Teaching and doing digital history.

Reflections on Homicide in America

This week, we’re evaluating two vastly different views on homicide in America–one from the perspective of the cultural work done to explain it and an another from the broad statistics and trends associated with the crime.  These readings offer two approaches to how to balance very broad questions that attempt to identify patterns with the use of case studies as exemplary of those patterns.

Karen Halttunen, Murder Most Foul: The Killer in the American Gothic Imagination (1998)

Halttunen, in Murder Most Foul, studies the transformation of how early American culture explained murderers and their behavior. She explores this cultural transformation through an encyclopedic cataloging of execution sermons, confessions, memoirs, court proceedings, and published trial reports (broadsides, pamphlets, books, news columns, etc.) Halttunen argues that the narrative response to the crime of murder transformed from the colonial/Puritan period, wherein execution narratives focused on the spiritual condition of the murderer and explained behavior as inherent in the human spirit to the more secular, Gothic imagination of the nineteenth century. In this period, she shows, narratives focuses on the crime itself, the nature of violence, and the murderers motives and impulses. In so doing, these narratives focus on the sensational aspects of the crime–the horror and the mystery–which Halttunen argues served as a strategy for coming to terms with murder on a grand cultural scale. Over the course of American cultural experience, then, murder narratives have reconstructed the transgressor from common sinner [Chapter 1]  in the community (which could be any one of us) to moral monster and mental alien [Chapter 7].  It is through this process of “Othering” the murderer, she argues, that both creates and reinforces the constructions of criminal deviance and society’s institutionalization of those who are. “For the criminal’s moral otherness was deemed to require his or her full separation from normal society, within an institution which, though expressly designed for rehabilitating inmates and restoring them to society, in fact constructed impassable barriers between the normal and the abnormal.” (6)

Halttunen traces this change mostly chronologically and offers an almost encyclopedic array of examples for her themes. There are so many, in fact, that the reader can easily become lost in a sea of narratives and cases. For general points of fact about these particular cases, she cites the sensational literature itself as opposed to trial reports or other third-party documents (72). Patricia Cline Cohen showed in Helen Jewett that because murder narratives worked to shape popular opinion, historians must read them with a keen eye to their rhetorical purpose. Halttunen’s reliance on the very sources she is attempting to “read” is troubling. But how do you manage such a large volume of primary sources with the need to use a variety of examples to prove out broad patterns? In this respect, Gordon’s use of a few complete cases to exemplify her broad trends works quite well.

Halttunen deftly shows how tropes about gender both reflect cultural norms and drive narratives at trial. However, she does not extend her study of these narratives to follow their course of influence on the law itself. In comparison, Odem and Knupfer both gracefully articulate the symbiosis between the  narratives of juvenile deviance and the law. In Halttunen’s work, one wonders about the impact of Gothic narratives on jury instructions, their responses to evidence, and the resulting verdicts and sentences–events I consider part of the legal proceedings, but different from the antics of attorneys in the courtroom. If gender tropes drove narratives, did the narratives drive the court proceedings themselves? This is one downside to a broad study; the cases are too complex and varied to follow this many cases to closure. In my research, I’m going to need to draw some boundaries between the law, the theater of trial, sensational coverage, and the institutions that carried out sentences and verdicts.  If I can effectively evaluate how  these different legal proceedings intertwined with popular narratives in Virginia, I believe my work will have particular relevance and fill some broad gaps in the scholarship.


Randolph Roth, American Homicide (2009)

Roth, in American Homicide, attempts to expose broad patterns in the murder rate in the United States and explain why the United States is the most violent nation among affluent Western society. Roth relegates the usual suspects in explaining homicide trends–urban poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, support for law enforcement–to secondary status and instead argues that political reasons affect the murder rate. He argues four elements have a direct impact on the homicide rate:

  1. The belief that the government is stable and that its legal and judicial institutions are unbiased and will redress wrongs and protect life and property.
  2. The feeling of trust in the government and its officials who run it.
  3. Patriotism and empathy arising from racial, religious, or political solidarity.
  4. The belief that the social hierarchy is legitimate, that one’s position is or can be satisfactory and that one can command the respect of others without resorting to violence. (18)

Roth looks specifically at homicides resulting from assaults (intentional or unintentional, legally justified or indirect) among unrelated adults, perpetuated predominantly by men, of Anglo-American or European descent, African-Americans, and Native Americans. His analysis predominantly comes from a review of homicide data from specific regions of the United States and a handful of counties within those regions covering varying time spans. Roth marries data that he collected with data from other researchers and other projects. Some of these projects were conducted as early as 1914. With such a wide variety of individual projects and research, the reader cannot assume the methods in each project showed the same parity or discipline in coding.

Additionally, Roth is is drawing very broad conclusions about homicide in the United States through an analysis of not only disparate projects, but also using only random counties and date ranges. For example out of 95 counties and 40 independent cities in Virginia, Roth pulls data from 15. For his analysis of trends across the South, he is using data from some counties in Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia. Recent scholarship on the South has argued, quite convincingly, that the complexity of experiences there have rendered traditional broad narratives of such topics as slavery, Reconstruction, industrialization, and the civil rights movement almost useless in understanding the experiences on the ground. His use of only four states to elucidate trends across the South is problematic.

Roth’s study seems to focus on the broader side of data analysis and by sewing together disparate projects and data, the statistics that fill the book’s 600+ pages (and the murders he describes) become overwhelming.  Thankfully, Roth and his colleagues have made their data available through the Historical Violence Database. This allows for a great deal of transparency not only in understanding the omissions in the project, but will also allow other researchers to build upon what has already been collected.


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