Crime and Punishment in American History

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

“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 the year. Tracing the changing nature of crime, the justice system, the police, and penitentiaries over three distinct epochs. Lawrence Friedman asserts that during America’s Colonial period hierarchical village theocracies had little need for paid constables and punished evildoers in a way that stressed repentance and ultimate acceptance back into the community, except for capital offenses (of which there were many). Social and geographic mobility characterized the nineteenth century, giving rise to bigamists and swindlers, duelists and vigilantes. By the turn of the century, lay justice and class control were giving way to crime control by professionals susceptible to corruption and/or brutality. The rampant individualism of the twentieth century has broadened freedom but has also bred violence, especially among young macho males.

Friedman covers everything from white-collar and victimless crime to treason and infanticide, but the focus is on change, in matters ranging from definitions of insanity and obscenity to the treatment of women, both as victims and criminals. Regarding famous trials as cultural sideshows rather than normative (plea bargaining being the common form of legal resolution), the author nevertheless demonstrates an impressive familiarity with the extensive literature on the likes of Lizzie Borden, Sacco and Vanzetti, Leopold and Loeb, and the Rosenbergs. Highest praise.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. CXXXIX, October 12, 1993, p.2.

Chicago Tribune. September 5, 1993, XIV, p.5.

Choice. XXXI, February, 1994, p.1003.

The Economist. CCCXXVIII, September 25, 1993, p.106.

Library Journal. CXVIII, August, 1993, p.127.

Los Angeles Daily Journal. CVI, December 3, 1993, p.7.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 19, 1993, p.6.

National Review. XLV, November 1, 1993, p.68.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, September 26, 1993, p.11.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, June 28, 1993, p.65.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, August 29, 1993, p. 11.