Crime and Violence in Nineteenth Century Urban America
Roger D. Simon
Professor of History
The industrialization of the nineteenth century uprooted millions of people who migrated across oceans and continents to rapidly burgeoning cities in search of opportunity. Over the course of the century, in the United States, the population living in all urban places jumped from 6 percent to 40 percent of the total. Crime was hardly an invention of nineteenth century or of cities and criminal behavior occurred just as often in rural areas as in urban, but some crimes were more likely to occur in cities, notably embezzlement, forgery, fraud, and receiving stolen goods. Other urban crimes included public drunkenness, Sabbath breaking, prostitution, and disorderly conduct.
Although contemporary observers and novelists practically equated crime with cities, there is no reliable data on crime in the nineteenth century. Not until late in the century was there even an effort at systematic collection. Furthermore, the effectiveness of policing and prosecution varied widely in time and place. The observations offered here must be considered as only suggestive.
It does appear that assault and homicide rose sharply in cities from 1830s to early 1860s, then declined substantially through the rest of the century. The confluence of three interrelated factors accounts for the dramatic increase: the surge in European immigration; an increase in the percentage of young adult males; and the lack of any effective policing. The jump in European immigration after 1830 and especially in the 1840s introduced much greater heterogeneity in the population. An added factor was the darkness of the night: street lights were few and inadequate. The best data is for homicide, the crime most likely to be reported and to trigger an investigation in which the coroner convened an inquest jury to determine cause of death and sometimes name the killer.