In 1836, when Philadelphia's "penny press" began publishing daily accounts of the city's criminal courts, reporters came face-to-face with one of the court's most enduring features. "The moment the doors are opened, the standing corps of soaplocks and loafers rush in, and . . . appropriate to themselves in an unceremonious manner all the seats inside of the bar, so that when the attorneys, reporters and parties really interested in the proceedings of the court come in, they are compelled to stand and gaze on." One day in 1839, when some fifty prisoners entered a room designed to hold twelve, defendants and grand jurors became inextricably intermingled. The judge and constables lost all sense of who was who and in the confusion one of the prisoners escaped. His absence was not discovered until the next day. In a hearing to discover who was responsible, Judge Robert Conrad could find no one to blame.1
Nearly thirty years later, the reporters were different but the court's circumstances were much the same. "The hundreds of loafers who make the Quarter Sessions their place of daily resort" regularly forced witnesses into the square outside, regardless of the weather. This group, "equally divided between males and females, blacks and whites," included at least fifty who were in attendance daily. "The most disgusting details of a case are not sufficient to make them vacate their places."2
Despite the enormous changes that took place in the process of criminal prosecution between 1800 and 1875, a number of things remained constant. Crowded and unruly courtrooms were perhaps the most obvious of them, and they are important to understand if one is to comprehend the transformation of criminal justice.
One of the constant features of life in general in nineteenth-century Philadelphia was, of course, change, both rapid and uneven. The constants in criminal justice, including the persistence of private prosecution, seem all the more remarkable for this, but the character of social change also contributed to the persistence of old habits.