American Terror

Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice

by Charles E. Silberman
Random House, 540 pp., $15.00

Violent crime is always with us, but today more obtrusively and frighteningly than in earlier remembered times. Or at least so it seems. But where can we look to verify this? Reconstructing the crime and fear of the past is a delicate task. Until the late nineteenth century we have to rely on indirect or impressionistic sources, fragmentary public records, literature and letters. They often paint a lurid picture. Henry Fielding, the London Bow Street magistrate, wrote in 1751:

The innocent are put in terror, affronted and alarmed with threats and execrations, endangered with loaded pistols, beat with bludgeons and hacked with cutlasses, of which loss of health, of limbs, and often of life, is the consequence, and all this without any respect to age or dignity or sex.

Some twenty years later another Londoner, Jonas Hanway, complained:

I build an elegant villa, ten or twenty miles from the capital; I am obliged to provide an armed force to convey me thither, lest I should be attacked on the road with fire and ball.

In the United States, as Charles E. Silberman tells us, Lincoln warned in 1838 that internal violence was the worst domestic problem. In 1872 visitors to New York were cautioned not to go into Central Park after sundown and one late-nineteenth-century observer wrote that “municipal law is a failure…we must soon fall back on the law of self-preservation.” Is it then really a case of plus ça change and do our own times just always seem the worst of times? Criminal statistics of a sort have been gathered since the mid or late nineteenth century but the methods by which they were compiled and their reliability have been the subject of withering attack. Standards of reporting were frequently changed depending on whether the criminal justice administration of the moment was more interested in promoting fear of a crime wave or convincing the voters of its vigilance and efficiency. With the shift of an index, the stroke of a pen, or the punch of a key the incidence of serious crime could be reassuringly shrunk or disturbingly inflated. Only political promises called for more jaundiced scrutiny than crime statistics.

Standardized definitions and improved monitoring have in recent years led to statistics that hold more promise of reliability, though the “dark figure” of unreported crimes, which may be large, must always be guessed at. Scholarly combing of sources has also contributed to a broad view of the ebb and flow of violent crime over the last two centuries. In his important book, Crime and Industrial Society in the Nineteenth Century, J.J. Tobias showed that in England there was a marked decline in violent crime in the second half of the nineteenth century. The worst upheavals and urban strains of the Industrial Revolution were easing; prosperity increased and the numbers of deracinated, unemployed urban youth dropped. This improving trend continued into this century until property crimes increased markedly in the 1930s and subsequently, in the last …

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Letters

Criminal Violence: An Exchange March 8, 1979