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  • First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt: Homicide in Chicago, 1875–1920
  • David B. Wolcott
First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt: Homicide in Chicago, 1875–1920. By Jeffrey S. Adler (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. 367 pp. $35.00).

Jeffrey Adler's First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt represents one of the most important contributions to the history of homicide. It culminates a long-term research project that has generated at least seven articles published between 1997 and 2006 (including three in the Journal of Social History). This book weaves together the threads of earlier ideas into a compelling argument. The result is without a doubt the strongest monograph in the field to date.

First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt (the title quotes Lincoln Steffens) analyzes murder in Chicago between 1875 and 1920. During these often-studied years [End Page 459] of industrial growth, the Chicago Police Department uncharacteristically kept detailed records on homicides, not just those that led to arrests but every known killing. In this book, Adler analyzes a quantitative dataset of all 5,645 homicides reported between 1875 and 1920, linking the individual cases records to information in other official sources and humanizing the quantitative results by further linking the cases to narrative accounts in Chicago's turn-of-the-century newspapers.

Chicago became the murder capital of the United States during this period. Its homicide rate (the number of murders per 100,000 residents) "far exceeded that of other big cities" (p. 1), and increased dramatically between 1875 and 1920, a period when homicides declined elsewhere in North America and Western Europe. Moreover, Chicago murders changed in nature. Adler's argument, in its broadest terms, is that homicide "is a product of social relations, and it is shaped and influenced by social conditions" (p. 2). As social relations and conditions changed in Chicago, so did killing.

Adler distinguishes three main patterns in homicide. First, deaths from brawling represented the dominant form of murder between roughly 1875 and 1890. As Adler presents it, brawls between young toughs in and near saloons reflected the rhythms of life for working-class men. Unbalanced sex ratios, long hours of deskilled labor, and leisure institutions that encouraged drinking and gambling all promoted values where men could best achieve status in the eyes of their peers by behaving violently. Earlier scholarship has already argued that the bachelor subculture that characterized nineteenth-century cities generated violence, but here Adler offers an exemplary explanation of how this process occurred. Second, domestic violence dominated Chicago homicides between roughly 1890 and 1910. Killers became older and more economically stable, while victims became more likely to be wives and children. Third, after 1910, new forms of murder such as robbery homicide (almost unknown in the nineteenth century) became prevalent and drove the increasing homicide rate.

Adler builds his explanation for these changes on the major theoretical issues in the history of violence. In particular, the ideas of German sociologist Norbert Elias suggest that a gradual "civilizing process" shaped ordinary people's behavior from medieval times to the present. In fact, Adler seeks to test this theory in the laboratory of Chicago. The challenge Adler faces is that historians of homicide usually use the civilizing process to explain why murder decreased in a particular time and place, whereas in Chicago the homicide rate increased explosively. His solution is that the civilizing process was evident not so much in the quantity of homicide but in its changing nature. The civilizing process helps explain the shift from brawling to domestic violence as the predominant form of homicide. Adler writes that many working-class men "embraced middle-class ideals of masculinity and family life but lived at the margins of middle-class respectability" (p. 64); as some failed to live up to these ideals, they expressed their frustrations through violence. The civilizing process also helps to explain an increase in homicide by females. As women developed higher expectations of family and marriage, they less often tolerated mistreatment. Women characteristically killed abusive husbands or lovers, and often did so quite deliberately, planning their crimes and even ordering guns in advance. Further, Adler argues [End Page 460] that the civilizing process...


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