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The Police Blotter

In the first week of October 1858, some 48 men and women were arrested in the City of Memphis, Tennessee, and their names and their alleged offenses carefully inscribed into the blotter of the Memphis Police.

blotterJohn Leary, on October 1, 1858, fighting.

Edward Michel, on October 2, thief.

Patrick Ward, on October 4, drunk.

Thomas Numan, on October 7, disorderly.

All told, 45 free men and women and three slaves (Delorah, a slave of W Hayden, drunk; Ruben, a slave of Dr, Frazier, no pass; Amanda, slave of Mrs. Childs, fighting) were rounded up and recorded in this marvelous record book, which is now digitized by the Shelby County, Tennessee, Register of Deeds and available for anyone to research.1

Eight for fighting. Four for disorderly conduct. One thief. A bunch of drunks. But by far the biggest group rounded up: the vagrants.

Some 19 people — all male — all arrrested in those first seven days of October 1858 — all charged with the same offense. They were vagrants.

The dictionary definition of a vagrant was a “wandering, idle person; a strolling or sturdy beggar. A general term, including, in English law, the several classes of idle and disorderly persons, rogues, and vagabonds, and incorrigible rogues.”2 It’s not much different today: “one who has no established residence and wanders idly from place to place without lawful or visible means of support.”3

You’ll find vagrancy in the Tennessee statutes as far back as the very first compilation of its laws. Vagrants were not to be tolerated, were to be chased out of the county, were to be whipped, bound to jail or to good behavior.4

By 1831, there was a whole section of the Tennessee code devoted to idle and disorderly persons, and under its provisions:

Any person or persons who have no apparent means of subsistence, or neglect applying themselves to some honest calling for the support of themselves and families, every person so offending, who shall be found sauntering about neglecting his business, and endeavoring to maintain himself by gaming or other undue means, it shall and may be lawful for any justice of the peace of the county wherein such person may be found, on due proof made, to issue his warrant for such offending person, and cause him to be brought before said justice, who is hereby empowered, on conviction, to demand security for his good behaviour, and in case of refusal or neglect, to commit him to the jail of the county for any term not exceeding five days, at the expiration of which time he shall be set at liberty if nothing criminal appears against him; the said offender paying all charges arising from such imprisonment; and if such person shall be guilty of the like offence from and after the space of thirty days, he, so offending, shall be deemed a vagrant, and be subject to one month’s imprisonment, with all costs accruing thereon, which if he neglects or refuses to pay, he may be continued in prison until the next court of the county, who may proceed to try the said offender, and if found guilty by a verdict of a jury of good and lawful men, said court may proceed to hire the offender for any space of time, not exceeding six months, to make satisfaction for all costs, but if such person or persons so offending, be of ill fame, so that he or they cannot be hired for the costs, nor give sufficient security for the same and his future good behaviour, in that case it shall and may be lawful for the said court to cause the offender to receive not exceeding thirty nine lashes on his bare back, after which he shall be set at liberty, and the costs arising thereon shall become a county charge; which punishment may be inflicted as often as the person may be guilty, allowing thirty days between the punishment and the offence.5

And, the law went on:

It shall not be lawful for any person or persons of ill fame or suspicious character, to remove him or themselves from one county to another in this state, without first obtaining a certificate from some justice of the peace of said county, or captain of his company, setting forth his intention in removing, whether to settle in said county, or if travelling, to set forth his business and destination, and if such traveller should be desirous to stay in any county longer than ten days, he shall first apply to some justice of the peace of said county for leave, and obtain a certificate for that purpose, setting forth the time of his permission, and if such person shall be found loitering in said county after the expiration of his permit, or fail to obtain the same agreeable to the true intent and meaning of this act, such person or persons so offending may be apprehended by any person or persons, and carried before some justice of the peace, who may enquire into his character and business, and fine him at his discretion not exceeding ten dollars; but if said traveller shall be found on examination, to be a person of ill fame, and there is reason to suspect he is loitering in said county for evil purpose, attempting to acquire a living by gambling, or other bad practices, such justice shall have power to commit any person of like character, until he shall find good and sufficient seeurity for his good behaviour, for any time not exceeding ten days, and said justice of the peace, or court of the county shall proceed against such offender in the same manner as is heretofore prescribed for vagrants.6

Things hadn’t changed much by the time the Memphis Police Blotter was being created in that first week of October 1858. The statutes in effect at the time tell us exactly what a vagrant was in 1858 — in other words, if we find our ancestor’s name in that police blotter, we know exactly what he (or, in some rare cases elsewhere in the volume, she) was being charged with.

The law at the time began by defining as misbehavior conduct whereby a person “having no apparent means of subsistence, neglects to apply himself to some honest calling; or who saunters about neglecting his business; or who tries to maintain himself by gaming or other undue means; or who keeps or exhibits the gaming table commonly called a b c, or e o, or a faro bank, or any other gaming cloth, table, or bank, of the same or like kind, under any denomination whatever.”7 And repeating the offense of misbehavior within 30 days after a first offense… then the person “shall be deemed a vagrant.”8

In short, idling and loitering about without any clear occupation was going to get you locked up. And doing it twice was a major mistake.


  1. Memphis Police Blotter 1858-1860; digital images, Shelby County Register of Deeds ( : accessed 6 Oct 2015).
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1210, “vagrant.”
  3. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( : accessed 6 Oct 2015), “vagrant.”
  4. See Edward Scott, compiler, Laws of the State of Tennessee (Knoxville, Tenn. : Heiskell & Brown, printers, 1821); digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 6 Oct 2015).
  5. §1, “Idle and Disorderly Persons,” in John Haywood and Robert Cobbs, compilers, The Statute Laws of the State of Tennessee (Knoxville, Tenn. : F.S. Heiskell, 1831), I:146; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 6 Oct 2015).
  6. Ibid., §2, at 147.
  7. §1710, Code of Tennessee (Nasvhille, Tenn. : E.G. Eastman & Co., State Printers, 1858), 359; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 6 Oct 2015).
  8. §1712.
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