Laws and the Legal System

Before the urbanization of America in the mid-1800s, towns were only loosely organized into close-knit communities, and murder was relatively rare. It was much harder for perpetrators to hide or escape the law because there were no cars and towns spread far apart. “Since most people had roots in their area and most murders arose out of local quarrels, institutions of law enforcement were largely underdeveloped as compared to the systems of today” (Megan Sasinoski 2). It wasn’t until the late 1850s that formal police departments began to appear in major cities. Officers, however, still had no official training, and only were employed because they had friends in the political party at that time. Detectives at this time were only hired to recover stolen goods. The city’s coroner  was responsible for identifying a killer, and the coroner relied heavily on public opinion in order to identify potential suspects, as did the coroner in the case of Ada Brown.

As America became more urbanized, crime rose steadily, specifically homicide. In fact, Americans at this time, had a higher risk of being murdered than did any other citizens of first world democracies (Megan Sasinoski 2).In response to the rise in violent crime, the U.S. spent more money on law enforcement in the 1840s than almost any other country in the world.

Before laws were fully established, first there had to be lawyers to defend or prosecute the people. “Little effort was made by the bar or by the courts, to prevent nonlawyers from practicing law. Because the practice of law was open to virtually anyone, there was little cause for unauthorized practice; those who might otherwise have been unauthorized practitioners could now, with virtually no effect, be duly recognized as attorneys” (Christensen 174). In both New York and New Jersey, nonlawyers were permitted to appear in court. By the 19th century, 18 out of the 45 states then in the union still had no educational requirements for the practice of law. As unauthorized practice increased from 1870 to 1920, so did the number of lawsuits. It is evident that it took generations for the law system to develop, and then for it to adjust its rules and regulations so that it becomes a just one. The entire system in the mid-1800s depicts one of unjust, unprofessional, and undeveloped laws. Police officers did not have or need any specific training, lawyers had no education necessary for the job, and anyone else involved in the legal system had no idea how to collect or resolve the problem.

From the time of the American Revolution, 1775-1783, until the early part of the twentieth century, the components of the American Criminal Justice system had been gradually coming together. This collaboration included courts, professional policing and prisons within both the federal and state levels. The criminal justice system is the collection of public agencies, which include the police, courts, and prison officials who were responsible for apprehending, determining the guilt and therefore imposing the sentence of the criminal offenders. However prior to the American Revolution, there was no distinctive American Legal system emplaced. Therefore it was upon the colony to determine the criminal codes, punishments and courts system. Colonies varied between their systems and beliefs on punishments. By the mid 1700’s a reform movement was underway to create a more unified American legal system, and with the Revolution underway, allowed for a sped up reform process. Once the colonists’ won their victory over the British  a new idea of the justice system was provided with both protection and rights for the citizens within the colonies. For the first several decades, which followed the Revolution, became known as an experimental period in criminal justice, court decisions and legislation which became the foundation for a modern criminal justice system.

Before State Prisons were built, many states allowed for criminals to take on hard labor, and to be viewed by the public. This idea of hard labor was to humiliate the criminal. The states eliminated whipping, branding and the use of the pillory, which is a wooden frame that holds one’s heads and hands. During the 1820’s and 1830’s a movement to build state prisons arose.  With building more prisons allowed for more states to replace various forms of physical punishments with imprisonment in penitentiaries. Many state prisons were experimenting with different kinds of incarceration, however local and county jails remained more primitive. Many of these primitive jail houses were in rural areas, were poorly maintained and very filthy.

In 1794 the Pennsylvania legislature passed a bill which recognized the difference between first degree murder, a deliberated and planned act to kill, that received the death penalty, and second-degree murder, an unplanned or accidental killing, that called for imprisonment. This was the first law of its kind, which called for the different levels of punishments for different acts of murder.  This allowed for other states to follow and reducing the number of capital crimes. Similarly, we can consider the difference between murder, both in the first and second degrees, in comparison to the charge of manslaughter. Murder is the unlawful killing of another human being without justification, whereas manslaughter is the crime of killing another human being without malice aforethought, meaning, the killing was not premeditated. While both are distinct and serious crimes, manslaughter is less serious than murder, and is considered to involve less moral blame than murder in the first or second degree. On January 10, 1885, Harrison was convicted of manslaughter in the case regarding Ada Brown. Perhaps the fact Brown was a woman had an impact on Harrison’s sentencing- if the roles had been switched, would Brown have been convicted with manslaughter as well, or with murder? At this time we have no documentation to back up or attempt to answer these questions, however we hope to dig deeper into this concept in following posts.  


Extra Facts

Many laws were established from 1836-1875, here are a few that may have been relevant to the Ada Brown case.


  1. Support of Relatives – The responsibility of parents, grandparents, children, and grandchildren for mutual support remained as before. This means that relatives would have to provide aid in family members. In this case, did Ada brown have help from her relatives, if she even had any?
  2. Support of Widows – There was no charge in the law making the estate of a man dying without issue chargeable with the support of his widow in case of need.
  3. Intemperance – The distribution of alcohol to a minor resulted in a fine  of $20-$50, or imprisonment for more than sixty days.
  4. Vagrancy – workhouse laws, for the separation of vagrants, tramps, and petty criminals from paupers.


-Lauren, Ashley, Angie

Works Cited


Megan Sasinoski. “Homicide Trends in America:1850-1950.” Dietrich College of Humanities and Science, 2011, pg. 2.
The Early Years of American Law – Colonial Freedom … (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2016, from


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