Murder, North and South: Violence in Early-Twentieth-Century Chicago and New Orleans

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OBSERVERS OF AMERICAN REGIONALISM HAVE LONG KNOWN THAT THE South has suffered from high, often astronomically high, levels of violence. Late-eighteenth-century travelers marveled at the eye-gouging and nose-biting rituals at the core of rough-and-tumble fighting in the region, and reports of dueling and lynching became stock elements of nineteenth-century guidebooks and travel accounts. (1) In his 1880 book, Homicide, North and South, the Charleston journalist Horace V. Redfield provided perhaps the first quantitative analysis of this phenomenon, noting, for example, that in 1878 South Carolina had "more homicides than in the eight States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Michigan, and Minnesota." (2) An 1896 observer concluded "that in no other part of this country, as long settled as the South has been, are murders so frequent or human life so cheap." (3) Early-twentieth-century statisticians such as Frederick L. Hoffman, sociologists such as H. C. Brearley, and psychologists such as John Dollard documented a similar trend in violent behavior. (4) Late-twentieth-century historians, including Sheldon Hackney, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Edward L. Ayers, and Gilles Vandal, also examined the high levels of violence in the region. (5) Recent studies by criminologists, sociologists, and social psychologists have established that this tradition of violence lives, for southerners continue to kill and to be killed at rates far above the national mean, though the regional gap narrowed over the course of the twentieth century. (6) During the final quarter of the twentieth century, the South's homicide rate was nearly double that of the Northeast, down from more than quadruple the northeastern rate during the early decades of the century. (7) In 2005, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report, the southern homicide rate remained 50 percent higher than the northeastern rate and nearly 20 percent higher than the national homicide rate. (8)

There is less certainty about the sources or causes of these persistent regional differences in violent behavior. Much of the historical literature on the topic focuses on either race relations or the southern ethic of honor as the great wellspring for southern bloodletting, though some scholars have also emphasized the role of legal institutions. (9) The scholarship on the history of southern violence has typically focused exclusively on the South and thus has stopped short of developing comparative perspectives. To be sure, scholars from a broad range of disciplines, writing about the past as well as the present, have demonstrated that rates of violence have been consistently higher in the South. But in the absence of comparative research, it is not clear whether the character, forms, and sparks for southern violence have been as distinctive as the level of violence.

At least in part, methodological challenges account for the dearth of studies that offer direct regional comparisons of violence. Even the relatively straightforward task of calculating homicide rates is difficult and tedious. Rarely is a historian fortunate enough to unearth comparable sets of records for places separated by hundreds of miles, having different institutional structures, and embracing distinctive legal sensibilities. As a consequence, gaps in extant sources and differences in legal standards between the regions make direct, quantitative comparisons difficult. Moreover, these methodological problems have discouraged scholars from disaggregating rates of lethal violence. In other words, few of the historians, criminologists, and sociologists who have analyzed southern violence have compared the nature or component parts of violence in different regions. Simply put, have northerners and southerners killed in different ways and for different reasons? Lynching represents one obvious form of region-based homicide, and while such violence is enormously revealing about race relations and broader regional culture, these murders constituted only a tiny proportion of homicides and fail to account for the huge and persistent gap in rates of lethal violence. …