His curiosity piqued by a recent grand jury's description of "horrible and immoral" conditions in south Philadelphia and neighboring Southwark and Moyamensing, Evening Bulletin reporter Casper Sounder recruited a guide and set out early in 1853 to investigate first-hand what he would call the "mysteries and miseries" of Philadelphia. He found densely packed "streets, scores of alleys and courts almost without number," home to thousands of "poor wretches" living in "hovels which are not fit to be the abiding places of swine." Many of the residents--both men and women--were habitual drunkards, their children distressingly "pale, sickly, and emaciated." Even worse, the neighborhood seemed to be growing, a "cancerous sore . . . (threatening) to infect and poison adjacent comparatively healthy portions" of the city.
Besides begging and petty theft, the most "popular vocation" among these desperately poor people was "ragging and boning." Little more than scavenging, it consisted of a tour that could last for a week or more and take the "collector" over an area of up to six square miles. Afterwards, the collector returned "to his old haunts," sold "his stock-in-trade," and enjoyed several days of "high revelry," which included drinking, dancing, gambling, and other popular pleasures. But there was an additional activity that seemed utterly out of place. "The greatest luxury of all in which the 'flush' Ragger and Boner indulges," Sounder explained, "is litigation--the law must be brought to bear upon somebody; actions and cross-actions for defamation, and assault and battery--the suits often encouraged by unscrupulous magistrates--are freely entered into, until between the rum sellers and the alderman, and the dance house, the poor shorn dupe starts forth on another collecting tour, without a cent of capital in his pocket."1
These were mysteries indeed. How could criminal litigation be the "greatest luxury" for Philadelphia's poor on those few occasions when they came upon some cash? How was it that the law was "brought to bear" upon citizens not by policemen or state officials but by each other? Could this have been as important a part of popular culture as Sounder implied?
In fact, the criminal law did have a central place in the everyday social life of mid-nineteenth-centuryPhiladelphia. Private prosecution--one citizen taking another to court without the intervention of the police--was the basis of