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Statistics: Historical Trends in Western Society

Nineteenth-century Criminality

A number of studies relying heavily on court records have focused on crime in nineteenth-century cities and nations. Police data became available around the middle of the nineteenth century, and accordingly several investigators utilized this important source as well. Virtually every study reports a steady but substantial decline in crime during the nineteenth century. In France, for example, serious crime fell by nearly 90 percent between 1826 and 1954 (Lodhi and Tilly). In England and Wales indictable offenses declined by 79 percent between 1842 and 1891, and in London they declined by 63 percent between the 1820s and 1870s (Gatrell and Hadden). Much of the decline in London reflects a sharp drop in violent crime of about 68 percent between the 1830s and the 1860s. Larceny indictments also decreased in London, from about 220 per 100,000 in the 1830s and 1840s to about 70 per 100,000 in the 1850s, again by 68 percent. This decline, however, stems at least partially from a revision of the criminal code in 1855, which removed minor larcenies from the indictable category and permitted courts to deal with them summarily. Although this revision treated simple assaults similarly, nearly all the decline in assaults had occurred by 1855. Other property crimes, particularly burglary, fraud, and embezzlement, increased during this period or remained steady. In Stockholm the number of persons accused of theft fell from about 75 per 100,000 in the 1840s to about 22 in 1990, a 71 percent decline, and the number of persons sentenced for assault or breach of the peace dropped from about 400 per 100,000 in the 1840s to about 60 in the 1920s, an 85 percent decrease (Gurr, Grabosky, and Hula, pp. 256–257).

One of the few studies to reveal a different pattern focused on the Black Country, an area around Birmingham, England, that became a major steel-producing region in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As the Black Country industrialized, it experienced steady increases in criminality. Larceny committals to trial rose from 91 per 100,000 in 1835 to about 262 in 1860, an increase of 188 percent, and committals to trial for offenses against the person increased from about 6 per 100,000 to about 14, a 133 percent increase (Philips, p. 143). This study suggests that rural areas and small towns exhibited sharply higher levels of criminality as they industrialized, whereas other studies of more heavily urbanized areas such as London and Stockholm found declines in serious criminality as they and their surrounding communities developed.

Studies of criminality in nineteenth-century American cities tend to bear out these data. In Boston the peak of recorded violent crime during the nineteenth century occurred in 1824 and was not exceeded until the 1970s. In 1824, shortly after it was established, the Boston Police Court recorded 1,430.5 prosecutions per 100,000 for crimes against the person, a figure close to four times the comparable arrest figure of 387.8 per 100,000 recorded by the police in 1967. Fluctuations in crime corresponding to wars and economic cycles beset Boston over the years, but the low mark in serious violent crime was recorded during 1928–1930, when the rate was only 28 percent of the 1824 peak. Property crime during the nineteenth century rose slightly from 859.4 per 100,000 in 1824 to 878.2 per 100,000 in 1884–1885 (Ferdinand, 1980a), and similar declines in violent crime occurred during the nineteenth century in Buffalo, New York (Powell), and Salem, Massachusetts (Ferdinand, 1972). On the other hand, a study of crime in Rockford, Illinois, founded in the 1840s, revealed that violent crime rose sharply from 1882–1884 to 1905–1907 (Ferdinand, 1976). After declining in the first half of the twentieth century, it rose sharply again during the 1950s and 1960s. Thus, established cities like Boston, Salem, and Buffalo enjoyed declining violent crime rates as they modernized, whereas relatively new communities and rural areas suffered rising violent crime rates as they industrialized.

The distinctive crime pattern of old cities undergoing industrialization has been explored carefully in a series of historical studies of European communities (Zehr). Older cities, though already high in violent crime, initially experienced even greater increases in violence as they industrialized. Low levels of property crime but high levels of violence were characteristic of premodern villages and rural areas, but industrialization tended to transform them into metropolitan centers with lower levels of violent crime and higher levels of theft. Thus, four distinct patterns of crime can be discerned: High levels of violent crime in old, premodern cities; low levels of property crimes in old, premodern rural areas; and two transitional patterns in which (1) old cities are transformed into urban, industrial centers with rising levels of violence initially but with declining levels ultimately and (2) rural areas transformed into new industrial centers with little theft but growing violence—prompted in each case by industrialization (see Zehr, pp. 122–126).

In the United States, however, this paradigm does not seem to describe the development of Boston, Buffalo, Salem, and New Haven as old cities. Befitting premodern small towns, they all displayed declining violence, along with property crime that at least remained steady—a pattern that was accented by the early courts as they rejected minor violent crimes to minimize caseloads. Had they been old, industrializing cities in the European sense, they would have shown rising violent crime rates in the short-run at least. Rockford, Illinois, however, which began as an industrializing village in the 1840s, did show rising violence as it grew into a city (Ferdinand, 1967, 1978). "Old" American cities, which were actually preindustrial small towns, came into the industrial era already experiencing relatively high levels of violent crime. As they industrialized, they attracted poor Irish immigrants and democrats protesting autocratic governments in northwestern Europe. With industrialization and minimal immigration their rates of violence receded from already high levels, but new American cities that industrialized virtually from the beginning showed rising levels of violent crime as rural people from the hinterland streamed in. Clearly, "old" American towns came into the cycle at different points than the medieval cities in Europe, though the cycle may well be similar in Europe and the United States.

At the same time legal institutions also began to play a much broader role in controlling public behavior (Ferdinand, 1992, chaps. 2 and 5). As the criminal courts displaced the church in controlling minor crime, they often recorded increases in the number of criminal cases well beyond those handled by the church because at first they attempted to maintain much the same standard of behavior the church had imposed earlier. Some of this rise reflects the zealousness of the courts, but it also derives from social changes noted above. Since these changes (legal as well as social) do not act in close harmony with one another, the overall crime trends of a wide range of cities usually fail to show a consistent pattern (cf. Zehr).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawStatistics: Historical Trends in Western Society - Problems Of Measurement, Criminality In The Premodern Era, Estimates Of Crime In The Modern Era