In May 1838, construction was completed on Pennsylvania Hall, intended by its managers to be the main meetinghouse for reformers of all stripes. The hall opened with a series of meetings featuring many prominent abolitionists. On Wednesday, 16 May, a hostile crowd gathered at its doors; by Thursday evening, it had swelled to three thousand people. Late that night, the crowd torched the hall, and, as the mayor and his small band of watchmen looked on, it burned to the ground. No one heeded their calls to support the law. Firemen either refused or were prevented from attempting to extinguish the fire. The next night a mob attacked a Friends' orphanage for black children and set it ablaze, but the police and firemen fought past the mob and saved the building.1
A committee appointed by the city councils to investigate these events severely criticized the mayor and police and observed that "were our preventive police invested with greater powers, our city might have been spared the events of May 16-17." Though no one present "had any desire to arrest the progress of destruction" or support the mayor and the law, the committee added that, because conditions such as these had been rare, a strong police force had "never yet been required. . . . A moral force . . . has heretofore always sufficed to preserve the public peace."
As deeply rooted and disturbing to some reformers and jurists as private prosecution and the power of the minor judiciary was, the matter that, in the end, prompted the first major change in Philadelphia's criminal justice system was riot and disorder. Neither private nor state prosecution was capable of stemming the unprecedented but popular violence that erupted in the streets of the city beginning in the 1830s. Between 1837 and 1850, as the determination of the judiciary to intensify state prosecution and the punishment of rioters grew, support for expanding and improving the city's police force increased. When this was finally accomplished, the apparatus of state prosecution was greatly augmented, the mandate of the police to keep order on the streets was crystal clear, and the dominance of private prosecution over criminal justice in Philadelphia had begun to erode.
Direct attempts at reform and efforts to restrain private prosecution made little contribution to the development of state prosecution. Instead, it