That Mansion Called Bridewell

   Posted by: rring   in Uncategorized

[Posted by Beck Prigot (’14), for Jonathan Elukin’s History of the Book course]

When I first discovered Skillman’s New-York Police Reports while wandering around the law section of the Watkinson’s stacks, I was a little unimpressed. The book was rather plain looking, and looked like something practical, not entertaining. Little did I know how misbegotten my assumption was.

The title page is simple–“SKILLMAN’S NEW-YORK POLICE REPORTS. ILLUSTRATED WITH ENGRAVINGS. WRITTEN IN 1828–1829.”–quotes Shakespeare (“the sheriff with a most monstrous watch is at the door.”), and gives the publisher and year (“New-York: PRINTED BY LUDWIG & TOLEFREE, CORNER OF GREENWICH & VESEY-STS. 1830.) However, its dry, terse title belies what ended up being an amusing read, which I soon realized after I read the preface, which explains that Skillman included a preface because he had to; that “Custom, all-prevailing custom, hath decreed, that a Preface shall accompany, (as a sort of pioneer,) every original work or compilation, which issues from the press. Whether it imparts wisdom, wit, or folly, still, a preface is requisite” (i).

Unlike traditional police reports, the book takes a viewpoint more akin to the Hartford Advocate’s “News of the Weird” by devoting a paragraph or less to each report (save for the more interesting and involved stories, like the saga of the dandy) and summarizes the reports with a more humorous bent; Skillman especially likes making puns or small jabs at the perpetrators’ names. On August 7, for example, we find out that “A. Vampire was brought in. It is a curious Vampire — sucks no blood — and is considered a harmless Vampire. — Let go” (39). Skillman also occasionally imitates the offenders’ speech, as when he writes about two cases of people selling “yarbs”. Usually, the offenders are sent to Bridewell; after a while, Skillman stops referring to it by name, as when he writes that a Mr. W.W. “is now sent where he will probably learn better manners” (68). Occasionally, a report is accompanied with a small illustration, such as that of John Devoe (“long beard, no clothes, no money, no friends, no bail. We leave our readers to guess his fate”(22).)

Sometimes, I found that not much has changed since the 1820s. For example, a Mr. Jasper Smith, age 17, was brought in for creating a mob on Hudson Street. Skillman describes Smith as “something of a roving sprig (after night fall,) and plays ten-pins, and possesses considerable forensic eloquence” (21). Other times, I found that the 1820s were not as “proper” as most might have thought them to be, as when I read the report of four young women, “neither beautiful nor otherwise,” brought in for what was most likely indecent exposure; as Skillman phrases it, they “exposed themselves in such a manner as rendered them amenable to the laws, and are now in a situation by no means to be coveted” (68).

Skillman’s Reports were a little unusual, even as a contemporary work. A 1907 legal bibliography published by the Boston Book Company describes it as “certainly a curious volume”, and finds the preface “so out of the ordinary” that the publishers of the bibliography opted to reproduce it in full. Although it was notable enough to be published in the Boston Book Company’s bibliography, however, demand must not have been high enough to warrant annual editions, as there is no evidence that an 1829-1830 edition (or later) was published.

An interesting historical puzzle arose when I reread the book from cover-to-cover: that of a previous owner, a Mary A. Stedman, whose name is neatly pasted on the inside cover. My informal online research led me to two possible conclusions: either she was Mary ApOwen (Shields) Stedman (1815-1877), mother of Hartford’s Civil War hero (and Trinity College alum) Gen. Griffin Alexander Stedman, or she was the Mary A. Stedman who married Elias Gates in 1833 and was mentioned in Albany’s 1887 American ancestry register.

Though Skillman’s Reports look unassuming on the outside, their contents prove to be a humorous glance at everyday New York life in 1828 and 1829, as well as proof that not much has changed since then. People still argue over insignificant things, stay out late at night, and drink heavily. In a way, it’s comforting to read such a humorous take on the petty crimes of the time: it shows that not everyone took the law seriously, or lived boring lives. Perhaps in 180 years, people will read our “News of the Weird”s with a similar viewpoint.

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