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If someone stole my wallet in 1770 in London or New York what would I do?

If someone stole my wallet in 1770 in London or New York what would I do?

If someone stole my wallet in 1770 in London or New York what would I do?

Stop him. Or tell the sheriff or justice of the peace. Or arrest them with your buddies and take them to the sheriff. Or get the militia to do it, depending on when/where. It could be a constable or even a deputy. When George Washington took a dip in the Rappahanock River in 1751 somebody did rob his clothes; they were delivered to the sheriff some months later and tried.

One of the two women was found guilty – her sentence was 15 lashes for the petty theft, while her companion appears to have testified against the woman to save her own skin (quite literally, it would seem).

Depending on when and where you were it would have been a sheriff/constable, town watch (at night), magistrate, or (even earlier) your neighbors/the militia captain. If your question is simply “I am a British colonist that got arrested, so who got me?” it was certainly most likely to be a sheriff (and maybe his posse).

An important note is that the colonies all started with slightly different legal structures and their particular colonial struggles transferred, along with mandates from England, into how those systems evolved in each colony. This post speaks in general and to Virginia style law, the opposite being Massachusetts style law. While similar they had subtle differences, like the use of constables. The center of law and order in colonial and early America was the courthouse, which is why they are historically at the center of town and all roads lead there.

The “police” as an organized force/department by that name was created for the first time in London in 1829. The first American police department was started in Boston in 1838 (and modeled after London’s).

They were started to prevent disorder in society and were the first full-time paid group of law enforcement individuals united in a common goal of “stabilizing” urban populations as a result of immigration and poverty creating what was viewed as a disorder in the streets/society. They were often brutal in tactics and loyal to politicians (who fought one another for control of them). They were also employed to “end labor disputes” (to put in nicely) in favor of the owners.

Slave patrols go back to the early 1700s in Virginia and the Carolinas. They started not just to capture and return but also punish runaways and generally maintain the order of slaves in the area, including putting down/preventing revolts. Southern sheriffs essentially reinstalled this system for Jim Crow enforcement in the late 1800s leading to the modern claim “law enforcement started as slave patrols,” which has at least some truth to it, but the history isn’t that easy of a simplification.

Sheriffs and constables (a less law/order and more political/civil position similar to a sheriff) started in America in the 1630s (1632 in Plymouth for constables and 1634 in Virginia for sheriffs, which spread quickly as Plymouth also had a sheriff position created in 1634) and magistrates were already here at that point (but more often called the justice of the peace, judge, or commissioner).

Sheriff’s were in charge of jailing, arresting, and generally keeping law and order (including the formation of a posse which was volunteer or temporary law enforcement deputies). It originated a few hundred years earlier in England as a “Shire-Reeve,” a type of local official charged with a multitude of duties, including tax collection.

Eventually, the name was shortened along with the responsibilities, focusing more on law and order while civil aspects were given to the magistrate. Magistrates were charged with the operation of the courthouse and trials within it. They typically could sentence everything short of life and limb, which could only happen in the original court, or General Court, in the capital.

Their civil authority would often have a dollar cap as well. There was no prison, only jail – a simple place to hold those awaiting trial (or sometimes as a “hotel room” for those on a proximity sentence, used for debtors to limit their freedom like house arrest is today). The stocks, pillories, whipping post, and eventually, gallows, usually in the yard adjacent to the courthouse, allowed immediate execution of sentencing and punishment to be served to let society quickly move forward.

Often the court days, which were a few days per month, were exciting days drawing folks from all around to have what can in some ways be described as an eighteenth-century American block party. Street vendors sold goods, street preachers spoke, children played in the common fields and using the walls of the courthouse, gossips gossiped, elites socialized, and farmers discussed.

The first town watch was also in Boston, starting in the 1630s as well. Primarily these groups spotted fires, gambling, public drunkenness/disorderly conduct, and prostitution type crimes – and they frequently drank and/or slept while on duty themselves.

These were usually volunteers (think modern volunteer rescue squad/fire dept system of pick a day and shift to cover) and sometimes were assigned watch as punishment (similar to community service sentences for small crimes today). It wouldn’t be until the 1830s when police departments started being added that the ward shift (day) would be successfully added to the watch shift (night). These were launched with or combined into many city/metropolitan police departments when (or around the time) they were formed.

1. Written by u/Takeoffdpantsnjaket.
2. Gary Potter’s “The History of Policing in the United States”.
3. The Structure of Justice: The Courthouses of Colonial Virginia, Carl Lounsbury, Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, Vol. 3 (1989).
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