Part One noted that there were courts at what is now our branch library for 100 years, beginning in 1845. It traced the history of the criminal court (1845-1946) and the civil court (1848-1907).
Part Two looks at the Women’s Court (1910-1943) and the Court of Special Sessions (1915-1946).
Most of the changes described below were the result of New York State laws because these courts were created by statute.
The Women’s Court
In 1907, the City’s first night session of the criminal court opened at the Jefferson Market courthouse. (The Frederick Clark Withers-designed building opened in 1877.) 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 as well as men and women arrested in joint enterprises, at 151 East 57th Street.
The Jefferson Market Night Court was named the Women’s Court and it heard prostitution-related cases and preliminary hearings in shoplifting charges. The court opened at 8:00 PM and remained open until at least 1:00 AM. The legislation setting up the Women’s Court required a place of detention convenient to night court. Withers’ prison was right next door.
The driving force behind the Women’s Court was the problem of station-house bond. The police kept women arrested on morals charges in custody overnight at the police station unless they got bail. This led to corrupt deals between arresting police officers and bail bondsmen.
In 1918, the state allowed the City’s Board of Magistrates to change the Women’s Night Court to a daytime court. Night court had become a spectacle with the public treating it as an entertainment venue.
The Women’s Court at Jefferson Market now heard all charges against women. It was located on the second floor, along with the probation office, fingerprint room, judges’ chambers, and a medical office where women convicted of prostitution had to undergo examinations for venereal disease.
For some years a group of six women lawyers provided free representation in the Women’s Court. They included Anna Kross (then Moscowitz), later to become a magistrate of the Women’s Court and later still Commissioner of Corrections, and Jean Norris. In October 1919, Norris became the first woman to be appointed as a New York City magistrate. She sat in the Women’s Court. She developed a reputation as a caring jurist, often visiting the families of the young women who came before her.
But despite its good intentions the Women’s Court had a checkered history. One scholar has called it a notorious court, ridden with scandal. Over the next decade rumors about corruption circulated.
In 1930, an assistant district attorney blew the whistle. On West 10th Street, opposite the courthouse, was a “Lawyer’s Row” of offices shared with bail bondsmen. Police would make arrests for prostitution and share the bail (often excessive) with the bondsmen, who in turn referred the women to lawyers. Lawyers shared their exorbitant fees with prosecutors who would present weak evidence leading to acquittals.
The subsequent investigation was the downfall of Magistrate Norris. On June 25, 1931, she was removed from her position on proof that she had falsified a trial record, held an undisclosed interest in a company that insured bail bonds, advertised a yeast product while posing in judicial robes, and convicted a young woman on insufficient evidence.
The Women’s Court remained at Jefferson Market until 1943, when it moved to 100 Centre Street. The City finally abolished it on September 18, 1967.
The Court of Special Sessions
The original Court of Special Sessions, dating from 1800, was a court of three justices who were members of the legislature, plus the Mayor. This court tried most misdemeanors. There was no jury.
In 1895, the state replaced it with a court of the same name but with five independent justices appointed by the Mayor. The court was to sit monthly. It could try all misdemeanor cases coming before it from preliminary hearings in the magistrates’ courts except libel. Every trial still needed three justices.
However, because the court did not sit daily, as did the magistrates courts, a defendant who could not raise bail could be in jail for up to three weeks awaiting a trial. So in 1915, the state allowed criminal court magistrates to sit on their own as a Court of Special Sessions in certain cases and so relieve congestion. Jefferson Market magistrates began to do so. This practice continued until the courthouse closed in 1946. In its penultimate year the court processed 1,992 cases as a Court of Special Sessions.
The Women’s House of Detention
In 1927, the Corrections Department began planning a new prison for the Jefferson Market site to house women awaiting trial or sentenced to less than one year’s imprisonment. On May 4, 1929, the last 100 prisoners (all women) in the 1877 prison were transferred elsewhere. By October, demolition of the old prison and the market was underway.
On April 3, 1930, Mayor Walker laid the cornerstone of what would be known as the “Women’s House of Detention at Jefferson Market.” He claimed it would be “the most humane building ever constructed in the City.” The 11-story prison opened on March 29, 1932, and received its first detainees on May 1.
Perhaps Mayor Walker’s boast was just hyperbole. After years of complaints about conditions, the prison closed on June 13, 1971, its occupants moving to the new
women’s prison on Rikers Island. Mayor Lindsey struck the first blow of its demolition, wielding a sledgehammer on October 9, 1973. The site became the present garden.
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.
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.