City of Philadelphia

Department of Records



Philadelphia Criminal Court Records Sampling Project

Final Report of Work Completed Under

Phase III (May 1998-August 1999)


Submitted to the

Pennsylvania Historical and Records Commission




Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Grant Program FY 1997-1998

Grant No.ME71034

July 2000









City Archives of Philadelphia

3101 Market Street, Suite 150

Philadelphia, PA 19104-4709

Phone (215) 685-9401

FAX (215) 685-9409

. Project Description


How did you promote the activities that the grant funded to the public?

This grant of $15,000 supported the third phase of the ongoing cooperative project between the Department of Records, the Clerk of Quarter Sessions, and the first Judicial District of Pennsylvania to sample and re-house criminal court records of Philadelphia County, currently stored in the Philadelphia City Records Center. During Phase III the project was promoted to in several ways. In 1997, the project convened an advisory group of stakeholders (see Appendix A) of court records administrators, archivists, state and local records officers, a statistician, and scholars of the history of crime to discuss the need for sampling and to share their ideas with us. Members of this stakeholders' group held an open meeting at the 1998 NAGARA Meeting. This was open to the public and members of the profession were present and offered comments and suggestions. This allowed us to make contact with representatives of other archival institutions which faced similar problems and from whom we , in turn, received valuable input. Flyers were mailed to several local colleges and universities near Philadelphia offering unpaid archival internships to interested students. These flyers offered opportunities to students to participate in the Project and obtain experience in conducting background research in newspaper files, researching criminal docket indices, and building a data base of information about the records.(See Appendix B). We also contacted the Corporation for Transition Work and requested transitional workers (those being trained to go from welfare to work) for the Project. Two transitional workers participated in the Project doing valuable support work and, in turn, developed important work skills. In late Fall of 1998 the City Archives held an official opening of its new Archives' facility of which one of the features was a display on spectacular and notorious crimes which included some of the significant court documents found during the sampling process. This exhibit was displayed in the Reading Room of the City Archives for several months and was viewed by the cross section of the public that constitute the Archives' patrons. (See Appendix C). Finally, descriptions of the records which have been sampled and described were entered in the Philadelphia Information Locator Service ( and are available on the Web as Record Series 21.5 Notes of Testimony and 21.46 Bills of Indictment. (See Appendix D.)

Describe the activities that the grant allowed the organization to undertake the final work product.


This grant enabled the Department of Records to continue the Criminal Court Sampling Project begun with the assistance of preceding grants from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Using the methodology developed previously (outlined in the Phase I and Phase II project reports submitted to PHMC respectively in June 1998 and March 1999), this grant allowed project archivists to expand and correct an advanced documentation system, begin to develop accurate access guides, conduct extensive historical background research, and continue corrective preservation measures to selected records. Ultimately, the project sought to responsibly preserve and make accessible Philadelphia's rich court history by continuing to establish a usable and rational system for sampling the massive criminal court cases created in Philadelphia county. The specific sampling method that was employed is outlined in the Phase I and Phase II Reports as well as all the grant applications formerly submitted to the PHMC.

Project Narrative

With the assistance of volunteers and interns the project succeeded in continuing to identify, segregate, and to produce a database inventory of bills of indictment and accompanying notes of testimony selected for permanent retention. The project has thus far completed sampling and segregation of bills of indictment and notes of testimony for the years from 1940 to 1952.At the beginning stages of the project it was expected that all records in the time period to 1960 would be identified and segregated for permanent retention within the time frame of the grant. While this goal was always kept in mind during this section of the project, the amount of actual physical file identification and segregation which could be accomplished was affected by several factors that developed during the course of Phase III. First, the City Archives underwent a major move from their Broad Street location to the new expanded space at 3101 Market Street. This disrupted the Project by causing delay in the actual file segregation due to the inability to access the records. Second, we underestimated the time we would need to invest in designing and maintaining an automated system to support the work of the project, i.e., both to store information about sampled files as well as to generate random number tables for selecting the part of the sample that was chosen randomly. The project developed such a system using Microsoft ACCESS and Microsoft EXCEL applications which has been integral to the progress of the project. The database will continue to be an extremely important tool for future use at the City Archives. It provides the only machine-readable means of accessing criminal court records in Philadelphia for the years prior to 1968. (The only other retrieval tool for obtaining this information is the handwritten docket index volumes of names of defendants which are unwieldy to use and housed at the Clerk of Quarter Sessions Office away from the actual court records.) Unlike the paper indexes, the sampling project database is set up to be searchable and sorted in a variety of fields including name of defendant, bill of indictment number(s), date, alias, and charge. It has also provided a means for organizing and storing information about cases identified for sampling, which has made it easier to get the work done using part-time and unpaid help. However, while some progress was made with the expansion of the database, we ran into problems because of the outdated nature of our computer equipment and lack of networking between different machines. So staff had to do manual backups. This problem was being resolved as the Phase III grant expired through the networking of the City Archives and Record Storage Center Computers. Networking will allow information entered into any computer to be accessed on any other computer, as well as offering additional space and security within the new network server. Third, as we got closer to the present, we identified more cases that had been appealed and were more recent than the court papers in which the defendant was originally charged. We ended up including appeals in the sample accessioned into the City Archives for permanent retention because on the whole they tended to include significant felony cases and often homicides which were already identified for permanent retention in our sampling model. However, the increasing incidence of appeals cases with each passing year meant the processors had to spend additional time examining the documents to see to see if there were any pertaining to subsequent appeals which would lengthen the amount of time that would have to elapse before the end of the retention period for material pertaining to the case. The project team was beginning to examine the ramifications of this regarding application of our sampling model to later years when the funding ran out as the processors were completing the year 1952.

The sample for the years 1940-1952 has been re-boxed and transferred to the City Archives for future permanent preservation and use by interested researchers. A total of 189 cubic feet of material of the original 535 cubic foot total, representing a 65% percent reduction in bulk, has been removed from the storage center and re-housed in the Archives.( See Appendix E). The remaining materials will remain in the Record Storage Center until they have satisfied their fifty-year retention requirement period and will then be disposed. The Department of Records has received approval from the Office of the Clerk of Quarter Sessions for the disposal 337 cubic feet of Bills and Notes, 1940-1948, which have been sampled and which have passed their retention period as mandated by the County Records Manual. (See Appendix F).

The project has simultaneously completed extensive background research in spectacular and notorious cases, expanded and corrected the existing database, and prepared for the next stage of the project. Using the methodology developed for the project systematic identification of homicides and spectacular and notorious cases was collected from a variety of sources including the docket index, newspapers, annual reports of the District Attorney's office, police detective files, and through references to associated cases appearing on the documents themselves (See Appendix G.) Project staff members were trained to conduct research in the docket indices, create groupings of bills of indictment for crimes which resulted in multiple charges and perform data entry. Two of the trainees were transitional workers who gained valuable job skills and proved themselves of invaluable assistance in preparation for the next phase of the project.

The primary goal of our project was to reduce the bulk of Philadelphia's criminal court records and, at the same time, to permanently retain a sample which would be truly representative of the whole. Since the Criminal Court Record Project was a first step in what was envisioned to be a continuing process, it was crucial not only to adopt a rigorous sampling methodology but to assure the continuity of its use. To achieve this end the project staff collaborated in the development of a procedural manual, a copy of which will be found in Appendix H.

List of final work Products Completed During Phase III of the Philadelphia Criminal Court Records Sampling Project

Accession of the bills of indictment and notes of testimony segregated for permanent retention into the City Archives 1948-1949 court records.

Segregation of the bills of indictment for 1950 for permanent retention in the City Archives

Creation and data entry of clustered bills of indictment for 1951-1955 to be segregated and added for permanent retention.

Completion of background research on Spectacular and Notorious cases at Criminal Court Criminal Justice Center for 1951 and 1952.

Completion of background research into Spectacular and Notorious cases using additional methods, such as the investigation City Archival holdings of police records and additional archival materials.

Completion of box listings and labels of permanently housed records from 1940-1949 to reflect actual record location within archival holding space and the addition of the newly segregated 1948-50 records (See Appendix I).

Completion of final draft of a procedural manual on the methodology if Criminal Court Record Sampling.

Expansion and correction to existing electronic database structure and content to expedite future project progress and use by researchers.

Training of new project archivist, volunteers staff, and transitional workers.


  1. How did the community benefit? (Include attendance figures if possible.)

The goal of this grant was to preserve and make accessible to historians and other researchers a representative sample from the mass of Criminal Court Records while at the same time reducing the overwhelming bulk of the records. To this end, the existing database was developed and expanded to provide an electronic record of the permanently selected records stored for use by Philadelphia Archives staff. Eventually this same database will be posted on the City's Archives' web site for search over the Internet. Attention was also given to background research to ensure that cases of particular Spectacular and Notorious Interest were included among the segregated files to provide a broad and reliable cross section of Philadelphia criminal history for posterity. During Phase III, these tools allowed a few scholars to begin to use selected files from the 1940-1952 period.

This project is also intended to serve as a representative model for other counties within the state of Pennsylvania with similar problem storing vast quantities of criminal court records. During Phase III, funding by the PHMC enabled the project to make significant progress on the creation of a procedural manual explaining our specific sampling methodology, which will eventually serve as reference guide for similar projects. (See Appendix H). This manual will also ensure future adherence by the City Archives' staff to a consistent set of procedures by which we hope to produce a consistent sample.

Finally, this grant permitted us to attain our other goal: the elimination of a large body of records which had passed the retention period mandated by the County Records Manual. We have received permission from the Records Management Officer of the Clerk of Quarter Sessions to dispose of 337 cubic feet of Bills of Indictment and Notes of Testimony which were now past their retention period (See Appendix F). The sample taken from these records is being retained permanently and entered into a data base for use by researchers.



List of Appendices

Appendix A Philadelphia Criminal Court Records Sampling Project Advisory Group

Appendix B Intern Recruitment Flyer

Appendix C "Spectacular & Notorious Crimes of the 1940s" exhibit photograph, Dec. 1998

Appendix D Clerk of Court of Quarter Sessions Records, Series 21.5 and 21.46, Revised descriptions.

Appendix E Summary of Reduction in Bulk of Records for Sampled Years (table)

Appendix F Records disposal authorized by Clerk of Quarter Sessions (form)

Appendix G Project staff and interns compiling background information on court cases of the 1950s.

Appendix H Procedural Manual

Appendix I Box list of files selected for permanent retention and transferred to Archives.