Documenting American Violence: A Sourcebook

Documenting American Violence: A Sourcebook

Documenting American Violence: A Sourcebook

Documenting American Violence: A Sourcebook


Violence forms a constant backdrop to American history, from the revolutionary overthrow of British rule, to the struggle for civil rights, to the present-day debates over the death penalty. It has served to challenge authority, defend privilege, advance causes, and throttle hopes.
In the first anthology of its kind to appear in over thirty years,Documenting American Violencebrings together excerpts from a wide range of sources about incidents of violence in the United States. Each document is set into context, allowing readers to see the event through the viewpoint of contemporary participants and witnesses and to understand how these deeds have been excused, condemned, or vilified by society. Organized topically, this volume looks at such diverse topics as famous crimes, vigilantism, industrial violence, domestic abuse, and state-sanctioned violence. Among the events these primary sources describe are:
--Benjamin Franklin's account of the Conestoga massacre, when an entire village of American Indians was killed by the Paxton Boys, a group of frontier settlers
--militant abolitionist John Brown's attack on Harper's Ferry
--Ida B. Wells' condemnation of lynchings in the South
--the massacre of General Custer's 7th Cavalry at Little Bighorn, as witnessed by Cheyenne war chief Two Moon
--Nat Turner's confession about the slave revolt he led in Southampton County, Virginia
--Oliver Wendell Holmes' diaries and letters as a young infantry officer in the Civil War
--a police officer's account of the Haymarket Trials
--Harry Thaw's murder of the Gilded Age's most prominent architect, Stanford White, through his own published version of the events
--the post-trial, public confessions of Ray Bryant and J. W. Milam for the murder of Emmett Till
--the Los Angeles Police Department's investigation into the causes of the 1992 riot
Taken as a whole, this anthology opens a new window on American history, revealing how violence has shaped America's past in every era.


Violence is incoherent. It can seem, and often is, random, chaotic, anarchic. It takes many forms: a duel, a brawl, a shooting, a war, a feud, a riot. Some Americans consider abortion a form of violence, while others feel that preventing a desired abortion is violence. Has an industrial employee injured by unsafe machinery experienced violence? What about the victims of a drunken driver? When does intimidation become violence? Do images of violence provoke bloodshed, becoming themselves a form of violence? The definition itself remains elusive, describing behavior that is often ephemeral.

This book understands violence as being the physical injury of other human beings. Our focus is on violence as a domestic tradition, not as an instrument of foreign policy. We seek to organize otherwise disjointed data while remaining, we hope, faithful to the often chaotic nature of American violence. Many brilliant scholars have looked carefully at the trend lines of American homicide and rioting. This book has a different aim. It looks at violent events that have been sensationalized into metaphors, violent acts made to stand for some larger America has long had a "wound culture," a pornography of pain that

1. There are those who define violence expansively so as to include crimes against property,
psychological damage, and even the use of hostile language.

2. Roger Lane, Murder in America: A History (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1997); Eric
H. Monkkonen, Murder in New York City (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001);
Donald L. Horowitz, The Deadly Ethnic Riot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

3. Jeffory A. Clymer, America's Culture of Terrorism: Violence, Capitalism, and the Written Word
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Murray Edelman, Construing the Po
litical Spectacle
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Joseba Zulaika and William A.
Douglass, Terror and Taboo: The Follies, Fables, and Faces of Terrorism (New York: Routledge,

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