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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Anglo-Saxon, all confusing.

Reader Joanne Shackford Parkes has a somewhat unsavory black sheep in her family who was involved in a court case in New York City in 1854. Allegations of abduction and seduction were met, of course, with denials, and the case was ultimately dismissed when the complaining party bolted for the wilds of New Jersey and refused to press the charges.

As she was trying to make sense of the reports she found about the case, Joanne came up against a term she hadn’t seen before. “Newspapers refer to George’s counsel as ‘ex-Recorder’ Tallmadge,” she wrote, “and I’m trying to find out what an ex-Recorder was. I can find Mr Tallmadge listed as a Recorder but am still puzzled as to what this title was. A Zanesville newspaper article referring to this case mentions a Recorder Tilton ‘in his charge to the grand jury.’ which has me guessing the Recorder was the prosecutor. But I would like to be sure…”

Welcome to the wonderful wacky world of New York justice. Where there were more courts and more court officials under more names for longer periods than almost anywhere else.

To understand the Recorder in New York City, we have to go all the way back to 1683 when Thomas Dongan, Earl of Limerick, was the Colonial Governor of New York. New York City at the time was pretty much a sleepy little town that had enjoyed the “ancient customes, Priviledges and Immunityes” granted to it by an earlier Governor, Richard Nicolls. And the mayor and aldermen (equivalent to a city council) wanted that to continue, so they asked Governor Dongan for a charter from the Duke of York, otherwise known as James II.1

And, in particular, these local politicians wanted their own local government to be patterned on that of the City of London, England, and they asked to have a recorder — just as there was in London — to help the mayor with judicial and court matters.2

Dongan was accommodating to the New Yorkers. In 1684, he gave them what they wanted in almost every particular although formal confirmation had to wait until the Duke of York approved. But in the meantime he went ahead and appointed James Graham as recorder on 14 January 1684. The very next day, Graham was sworn into office, and the whole group — mayor, aldermen and recorder — opened court in City Hall with Graham at “ye right hand of ye mayor.”3

That government structure was confirmed by Dongan with approval of James II in 1686, in what’s known as the Dongan Charter of New York City. That provided that “there shall be forever hereafter within the said city, a Mayor and Recorder, Town Clerk and six Alderman and six Assistants…”4

So okay… New York now has a London-style recorder. And just what the heck was that? At the time, it was “a certain magistrate or judge having criminal and civil jurisdiction in a city or borough. A recorder was originally an appointed person with legal knowledge by the mayor and aldermen to ‘record’ the proceedings of their courts and the customs of the city. Such recordings were regarded as the highest evidence of fact.”5

Initially, in New York City, the Governor appointed the recorder. And the charter made the recorder a member of the Mayor’s Court, which handled a variety of civil cases — debt, trespass, ejectment and the like. It also made the recorder the presiding judge of the Court of Sessions, which came to be known as the Recorder’s Court — the local court with criminal case jurisdiction. The underlying theory was that the recorder would be the one judicial officer who’d be there day in and day out, without the political vagaries of who the mayor or aldermen were.6

That structure continued after the Revolution. The New York Constitution of 1777 made the recorder an appointed position with the same duties as before. But Things got a bit dicey when DeWitt Clinton was mayor of New York, from 1803 to 1815.7 Nobody’s quite sure why, but Clinton stopped presiding as judge of the Mayor’s Court, and the recorder at that time — Maturin Livingston — took over. So in 1821, state law changed the name of the court to the Court of Common Pleas, and provided for a permanent law judge.8

But the recorder continued as the local criminal judge, still presiding over the Court of Sessions — the Recorder’s Court. The 1821 New York Constitution provided for the appointment of the recorder by the Governor. In 1847, the City Charter was amended so that the recorder was elected, instead of appointed. Under the Judicial Article of 1869, the recorder was considered a judge and not a municipal official at all any more.9

Why haven’t we heard of recorders today? Because, alas, the political process got completely out of hand in 1907. At the November 1906 general election, New York City Recorder John W. Goff was elected a judge of the New York Supreme Court (the trial court in New York State). The recorder’s job, then, was to be filled by the city’s Board of Aldermen — the city council. And the Aldermen deadlocked. Some 23 ballots were cast before, finally, on 15 January 1907, one of the Aldermen was arrested for taking a bribe to change his and others’ votes. On the 24th ballot, Francis S. McAvoy was elected.10

And McAvoy would be the last City Recorder. At the 1907 legislative session, Governor Charles Evans Hughes — later Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court — succeeded in getting a bill through the legislature that had been strongly advocated by the District Attorney of New York City abolishing the “antiquated Recordership” position as part of a set of reforms designed.11

But in 1854, when Joanne’s cousin George was facing the police court — a lower court under the supervision of the Recorder — the position was still very much a part of the New York City scene. In essence, the Recorder was a high-ranking criminal court judge.

And the man standing by George’s side and acting as his attorney was Frederick A. Tallmadge, who had been the Recorder twice before. He’d been appointed Recorder of New York City, serving from 1841 to 1846, and was the first elected Recorder from 1849 through 1851. Tallmadge was in private practice at the time, but would go on to be Superintendent of Police and Clerk of the New York Court of Appeals.12

In other words, George hired a heavyweight for his defense — a former judge who’d had supervisory authority over the very court where the charges were being considered.

Smart move, George. Smart move.


  1. Alden Chester and E. Melvin Williams, Courts and Lawyers of New York: A History, 1609-1925, Volume 1 (New York : American Historical Society, 1925), 413.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid., 414.
  4. The Dongan Charter of the City of New York 1686 (typescript); digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 10 Feb 2013).
  5. Wikipedia (, “Recorder (judge),” rev. 15 Nov 2012.
  6. Chester and Williams, Courts and Lawyers of New York: A History, 1609-1925, 417.
  7. Wikipedia (, “DeWitt Clinton,” rev. 2 Feb 2013.
  8. Charles P. Daly, Historical Sketch of the Judicial Tribunals of New York from 1623 to 1846 (New York : John W. Amerman, Printer, 1855), 64-65; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 10 Feb 2013).
  9. Wikipedia (, “Recorder of New York City,” rev. 1 Mar 2012.
  10. Wikipedia (, “Francis S. McAvoy,” rev. 11 Aug 2012.
  11. “Resume of Session’s Work,” The New York Times, 27 June 1907.
  12. Wikipedia (, “Frederick A. Tallmadge,” rev. 11 Dec 2012.
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