The homicide record: ‘A truly terrible state of lawlessness’

The Spectator

In December 1915, The Spectator, a weekly that covered the nation’s insurance industry, looked at the large increase in mortality caused by homicide in the previous decade. It focused on 30 leading cities. Many of its findings are familiar, including a condemnation of “the unrestrained sale of firearms.”

The largest numbers of homicides were recorded in places with the biggest populations, including Chicago and New York City’s then-biggest boroughs (Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn).

But the highest homicide rates were found in cities in the South, led by Memphis, Tenn., which recorded a rate of 63.7 homicides per 100,000 people in 1904-1913 and 72.2 in 1914. Those numbers, wrote statistician Frederick L. Hoffman, “reflect a truly terrible state of lawlessness and indifference to human life.” A distant second was Charleston, S.C., at 32.7 in 1904-1913 and 33.3 in 1914, followed by Savannah, Ga.; Atlanta; New Orleans; Nashville, Tenn.; and Louisville, Ky.

St. Louis  —  the nation’s fourth-largest city until 1920, when it was overtaken by Detroit and Cleveland — had the eighth-highest homicide rate, according to the 1915 ranking. 

St. Louis recorded a total of 867 murders from 1904-1913, a rate of 12.9 per 100,000 population. Its rate climbed to 16 with 117 murders recorded in 1914. (By comparison, St. Louis recorded 159 homicides in 2014, equivalent to a rate of nearly 50 based on its 2010 population — the highest big-city rate in 2014. Both the number of murders and the rate have continued to climb in 2015. The city’s rate has risen, in large part, because its population has plummeted and it’s been unable to grow geographically.)

Here are some excerpts from “The Homicide Record of American Cities for 1914,” published on Dec. 23, 1915:

“There is at present a lamentable indifference to the moral and social aspects of the homicide problem in America … . The rate remains alarmingly high and suggestive of a thoroughly unsatisfactory state of affairs regarding the security of the person against deeds of violence in the worst possible form.”

“The highest murder rate for 1914 was again reported for the city of Memphis. … No thorough analysis has been made of the facts by the city of Memphis, regardless of the lamentable truth that there are about two homicides in that city every week throughout the year. That a large proportion of these homicides are persons of color has no bearing upon the question under consideration. The statistics reflect a truly terrible state of lawlessness and indifference to human life, the responsibility for which rests primarily upon the community and the State of Tennessee.”

“Indifference to murder in any form must ultimately injuriously affect the entire population. Murder is murder, whether the life destroyed is that of a white person or  a person of color, or whether of a native born or a foreigner.

“The table brings out the fact that the predominating method in American murder cases is by firearms. … Aside from the question of punishment the problem of murder prevention demands more qualified consideration. The means of murder are entirely too convenient in many cases. The pistol-carrying habit in many sections of the country is an evil of the first order of importance.

“In one of the annual reports of the Attorney-General of South Carolina occurs the statement, ‘… I am sure each one of you can assign certainly as one cause the deplorable custom of carrying pistols, a custom carried to such an extent that our State may be regarded as an armed camp in time of peace. Our young men and boys, black and white, rich and poor, seem to think that their outfit is not complete without a pistol; some of our older men show a bad example, and I regret to say some public officials have on occasions been found armed in violation of law. Pistols are carried, not as a protection at night on some lonely road, or in some remote part of the country during the day or in some dangerous neighborhood, but at public meetings, on the streets, at social gatherings, even at dances, even at daily labor, and following the plough, and I add also even at church and prayer-meeting.” Such a condition does not reflect a truly civilized state … .

(Originally published Nov. 28, 2015)

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