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Reviewed by:
  • Murder in New York City
  • Liesl Orenic
Murder in New York City. By Eric H. Monkkonen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. xi plus 238 pp. $29.95).

Eric Monkkonen’s study of murder in New York City over two centuries significantly expands and historicizes what we know about murder in American society. Examining census data, court records, newspaper accounts, city inspector and police reports, coroner’s records, and FBI data among other documents, Monkkonen challenges the “common wisdom” we hold about how and why people murder in the United States. While uncovering the brutality of New York’s past, the author keeps the present-day controversies of gun control, youth violence, police violence and punishment versus prevention fully in view. This book will be of interest to urban historians and quantitative historians as well as students and scholars of criminology and policy studies.

Monkonnen uses New York City because of its size, its long history and its consistent government. While the data are specific to one rather unique American city, larger scale assessments of murderous behavior in America more generally are made here. His evaluations of murder in New York City over two centuries include extensive discussion of how gender, age, ethnicity and race play roles in how and why men and women, but particularly men, murdered others or were murdered themselves. Monkkonen also puts New York, and therefore American, murders in the context of those in Europe, particularly England, pointing to important differences in the functioning of the state as well as the social acceptance of violent behavior among the citizenry.

The first chapter provides an overview of murder in New York City and the nation as a whole and points out how major events such as wars and peaks in immigration relate to murder rates. Using graphs, Monkonnen challenges notions of urban violence, poverty, overcrowding and rioting. Monkkonen argues that overcrowding, poverty and the anonymity of big cities in and of themselves are not actually timeless causes for urban murder, thus preparing the reader for more critical analysis of New York’s murderers and their victims in the following chapters.

The second chapter, titled “Lethal Weapons” discusses the variety of murder weapons available over the two centuries including knives, axes, rifles, guns, poison, fists and even a well-placed push. Monkonnen chronicles the availability of handguns and other concealed weapons including the sword cane. Using the infamous Hamilton-Burr duel, the trial of John C. Colt, brother of Samuel Colt, the famous revolver manufacturer and several less glamorous murder cases, Monkonnen evaluates weapon choice as one with class meaning. Fashionability as well as availability was part of weapon choice. For Monkkonen, cultural, technological and mass-consumption standards and fads set the conditions for weapon choice in murder. [End Page 185]

Chapters three and four address gender and age and their meaning in the context of murder. As one might expect, men greatly outnumbered women as both murderers and victims in New York City. Monkonnen points out how gender expectations played a role in escalating verbal exchanges that led to murder. While most murderers and their vicitms were in the prime of their lives, Monkonnen discovered a high proportion of youthful murderers. The decline of the apprenticeship system, alcohol and money in their pocket resulted in violence both on and off the job among boys as young as twelve.

Chapters five and six illuminate the circumstances around murders and discuss how ethnicity, politics and race were part of the deadly equation. These chapters provide rich anecdotal evidence for how dangerous an encounter between acquaintances could be in nineteenth-century New York for working-class men, whether white, immigrant or especially African American. Alcohol, youthful masculinity, politics, holidays, ethnicity and being in the wrong place at the wrong time could result in death.

Chapter seven puts murder in New York City in the context of Europe. Here, Monkkonen contributes to the contemporary dialogue on America’s extraordinary murder rate. First, he examines his New York data alongside findings on the high level of violence in medieval Europe. Prior to guns, Europeans lashed out violently against family, friend or foe. The growth of the state, cities and rationalization...

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pp. 185-186
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