Shillelagh Law, Part III
By Francis McGarry
“In my administration of the Police, which in every city is a source of more care and responsibility than any other department connected with a city government,…I am satisfied that there is no service which may be more utterly useless, or more valuable, according to the character and conduct of the men employed in it.”
-Samuel Starkweather, Mayor of Cleveland, 1858.
The last two columns have discussed the origin of the plea bargain in American judicial history and the temporal intersections with Irish immigration and industrialization. That is a discussion of how the law was utilized to address immigration concerns and how the Irish participated in the various contexts within this developing system. Vagrancy laws are the genesis of this evolving legal system. The Irish were a part of that as well.
Vagrancy statutes were enacted in the early 19th century along the east coast to address the numbers of unemployed who attempted to be migrant labors. Many Irish immigrants were among those interviewed by the courts to determine their status.
Some were in America after being sentenced to transportation and never had resources, others were freed indentured servants, and others where just down on their luck. Communities did not want to allocate resources to vagrants who did not have legal residence in that community.
Apparently, the Protestant elite let the right hand know what the left hand was doing. If you appeared to lack funding, you would be detained and the determination would be made to transport you back to your last residence or to send you to the almshouse.
The enforcement of these laws was an attempt to make it illegal to not work. Fair enough. However, the United States suffered from financial panics in 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873 and 1893. The Panic of 1837 was the second longest economic depression in U.S. history, lasting until 1843. Real estate prices collapsed, and farmers could not get a fair price for their goods.
1837 is the year of the first plea bargain. Many were forced to search for work and that placed individuals in a precarious legal position. Some Irish set up “Paddy Camps,” think shantytown and shanty Irish. In Lowell, MA, two camps were established in the 1820s, one for the Corkians and one for the Far Downers.
This legislation and policing of people’s activities for the need of the economy, local and national, led to the criminalization of social and economic agency by the lower economic classes by outlawing their migration and attempts at subsistence. The economic pressures generated forms of social control disproportionately besetting the poor, and therefore a portion of the Irish immigrants.
The vagrancy laws in states like Virginia, Maryland and Delaware were also utilized to control the settlement of freed African-Americans and assist in enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. That did not have a large impact on Cleveland. Cincinnati had racially fueled riots in 1829 and 1841 as a result of African American settlement and competition for jobs with Irish immigrants.
Cleveland and the Cleveland Irish were impacted by state authority and its use of individual reform and punishment to exercise social, economic, behavioral, and spatial control. In 1858, Cleveland did not have a metropolitan police force; that would have to wait until 1866. The city marshal did oversee 2,285 arraignments that year for a city of 43,417.
1,581 of the arraignments were for city offenses, which implies less serious offenses. That was a decrease of 146 arraignments for city cases, while state cases increased by 267 that year. As a result of police work and judicial decisions, there were $7,443.30 in fines for city cases and $7,234.26 in fines for state cases.
The Cleveland Police Department, including the Police Court, cost the city of Cleveland $11,052.38 in 1858. The police did request “a more suitable place for holding Police Court” and bemoaned the “total unfitness of the City Prison for any of the purposes intended.” It was the police and primarily the Police Court that enforced and adjudicated the social and behavioral offences like “drunkenness, common drunkard, and profanity.”
Cleveland erected seven new school houses from 1852 to 1856. The city had a total of sixty-four public school house with fourteen male and sixty-four female teachers in 1858. The total expenditure for teacher salaries was $33,077.06, or $22,024.68 more than the expenditure for the police department.
According to Mayor Starkweather, “Of all our institutions, our public schools may be regarded as occupying the highest rank in importance and usefulness, and none will be disposed to withhold from them a liberal support, if wisely and economically administered.”
The city of Cleveland was well situated to implement Horace Mann’s vision of a phrenological Christian public education. He believed that the shape of your forehead could dictate a deficiency of understanding and “cranioscopy” indicated intellectual and emotional endowments.
Good old Horace’s Christian education was restricted to “universal” Christian religion, which translated into the King James Bible in public schools. The Kensington Riots in 1844 were a result of public schools willfully attempting to convert Irish Catholic students.
The Industrial School for “destitute and uncared-for children” was established in 1857, first in the state. Total enrollment was 314 scholars, however 80-90 scholars when the weather was nice and 113 on average in the winter. The mission was “changing it scholars from the dangerous into the industrious class of our citizens.”
That change occurred when good morals were taught. The school was supported by the Children’s Aid Society and its President, T.P. Handy, “Many of them possess noble hearts and bright intellects of superior birth, though crushed by Poverty’s iron hand, by sickness or misfortune, or by that monster of destruction, Intemperance.”
Spoiler alert, that is the beginning of prohibition. If the highly efficient and effective police force jammed you up at one the 184 saloons in town, then one of the seventy-nine practicing attorneys could get you to Police Court.
The courts, prisons and the schools all were mobilized to build character, Utilitarian “consequentialism,” as John Stewart Mill ascribed. Moral discipline was needed to facilitate security and predictability, healthy markets and economic growth.
The laboring classes, or as Oscar Wilde called it, “drinking classes,” needed to be saved and the economic elites realized they had a direct personal interest in having workers for their businesses. This was the social and economic context which gave rise to the plea bargain and more importantly how it permeated the judicial landscape.
*Francis McGarry holds undergraduate degrees from Indiana University in Anthropology, Education and History and a Masters in Social Science from the University of Chicago. He is an assistant principal and history teacher. Francis is a past president of the Irish American Club East Side. He is the founder and past president of the Bluestone Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.