Before and after Crime: Life-Course Analyses of Young Offenders Arrested in Nineteenth-Century Northern Sweden

By Vikstrom, Lotta | Journal of Social History, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Before and after Crime: Life-Course Analyses of Young Offenders Arrested in Nineteenth-Century Northern Sweden


Vikstrom, Lotta, Journal of Social History


Introduction

Crime is of interest to scholars in a variety of disciplines because much can be learned about society and the individuals who are part of it through analysis of criminality. However, due to incomplete sources, historical research has yielded few investigations that explore offenders' experience of life and crime, in particular upon release. (1) There is more knowledge about the lives and crimes of recidivists or those charged for felony as there are more data available on them, but these criminals often led unfortunate lives and do not represent the majority of offenders. This has narrowed historians' view of them. Most criminals involved in minor misconduct and similar offences are either sparsely documented or fail to attract scholars looking for dramatic court cases to uncover societal norms and control mechanisms. As court books and criminal records fail to indicate how lawbreakers in general experienced their life and crime or how other people viewed them, this article addresses two types of sources. It is unique in that it provides highly unusual access to longitudinal and individual data, making it possible to re-construct and analyze offenders' life courses before and after crime.

Combining prison records with Sweden's detailed parish registers brings individual lawbreakers to the fore. One of these was Selma Wallmark, daughter of an unskilled laborer, herself a maidservant (piga) born in 1862 and raised in a parish near the town of Sundsvall. (2) As both her parents were dead, young Selma and her older brother likely had to use all their skills and knowledge to earn a living. One day in May 1879, Selma visited a shoe store in Sundsvall pretending she was the servant of a teacher in the town. She apparently played her role well, as she got a pair of shoes on the teacher's credit, claiming they were for his wife. Selma was eventually caught and sent to jail. The next summer her brother, Jonas Alfred, was captured at the age of 21 for vagrancy. (3)

The parentless Wallmark siblings demonstrate the fragility of the family background they originated from. Criminologists emphasize the link between criminal behavior and individual background, and have increasingly applied life-course perspectives in their analyses. To assess the dynamic and longitudinal dimensions of their studies, they call them developmental. (4) These new perspectives have served as inspiration for this life-course approach, as has an older elaborative article of Harvey J. Graff. (5) Encouraged by the advancement of digitized population data, he discussed the need to form a 'collective portrait' of offenders based on their socio-demographic characteristics and backgrounds. Knowing these details helps to reveal reasons for crime, Graff argued, because control mechanisms and structural changes fail to entirely explain why some people appear in the criminal statistics. Governed by his advice, Helen Boritch confronted the stereotyped image of the 'criminal class' by combining prison records with censuses and using statistical analyses. (6) Such approaches are fruitful but little challenged in a systematic way. The retrospective facet of the portrait of past offenders is therefore incomplete.

What happened to offenders upon release remains an even greater issue. According to some labeling themes that are further discussed below, there is reason to believe that they were faced with social exclusion that jeopardized their lives. This happens because being arrested manifests a negative label, implying a stigma that negatively affects people's attitudes toward those labeled. At only 22 years old, Selma Wallmark died of pneumonia in 1884. Jonas Alfred survived his sister, took up employment as a laborer and married in 1885. Their lives thus developed in different directions. Whereas the untimely death of Selma Wallmark possibly epitomizes some of the harmful effects of incarceration that labeling theorists propose, neither this nor a difficult start in life marked a turning point in her brother's pathway. …

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