Adlow Collection of Boston Legal History

(Rare Books & Manuscripts) An extensive collection of documents and judicial records from Suffolk County, Massachusetts, dating from 1711 through 1904, with a primary focus on the years 1800 through 1825. The collection contains files of the Suffolk County Justice of the Peace, Court of Common Pleas, General Sessions of the Peace, and Supreme Judicial Court.

The core of the collection is comprised of nearly 23,000 writs of attachment, opens a new window and writs of execution, opens a new window, organized chronologically and under the justices who issued them. The collection also contains runs of other documentation, sometimes substantially complete, including: coroner’s records and inquests dating from 1775 through 1860; lists of prisoners; warrants, recognizances, summonses, dockets, criminal complaints, opinions and judgments, jury materials (lists of jurors, indictments, etc.), petitions, militia delinquencies, complaints to the Health Department; accounts, expenses, and miscellaneous bills; documents relating to construction of the Leverett Street Jail, opens a new window and the Suffolk County Courthouse on School Street, opens a new window; papers of individual judges, and many additional materials.

Though the Adlow Collection is comprised largely of judicial records, it is also an extremely rich source for studies in the social history of Boston. Individual documents often contain specific details and narratives of events in the lives of ordinary Bostonians recorded in no other sources.

The collection is named after Elijah Adlow (1896-1982), Chief Justice of the Municipal Court of the City of Boston. In 1954, Judge Adlow was notified that, due to an immediate need for space, a collection of "rubbish" long stored in an old basement vault of the courthouse was being considered for removal and incineration. Upon inspecting the materials in question, Adlow recognized their historical significance and the urgent need for their preservation. Having halted the destruction of the entire cache, Adlow later arranged for the materials to be transferred to the Boston Public Library.

Comprising approximately 40,000 items, the collection is organized into several different categories, described and processed at varying levels of detail. As of 2020, the collection is primarily accessible through a set of printed finding aids kept in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department.

For further information about use and access, consult the catalog record, opens a new window.

(Rare Books & Manuscripts)