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New Collection in the Archives: Criminal Court Records of Southeastern Pennsylvania, 1768-1787

May 02, 2012

While rummaging around in the rare books and special collections room here at Biddle one day, I came across a large, dusty, unlabeled cardboard box. Picking up the box, it felt oddly light, and upon opening the lid, I found an old Huron Copysette Manifold Carbon Paper Sets box that held 18th century criminal court records from southeastern Pennsylvania. Despite being wrapped in brittle and faded tissue paper for what appeared to be many years, the papers were in excellent condition, although still rather fragile.  Accompanying the small collection was a letter from the President of the University Center in Virginia Inc., W. Donald Rhinesmith, dated January 7, 1969, addressed to the Curator of Manuscripts at Penn’s Law Library, donating the collection to the library.1.jpg

The collection, dating from 1768 to 1787, is from the courts of Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery counties in Pennsylvania, as well as the court of oyer and terminer. In 1707, the governor of Pennsylvania, John Evans, established an ordinance to create two separate courts in each county–quarter sessions and oyer and terminer–to hear criminal cases and deal with administrative matters and common pleas to hear civil and equity cases. The county courts of oyer and terminer were established by the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790 to hear and determine capital crimes such as murder, rape, treason, burglary, robbery, and arson, that were formerly a function of the Pennsylvania supreme court. Oyer and terminer literally translates to “to hear and determine,” which was exactly as the commissioners and judges of the court did.
This collection of criminal court records from southeastern PA, documents crimes on trial such as burglary, perjury, counterfeiting, homicide by misadventure, manslaughter, arson, and manslaughter. In addition, the court’s administration is well documented and included are nisi prius minutes, the traverse jury list, and other related material. Of great note, is a printed jury summons with jury list, from the court of Chief Justice Benjamin Chew in 1774.
I processed this collection with Mitch Fraas, a Bollinger Fellow in Library Innovation at Penn’s Van Pelt Library, who provided immense help with identifying names and reading the flowing handwritten script of its 18th century creators.
For more information on the collection, please consult the finding aid located here. If you are interested in seeing any of these materials up close, contact Leslie O’Neill or stop by the Archives.