"On the Border of Snakeland": Evolutionary Psychology and Plebeian Violence in Industrial Chicago, 1875-1920

By Adler, Jeffrey S. | Journal of Social History, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview
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"On the Border of Snakeland": Evolutionary Psychology and Plebeian Violence in Industrial Chicago, 1875-1920


Adler, Jeffrey S., Journal of Social History


Late in the evening of July 6,1891 Pete Monrad murdered Frank Gilroy and badly wounded Edward Stuart during a brawl in a Chicago saloon. The fight possessed many of the characteristic features of lethal violence in the late nineteenth-century city; the participants were poor, single, knew one another, fought in a bar after a night of drinking, and their dispute was bound up with the rituals and conventions of working-class life. Sailors recently returned from barge work on the lake, the men, along with three dozen other sailors, "were drinking more or less--most of them more," when Monrad quarreled with Gilroy "as to who was responsible for the last round of drinks." (1) Admitting to have been "drunk for about a week," Monrad was, according to witnesses, "on the border of snakeland." (2) Known as "the Cowboy" even though "he had never been West," Gilroy attempted to resolve the matter by offering a drink to Monrad, a Norwegian immigrant known as "Dutch Pete." His overture rebuffed, Gilroy, at least according to Monrad, "pulled a knife and swore he would make me drink." Dutch Pete then grabbed a gun and shot both "the Cowboy" and Edward Stuart, the shooter's "best friend." Horrified by the events, Monrad explained to the police that "I meant to shoot 'the cowboy,' but not Stuart." (3)

In the working-class saloons that lined the roughest sections of late nineteenth-century Chicago, refusing a man's treat violated rules of plebeian sociability and thus frequently triggered brawls. For example, moments before Albert Burke plunged a knife into the neck, then the eye, and then the chest of James Rathgeber, the victim had confronted Burke and bellowed "so you refuse to drink with me, do you." (4) A local reporter quipped that "Rathgeber imagined the refusal had been meant as a personal slight and took umbrage." (5) Disputes over particular chairs in bars also sparked lethal brawls, as did disagreements over the respective singing abilities of brewers and butchers, over the skills of favorite boxers, and over the qualities of beloved pets. (6) Patrick Furlong killed his coworker and "good friend" Edward Leach after a spirited debate about whether England "could whip Russia." "I suppose we both got a little angry," Furlong conceded. (7)

The conventional wisdom among historians holds that these often-lethal disputes over trivial issues reflected contests over status and masculinity in the rough-and-tumble world of working-class society. Drunken, aggressive, and violent behavior represented an inversion of the restrained, polite conventions of middle-class society, JUST as toasting and drinking rituals affirmed the bonds that linked workers to one another and united them in opposition to bosses and moral reformers. (8) In short, the rules of working-class culture compelled Dutch Pete to attack "the Cowboy" because the former rejected the treat of the latter. As mechanization and demographic change transformed the workplace and undermined workers' status, autonomy, and sense of manliness, aggressive and impulsive responses to violations of plebeian "etiquette" assumed increasing cultural importance, contributing enormously to urban violence.

Evolutionary psychologists, however, offer a different explanation for the homicidal behavior of Albert Burke, Patrick Furlong, and the Norwegian sailor known as Dutch Pete. Such violence, these scholars suggest, may be rooted in adaptive mechanisms honed through thousands of years of evolutionary change. (9) The adaptive processes that enabled individuals to survive in "ancestral environments" remain a part of the psychological and physiological makeup of human beings, according to this argument. (10) In the hunting-and-gathering societies of mankind's distant past, aggression often insured survival, both for the individual and for the kin group; young men relied on violence to attract mates, to protect territories, and to safeguard kin. The process of natural selection, therefore, favored aggression, and "the human male psyche," Martin Daly and Margo Wilson explain, "has evolved to be more risk-taking in competitive situations.

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