This User’s Guide to the District Attorney Case Files on-line collection has been created to enhance the user’s experience of these Obscure, Noteworthy and Notorious criminal cases from Westchester County. It includes additional information about the District Attorney Case Files in general, elaborates on the selection criteria used for cases chosen for this collection, offers search tips, and provides information about how to obtain access to the paper versions of the District Attorney Case Files.
The District Attorney Case Files held by the Westchester County Archives represent the records maintained by the office of the Westchester County District Attorney, and cover the years 1892-1949 (currently processed from 1892-ca. 1930, although 1926-part of 1928 remain to be processed). The content of case files varies widely from case to case. The items present in a case file for a specific case may include original indictments, District Attorney handwritten notes on a case, correspondence and other documentation attesting to the character of the defendant, correspondence between attorneys and the District Attorney’s office regarding appealing or pleading of the case and/or the sentence, County Court trial minutes, and various documents used as evidence at trials. Photographs of defendants and crime scenes are also present in some case files. For an overview of the District Attorney Case Files, read "Preserving Law and Order" (Note: This article first appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of "New York Archives" magazine, a benefit of membership in the Archives Partnership Trust. It is reposted here with permission from the Trust.) In addition to the District Attorney Case Files, the Westchester County Archives’ holds other records that document Westchester’s “criminal element”. Read more about them (as well as the DA Case Files) on our Documenting Crime and Punishment in Westchester County web page.
Over 10,000 District Attorney Case Files have been processed by Westchester County Archives staff and volunteers. As part of this processing, each case is indexed in an internal database, where information such as defendant name(s), type of crime, year of crime, and location of crime are recorded. The name of the victim of the crime is also usually captured in the database. In addition, other significant details about the case are recorded as well, including interesting types of materials that are available in the case file – such as photographs, publications, posters and newspaper articles. Research and selection for this on-line collection began with a search of the District Attorney Case File database for those case files that included photographic images. Once the cases with historic images were identified, they were then further studied and selected based on their containing additional historically significant material. Additional searches were performed in the database based on type of crime. Throughout this research and selection process, the subset identifiers of “obscure”, “noteworthy” and “notorious” were designated. Only a very few items from each case file were chosen for inclusion in this on-line collection.
As items were cataloged for this collection, they were grouped by case name (for example, "Merritt murder case, 1910") so that users browsing the collection will see related items together. This cataloging practice keeps case items within context of each other. In addition, each individual item has an abstract of the case it was taken from, a description of the item, and an explanation of the historical significance of the item, all of which provides further insight into the item, its connection to the case, and why it was included in this collection.
With less than 200 items total in the collection, browsing through all the items at once (the default option when the collection is opened from the Collections page) is the recommended method for viewing. This also can be done by clicking on the Browse All" link at the top of this page.
However, items in the collection are also searchable by name, date, location, crime, and format, as well as using keywords from the title, description, abstract and historical significance fields, using both the Search and Advanced Search options at the top of the page. Below are some sample searches.
As noted above, photographic images formed the initial focus when building this collection. Many times, however, the images left behind in the case files are unusual in terms of a criminal case and perhaps had no bearing on the prosecution of the case (at least not one that can be readily determined 100+ years after the fact). The case file of well-known society entertainer, pilot and haberdasher’s clerk, John Wilmer Martine, falls into this category. Though his case involved assault and robbery of a wealthy Westchester widow, his case file is brimming with dozens of personal photos that portrays the lifestyle of an aspiring actor and individual in Westchester in the early 1900’s (click on the photo to view catalog record):
To find more photographs in the collection, search for "John Wilmer Martine" or the keyword "photograph".
Included in the District Attorney Case Files are also a number of “Black Hand” cases in which extortion is attempted under the guise of this mysterious and ominous underground crime league. The true nature of the “Black Hand” or its relationship with organized crime is not substantiated in these files and indeed most cases involve opportunistic amateurs attempting to profit from use of the notorious syndicate’s name (click on the photo to view catalog record):
To find similar records, or any group of records, based on a phrase or subject, enter the word or words in the Search box at the top of the page.
Another mark of distinction of the DA case files is their documentation of early criminal identification practices through the use of Bertillon cards, along with mug shots and fingerprinting. Other materials in the case files further bring to life early criminal justice practices. Below are a few examples of these items found in the collection (click on the photo to view catalog record):
As with other keyword searches, the name of an individual, location, or even the term “fingerprint” or “mug shot” can be entered into the Search box to find relevant records.
Although selected as some of the most historically significant items available in the District Attorney Case Files collection, the items presented in this on-line collection represent less than 1% of all the materials available in paper format. And the number of possible research topics -- along gender lines, by socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity, or location, type of crime, etc. to be examined in those paper records are practically endless.
To obtain access to a case file discussed in this collection, please make reference to the “Resource Indentifier” cited in the item description for the item. It will be an “A-number” followed by a folder number (example: "A0349(33)L_F12_001").
To research other case records, please contact the Principal Archivist about your proposed research topic (or individual name(s) seeking to research), so the in-house database for this collection can be searched for you.
Please note that there are some restrictions on using the District Attorney Case Files collection:
First, requests to use this collection must be made in advance and in writing. This can be done either by writing to the Principal Archivist, Westchester County Archives, 2199 Saw Mill River Road, Elmsford, NY 10523, or by e-mail. A statement of the research topic / research interest in the collection must be included in the research request.
Second, all Grand Jury Minutes in this collection are permanently closed to the public.
Third, access to all records less than 75 years old is restricted. Please contact the Archives for additional information about such requests.