Murder in New York City. (Reviews)

By Orenic, Liesl | Journal of Social History, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Murder in New York City. (Reviews)


Orenic, Liesl, Journal of Social History


Murder in New York City. By Eric H. Monkkonen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. xi plus 238 pp. $29.95).

Eric Monkkonen's study of murder in New York City over two centuries significantly expands and historicizes what we know about murder in American society. Examining census data, court records, newspaper accounts, city inspector and police reports, coroner's records, and FBI data among other documents, Monkkonen challenges the "common wisdom" we hold about how and why people murder in the United States. While uncovering the brutality of New York's past, the author keeps the present-day controversies of gun control, youth violence, police violence and punishment versus prevention fully in view. This book will be of interest to urban historians and quantitative historians as well as students and scholars of criminology and policy studies.

Monkonnen uses New York City because of its size, its long history and its consistent government. While the data are specific to one rather unique American city, larger scale assessments of murderous behavior in America more generally are made here. His evaluations of murder in New York City over two centuries include extensive discussion of how gender, age, ethnicity and race play roles in how and why men and women, but particularly men, murdered others or were murdered themselves. Monkkonen also puts New York, and therefore American, murders in the context of those in Europe, particularly England, pointing to important differences in the functioning of the state as well as the social acceptance of violent behavior among the citizenry.

The first chapter provides an overview of murder in New York City and the nation as a whole and points out how major events such as wars and peaks in immigration relate to murder rates. Using graphs, Monkonnen challenges notions of urban violence, poverty, overcrowding and rioting. Monkkonen argues that overcrowding, poverty and the anonymity of big cities in and of themselves are not actually timeless causes for urban murder, thus preparing the reader for more critical analysis of New York's murderers and their victims in the following chapters.

The second chapter, titled "Lethal Weapons" discusses the variety of murder weapons available over the two centuries including knives, axes, rifles, guns, poison, fists and even a well-placed push. Monkonnen chronicles the availability of handguns and other concealed weapons including the sword cane. Using the infamous Hamilton-Burr duel, the trial of John C. Colt, brother of Samuel Colt, the famous revolver manufacturer and several less glamorous murder cases, Monkonnen evaluates weapon choice as one with class meaning. Fashionability as well as availability was part of weapon choice. For Monkkonen, cultural, technological and mass-consumption standards and fads set the conditions for weapon choice in murder. …

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