September 2006

Sarah Statz

nonfiction

First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt: Homicide in Chicago, 1875-1920 by Jeffrey S. Adler

It’s always a bit disconcerting when the first thought that pops into my mind after reading a true crime book is “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
 
Which is not to say that First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt is a true “true crime” narrative. It is decidedly more scholarly in its tone, use of statistics, and wealth of endnotes (140 of them by page 44, the end of the first chapter) than the more graphic true crime paperbacks that can be found in grocery store checkout lines. It is, however, similarly fascinating reading. This is especially impressive when you consider that it is a university press (Harvard, in this case) book, written by a professor of history and criminology.
 
As a university press book, it contains its fair share of dense (but well-written) sentences like “Perceptions of disorder fueled efforts to remake the Chicago working class, but efforts to remake the Chicago working class indirectly fueled lethal violence during the closing decades of the nineteenth century." But it also contains a number of fascinating statistics, such as “by 1880 Chicago has one licensed saloon for every 53 men­as well as scores of unlicensed saloons.” And the author doesn’t stop there; giving his book a Malcolm Gladwell Tipping Point feel, he examines in depth how the city’s complex economic and social networks might have contributed to different crime waves. Adler suggests numerous linkages between such factors as bachelorhood and crimes like “brawl homicides”; or the preponderance of alcoholism as caused by the dehumanizing aspects of working in factory-like slaughterhouses. Like Gladwell, Adler sometimes delivers his conclusions with a bit too much self-assurance, but he backs them up with such in-depth research that you almost forgive him for it.
 
Adler makes his book accessible with numerous character portraits and anecdotes. He also makes it readable by clearly ordering it and providing a comprehensive index; the opening chapter on brawl-driven homicides leads nicely into two chapters on domestic violence (husbands killing wives and vice versa), while further chapters consider crime within Chicago’s African American population, mafia and family honor killings, infanticide and deaths from botched abortions, and robbery-homicides undertaken by ever-younger killers as Chicago moved further into the twentieth century. Anyone who honestly believes that there were fewer or gentler crimes in the “good old days” might do well to read this book.   
 
This book may not be widely read (and, to be fair, at $35, it’s not exactly a book you’re going to buy on impulse) but it’s kind of nice to know it’s out there. For one thing, it paints a vivid, if not glowing, picture of Chicago at the turn of the last century (can’t you just picture a barroom brawl precipitated by the phrase “So you refuse to drink with me, do you?”). For another, it’s rather stunning to get a feel for how violence never really disappears, but instead continually shifts and adapts to its surroundings, whether those surroundings are the more rough-and-tumble nineteenth century or the more industrialized and efficient twentieth.
 
The only thing wrong with First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt is that it ends too soon; I wish Adler would write the sequel, examining Chicago homicides from 1920 to the present. If we had more than a century’s worth of evidence regarding Chicago homicide trends, I could show it to my mother and finally, maybe, convince her that people were not “just better” years ago.  That would totally be worth $35.
 
First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt: Homicide in Chicago, 1875-1920, by Jeffrey S. Adler
Harvard University Press
ISBN: 0674021495
384 pages