What Do Historians Have to Say About Violence?
Jeffrey S. Adler and Thomas W. Gallant
Adler is Associate Professor of History and Criminology at the University of Florida. Gallant is Associate Professor of History at the University of Florida. Both are HFG grantees.
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On May 24, 1885, a Boston policeman, walking his beat near Cottage Farm, noticed a small object on the bank of the Charles River. Moving closer to investigate, he found the body of a newborn infant. This was not an unusual occurrence. Each year in Boston, as in other cities, policemen, sewer workers, and others municipal employees came across dozens of dead infants. Patrolman Hall followed a familiar procedure and carried the body to the city morgue, where a medical examiner would perform an autopsy in order to determine the cause of death. The following day a physician performed the autopsy on the body of the infant, estimated to have been three days old at the time of death. The medical examiner discovered that the body had been badly mutilated. "All of the sexual organs," he recorded in the official log book, had been "removed and retained. The abdomen had then been closed up and sewn with a brick inside to sink the body." "No sign of violence," he concluded. The cause of death, according to the medical examiner, was "probably still-birth." Thus, the case of the "white new-born child (sex unknown)" was closed, and local law enforcers saw no reason to investigate the death or to treat it as a homicide. (1)

In most respects, this case was not unusual. Although medical examiners seldom encountered infants whose genitalia had been "removed," policemen and physicians were accustomed to dealing with dead infants and to dismissing such obvious murders without further thought or investigation. But Bostonians during the 1880s were neither particularly violent nor especially insensitive toward aggression. Rather, they devoted increasing attention to domestic abuse, criminalizing forms of family violence that had long been accepted as "natural." Moreover, by the standards of nineteenth-century America, Boston had little serious violence. Compared to late twentieth-century America, Boston in 1885 was remarkably peaceful, enjoying a homicide rate roughly one-fourth that of the city's modern rate. (2) Yet, late-nineteenth-century Bostonians, loath as they were to engage in drunken brawls or street fights, simply did not consider the intentional murder of a newborn infant to be a form of violence, except in very unusual circumstances.

Infanticide in late nineteenth-century Boston challenges many widely held — modern — assumptions about the causes of violence. "Family values" flourished in Boston a century ago. Children lived at home much longer than today, and grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins typically lived close at hand and assumed crucial roles in child rearing, providing moral and financial support as well as playing central roles in all of the ritual and celebrations through the life cycle. Nor did late-nineteenth-century Bostonians forsake religion. Rather, these city dwellers structured their lives around religious practice and belief. In short, in the world in which the murder of a "white new-born child (sex unknown)" was discovered but ignored, strong religious belief, loving family ties, and cohesive neighborhood life were compatible with the commonplace and even sadistic murder of very young children.

Three other vignettes from the past also illustrate potential problems with our models for understanding violence and aggression. From our modern perspective, late nineteenth-century cities, such as Chicago, should have been awash in blood. Chicago's population exploded during this period, nearly tripling between 1870 and 1890, as the great metropolis of the Middle West became a major industrial center and the second largest city in the United States. Density in the city a century ago dramatically exceeded that of modern Chicago, and some behavioral researchers, often working with rodents, suggest a correlation between high density and aggression. The Illinois metropolis was also far more heterogeneous that it is today; 41 percent of the city's residents in 1890 were foreign born, and peasant farmers from Bohemia, Italy, Greece, Poland, Russia, and a score of other nations as well as African-American farmers from the Deep South poured into the city. Social, religious, and political tensions were more explicit and raw than today, and conflict relating to the labor movement was far more volatile than in modern America, producing some of the worst labor unrest in the nation's history, including the 1886 Haymarket bombing and the 1894 strike at the Pullman car works. In short, Chicago during the closing decades of the last century seemed to possess all of the ingredients for violence: the city was experiencing explosive, jarring growth; its residents were poor, densely packed in slums, and deeply divided along ethnic, religious, and racial lines; the local housing stock could not keep pace with demand; public health institutions were inadequate; and municipal government was rife with corruption. Yet, Chicago had little violence. The city's homicide rate was approximately one-fifth the current rate, and muggings and armed robberies were virtually unheard-of events. (3)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic ocean, similar processes of urban growth produced astronomically high levels of interpersonal violence. Until the 1870s, Athens, Greece, was a modestly sized, relatively affluent city, befitting its role as the capital of the new country. Though an ancient city, the modern incarnation of Athens dates only to 1832, when the Greeks obtained their independence from the Ottoman Empire. From the 1830s to the 1870s, Athens manifested exceedingly low levels of violence. As Greek countrymen began to flock to the city during the 1870s and 1880s, however, that changed dramatically. Rates of violence skyrocketed as poor young men migrated to the city and encountered wretched housing conditions, high levels of unemployment, and widespread poverty. By 1890, Athens had become the murder capital of the western world, as poor young men stabbed, shot, and bludgeoned each other to death with only the slightest provocation. But by 1920, the Athenian homicide rate had fallen to one of the lowest levels among the world's cities, and Athens has remained one of the least violent cities to this day. (4) Thus, in late nineteenth-century Chicago, high density, heterogeneity, and poverty did not produce high levels of violence, whereas in Athens, where the population was culturally, ethnically, and religiously homogeneous, rates of violence soared. In short, historical evidence demonstrates that there is no inevitable or natural correlation between, for example, high density or even poverty and violence.

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