Academic journal article Michigan Historical Review

Habitues of the Police Court: Criminal Justice for the Poor in Antebellum Detroit

Academic journal article Michigan Historical Review

Habitues of the Police Court: Criminal Justice for the Poor in Antebellum Detroit

Article excerpt

The Police Court is undoubtedly the most reliable index of the lower order of city life that is accessible to the community at large. A certain degree of familiarity with its habitues is necessary to enable one to appreciate fully the peculiarities of their character, but when it is attained it is worth profiting by.

Detroit Free Press, February 25, 1859.

Warren P. Isham, city editor for the Detroit Free Press, arrived at the Detroit Police Court on September 14, 1859, looking for interesting news. He found a courtroom "crowded with criminals, witnesses, babies, attorneys and spectators." Sitting at the court reporters' table, Isham spent much of the day watching the police justice dispose of a large number of cases, including a woman charged with slapping her neighbor's baby, a boy prosecuted for stealing a yawl, an arrest resulting from a hair-pulling tussle between two women, a case of disorderly conduct against the "oldest, dirtiest and most confirmed vagrant that adorns the Police Court," four boys arrested for robbing a melon patch, a fistfight over the payment of a plank-road toll, a child abduction, a newsboy scrum, and a number of other cases involving larceny, assault, mayhem, and attempted rape. Returning to his office, Isham composed an inventive column detailing these cases for the next day's newspaper. (1)

The court proceedings that Isham witnessed on that September day were a perfect illustration of the complex ways in which the poor of antebellum Detroit used the city's criminal justice system. Some cases demonstrated a system that functioned to protect property, promote personal security, and enforce public discipline. In this, the court operated in a manner consistent with the moral, economic, and social interests of the community's upper classes. Other cases, however, showed a system that benefited the poor. Because Detroit, like most American antebellum communities, used English-based common law to govern its criminal justice system, everyone, especially the poor, enjoyed easy access to the law. Even though this arrangement forced the victim of a crime to prosecute the alleged offender privately, it also gave the victim wide discretion as legal proceedings advanced. Indeed, as this article will demonstrate, the poor of antebellum Detroit often used this access and discretion to successfully contest, plead, negotiate, and resolve a multitude of everyday problems in the Police Court.

Historical writing about how the urban poor in modernizing societies used lower courts suggests that Detroit followed a pattern found in other urban areas where English common law prevailed. Two historians have examined this issue in particular detail. In-depth analyses of how the poor interacted with the magistracy play a major role in Peter King's studies of eighteenth-century English criminal courts and in Allen Steinberg's examination of Philadelphia's nineteenth-century alderman courts. A major theme in much of King's work is that the English "laboring poor" effectively used the lower criminal courts for their own purposes. In his words, the "unpropertied laboring poor did not meet the law only as criminal sanction." They "made extensive use of the courts for their own purposes." (2) In general, he finds that a "very wide variety of men and women brought assault cases, poor-law appeals, master-servant disputes and a huge range of other issues" to the English summary courts. (3) He concludes that "although the criminal justice system was mainly aimed at controlling the laboring poor, the poor were able to utilize a range of legal arenas to protect their property, resolve their disputes, or appeal for wages or relief." (4)

Steinberg's research on Philadelphia's antebellum municipal courts reveals a similar use of the lower courts by the poor. He observes that "the 'spirit of litigation' was, as observers noted, manifest mainly 'among the poorer classes."' In early Philadelphia, "prosecutors secured the intervention of the criminal law in virtually any kind of personal circumstance they chose" and could manipulate the law "to maintain, with the aldermen [the judges], most of the discretion within the process of criminal justice. …

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