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

A trial statement details the charges against Thomas Nailor

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 and bankruptcy,
  • African Americans and slavery, and
  • enlistments in the military.

While all of these categories include some similar documents, such as writs, petitions, warrants of commitment, affidavits, and summons, each category also contains documents and information unique to the topic.


In many criminal cases, the confined person relied upon the writ of habeas corpus to secure his legal right to be released on bail or otherwise released from illegal confinement. In the case of Thomas Nailor, Chief Judge Cranch issued a writ of habeas corpus commanding the marshal of the District of Columbia to bring Nailor before him, together with the cause of his caption and detention. The marshal complied, and Judge Cranch subsequently ordered Nailor's release on $300 bail for the affray on Capitol Hill, the assault and battery on George Goldsmith with intent to kill, and resisting arrest, as well as $100 bail relating to an assault and beating on John Paul that Nailor had committed two years previously.

The habeas corpus records relating to criminal cases involve an array of charges, such as larceny, assault and battery, murder, counterfeiting, forgery, rioting, arson, mutiny on the high seas, fighting, and robbing the mail. They can contain documentation regarding trial dates, arrest information, statements of bail and recognizance, and other details of the alleged offense as well as places of confinement and names of accusers, witnesses, and family members.

Apprenticeship and Family Issues

On December 22, 1849, 16-year-old Thomas Fitton entered an indentured apprenticeship with Michael McDermott to learn the trade of coach blacksmith. The relationship did not develop as the two had hoped, and on May 5, 1853, McDermott had the marshal for the District of Columbia put Fitton in jail for refusing to obey his orders. Fitton believed that his confinement in prison for an undetermined amount of time without any warrant of commitment from a judge or magistrate was illegal, and with the help of his brother William, he petitioned James S. Morsell, associate judge of the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, for a writ of habeas corpus.

Formal apprenticeships, a common practice during the 19th century, provided a method of training youths in an occupation as well as a way to care for orphaned or abandoned children. An indenture of apprenticeship was a contract by which an apprentice became bound to a master for a designated amount of time, usually until the apprentice reached majority, to learn the art or mystery of some trade, craft, profession, or business from the master.

Several apprentices appearing in these records relied upon the writ of habeas corpus to gain freedom from their masters earlier than stated in the indenture contract. In Fitton's case, Associate Judge Morsell issued a writ of habeas corpus demanding that Fitton be brought before him. Judge Morsell then ordered Fitton to be discharged from his apprenticeship, in effect granting Fitton his freedom.

Although not as common, masters could also use the writ to retake control of wayward apprentices. Habeas corpus files regarding apprenticeships can contain the indenture of apprenticeship and related information, such as profession or trade, starting and ending date, length of the apprenticeship, and names of parents, siblings, and guardians.

This series of records also documents how people could use the writ of habeas corpus for a number of other matters affecting family life. Chief among these domestic issues were custody disputes, child support, guardianships, domestic abuse, false promises of marriage, and family abandonment.

Insolvency and Bankruptcy

Judge William Cranch

Judge William Cranch of the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia signed many of the writs of habeas corpus issued in Washington in the first half of the 19th century. (Library of Congress)

An act of Congress on March 3, 1803, titled "An Act for the relief of Insolvent Debtors within the District of Columbia," allowed a debtor held in jail in the District of Columbia to petition any one of the judges of the Circuit Court for the District of Columbia to declare him an insolvent debtor, a process through which the debtor could ultimately gain release from prison. According to the act, the debtor had to complete several steps, including petitioning the judge, offering to deliver up all of his property to eligible creditors, swearing an oath or affirmation as an insolvent debtor, appointing a trustee, and executing a deed conveying all property to the trustee to pay the debts. Once every step had been completed, the judge had the right to order that the insolvent debtor be immediately discharged from prison.

On occasion, however, the process failed, and the insolvent debtor was either not released from prison in a timely fashion or he was re-arrested following his release. In either of these situations, the debtor needed to resort to alternate means to gain release, such as petitioning for a writ of habeas corpus.

This is exactly what happened to Thomas Williams. On July 26, 1833, Robert Clark, Esq., a justice of the peace, issued Williams a $10 fine for gambling (playing cards). When Williams refused to pay the fine and related fees, the mayor, Board of Alderman, and Board of Common Council ordered Williams into the custody of Richard Butts, keeper of the Washington Asylum, to be kept at hard labor for 30 days or until otherwise discharged. With absolutely no property or other means to pay the $10 fine, Williams took advantage of the Insolvency Act to have himself declared an insolvent debtor and thereby be released from prison. After Williams completed every step outlined in the act, Chief Judge William Cranch ordered Williams released as an insolvent debtor on November 30.

Soon after his release, however, Williams was arrested for the same unpaid fine and once again placed in the workhouse. Williams immediately petitioned Judge Cranch for a writ of habeas corpus to be directed at the keeper, Richard Butts. Cranch issued the writ on December 4, ordering Butts to appear before the circuit court along with Thomas Williams and explain to the court the reason for Williams's confinement. On December 21 Williams had his day in court. The judge dismissed Butts's explanation and ordered him to discharge Williams from the Washington Asylum.

Williams's case was not unique, and there are several files documenting similar predicaments faced by other insolvent debtors. There is also one case relating to a debtor released under the Bankruptcy Act of 1842, which replaced the Insolvency Act for a brief period in 1842 and 1843.

In addition to the debtor's name, the files relating to insolvency can include place of incarceration, discharge statements under the insolvency act, lists of debts, names of creditors, and statements of property. These records can provide rich documentation of individuals in the lower strata of society, about whom it is often difficult to find information.

African Americans and Slavery

Judge Cranch's order to release Ralph Gould, a freeman, from prison

Judge Cranch's order to release Ralph Gould, a freeman, from prison. (Records of District Courts of the United States, RG 21)

It was June 11, 1839, and Ralph Gould, a free black man born in Boston, Massachusetts, had been in jail for over five days; yet he had committed no crime. Thomas C. Wilson, a constable for Washington D.C., had arrested Gould a week earlier and falsely charged him with being a runaway slave. Gould had served in the U.S. Navy and even had evidence of his military discharge and his freedom in his possession. Facing the possibility of being sold as a slave, he turned to the one constitutional right that he believed could protect him and petitioned Chief Judge William Cranch for a writ of habeas corpus.

During the period these records cover, both anti- and proslavery forces in Washington, D.C., attempted to use the legal system to their benefit. As a result, free blacks and slaves appear throughout the habeas corpus records in various situations: held as runaway slaves, as witnesses, as victims, as apprentices and masters, and on charges such as arson, larceny, and assault and battery. These records thus provide documentation of the lives of African Americans in the antebellum Washington area, both free and slave.

Because free blacks often relied upon the writ of habeas corpus to protect them from being kidnapped and sold into slavery, many of these cases concern individuals held as runaway slaves. In the case of Ralph Gould, Judge Cranch issued the writ directed at the marshal of the District of Columbia:

You are hereby commanded to have the Body of Ralph Gold [sic] detained in Your custody in the Jail of Washington County as it is said Together with the cause of Caption & detention before the Hon W. Cranch Chief Judge of the District of Columbia at his Chambers in the City Hall immediately then & there to receive & submit to what the said Judge may consider concerning him in the premises. Hereby fail not.

For Gould, the writ worked to his advantage. During the proceedings, Gould presented Judge Cranch with documentation of his freedom, and immediately thereafter Judge Cranch ordered Gould's release from prison.

The power of the writ could work both ways, however. Masters could also use the writ to prove ownership and thereby take custody of detained slaves.

The files relating to African Americans can contain letters of manumission, statements of freedom, and bills of sale. The documents can be invaluable to genealogists, providing information such as names of parents, relatives, owners, slaves, ages of petitioners, ages at which freed from slavery, birth places, and physical descriptions.

Enlistments in the Military

Jeremiah Lyons, an 18-year-old resident of Baltimore, was determined to join the army. Being a minor under the age of 21, he could not legally enlist in the United States Army without the knowledge and consent of a parent or guardian. At the beginning of September 1861, without his father Cornelius's knowledge or consent, Jeremiah left home and traveled to Philadelphia, where he enlisted as a private in the 23rd Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers.

When Cornelius found out that his son had joined the army and that the 23rd Pennsylvania was stationed in the District of Columbia, he immediately traveled to the city to fetch his son. Because the commanding officers refused to discharge Jeremiah, Cornelius petitioned Assistant Judge William M. Merrick for a writ of habeas corpus to be served on the officers to show cause why Jeremiah should not be discharged from his regiment. Judge Merrick issued the writ and then ordered Jeremiah to be discharged and released by reason of irregular and void enlistment. When Cornelius and Jeremiah returned to the camp of the 23rd Pennsylvania, however, the commanding officers seized the youth and ordered that he not be discharged. After a legal battle with the adjutant general and the regiment's commanders, Judge Merrick was finally able to secure Jeremiah's discharge.

Jeremiah Lyons's compiled military service record, 1861

Cornelius Lyons successfully petitioned for his son's discharge from the Army, as noted on Jeremiah's compiled military service record. (Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's–1917, RG 94)

The habeas corpus files dealing with illegal enlistments in the military relate primarily to Civil War underage enlistment cases occurring in September and October 1861. There are no files after these two months because on October 23, 1861, President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the District of Columbia as it related to military affairs, rendering the writ ineffectual in securing the release of minors from military service. The cases pertain to a minor who enlisted in the Union army without parental knowledge or consent and document how the parents or guardians petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus seeking their child's or ward's discharge. The records can provide valuable information on the soldier and his family, including the child's or ward's date of enlistment, unit in which he enlisted, his rank, his birth date and place, and his parents' or guardians' names.

Using the Records

The habeas corpus records described in this article are part of Record Group 21, Records of District Courts of the United States, and are available on microfilm as National Archives Microfilm Publication M434, Habeas Corpus Case Records of the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, 1820–1863 (2 rolls). The records are arranged chronologically by year. There is no descriptive pamphlet. The staff of the National Archives created a searchable database indexing approximately 1,400 names of petitioners, witnesses, family members, and other people appearing in the files. It is available in the National Archives Building's Research Center upon request.

The database is a user-friendly tool. It provides name of individual, the year filed, nature of confinement when applicable, microfilm publication number, roll number, frame numbers that relate to the individual, and frame numbers for the entire case, allowing the researcher to quickly locate the individual on the microfilm. By using the database, one can easily search the entire collection of records either by name of an individual or by the nature of confinement, making this a valuable resource for genealogists and social historians alike.

Related Habeas Corpus Records

In addition to the habeas corpus case records of the U.S. Circuit Court described here, the National Archives also has custody of habeas corpus records of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia dated 1863–1933. This court took over all functions previously vested in the circuit, district, and criminal courts in the District of Columbia. Included among these records are habeas corpus case files (NC-2, Entry 81); docket books (NC-2, Entry 79); and minutes of the court's proceedings relating to habeas corpus matters (NC-2, Entry 80). For more information on using these records, write to the Old Civil Reference Branch, National Archives and Records Administration, 700 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington DC 20408-0001 (telephone 202-357-5395; contact us).

Note on Sources

The habeas corpus case records covered in this article are reproduced as National Archives Microfilm Publication M434, Habeas Corpus Case Records of the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, 1820–1863. Supplementary information on many of the habeas corpus proceedings as well as related trials in the court minutes is contained in Minutes of the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia, 1801–1863 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1021). Documentation relating to Thomas Nailor's trials and the trials of many other individuals appearing in these habeas corpus records can be found in Entry 6, Case Papers Containing Appearances, Trials, Imparlances, Judicials, etc. (1802–1863). For many of the insolvent debtors, including Thomas Williams, there are records from insolvency proceedings in Entry 27, Insolvents Case Papers (1814–January 1842, April 1843–1850). The above-mentioned records are described in Preliminary Inventory NC-2, "Records of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia" (Record Group 21).

Abstracts concerning Thomas Fitton's apprenticeship to Michael McDermott as well as many other apprenticeship indentures in Washington, D.C., are contained in District of Columbia Indentures of Apprenticeship, 1801–1893 (Willow Bend Books, Lovettsville, VA, 1998), compiled by Dorothy Provine. District of Columbia indentures of apprenticeship for the years 1801–1811 are in the custody of the National Archives and are available as National Archives Microfilm Publication M2011, Indentures of Apprenticeship Recorded in the Orphans Court, Washington County, District of Columbia, 1801–1811. Those dated after 1811 are in the custody of the District of Columbia Archives.

The compiled military service record for Jeremiah Lyons is in the Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's–1917, Record Group 94. The following secondary sources provided background information on the writ of habeas corpus: William H. Rehnquist, All The Laws But One: Civil Liberties in Wartime (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998); Susan Low Bloch and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, "Celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the Federal Courts of the District of Columbia," Georgetown Law Journal 90 (March 2002): 549–606; and Mark E. Kneely, Jr., The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

Chris Naylor is an archives technician in the Research Support Branch of the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. He earned B.A. degrees in history and German from the University of Maryland, College Park.


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