the same criminal and oyer and terminer jurisdiction that the Mayor exercised in the City of Philadelphia. Its docket, for the brief period that it is extant, could almost be a carbon copy of those of the other Courts: cases of fornication and bastardy, assault, libel, tippling houses and all the other seamy matters one expects to see tried in a criminal court. Like the other courts the Recorder's Court also heard apprentice cases and issued tavern licenses.

The life span of the Recorder's Court was very short. The Act which created it was repealed by the Act of Larch 19, 1838 which established a completely new bench, the Court of Criminal Sessions of the City and County of Philadelphia. This Act also terminated the one hundred and forty-seven year jurisdiction of the Mayor's Court in the City of Philadelphia. The Act of March 19, 1838 was a watershed in the judicial history of Philadelphia County. It ended the County's history of geographical fragmentation in its criminal courts. (This type of fragmentation never had been a civil court problem since major civil jurisdiction had not been granted to the City's Court.) It also initiated a five year period of transition in the exercise of quarter sessions jurisdiction, which only was terminated by the return of all quarter sessions jurisdiction in the County to the Court of Quarter Sessions for the City and County of Philadelphia.

To the Court of Criminal Sessions was transferred the criminal jurisdiction of the Mayor's and Recorder's Courts and Court of Quarter Sessions and the jurisdiction of the Quarter Sessions Court over roads, highways and bridges. The new Court was also given the power to appoint three additional inspectors of the County Prison. The creation of the Court of Criminal Sessions for the City and County of Philadelphia was a radical departure from a long judicial tradition of Pennsylvania. Traditionally the same justices constituted the panels of judges of both the Common Pleas Court and the Court of Quarter Sessions. In other words, most criminal cases in the County were heard by the same judges who Resided over civil trials in the Court of Common Pleas. The Act of 1838 created a completely new panel of judges, which was totally distinct from those of the Common Pleas Court, and which only heard those cases which previously would have been tried in the Mayor's, Recorder's or Quarter Sessions Court. The only function of the Quarter Sessions Court left to the Common Pleas Court justices was the issuance of liquor licenses and the right to sit on a court of oyer and terminer.

The function of a completely separate bench for the trial of criminal cases was carried over to the Court of General Sessions, but with amplified power. The Act of Assembly of February 27, 1840 which abolished the Court of Criminal Sessions and created this new Court not only gave it the full judicial power of the Court of Criminal Sessions, but also vested it with oyer and terminer jurisdiction. Three years later, on February 3, 1843 another Act of Assembly abolished the Court of General Sessions. The Court of Quarter Sessions for the City and County of Philadelphia was reestablished with full criminal jurisdiction. It justices (i.e. those of the Court of Common Pleas) again constituted the panel from which the Court of Oyer and Terminer was formed.

Our discussion of the convolutions of the County's criminal court history leads us to consideration of the second kind of judicial fragmentation encountered by anyone doing research in eighteenth and early nineteenth century court records of Philadelphia County. This is fragmentation as a means of dividing the labor of judicial tasks. It is a fragmentation not unfamiliar to anyone aware of the structure of the County court system before its most recent reorganization in January 1969. At that time the court system consisted of Courts of Common Pleas, Quarter Sessions, Oyer and Terminer, and of Orphans, which had jurisdiction over civil cases, criminal cases, criminal cases involving capital punishment, and probate cases, respectively. It also included the Municipal Court with its limited civil and criminal jurisdiction and jurisdiction over cases which the 1969 reorganization transferred to the Family Court Division. Fragmentation as a division of labor is also the basis for the hierarchy of state courts: the county courts are usually courts of original jurisdiction while the Superior and Supreme Courts, and more recently, the Commonwealth Court exercise various levels of appellate jurisdiction.

No doubt, any historian who has plowed through the voluminous records of any of these courts would agree that this type of fragmentation is not only helpful but almost a prerequisite for efficient research. However, when such a division of labor goes haywire either by developing too many subdivisions, evolving too rapidly, or having lines of division so flexible that two or more Courts share the same jurisdiction, the researcher is liable to run into difficulties. As we have seen from our preceding discussion of the geographical fragmentation of the County's judicial system, the Courts which exercised quarter sessions jurisdiction before 1838 could be thought of as exhibiting the first of these tendencies. No doubt, many scholars would contend that there were just too many of these criminal courts. Of course, the point of view in this respect often depends on whose bull is being gored. A historian doing research on crime in the City probably would be very happy to collect his data on bawdy houses, thefts and assaults from only one set of dockets while another developing statistics on crime, without any reference to its relation to the social or economic environment, might consider referral to three different sets of dockets as an impertinent nuisance. Perhaps examples of divisions of labor that have gone too much to the extreme are better found in the functions of the courts. One example that immediately comes to mind is naturalizations. In the period between 1812 and 1843 there are never less than six or seven county, state and federal courts performing the naturalization function at the same time. Without a finding aid like the "Alphabetical Index of Naturalization Records, 1794-1880", compiled by the Work Projects Administration and which we have brought forward to 1930 for our records, I am sure that we, at the City Archives, would waste a great deal of time and energy, and I am sure this is true for other repositories as well. Partition deeds which may be found in the County Common Pleas, District and Orphans Court could be cited as another example.

We have described the rapid turnover of quarter sessions jurisdiction in the five year period between 1838 and 1843. Since the City Archives holds the criminal court records for this period we have occasion to notice how this period seems to cause more problems and raise more questions among researchers working with court records than any other. The source of these difficulties seems to stem from the fact that with the creation of the Court of Criminal Sessions, and later, its successor, the Court of General Sessions, the Court of Quarter Sessions was divested of most of its functions, but this court did not go out of existence. On the contrary while the Court was limited to performing certain marginal functions such as issuing liquor licenses, its clerk was acting ex-officio as Clerk of the Court of Criminal Sessions, and performed the same role for most of the functions of the Court of General Sessions.

Click here for Part I

Click here for Part III

Links to related information...
--> PhILS Home
--->Philadelphia City Archives