The Transformation of Criminal Justice, Philadelphia, 1800-1880

By Allen Steinberg | Go to book overview

5. Politics and Private Prosecution, 1800-1850

"People have not much sympathy for Aldermen; the very name is associated with something lazy and fat." So began a story, in a July 1836 issue of the Public Ledger, of an incident involving Southwark Alderman Henry Manderfield. One night a watchman, summoned to a disorderly tavern, found Manderfield and several friends in the thick of a brawl. He ordered everyone to disperse, but Manderfield refused, "proclaiming himself superior to the watch." The officer prosecuted Manderfield for resisting his order and found a magistrate willing to hold the alderman in $500 bail. The paper reported feelings of "universal odium" toward Manderfield and widespread "joy at his degradation." It also offered the following description of the typical alderman:

How To Make An Alderman--we must take a fellow who can neither read nor write . . . who understands the republic's English so well as to disregard all the artificial nonsense of grammar; who thinks sobriety the mere cant of interested hypocrites, and . . . gets drunk daily . . . who understands thoroughly the laws which he is called to administer, and can therefore give promptly, and without hesitation, a license to every pot companion to violate them at pleasure; who thinks that keepers of gambling houses cannot pay their rent unless permitted to carry on their trade unmolested.1

Rather than withering away as the city grew during the first half of the nineteenth century, private prosecution adapted to changes in the composition of the city's population, to new relations of social and economic life, and to the change of the leaders of local government from paternalistic elites to clubhouse politicians. One of the most important reasons for the increasing vitality of private prosecution was the ease with which it fit into Philadelphia's emerging informal structure of urban ward politics and patronage. As a result, popular democracy joined private prosecution as the foundation of the formidable link between the people of Philadelphia and their neighborhood politicians. So, as critics of urban politics became increasingly active--especially after the democratic reforms of the 1830s--they came increasingly to associate private prosecution with the alleged corruption of city government in general.

Public controversy over the criminal courts before 1850 had three distinct phases, more or less corresponding to the critics' increasing awareness

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The Transformation of Criminal Justice, Philadelphia, 1800-1880
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Tables vi
  • Preface vii
  • Introduction: the Greatest Luxury of All 1
  • Part I the Duality of Criminal Justice 11
  • 1. Courtrooms and Cases 13
  • Part Ii the World of Private Prosecution 35
  • 2. the Aldermen and Primary Justice 37
  • 3. the Courts of Record 56
  • 4. the Weakness of Court Officials 79
  • 5. Politics and Private Prosecution, 1800-1850 92
  • Part III the Rise of State Prosecution 117
  • 6. the Origins of Police Authority 119
  • 7. Consolidation and Compromise 150
  • Part Iv the Decline of Private Prosecution 169
  • 8. the Impact of Consolidation 171
  • 9. the Transformation of Primary Justice 196
  • Epilogue 224
  • Appendix 233
  • Notes 251
  • Bibliography 307
  • Index 323
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