Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
New York (N.Y.) Police records, 1862-1888

James V. Medler Crime Collection

Finding aid created by
Rob S. Cox, March 1998

Summary Information
Title: New York (N.Y.) Police records
Creator: New York 20th police precinct and New York 35th police precinct
Inclusive dates: 1862-1888
Extent: 3 volumes
The New York (N.Y.) Police records are made up of three volumes of the records of the 20th and 35th police precincts. These volumes record (in varying degrees of detail) criminal infractions, the names of perpetrators, the date of their crimes, their gender, their race, their age, and other personal details.
Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan
909 S. University Ave.
The University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1190
Phone: 734-764-2347
Web Site:

Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

1998. M-3459.3.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open for research.


Copyright status is unknown.

Preferred Citation:

New York (N.Y.) Police Records, James V. Medler Crime Collection, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan.


Enshrined as the capitol of American vice and crime during the 19th century, New York city was home to a gallery of famous rogues, gangs, murderers, pickpockets, rioters, and thieves. During the Civil War years, the 20th Precinct did more than its share in living up to this seamy reputation. Taking in a swath of the Lower West Side, running roughly between 8th and 10th Avenues and 30th and 40th Streets, the precinct was dominated by rows of tenements housing a population comprised largely of Irish and German immigrants. Best known, perhaps, as home to the infamous Hell's Kitchen, the precinct was afflicted with poverty, vagrancy, drunkenness, violence, and crime. During the Civil War, it was also a haven for large numbers of deserters, and although it was spared some of the worst excesses of the Draft Riots of 1863, the residents of the precinct erected barricades against the police up and down 9th Avenue.

Given the makeup of the population in the precinct, it is not surprising that an overwhelming proportion of the persons arrested were immigrants, mostly Irish and German, and nearly all were Caucasian. Women comprised a substantial percentage of persons arrested for civil infractions. As with men, the most common charges against women were alcohol-related -- including intoxication and drunk and disorderly conduct -- but more aggressive behavior characterized many arrests. Disorderly conduct and fighting (with husbands and neighbors) were frequent: typical of many such incidents, Officer Houghton responded to an incident on 9th Avenue between 38th and 39th Streets in February 1864, and confiscated a sword from a woman "who was chasing the neighbours about the house threatening to kill them." A more common refrain, however, was violence against women, whether beaten by drunken husbands, caught in a fight, or victimized by neighbors, such as Jane Reilly, savagely attacked by a bull dog.

Collection Scope and Content Note

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).

Subject Terms

    • Crime--New York (State)--New York.
    • Germans--New York (State)--New York.
    • Irish--New York (State)--New York.
    • Military deserters.
    • New York (N.Y.)--History--1775-1865.
    • New York (N.Y.)--History--1865-1898.
    • New York (N.Y.). Police Dept.
    • Police--New York (State)--New York.
    • Violence--New York (State)--New York.
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    New York (N.Y.) Police records [series]
    Volume   1  
     August 1-November 30, 1862
    Volume   2  
     February 1-June 8, 1864
    Volume   3  
     December 2, 1887-January 12, 1888