Violence In America

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Helper’s murder number seems high (unless he was including killings of Indians, in which case it was almost certainly low), but an abundance of other evidence confirms that goldrush California was a brutal and unforgiving place. The city of Marysville reportedly had seventeen murders in a single week, prompting the formation of a vigilance committee. Suicide and violent death afflicted every mining region. Witnesses wrote of men suddenly pulling out pistols and shooting themselves, of bodies floating down rivers, of miners stoned to death in gambling disputes. They described men who had become beasts, biting and pulling hair, flogging one another without mercy, cropping boys’ ears, laughing at executions.

Bodie, California, averaged 116 homicides per 100,000; by contrast, Henderson County in Illinois had only 4.3 per 100,000.

Miners had their virtues. They were typically open, generous men who valued deeds above words, deplored hypocrisy, and were friendly to strangers, at least when sober and unprovoked. Their language was direct and colorful, their swearing wildly inventive—though abruptly curtailed in the presence of respectable women, whom they treated with courtesy and deference. “I do not recall ever hearing of a respectable woman or girl in any manner insulted or even accosted by the hundreds of dissolute characters that were everywhere,” a resident of Bodie, California, recalled. “In part, this was due to the respect that depravity pays to decency; in part, to the knowledge that sudden death would follow any other course.”

HISTORIANS WHO HAVE CATA- logued the murders in frontier mining areas have found extremely high rates of homicide. Nevada County, California, the site of Gun Town, Gomorrah, and other boisterous mining camps, had an average annual homicide rate (using the modern FBI yardstick) of 83 per 100,000 between 1851 and 1856. The mining town of Aurora, Nevada, had a rate of at least 64 during its boom years of 1861 to 1865; however, because its records are incomplete and a grand jury report enumerated other killings, its actual rate may have been as high as 117. That would have been almost identical to the rate in Bodie, California, a nearby mining town that averaged 116 homicides per 100,000 during its boom period of 1878 to 1882.

Non- or postfrontier regions with proportionately fewer men suffered far less homicidal violence. Henderson County, a rural backwater in western Illinois, had an average murder rate of 4.3 per 100,000 during the period from 1856 to 1900—just 19 killings in more than forty years. Two Eastern cities whose records have been analyzed, Boston and Philadelphia, had criminal homicide rates of 5.8 and 3.2 in the two decades after 1860. By comparison the average rates for Boston and Philadelphia in the early 1990s were 19.1 and 28.6, respectively.

The mining frontier was thus several times as violent as today’s big American cities, and that’s saying a lot. Worse, the historical estimates almost certainly do not include all homicidal killings of Indians. These were particularly common in California, where the distinction between killing Indians in battle and simply shooting them down meant little in practice and where Indian deaths of any sort were of scant concern to law enforcement officials.

THE HISTORIAN ROGER McGrath has pointed out that the dark cloud of mining-town violence had a silver lining. He has found that rates of robbery were comparable to, and rates of burglary lower than, those of Eastern cities at the same time. Gun-toting citizens deterred property crime. Would-be robbers and burglars knew they stood a good chance of getting shot, and nothing would happen to anyone who killed them save some highly favorable newspaper publicity. But the same guns that prevented theft made homicide all the more likely. What happened in Aurora and Bodie was a trade-off: more fatal gunplay for less larcenous crime.

In view of all this it may seem strange that there has been a longrunning debate on whether the frontier was violent, pitting those who believe that the reality has been grossly exaggerated against those who hold that it has been at most merely embroidered. This debate has been complicated by the usual skirmishing about the completeness and trustworthiness of records, but the real problem is that the question—how violent was the frontier?—is miscast. There was no such thing as the frontier.

Different frontier communities had different social and population characteristics. The Mormon religious colony of Orderville, Utah, and the mining town of Bodie, California, were contemporaneous American frontier settlements, but in terms of gender balance, family life, religious restraint, and vice they might as well have been on different planets. In explaining the historical pattern of Western violence, the key lies in identifying the composition of the local population, not in some intangible variable called frontierness. Mining towns like Bodie, with nine men for every woman, were places where normal marriage and family patterns were disrupted and vice flourished, with all the increased violence that this entailed.