April 03, 2007

Murders in early 20th Century Chicago

1920s Chicago will always be known as the city of the speak easy and Al Capone, the city immortalised by Howard Hughes in Scarface in 1930 for its violence and its gun culture. The city of the gangsters and corrupt mayors rigging elections and getting votes in from dead voters. The city of Jimmy Cagney and of Paul Muni. Of course that is a fictional image- but much of it is true- Chicago was a particularly violent place in the early 20th Century and amongst the reasons for the violence of the city were the attitudes within the criminal justice system to murder.

Professor Jeffrey S. Adler published a fascinating article in the Fall 2006 issue of the Journal of Social History. Professor Adler looked into the conviction rates of murderers in Chicago in the early twentieth century- what he found was that convictions were relatively infrequent. Partly this was due to prosecutorial incompetence- many of the coroners say were elected political appointees and lacked expertise, many of the prosecuting lawyers were inexperienced and untrained. Partly it was due to the fact that juries were often packed politically or were filled with 'Fridays', men who turned up to get the penny paid for Jury Service. But partly it came down to what is the most interesting conclusion of his research- the attitude of juries and of ordinary citizens of Chicago to murder.

From 1827 onwards, in the state of Illinois, jurors were the judges not merely of fact but of law as well. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, juries routinely disregarded Judges and Lawyers in coming to their decisions. It seemed to some observers, that to quote Charles S. Deenan, that when faced with a murderer, the jury 'is inclined to say when a man is tried for murder: `It is his first offense. We might as well let him go.' Many jurors beleived that if a man was insulted by another man he had just cause to kill the other man- self defence in Chicago was expanded to include insults to honour as well as to person. Furthermore jurors often accepted arguments that no man could be guilty of murder if the victim had had an affair with, insulted or assaulted his wife or sister or mother. Jurors often found that no murder had been committed if a fight was fair or if the victims were ethnic. Equally despite the law minimising the importance of intent, jurors often would not convict anyone where there was a doubt that they intended to kill someone- so a jury would release someone who placed a spittoon on the head of a barman and attempted to shoot it off, missed and killed the barman. Another jury released a man who had driven his car along the pavement and killed several pedestrians. As in both cases there was doubt not over the crime but over the intent to kill, the jury decided that the men were innocent.

Jurors though did convict more on certain crimes that violated their norms. So for example if a black was killed, the chances of a conviction were low, but a black murdering a white would find that his chances of acquittal were also low. Intriguingly as well, juries were particularly aggressive against wife murderers- 7% of murders in Chicago between 1875 and 1920 were murders of wives by husbands but 14% of executions involved those murderers. Juries objected to uxoricide largely because they considered it premeditated, it violated ideas of fairness (women being beneath the notice in some way of men) and it was cowardly. Unfair, cowardly and premeditated killings were hated by jurors and consequently anyone who committed one would be in a bad position as far as conviction went.

Professor Adler has undoubtedly done some excellent work and accumulated some brilliant data- he agrees that Chicago was unique because of the status of the jury trial under the Illinois statute however he considers it typical insofar as the attitudes of juries in Chicago were pretty much universal across the nation. Professor Adler's evidence is intriguing- it demonstrates how even the concept of murder is culturally constructed and changes over time. For a Chicago man of 1920 shooting someone in a bar after a quarrel was barely murder: for a modern audience it might seem more suspicious. This is a fascinating paper and more studies like this need to be done- the evidence on uxoricide is particularly interesting, many of the same jurors would have been happy with wife beating but unhappy with uxoricide, an interesting counterposition.

Much more may be gleaned from this research than this brief survey can account for, but I reccomend it to people as an interesting piece which makes one rethink exactly what murder is and how historically contingent our own thoughts about it are.


Anonymous said...

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Gracchi said...

Anonymous thank you for coming by if you feel I can help I would love to but living in the UK and with a mostly UK readership I don't know what I can do- I am not sure what more I can say than that I empathise with your loss (though to be honest I cannot imagine what it feels like- and so my empathy seems a bit empty, but my best wishes go with you)- I presume your case is this one reported in Pennsylvania for 2006, if I am wrong I apologise but I couldn't find Miriam's surname in your website. But good luck and best wishes- I don't know whether a post here would or could help or how it could but I hope you find her.