- Historic Sites
Violence In America
What Human nature and the California gold rush tell us about crime in the inner city
September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
Professional gamblers outnumbered prostitutes and were just as skilled at siphoning off miners’ earnings. “I have seen men come tottering from the mines with broken constitutions,” wrote the forty-niner Alfred Doten, “but with plenty of the ‘dust,’ and sitting down at the gaming table, in ten minutes not be worth a cent.” In California men bet on anything, even the prognosis of a shooting victim as he underwent surgery on a pool table.
Sunday was the day for masculine display. Miners tossed gold on the bar and bade their companions to name their drinks; reckless horsemen pulled knives from the ground at full gallop. Itinerant preachers bold enough to mount a stump and declaim against the desecration of the Sabbath were rewarded at collection time—a manifestation, perhaps, of latent guilt—but were ignored on the practical point of reformed behavior.
Devout men who happened to find themselves in this milieu were appalled. One prophesied to an Eastern minister that California “instead of being a blessing will prove a curse to the Union, morally and politically. . . . You can form no adequate idea of the depths of sin and moral degradation to which most of the people are sunk or rather sink themselves and those too of whom we should not dream such things when they leave the States.”
These sentiments were shared by Hinton Helper, who spent three weary and unprofitable years (1851-54) in California and wrote a scathing account of the state’s social and economic prospects. Later to achieve fame as a critic of Southern slave society, Helper was an unusual man, simultaneously a racist, an abolitionist, a Puritan, and an amateur sociologist. He argued that California’s social disorder stemmed from the Mammonism of its polyglot population and from the want of women, in whose absence “vice only is esteemed and lauded.”
Like many other observers, Helper noticed that the moral tone of the mining communities immediately began to change when women arrived. Though worried about the possibility that wives might be seduced away from their husbands by determined bachelors, he nevertheless looked forward to the day when California would experience “an influx of the chaste wives and tender mothers that bless our other seaboard.”
If this sounds like Victorianism, it was. But it was also something deeper and more modern. Helper had grasped the fundamental principle of what is now called the interactionist school of sociology: that the self emerges and evolves as people internalize the attitudes that others hold toward them. When the mix of those others changes, so does the sense of self.
The typical California immigrant was neither poor nor vicious. He had been raised in a respectable family in the States, but his home was far away and the hurly-burly of camp life close at hand. His immediate social environment, which consisted of uprooted young men thrown together with opportunists and vice peddlers, shaped his sense of what was permissible and appropriate. His male companions ridiculed conventional virtue as weakness and self-restraint as effeminate. If he avoided the saloons and faro tables, he must stay alone in his tent on Saturday night, bored and lonely. If he refused to smoke or drink, he risked insult and retaliation. A person who would not partake of whiskey or tobacco was “little short of an outlaw,” complained a California miner named George McCowen, who took up smoking simply to avoid trouble. People who had never gambled became high-stakes players. In Stockton the proprietor of the leading gambling saloon was a Methodist minister. “Everybody gambled,” recalled one San Franciscan. “That was the excuse for everybody else.”
The one sure way to change this situation was by family reunification, when disappointed gold seekers returned home or, more rarely, when their spouses journeyed to the camps. “The wives of some of the wildest boys on the creek have come down to join their husbands,” observed the forty-niner Alfred Jackson, “and it has sobered them down considerably.” It was just this “sobering down” that Helper anticipated would come about when the balance of men and women was restored.
Helper saw something else clearly: that the violence in California was aggravated by the influx of criminals and the habit of carrying deadly weapons, the former encouraging the latter. Miners went about armed with revolvers or bowie knives, which they could buy at local groggeries along with cigars, tobacco, and more than a hundred varieties of alcoholic beverages. The combination of young men, liquor, and deadly weapons produced a steady steam of unpremeditated homicides, most of which arose from personal disputes and occurred in or near drinking establishments. Helper estimated that California had experienced forty-two hundred murders in six years, along with fourteen hundred suicides and seventeen hundred other deaths traceable to disappointment and misfortune.