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.
Young adult males were heavily over-represented among the immigrant arrivals, as well as among the native-born drifting to cities and towns in search of opportunities. This was the segment of the population most prone to crime and violence. Notably, however, most identifiable murders were in their twenties and thirties, not their teens. Young adult men, especially unattached lodgers and boarders, but even those living with their families, spent their leisure time in saloons, which served as social clubs where they engaged in a steady round of drinking and carousing to display their masculine bravado. Men won status for their physical prowess and lost face among their peers if they shrank from an insult. When drunk they were all too ready to turn a meaningless gesture or remark into an insult and to precipitate a brawl, which could quickly turn lethal. Victims and assailants came from the same social circumstances and often knew one another. They usually had jobs. Violence and homicide spiked on the Fourth of July, Christmas, and New Years when men had off work and drunken revels were the norm.
The impetuous nature of most homicides is clear from the circumstances and weapons of choice. Victims were most frequently killed at close range and with whatever came to hand: sticks, clubs, axes, chairs, knives, or razors. Or they were literally beaten to death with fists and boots. Pistols were rare before the 1860s; they were expensive, heavy, and required premeditation. Further, they were not very accurate. Later in the century pistols became less expensive and smaller, but in those decades the homicide rate was falling.
Society seemed to tolerate or at least accept this high level of mayhem. Conviction for homicide was actually rare. Coroners' juries frequently gave the benefit of the doubt to the killers. "Accidental death" was a commonplace ruling, perhaps an acknowledgment that men too often acted impulsively when drunk. It would seem that public opinion was also turning away from capital punishment and the number of identifiable killers actually executed was quite small.
Between the1830s and the 1860s major cities also witnessed recurrent riots. In 1834 Boston, New York and Philadelphia all experienced major riots, as did Boston in 1837, Philadelphia in 1844, New York in 1849, 1857, 1863 and 1871. Volunteer fire companies, which functioned much like working class fraternities, and criminal gangs often engaged in street brawls, for turf protection or simply the fun of it. There were also riots associated with elections, as one party might engage a gang to discourage voting by opposition supporters. But the major riots had a purpose, although those too could erupt spontaneously. The targets were usually Irish Catholic immigrants or African American and the goal was to drive one or another group away from working class neighborhoods and nearby jobs. Abolitionists, viewed as dangerous subverters of the republic and sympathetic to blacks, were also popular targets. Attacks on blacks, often by Irish immigrants, were especially vicious.
It was the brawling and rioting that finally led cities to establish police departments: Boston, in 1837; New York in 1845, and Philadelphia, 1854. Smaller cities soon followed. Americans' fear of a standing army and of any interference with their civil liberties restricted police authority at first, but by the 1860s badges, uniforms, and district station houses connected by telegraph were commonplace. Police started carrying pistols, although they were not authorized to do so. Professional police departments were undoubtedly a factor in the decline of homicide, riot, and probably violent assault as well after mid-century. There was a continuing tension between the working class and the police over enforcement of laws dealing with alcohol, particularly Sunday sales, and gambling. Irregular enforcement opened the door to police corruption.
After the Civil War, the society's tolerance for crime seemed to decline. There was better policing and more prosecution and perhaps a begrudging acceptance of newcomers, notably Irish Catholics. These factors partly explain the decline in crime rates.