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The Jefferson Market Courts – A Timeline (Part One)

The Jefferson Market branch library was originally a courthouse. But there were courts on the site well before 1877, when the present building opened. The Jefferson Produce Market opened in 1833, alongside a fire tower and a small jail. A police court (called a “policeoffice”) opened there in 1845. Then, in one form or another, there were courts at Jefferson Market for 100 years.

They were:

• The criminal court: 1845-1946;

• The civil court: 1848-1907;

• The Women’s Court: 1910-1943; and

• The Court of Special Sessions: 1915-1946.

Part One will focus on the criminal and civil courts; Part Two, in next month’s issue of WestView News, will focus on the Women’s Court and Court of Special Sessions. Most of the changes described below were the result of NewYork State laws because these courts were created by statute.

Early days

After British rule ended in 1783, the City of New York established a Watch, a carry over, from British times. Watchmen worked nights—they had day jobs. Lamp lightingwas one duty, firefighting another.

On March 2, 1798, the City’s first police court (called an“office”) opened at City Hall, then on Wall Street. In 1812, it moved into the basement of the new City Hall (yes, our present one). Its two special justices were both aldermen. But by 1832, the population was growing fast and the state allowed the City’s common council to establish a branch ofthe police office at any venue north of Grand Street. In May 1832, the council opened the “Upper” police office at Bowery and 3rd Avenue. In 1838, the “Lower” police office moved into the newly built New York City Halls of Justice and House of Detention, the first of the four prisons in the White Street area known as the Tombs. So things remained until the court came to Jefferson Market.

The Criminal Court

In 1844, the state abolished the Watch, established a 24-hour police department, and divided the City—Manhattan and its islands—into two or more police districts each with a police office. But it left the common council to put these changes into effect. Not until May 23, 1845, did the council do so. Then, on June 16, 1845, the council created three police districts each with a police office. The new Second District police office opened at Jefferson Market. Its address was “West 10th Street and Greenwich Avenue.”

A watch house (not called a police station until 1846) preceded the court at Jefferson Market by several years. OnMay 30, 1838, it opened in rooms above the market, andwas rebuilt in 1843, with an entrance on Greenwich Avenue. By 1857, it had relocated to 94 Charles Street. Officers stationed there had to guard St. Vincent’s Hospital.

In 1848, police offices became police “courts.” Eachhad two elected “police justices” assigned to it.

In 1873, fed up with manipulated elections, the stategave the Mayor and common council the power to appointtwo new police justices to each of the five policecourts then open in Manhattan. The council sat on theMayor’s recommendations for three months. Eventually,on November 4, 1873, the new board of appointedjustices convened.

But 1873 was also the year Frederick Clark Withers began his design of the present Jefferson Market building. Although it is Withers and his partner Calvert Vaux, both transplanted Englishmen, who are usually credited with the design, Vaux was engaged on other projects at thetime. Construction finished in 1877. It comprised the new courthouse, an adjacent prison on West 10th Street with beds for 78 males and 60 females (built to remove overcrowdingat the Tombs), and the original market. (The market remained until replaced with a masonry structure along the Sixth Avenue frontage in 1883.) The Second District police court immediately moved into the first floor of the new courthouse. Its address was 125 Sixth Avenue.

The court at Jefferson Market was always an “inferior court”, hearing minor offenses and binding over (arraigning) those charged with felonies and most misdemeanors for proceedings in a higher court. Contrary to many published accounts no murder trial ever took place there.

As the population grew and the City extended northward, more local police courts opened. (In 1932, there were thirty one.) But the Jefferson Market court was possibly the best known because its area included the Tenderloin, Manhattan’s entertainment district with both the best and basest on offer.

In the lifetime of the Jefferson Market courthouse there were three investigations of corruption and political influence in the City’s inferior courts – in 1895, 1908, and 1930. All these investigations brought about changes; none were effective.

On July, 1, 1895, in an era of graft and corruption, the Mayor alone—given the power in 1889—appointed nine magistrates, who had to be attorneys, for the newly named Magistrates Court. (This was not without opposition – the replaced police justices met at the Jefferson Market courthouse to plot how to hang on to their positions at the same time as the new magistrates were meeting downtown.)

In 1907, the state allowed the City to hold a night session of the Magistrates Court once there were 16 appointed magistrates. The first night court opened at theJefferson Market courthouse. Its purpose was to allow those arrested after court hours to appear in court without spending a night in jail.

On June 25, 1910, night court split into two: one for women at Jefferson Market and one for men, and men and women arrested in joint enterprises, at 151 East 57th Street.

The City’s inferior criminal courts were the subject of constant revisions seeking efficiency and less confusion. But it would be 1962 before there was any semblance of either, long after the Jefferson Market courthouse closed. In the fall of 1945, Chief Magistrate Edgar Bromberger decided to consolidate the courts. He moved all the functions of the Jefferson Market court to a new court complex at 300 Mulberry Street, the former police HQ. The JeffersonMarket Magistrates Court was still a busy court. In1944, it processed 11,944 cases. But on March 4, 1946, it closed for good and the courthouse’s days were over.

The Civil Court

In 1807, a state law provided for an “assistant justice” for civil disputes for each of the three wards in the City. (Award was the smallest political subdivision; they lasted until 1938.) It set up the Justices’ Court of the City of NewYork to hold sessions at the City Hall, and three positions as “assistant justice.” They tried cases of debt and other civil claims (up to $25) and trespass.

In 1848, the state created six judicial districts in Manhattan,each with a civil court called a Justices’ Court and an elected justice. The maximum award was increased to $50. The third district included Jefferson Market and the court for the Third District opened there at 12 GreenwichAvenue. In 1852, these courts were re-named District Courts. In 1877, as soon as the new Jefferson Market courthouse opened, the Third District Court moved into the second floor.

In 1897, the Greater New York Charter re-named theDistrict Courts, creating the Municipal Court of the Cityof New York. The maximum award rose to $500. The Third District Court remained at the Jefferson Market courthouse until 1907, when the state re-drew the courts’districts. The court then moved to 314 West 54th Street, known as the West Side Court.

Sources:

Moley, R., “Tribunes of the People”, New Haven, Yale Press, 1932.

Pigott, R., “New York’s Legal Landmarks”, Attorney Street Editions, New York, NY, 2014.

Kross and Grossman, “Magistrates Courts of the City of New York: History and Organization”, 7 Brooklyn L.R. 133 (December 1937).

Murphy, R., “Proceedings in a Magistrate’s Court Under the Laws of New York”, Fordham L.R., Vol. 24, Issue 1, Article 3, 1955.

Paddon, M. E., “Inferior Criminal Courts of New York City”, 11 J. Am. Inst. Crim. L. & Criminology 8 (May 1920 to February 1921).

Quinn, Mae C., “Revisiting Anna Moskowitz’s Critique of New York City’s Women’s Court: the Continued Problem of Solving the “Problem” of Prostitution with Specialized Criminal Courts”, Fordham Urban Law Journal Volume 33, Issue 2, 2005, Article 12.

Smith, M. R., “The Social Aspect of New York Police Courts”, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 5, No. 2 (Sep., 1899), pp. 145-154, Published by: The University of Chicago Press

Costello, A., “Our Police Protectors, History of the New York Police”, self-published, 1885.  (American History and Genealogy Project.)

Encyclopedia of New York, 2nd edition, Jackson, K., Ed.

nyc-architecture.com.

New York Times Archives.

New York Herald Tribune Archives.

NY Correction History Society.

New York City Municipal Archives.

And thanks to Sheryl Woodruff, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

Clive I. Morrick is a semi-retired attorney who has lived in Greenwich Village since 1977.


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