The entry reads: “$200 Reward. Black Horse Thief. Fugative [sic] from Justice, Maryland. Bay Mare,” under the heading “Articles Lost or Stolen.” In the next column, “From Whom and From What Place”: “He at times stammers very much, he came through Baltimore, Little York, Lancaster, and Philadelphia, but it is supposed that he sold the mare somewhere between Philad. and New York…. He calls himself Henry Scott. [Signed] Chas. B. Calvert, Aug. 17th, 1836.”
The beautifully scrawled record, with spidery blotting marks on one page and a doodle of a house on another, is now readily available at the New York City Municipal Archives. This winter, librarians there finished the decade-long task of archiving and microfilming the first 225 years of the city’s collection of criminal courts records, which dates back to 1684. Now, all those crumbling papers–recording everything from the minutiae of petty thievery in the 18th century to Billie Holiday’s arrest record–are preserved for good. The entire collection is open to the public.
For the city’s legions of Caleb Carr and Luc Sante fans, the archives–housed on the ground floor of Surrogate’s Court on Chambers Street–are a perversely gratifying place to hide from the boss for an afternoon. But the records are also historically valuable, observes archives director Kenneth Cobb. “Especially in the 19th century, for so many city inhabitants the only interaction they had with government was by being arrested,” explains Cobb, who started the project and kept it going with grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. “In a lot of domestic violence records, or robbery records, there are careful descriptions of what was stolen, or what people were wearing, where they live, their occupations. You get a real sense of what things were like.”
Cobb says the archive is now the most comprehensive criminal justice collection in the English-speaking world. It includes minutes of New York County Court dating from 1684, and District Attorney indictments since 1790. The docket books–table-sized ledgers that recorded the basic facts of arrests–include intoxication arrests from the mid-1800s and “Women’s Night Court,” which was for “vagrants” (prostitutes) and pickpockets.
The affidavits for stolen property (1832 through 1845) may be the most evocative documents. November 30, 1832: “Opera House on Friday Night. One Brown Spanish small cape lined with sky blue silk, trimmed with velvet.” Other nicked possessions: a copper kettle, horse nails, a rifle, a horse, a carpet bag, flour, one piece of calico.
Cobb says he’s still “in the thinking stage” on how to organize the 20th century collection, which, though more prosaic, houses a collection of gangster mug shots that could keep several phrenologists employed, as well as dirt on celebrity scofflaws like Meyer Lansky and Rudolph Valentino. Heads up, Bess Myerson.