First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt: Homicide in Chicago, 1875-1920

By Friedman, Lawrence M. | Law & Society Review, March 2007 | Go to article overview

First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt: Homicide in Chicago, 1875-1920


Friedman, Lawrence M., Law & Society Review


First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt: Homicide in Chicago, 1875-1920. By Jeffrey S. Adler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. Pp. 384. $35.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Lawrence M. Friedman, Stanford University

This is an excellent book, and a valuable addition to the literature on the history of homicide in the United States. It supplements, for Chicago, the work of Roger Lane (Philadelphia) and Eric Monkkonen (New York). Adler pieced his story together, using police records, newspapers, court records, coroners' inquests, and anything else he could find; the result is a rich, detailed, and illuminating picture of murders in Chicago during this period-5,645 cases of homicide, to be exact. This includes as close as one can get to all the homicides reported to the police (even, presumably, those that remain unsolved). This book is about these homicides. It is, naturally, a pretty depressing story: every murder was after all a tragic event, and usually a double tragedy, ending one life and ruining at least one more. There are no happy endings.

Murder has always been (fortunately) a fairly unusual crime, even in the most violent times and places. Think of how many more rapes, burglaries, and armed robberies must have occurred in Chicago during this 45-year period. Murder is, however, easier to count than other serious crimes. Nobody has any idea how many women were raped in 1890 in Chicago, for a variety of reasons. A dead body, on the other hand, is hard to ignore, and rarely goes unreported. Homicide figures are by far the most accurate figures there are for any crime. And what we call homicide has a fairly stable definition-as a rule. But not always. When, in the twentieth century, drivers of cars started killing people, police or coroners asked for indictments for manslaughter or murder in about 12 percent of these incidents, usually involving drunks or joyriders (p. 214). Deaths after illegal abortions are also homicide only if you define them that way; the number of these cases that were prosecuted grew greatly in the twentieth century (see p. 219). The "dark figure" for homicides is much smaller than the "dark figure" for other crimes; but there are considerable numbers of deaths that might be called accidental, or otherwise not reported as a "homicide." There is good reason to think-and Adler pretty much demonstrates as much - that these definitions did change a good deal over this time period.

Adler writes well and gracefully. He tells a story that is interesting in itself; but it also sheds considerable light on social history. What one might call fashions in homicide are socially determined, like everything else. In the late nineteenth century, for example, a great many homicides came out of drunken brawls in taverns. …

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