City Court in Old New Amsterdam

Governor Peter Stuyvesant

It is the year 1663. The big day has arrived. The town of Walloon[1] is brimming with anticipation. This small Dutch settlement on the Long Island shore – the nucleus of the future Brooklyn – has its residents eagerly preparing their carriages for a jaunt to the ferry crossing the East River to New Amsterdam. It is court day at City Hall.

Today’s deliberations will be no ordinary court. Besides the usual collection of scoundrels, thieves, and vanguards, the long awaited trial of Henderick Jansen Clarbout has arrived. Once the day’s defendants have been properly judged, the real excitement begins. Citizens assemble in front of City Hall to witness the punishments. They enjoy the usual whippings and dunking, but today, that will be only an appetizer to the real event. Residents of the clustered homesteads in the region of New Amsterdam hope to see Hendrick Clarbout brought outside to accept the fate of one convicted of a capital crime, who is thereby condemned to death.

Men of Walloon call out to their women and children, imploring them to hurry so they will not miss the ferry and the opening proceedings. Wagons bounce and sway along the river road to the ferry. Another bend in the lane and the dock comes into view. In front sits a small house, which looks more like an open shed with thatched roof. Moored is a large flatboat,worked with sweeps, and several rude skiffs for conveying single passengers. The ferryman is nowhere to be seen. A huge fish-horn hangs upon a tree nearby. One of the Walloon farmers seizes it and blows a loud blast. The old ferry-master and his slaves are in the woods. They hear the horn, but take their time to answer the patrons’ call. The impatient travelers pass time in conversation. Some read the placard affixed to the shed which spells out the many rules and regulations, and contains the primitive ferriage fees.

New Amsterdam

Once loaded, the ferry pushes off with her passengers. The tide is not in their favor, stretching the crossing to over an hour. When the boat lumbers up to the shore of Manhattan Island, it docks by the ferry-house and a tavern. The passengers unload, and men, women, and children hasten to Coenties Slip and the City Court. Court is held in the stately Stadt Huys (dutch for “City Hall”). The four story stone structure was the first tavern of New Amsterdam, built by Governor William Kieft in 1642. The common council (governing body) of New Amsterdam and the legal officers needed larger facilities than Fort Amsterdam provided, so the tavern was remodeled into city hall in 1742 and received the council and court.

Depicted gallows in New Amsterdam by artist Stossel (New Amsterdam History Ctr.)

It is now ten minutes to nine. The citizens of New Amsterdam wind their way toward the Stadt Huys with its gallows and pillory out front. Women don their finest attire; the ladies’ gowns are left open in front to display quilted petticoats, made of assorted materials: silk, satin, camlet, and grosgrain.[2] The colors suit the taste of the wearer, reds, blues, black, and white predominating. They wear colored hosiery, low shoes with high heels, and colored hoods of silk or taffeta instead of bonnets. Their hair is frizzled, curled, and sprinkled with powder. Some wear gold and diamond rings on their fingers, and gold lockets on their bosoms.

The men walk beside their wives. Their heads are covered with soft felt hats featuring wide brims looped up with rosettes and with powdered, full bottom wigs. Their long coats are adorned with silver buttons and the capacious pockets trimmed with silver lace. The broadcloth, velvet, and silk are colored dyes of red, blue and buff. Those in black velvet shimmer as they walk under a brilliant sun. Their waistcoats, or doublets, are of velvet or cloth in bright colors and richly embroidered with silver lace. Their breeches, generally of the same material as their coats, end at the knee in black-silk stockings. Their shoes are low and adorned with large silver buckle

Castello Plan of New Amsterdam

As well dressed the citizenry may be, there is little to compare with the lavish elegance and rich fabrics that adorn the governor Stuyvesant and his wife. The governor bears himself with a military air, despite the wooden leg bound with silver bands, which replaced the one lost in an “honorable fight” at St. Martins. His wife, a beautiful French lady, daughter of a famous Parisian divine, is worshiped by the gentlemen for her beauty.

Solomon La Chair, the notary, enters the hall arm and arm with his confrere, Van der Veere, each with their Marsenaer’s Praxis in hand. On the green in front of the city hall, stands Big Pieter caressing his “cat;” the black bondsman ‘whipper’ and executioner. On one side the puy, or platform, stands a gray-haired old man. He has a sort of skull-cap on his head and a bell in his hand – Stoffel Mighielsen is his name; town-crier is his profession. He rings his bell three times, and reads a high-sounding proclamation from their ‘High Mightinesses,’ the Director Governor and Council at the fort.

At the sound of the bell, a small stream of litigants and witnesses pour into the large, square room. The coat of arms of New Amsterdam are engraved on the lozenge-shaped window panes. Over the judge’s bench are wreathed the orange, blue and white colors of the West India Company, and the tricolor of the Holland father-land. Stuffed red cushions carried in to the hall from the church sit on the bench. Leather buckets are hung on the sides of the room where they are kept for putting out fires. Court Secretary Johannes Nevins is already at his desk turning the leaves of his book of minutes. On his right is a box containing the seal of New Amsterdam. To his left is the half-hour glass which is turned precisely at nine, in order that any tardy members be fined. One half hour late, six stivers,[3] one hour late, twelve stivers, and whoever does not show without a reasonable excuse, forty stivers.

Old Stadt Huys of New Amsterdam

Next to the secretary sits the Gerechts Boode, or court messenger. Pieter Schaffbauck, the jailer, is busy assigning seats to the many visitors, and looks after a prisoner he has brought in from the gaol. The last court officer is Matthew de Vos, the bailiff, who converses with some clients.  On a rack nearby are the law books, the court armory, the placards, ordinances, and octroys[4] of the Honorable, Great, and Mighty Lords of the States of Holland and West Friesland, Dutch Court Practice and Laws, the Practigke ende Hande Bouck in Crimineele Zoacken, by Dr. Van Brugghe, and other heavy leather-bound books.

Nine o’clock strikes. The court house bell rings. Silence is proclaimed by the court messenger and the judges enter at a side door in solemn procession. The court is opened by Dominie Megapolensis, who rises and offers a long and impressive prayer. Without further formality, the court proceeds to business.

Coat of Arms of Gov. Peter Stuyvesant

A large legal appearing document, superscripted “Worshipful, Right Beloved Schout,[5] Burgomasters,[6] and Schepens[7] of the City Amsterdam in New Netherland,” is handed in by the court messenger. It is opened by the schout, who reads the letter within. The letter is ordered to be declared from the puy after ringing the bell. Several cases of assault, petty thieving, slander, and tapping on the Lord ’s Day are then disposed of. The schout fiscal appears as prosecuting attorney and examines both prisoner and witnesses. At last the court comes to the case of Hendrick Jansen Clarbout.

The secretary reads the Herr Schout’s demand against the prisoner. The burgomasters and schepens vote for the conclusion of all sentences and turn the proceedings over to the jurors. The magistrates write their judgment for each man accused on slips of paper. The ballots are collected by the secretary who opens and reads them, finally coming to Henderick Clarbout. He reads: “That the offender, Hendrick Jansen Clarbout, shall be brought to the place where justice is usually executed, and with the rope around his neck, be whipped, branded, and banished for all his life out of the province of New Netherland.

With those concluding sentences, twelve great strokes signalling noon sound from the fort. The court is immediately declared dismissed. Dinner, with the burgomasters of New Amsterdam, is a sacred office not lightly interfered by business or pleasure. Punishments are still in the offing for the pleasure of the crowds who are assembled outside the city hall; However, they will have to wait for the after dinner entertainment.

RESOURCES

Dunlap, William.  History of the New Netherlands, Province of Neavyork, and State of New York… In Two Volumes.  Vol II.  1840:  Carter & Thorp, New York, NY.

Lamb, Martha J.  History of the City of New York, its Origin, Rise, and Progress, Vol. I.  1877: A.S. Barnes & Company, New York, NY.

Todd, Charles Burr.  The Story of the City of New York.  1890:  G. P. Putnam & Sons, New York, NY.


[1]  No doubt named for Peter Minuit, Governor General of New Netherlands, 1626-1631, who was a Walloon; French speaking people who lived in Belgium. Minuit had purchased Manhattan Island from the Native Americans.

[2]  Grosgrain is a plain-weave corded fabric. It is generally black, but can come in different colors.

[3]  A nickel coin used in the Netherlands and worth 1/20 of a guilder. The guilder is divided into 100 cents.

[4]  Charters, constitutions, or warrants.

[5]  Bailiff or Sheriff in Dutch. William Beekman was the Bailiff in 1663.

[6]  Mayor in Dutch. In 1663, the mayor of New Amsterdam was Martin Cregier.

[7]  Alderman in Dutch. Jacobus Hendricksen Kip, for whom Kip’s Bay was named (In 1776, the British Invaded Manhattan landing at Kip’s Bay) was the alderman in 1663.

Read the first installment of A Black Man’s Destiny (Shades of Liberty) here.

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