The Roots of Justice: Crime and Punishment in Alameda County, California, 1870-1910

By Lawrence M. Friedman; Robert V. Percival | Go to book overview

Chapter 1
An Introductory Word

This is a study of crime and punishment. In every organized community, there is crime and there is punishment. But each community defines crime for itself; each time and place has its own way of chasing criminals and curbing crime. Our study takes one county (Alameda), in one state ( California), in a single country (the United States), at one specific period ( 1870-1910). This is, in other words, a case study. It is a slice of life -- a single specimen, dissected and put under the microscope.

Actually, what we have here is even less than a slice of life; it is the merest sliver. Our study deals with what is, after all, one remote corner of civilization, a dot of land in the ocean of history. It is a story where the whole, we hope, is greater than the parts. This is not a study of great men and women, or of great events, or great institutions, or famous places. Hundreds of people parade across these pages, but none is a household word. History does not trumpet the names of A. L. Frick, or Clara Fallmer, or George McClellan, or Christopher Ruess, or Walter Teale. Some of these people, to be sure, were prominent in their day. We will meet a few successful judges or lawyers, some people of substance, some pillars of the church. We will also meet a few notorious villains or notorious victims. But, overwhelmingly, our cast of characters is remarkable only for its utter obscurity -- men and women dredged up from the bottom of society, people tangled in the nets of the law; people who stole a purse; or smashed somebody's skull, or tried to; or broke into a store; or picked pockets; or seduced the neighbor's girl; or staggered about drunk in public; or forged a check; or gambled and whored. Most were, on the whole, abject failures: people who chronically mismanaged their lives. Others were innocent bystanders, falsely accused. Still others were warped, antisocial creatures, who preyed on their fellowmen for a living. Still others fell into the hands of the law because they were weak and misguided. Most were, in short, society's losers.

Often, their stories are interesting in themselves. But there reasons beyond this for disturbing their dust. Crime, its management and punishment, are central tasks in any social order, and therefore in

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