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La Crosse, Wisconsin, 1862-1882: Crime, the Police Court, the Newspapers

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Layton, Gerald A.
Rolnick, Stanley R.
MS, Teaching
La Crosse (Wis.). Police Dept. -- History; Justice, Administration of -- Wisconsin -- La Crosse -- History
In its early years, La Crosse, Wisconsin, was a typical frontier river town. Its tough and troublesome citizenry filled the police records with tales of crime and violence. This paper discusses the activities of the police court, the men who served as police justice, and the newspapers' attempts to start a campaign to purge the city of its evil-doers. The morals of La Crosse declined with the morals of the woods, as the lumberjacks and rivermen came to the city and spent their money on whisky and women. La Crosse had plenty of both to offer. As early as 1857, the residents of the city organized a vigilance committee to deal with its less than honorable segment of society. By 1862, the demand for law and order had resulted in the establishment of a police court whose task was to administer justice to La Crosse's numerous lawbreakers. The police court had the criminal jurisdiction of a justice of the peace within the limits of the city and exclusive jurisdiction of offenses against the ordinances of the city of La Crosse. From 1862 to 1882, four men served as police justices for the city. August Steinlein served as acting justice when the elected police justice could not perform his duties. These men handled over 8,000 cases ranging from the simplest misdemeanor to the heinous crime of murder. The Justice of the Police Court could fine and/or imprison persons guilty of breaking the law or refer a criminal to a higher court if the offense warranted such legal action. Without the police court and the men who served as police justices, La Crosse's transition from a frontier river town to an orderly, law-abiding community by 1885 may not have been possible.
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