America the Bloodiful

MURDER IN AMERICA: A History by Roger Lane

Professor Lane (Social Science/Haverford Coll.) begins his survey of murder in America from colonial times until the present in medieval England, hardly a peaceful age: The murder rate is estimated to have been about 20 per 100,000 people, which is double the current rate in the US.

Murder then was largely an act perpetrated by men, working in pairs, robbing others of low caste. Punishment was harsh and public. When the English began to emigrate to America in large numbers, they brought with them the punitive laws that had been in place for centuries in their homeland, but they also brought old traditions of violence.

While the murder rate was, at first, quite low in America’s scattered settlements, the country’s expansion was soon mirrored by a growing trend toward violence—and toward a new kind of violence. Murders began crossing class boundaries. In addition, the climate of violence was fueled by slaveowners, who could kill slaves with impunity for “corrective” purposes, and by the murder of Indians, which went largely unchecked.

Lane paints a fascinating and frightening picture of America as it lurched its way to the 20th century. He hypothesizes that as the nation began its recovery from the Civil War and leapt into industrialization, the quick pace of social change led inevitably to an increased murder rate. Its antiquated code of honor clashing with life after slavery, the South was a hotbed of homicide, with white-on-white killings reaching the astounding rate of 30 per 100,000 in some counties; lynchings were common and public.

Violence at present, Lane reports, is by contrast committed by individuals and often centers on the family. Lane also briefly discusses the dawn of the serial killer and explores why the suicide rate increases when the murder rate decreases. A vivid portrait of the long history of American homicide, thoroughly researched and of interest to both the academic and general reader.

MURDER IN AMERICA: A History by Roger Lane (Ohio State University Press, ISBN: 0-8142-0732-4)


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Ken Kurson

Ken Kurson is the founder of Sea of Reeds Media. He is the former editor in chief of the New York Observer and also founded Green Magazine and covered finance for Esquire magazine for almost 20 years. Ken is the author of several books, including the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Leadership.

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