The Arrest Records

Originally, the New Orleans Police Department’s arrests from the turn-of-the-century period were logged in a series of large bound volumes. The volumes themselves no longer exist, but their pages have been preserved on microfilm. The volumes were organized by date and by precinct number, with the arrests for a single day entered on a series of consecutive pages in the book. Each precinct used a single page, front and back, unless the arrests for that day spilled over onto a second page. The first precinct’s arrests for the day were listed first, followed by the second precinct, and so on. After the page listing the arrests for the eleventh precinct, the cycle began again the following day with the first precinct’s arrests.

Internal evidence suggests that arrest data was kept at the individual precincts before being entered into the official arrest book once a day. The arrest books are not, strictly speaking, organized by day. Instead, each page contains the arrests made in a precinct for the 24 hours between five AM on one day and five AM on the following day. The heading on each page reflects this. For example: “Reports of Arrests, made in 2nd Precinct for the Twenty-four hours ending June 1, 1900 – 5 AM.” What this means, in practice, is that most of the arrests listed on a given page were actually made on the day before the date listed. After all, the page headed “June 1, 1900” actually contained 19 hours worth of arrests from May 31 (from 5 AM to midnight), and only five hours of arrests from June 1 (from midnight to five AM). This unusual organization, combined with the fact that the handwriting in the arrest book varies by precinct, suggests that each morning at around five AM, a representative from each precinct was sent to the central precinct to enter the previous 24 hours’ arrests in the official book.

The page listing the arrests for a given precinct contained approximately 50 blank rows and 14 columns. Each arrest was supposed to be entered on a single row, though most spilled over onto additional rows. For our purposes, the column headings are particularly significant. These headings stipulated the sorts of information to be included in each entry – and, in so doing, established the limits of the dataset for this project. For this reason, they are worth addressing in depth. From left to right, the columns are headed:

Name – the first column contained the name of the arrested party in Last Name, First Name format.
Residence – an address (or often a street corner) where the arrested party resided.
Color – the race of the arrested party: W (white) or C (colored)
Sex – the sex of the arrested party: M (male) or F (female)
Age – the age of the arrested party
Nationality – the arrested party’s country of nativity. “U.S.” is the most common designation, though other countries (Ireland, Germany, Italy) appear with some frequency.
Occupation – the entries here vary widely, but “Laborer,” “Prostitute,” and “None” are some of the more common entries.
Married or Single – the arrested party’s marital status: M (married) or S (single)
Read or Write – whether or not the arrested party was literate: “Yes” or “No”
Charge and Location of Arrest – this is perhaps the most interesting column. A wide variety of charges are included in the arrest books. Formatting and verbiage vary greatly, making it a bit of a challenge to aggregate and compare across precincts. In preparing the database, we have done our best to standardize charges while maintaining useful details. The location of arrest is generally an address or street corner, though sometimes a building, park, or market is listed.
Name of Complainant – the name of the person who reported the alleged crime. This column is frequently blank.
Name of Officer Making Arrest – this column includes one or more names. Generally they are members of the New Orleans Police Department, but occasionally the designation “private watchman” (or similar) appears.
Date of Arrest / Hour – this column includes the actual time and date of arrest. This column is obviously much more specific (and useful) than the “24 hour ending” designation that appears at the top of each page.
Disposition of Case – this column provides a brief description of the results of the case, obviously entered later. Common designations include “Bonds” and “Dismissed.” A designation along the lines of “$25 or 30 days” often appears, signifying a fine or a term in the city’s police jail. The fine and the jail term vary greatly.

Though they were created for a specific and focused purpose – logging and preserving encounters between the police and city residents – the arrest records actually contain an extraordinary amount of information. As stated earlier, the columns imprinted on the ledger pages set boundaries on the possible uses of these documents as historical records. We would expect arrest records to include details related to the accused, the charge, and the arresting offer, but the inclusion of columns devoted to issues like literacy, marital status, and country of origin makes these records a much more useful historical resource. This breadth of detail likely reflects the NOPD’s attempts to modernize itself, streamline its operations, and improve its record-keeping after the 1889 reorganization. At a distance of more than a century, it is this impulse that makes the records particularly valuable.

Along with their remarkable detail, however, we need to recognize the limitations of the arrest records. There is much that the records cannot tell us, especially if we attempt to view them on an individual, case-level basis. Though they contain general demographic information about the accused, we are only afforded the barest glimpse at these individuals. The nature of the records means that we view the accused only for an instant, on the day of their arrest, and then lose sight of them. Those interested in following a particular case are likely to find the arrest records disappointing. The short description of the alleged crime leaves much to the imagination. The nature of the record-keeping system meant that widely divergent encounters between the police and residents were simplified, homogenized, and reduced to a series of standardized categories. The disposition column – filled with one-word annotations – is similarly brief. On an individual level, then, it is clear that these records obscure as much history as they reveal. To truly flush out the story of one of the thousands of individual arrests captured in these records, one would need to consult additional sources – court records, census data, newspapers.

For this reason, the arrest records are likely best viewed in the aggregate, as a collective. When viewed in this manner, these records offer an extraordinary glimpse into the social history of turn-of-the-century New Orleans. They can tell us which populations in New Orleans were likely to be arrested for certain crimes. They can tell us where these arrests were most likely to occur. They can tell us which police precincts or individual officers were most zealous in pursuing arrests. In a broader sense, the records can help us to reconstruct patterns of residency, to make claims about gender relations and the place of women in New Orelans, and to see a 19th century city struggling to modernize at the turn-of-the twentieth century. Perhaps most significant, they allow us a ground-level view of racialized policing in a major urban center in the Jim Crow South. As such, they affirm the links between criminal justice and white supremacy.

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