by Eric C. Schneider, Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia
Crime is inextricably linked to Philadelphia’s shifting economic fortunes. Its history reflects the region’s status as a port and point of entry for goods, immigrants, and migrants, where concentrations of both wealth and poverty developed in a center of American commerce and industry. As a type of economic activity, forms of crime changed dramatically as the Philadelphia region transformed from a preindustrial, to industrial, to post-industrial metropolis.
Philadelphia, as a seaport and the largest city in the North American colonies, hosted seamen, laborers, runaway servants, and transients, the footloose men most likely to be involved in crime and to patronize the vice trades. Taverns, brothels, and gambling dens dotted the walking city that relied on night watchmen to look out for fire more than public safety. In the absence of what would be recognized as a police force, thieves pilfered purses from the unwary and burgled goods from warehouses and docks, and feared only the “hue and cry” that might lead a posse of pursuers to stop and beat them. Those caught and brought to trial faced a penal code that had eliminated English practices of whipping, branding, cropping body parts, and hanging for most crimes, but Pennsylvania’s penal code reverted to these punishments in 1718, and they remained in effect until the adoption of a new state constitution after the Revolution in a largely futile attempt to stem crime and disorder.
Rest is here