Crime and Punishment in American History (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
About three and a half centuries ago, there was a stir in the colony of New Haven, Connecticut. A sow had given birth to a “monstrous” piglet. In the minds of the colonists, this was no accident. Surely the misbirth was some sort of omen. Specifically, it had to be a sign of sin, a sign of a revolting, deadly crime: carnal intercourse with the mother pig.
Thus commences one of the best books of 1993, a provocative, riveting tour de force, broad in scope, deep in substance, and written in a witty, urbane style by a mature social historian of the law at the top of his craft. The content encompasses both theory and practice, with the emphasis being on how America’s criminal-justice system has responded over time to such “felt necessities” as politics, economics, and most of all the cultural mores of the American people. Lawrence M. Friedman demonstrates the malleability of the criminal-justice system in adjusting to power shifts in race, class, and gender in American society. Tracing the changing nature not only of crime but also of the justice system, urban police forces, and penitentiaries over three distinct epochs, the author makes profound observations about the shaping of the American character and its effect on society’s treatment of antisocial elements.
Friedman asserts that during America’s Colonial period, hierarchical village theocracies (“tight little islands”) had little need for paid constables and punished evildoers in ways that stressed repentance and ultimate acceptance back into the community. The exception was for capital offenses, of which there were many. In bestiality cases, such as happened in New Haven, even the poor animal was executed. Punishment was public, communal, and frequently humiliating, such as spending time in the stocks or the pillory. In matters pertaining to religion and public morals, sentences could be as severe as banishment or death (although the Salem witchcraft trials were certainly an aberration) or as mild as a warning or a fine.
Social and geographic mobility characterized the nineteenth century (at least for free, white, adult males), giving rise to the need for laws relating to bigamists and swindlers, duelists and vigilantes. In the wake of rapid industrialization, immigration, and urbanization, epidemics and threats to the sanctity of the marketplace gave rise to public-health laws. In a chapter entitled “Power and Its Victims,” Friedman shows how such laws were sometimes manipulated to impede religious and racial minorities from playing by the so-called laissez-faire rules of the game. Attempts were made to force the Chinese out of the laundry business, Catholics out of having convents, and free blacks out of antebellum cities. When resort to nuisance ordinances failed, vigilantes sometimes took the law into their own hands. Victims had little recourse.
Riots against blacks, Catholics, and Chinese were one thing; attacks on the property of the elite quite another. As cities teemed with unruly newcomers, professional police forces were formed amid hot debates over whether the crime fighters should be outfitted with uniforms and side arms.
In terms of abject institutional brutality, no antebellum practice matched the horror of the New South’s convict- lease system, where life expectancy was measured in months rather than years. The Georgia chain gang lasted well into the twentieth century, although revulsion against whipping, branding, and hanging led to the gradual elimination of these practices, at least as public spectacles. It is disquieting to read Friedman’s accounts of the morbid interest in executions. When one took place inside New York City’s Tombs, the neighboring buildings, according to a contemporary observer, were “black with people, seeking to look down over the prison walls and witness the death agonies of the poor wretch who is paying the penalty of the law.”
The functions of nineteenth century police forces supposedly were to uphold the law and preserve order. In truth the “men in blue” were unprofessional and often partook in rampant corruption as allies of political machines. Frequently headquartered in the heart of ghetto slums, such as Mulberry Bend on the Lower East Side of New...
(The entire section is 1739 words.)
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