Violence In America


European immigrants who came without legal or financial fetters were far more likely to arrive in family groups, but even among them there was a surplus of prime-age male workers. Only postfamine Ireland, where economic and marital prospects for young rural women were particularly bleak, furnished more female than male immigrants, and then by just a small margin. Male majorities were the norm, at least prior to the immigration restriction laws of the 1920s.

Our criminal history has thus been played out with a bad hand of cards dealt from a stacked demographic deck. As an immigrant society America had a more or less continuous influx of youthful male workers, helping create a surplus of men for every year prior to 1946. Because these young men outnumbered young women, many of them could not marry. And insofar as young single men are any society’s most troublesome and unruly citizens, America had a built-in tendency toward violence and disorder.

To be sure, this demographic leaning could be worsened by cultural predispositions. Southerners and frontiersmen were often contemptuous of other races and touchy about personal honor, which they might sometimes defend by violent means. Some ethnic groups, notably the Irish, drank a great deal of hard liquor. Irish brawling was no myth: New York City coroners’ records for 1865 and 1871-73 show that 42 percent of homicide victims were Irish-born, as were only 21 percent of the city’s population in 1870. Much of the carnage, Irish or otherwise, occurred in places of commercialized vice, such as gambling halls and saloons. Arguments over table stakes and prostitutes multiplied the opportunities for violent conflict, and the guns and knives men carried increased the likelihood of fatal results. When killings did occur, the police and courts were often unable or indisposed to deal effectively with them. Churches and revivals helped some, but their influence was felt least by lower-class men, who resisted religious conversion and the feminized style of life they often associated with it.

Within six months of arriving in California in 1849, one in every five of the 89,000 gold seekers was dead, an astonishing statistic.

THESE CULTURAL AND SOCIAL characteristics, together with the abnormal structure of the population, guaranteed that American society would suffer from violence and disorder. But not that it would do so uniformly. The ingredients for trouble—young bachelors, sensitivity about honor, racial hostility, heavy drinking, religious indifference, group indulgence in vice, gun carrying, and inadequate law enforcement—were concentrated on the frontier. An expanding sub-nation of immigrants within a larger nation of immigrants, the frontier was the most youthful and masculine region of the country and consequently the one most susceptible to violence.

The more remote and unsuited for family farming a frontier region was, the more likely it was to attract a surfeit of boisterous young males. The classic example is California during the gold rush. Eighty-nine thousand eager gold seekers from all over the world arrived in California in 1849. Practically all—95 percent—were men.

Within six months one in every five of them was dead—an astonishing statistic given that almost all had started the journey in good health and in their prime years. So many died that life insurance companies refused to write new policies for Californians, or charged substantial additional premiums for those already covered.

Cholera and scurvy caused much of the mortality. But those who survived illness faced another problem: the ubiquity of bachelor vices. It became apparent early on in California that the only sure way to make money was by mining the miners. That could mean providing unexceptionable goods and services like groceries and laundering or more questionable ones, such as tobacco, liquor, gambling, and prostitution. In 1853 San Francisco liquor importers received more bulk or wholesale containers of alcoholic beverages than there were people in the state.

Eyewitnesses were astounded by the amounts of liquor consumed. They saw bottles strewn every few yards along roads and trails, crippled and delirious men dying in shanty bunks while drunkards caroused below. They warned that alcoholic excess weakened men and made them vulnerable to diseases. “The number of deaths is beyond all calculation,” wrote a San Franciscan named Jerusha Merrill in October 1849. “Many have no friends to put them under the turf, yet those who take care of themselves and are regular in their habits enjoy good health. I warn all against the gaming house and grog shop.”

And against brothels. Like all women, prostitutes were scarce in early California. Miners paid an ounce of gold (sixteen dollars) just to have one sit beside them at a bar or gaming table. San Francisco bar and café owners went further, paying women to serve as topless (and bottomless) waitresses or to pose nude in suggestive positions on elevated platforms. Those who wished to go beyond gawking paid anywhere from two hundred to four hundred dollars for a night of sex. Such prices naturally attracted more prostitutes to San Francisco, which had an estimated two thousand by 1853. Most were infected with venereal diseases.