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Crime in 18th and early-19th century America - Part 1 – Crime, Policing, and Protection options

It seems like “street violence” (shootings, assaults, robberies, burglaries, etc.) is on the rise, and many of us feel “unsafe” on the streets and in our homes these days. While some of these feelings may be based on mistaken feelings, (recent figures show that overall, homicides in major cities have fallen by 2 percent so far in 2022, compared with the same period in 2021, and shootings nationwide have fallen 6 percent) there are still reasons to feel that way. These decreases, although positive, are not enough to undo the large increases in 2020 and 2021 and the murder rate is still 30 percent above its 2019 level. At the same time, aggravated assaults rose by 4%, robberies jumped by 19%, and some property offenses posted double-digit increases.

Trends in most property crimes reversed from the first two years of the pandemic. Residential burglaries rose 6%, nonresidential burglaries rose 8%, and larcenies (theft from businesses such as shoplifting, fraud, and embezzlement) rose 20% in the first half of 2022. Motor vehicle thefts increased by over 15%. On a positive note, the number of drug offenses fell in the first half of 2022 by 7%, continuing earlier pandemic patterns.

So, if our streets are unsafe today, how do they compare with the situation in eighteenth and early-nineteenth century America? What options did the average middle- and upper-class citizen have for protecting himself, his family, and his property? Join us as we examine crime, policing, and some of the measures that citizens took to protect themselves in Colonial America and the early United States.

Crime in Colonial and Early America

Their legal system became more formalized and anglicized, while local religious and social concerns started to lose their significance. What's more, the rapid growth of cities, which created a more cosmopolitan environment in the colonies, contributed to proliferation of new forms of crime. Between 1690 and 1775, the population of New York jumped from 3,900 to 25,000, while Philadelphia grew from 4,000 to 40,000 residents. The latter, famous for its diversity, had a reputation as the most dangerous city in British America. Like other cities, it was plagued by typical urban crimes: burglary, pickpocketing, robberies, and prostitution. This is not to say that serious crime (those earning the death penalty) did not exist. In the 1780s, Pennsylvania sentenced more felons to death in 10 years than the much less tolerant Massachusetts condemned in fifty.

Pickpockets Relieving a Gentleman of his Wallet
Pickpockets Relieving a Gentleman of his Wallet

Punishment did not seem to stem the tide of crime. In 1798 Moreau de St Méry, a Philadelphia seller of books, maps and music and member of the American Philosophical Society, wrote that Pennsylvanians outside Philadelphia “have neither justice nor public security.” In the three decades prior to 1801, three hundred and fifty-one homicide cases came before Pennsylvania courts. This number of prosecutions for homicide far exceeds the total in any other state, except Virginia, which had a larger population. By far, the most significant types of crime, as much as 70% of the cases, prosecuted in Pennsylvania were crimes against the Person (assault, robbery, etc.) and Property Crimes.

Further south, in Richmond, VA, records show that throughout the period from 1784 to 1820, robberies reached their peaks in the late 1780s and early 1790s then slowly declining. Assaults, on the other hand, held at a steady level throughout the 1780s and 1790s and then began a steady climb throughout the early 1800s, peaking around 1812, before falling back to a bit above their earlier levels. Crimes against property, (burglaries, larceny from commercial establishments, damage to property, etc.) started at an elevated level in the 1780s and then declined in the late 1790s and then spiking in the early 1800s before falling back to the 1780 levels

Early Policing Solutions

The development of policing in the United States closely followed the development of policing in England. In the early colonies policing took the form referred to as the “Watch,” or private-for-profit policing. The watch system was composed of community volunteers whose primary duty was to warn of impending danger.

Boston created a night watch in 1636, New York in 1658 and Philadelphia in 1700. The night watch was not a particularly effective crime control device. Watchmen often slept or drank on duty. While the watch was theoretically voluntary, many “volunteers” were simply trying to evade military service, were conscripts, forced into service by their town, or were performing watch duties as a form of punishment. Later, some cities, realizing the need for “around the clock” policing, created a day watch as well. Philadelphia created the first day watch in 1833 and New York instituted a day watch in 1844 as a supplement to its new municipal police force.

The Night Watch
The Night Watch

Augmenting the watch system in many locations were the constables, an office developed from its British counterpart during the colonial period. The first constable in the American colonies was appointed in the Plymouth Colony in 1632. The constable enforced the orders of Colonial and County officials in both civil and criminal matters. They did not wear uniforms, were official law enforcement officers, usually paid a fee by the courts for each writ or warrant they served. In many cities constables also had the responsibility of supervising the activities of the night watch.

These informal methods of policing continued well after the American Revolution. It was not until the 1830s that the idea of a centralized municipal police department first appeared in the United States. In 1838, the city of Boston set up the first American police force, followed by New York City in 1845.

These “modern police” organizations shared similar characteristics:

1. They were officially supported and bureaucratic in form.

2. Police officers were full-time employees, not community volunteers or case-by-case fee retainers.

3. Departments had permanent and fixed rules and procedures, and employment as a police officer was continuous.

4. Police departments were accountable to a central governmental authority.

In the Southern states the development of American policing followed a different path. The genesis of the modern police organization in the South is the “Slave Patrol,” with the first formal slave patrol created in the Carolina colonies in 1704. Slave patrols had three primary functions:

1. To chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves.

2. To supply a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts.

3. To keep a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside of the law, if they violated any plantation rules.

Following the Civil War, slave patrols were abolished and replaced by various “policing” organizations (some official and others vigilante groups such as the Ku Klux Klan). By 1785 the Charleston Guard and Watch had a distinct chain of command, uniforms, sole responsibility for policing, salary, authorized use of force, and a focus on preventing “crime”.

Protection of Property

Primarily, the early colonial need for security did not center on proprietary or commercial interests, but on the fear of fire, vagrants, and keeping “public order.”

Even by the beginning of the 19th century, the options for businesses were limited. Strong locks and doors, and strongboxes for holding money and high value items were the main options. Private security existed, but only on a small scale for business and merchant protection. Those with large warehouses and the financial resources, could hire a “nightwatchman” to augment the efforts of the town’s Night Watch. While the Night Watch had responsibility for patrolling the entire town, a private nightwatchman would be tasked with staying inside the business or warehouse throughout the night to discourage break-ins and to raise the alarm if anyone tried to do so. Unfortunately, there were few, if any, “professional standards” in private security at that time and so, the hired nightwatchman might well sleep or drink while on duty or even conspire with others to conduct a burglary of the premises.

Theves Stealing From a Merchant
Theves Stealing From a Merchant

For the homeowner, the options were the same, except for hiring a nightwatchman. Strong locks and doors supplied perimeter security and locking cabinets and strongboxes supplied security for money, valuables, jewelry, etc. In place of the private security provided by a hired nightwatchman, the homeowner had servants, either hired, enslaved, or both, who were almost always there in the residence to discourage break-ins and raise the alarm if one were to occur. Unfortunately, as shown by both Court records and Newspaper advertisements, sometimes servants were the perpetrators of household thefts, particularly if they were inclined to leave their current position and run away.

Personal Protection on the Street

The highways, roads, and streets in 17th and 18th century England were fraught with danger. The transformation of the marketplace in London, and other large cities, affected the nature of criminal organization. The expansion of trade and commerce, the concentration of a large, casual labor force, and the emergence of leisure institutions produced more opportunities for crime. The abundance of consumer goods meant large numbers of people were carrying easily stolen objects of value such as scarves, linen, cheap jewelry, silks, and metal items. As the nexus for finance, commerce, government and law, London, and to a lesser extent other large cities such as Glasgow, Edenborough, York, and others attracted the nobility, the gentry, the skilled professionals, and the wealthy merchants – all of whom carried valuables and money.

As cities in the American colonies and the early republic grew in the 18th and early 19th centuries similar forces came into play, particularly in the major port cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Norfolk. As trade and commerce grew, particularly following the American Revolutionary War, the wealth and availability of consumer goods in these locations increased. Because of the way shipping worked in those days – ships only sailed after they booked sufficient cargo to make the trip worthwhile rather than on a set schedule – many of the people who worked on the waterfront such as longshoremen, stevedores, dockworkers, and warehousemen tended to be “day labor” with brutal work, unsafe conditions, irregular employment, and earnings too low to properly support a family.

A Gang Robbing a Gentleman on the Street
A Gang Robbing a Gentleman on the Street

Commercial sailors could find themselves both victims and criminals. On the one hand, when a cruise ended, they were “paid off” and ashore with what could sometimes be a significant amount of money in their pockets, On the other hand, these sailors were mostly employed only for a single cruise and therefore, once their cruise ended, and they had spent all their money, they were looking for new employment and a way to eat until they found a ship to sign on with that was leaving.

This combination of sailors, waterfront workers, young men from the countryside who came looking for jobs but had few skills, and many people on the streets carrying valuables and money created a situation that fostered street crime. With no “official “police force,” the citizens found themselves called upon to provide their own self-defense when out on the streets, particularly after dark. In the first part of the 18th century, when it was still fashionable for well-to-do civilians to wear a sword, many depended on those. Fencing masters taught swordsmanship to the landed gentry beginning at an early age. Those not so well off as to be able to afford swords used walking sticks and cudgels for their personal defense. As civilians wearing swords in public fell out of fashion in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, walking sticks or canes became the preferred self-defense weapon of a gentleman on the street while for the sailor and working class the cudgel continued to be the preferred item.

Thank you for joining us for today’s post on crime in 18th and early-19th century America. Hopefully, this article has given you some insight into the levels and types of crime, policing strategies, and options people had for protecting themselves and their property in the 18th and early-19th centuries. Please join us again in two weeks for Part 2 of this series where we will examine how men were trained in fencing with the short sword, and how that training also applied to the use for self-defense of the walking stick and cudgel.

While you are here, on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.

Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.


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