Although spare in narrative, these blotters taken from two New York City police precincts offer historically valuable information on police activity, patterns of arrest, and the frequency of civil and criminal infractions committed in one of the city's most impoverished areas during the 19th century. These simple, brief records provide a finely wrought portrait of an urban life constantly threatened by the intrusions of drink and chaotic violence. The blotters cover two disparate areas and three non-contiguous periods of time:
August 1-November 30, 1862 and February 1-June 8, 1864 (20th precinct)
December 2, 1887-January 12, 1888 (35th Precinct)
The two earlier volumes are particularly interesting and important, representing a record of arrests made during the Civil War period in the 20th Precinct, a tenement district that included Hell's Kitchen. Covering parts of the years 1862 and 1864, the blotters include careful, standardized records of lost children, "lodgers" (indigents seeking night shelter), and persons picked up for various civil infractions, the most numerous of which by far were drunk and disorderly, intoxication, and habitual drunkenness. Each entry includes a record of the time of arrest, the name, race, age, place of birth, occupation, marital status, and ability to read and write of each offender, along with a list of their possessions at the time of arrest - and usually a brief description of the charges. Most, but not all records contain an indication of the sentence, as well. These blotters comprise a valuable source for statistical analysis of temporal, spatial, and personal patterns of behavior considered criminal during the mid-19th century.
The offenses recorded in the blotters include both criminal and civil infractions. The most common criminal breaches were fighting and assault and battery, but included assault with deadly weapon, forgery, and burglary. Though less dramatic, the civil infractions were more numerous, particularly those related to alcohol consumption, but including a strong measure of disorderly conduct and vagrancy, and, in one case, a milkman who violated the "milk law." The police were additionally charged with such mundane duties in the community as investigating sudden deaths, closing the doors of stores or homes that had been left open, responding to accidents in the street and at home, and tracking down stray horses, cattle, and deserters from the army - many from the Irish Brigade.
The last of the three registers, kept in 1887-1888, includes a thorough roll of policemen and patrols on each shift in the 35th Precinct (at the northernmost tip of Manhattan), but relatively few records of crimes. It includes a useful, and apparently complete listing of posts in the precinct, with a careful delineation of the boundaries of each, but unlike the 20th Precinct, the 35th appears to have suffered far less from crime and drink. It offers very rare glimpses into the social lives of the residents such as a 51 year old Irishman, Thomas Gannon, whose wife refused to support him for three weeks while he was incapacitated with a dislocated hip (December 9, 1887).