Prologue Magazine

"You have the body": Habeas Corpus Case Records of the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, 1820-1863

Fall 2005, Vol. 37, No. 3 | Genealogy Notes

By Chris Naylor

Refer to Caption A trial statement details the charges against Thomas Nailor during a May 17, 1835, riot on Capitol Hill. The statement is signed by U.S. Attorney Francis Scott Key. (Records of District Courts of the United States, RG 21)

On May 17, 1835, Thomas Nailor, a resident of Washington, D.C., and several companions, "with force and arms," started a brawl on Capitol Hill. Francis Scott Key, Attorney of the United States, later recalled that the group then proceeded to riot throughout the streets of Washington for several hours, "to the great terror and disturbance of the good people of the United States." During the riot, Nailor assaulted a George Goldsmith. When Constable John Stephenson arrived on the scene and attempted to control the riot, Nailor resisted arrest and attacked him. In the process, Nailor "did then and there beat wound [and] ill treat" Stephenson.

This was not the first time Nailor had engaged in such conduct. As a result of the May 17 events and his history of violent behavior, Constable Stephenson arrested Nailor and charged him with assault and battery on Goldsmith with intent to kill and with resisting arrest. While in jail awaiting trial, Nailor was denied bail. Knowing that he was entitled to the benefit of bail, Nailor petitioned William Cranch, chief judge of the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, for a writ of habeas corpus.

Originating in English common law, a writ of habeas corpus (Latin for "that you have the body") is a court order from a judge instructing a person who is detaining another to bring the detainee before the court for a specific purpose, usually to explain to the court the reason for holding the detainee. The court then decides whether the detainee should remain in custody or be released. English colonists brought the concept of habeas corpus to the American continent in the 17th century, and the writ of habeas corpus was common in several British colonies by the time of the American Revolution. The framers of the U.S. Constitution recognized the significance of the writ and included it in the body of the Constitution in Article I, section 9, which states:

The privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.

Many other individual rights were not included in the Constitution until two years following the ratification of the Constitution, when Congress passed the first 10 amendments, commonly referred to as the Bill of Rights. The fact that the writ of habeas corpus was included in the Constitution prior to the passage of the Bill of Rights is a testament to the importance the framers placed on it. The First Federal Congress provided for the use of the writ through an act of September 24, 1789 (1 Stat. 81). Section 14 of that act gave all U.S. courts the power to issue writs of habeas corpus.

After the seat of government was transferred to Washington in 1800, Congress passed an act for the government of the Federal District on February 27, 1801 (2 Stat. 103). One part of this act created a circuit court for the District of Columbia, which remained in operation until March 3, 1863.

The records of the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia contain a series of approximately 450 habeas corpus cases dating from 1820 to 1863. These records illustrate how individuals either residing in or traveling through Washington, D.C., during these years relied upon the writ of habeas corpus to secure their release from unlawful confinement. The cases in this series relate to both civil and criminal matters and can provide names of individuals and family members; birth, marriage, and death information; reasons for confinement; places of residence; occupations; and detailed information on the daily lives of the people involved in the cases.

The major topics covered in the habeas corpus cases are:

  • crimes,
  • apprenticeship and family issues,
  • insolvency