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Crime

Richard Evans tells the little-known story of how 19th-century Germany attempted to solve its prison problems by secretly sending felons to the United States as immigrants.

In the course of the nineteenth century, as America became a magnet for Europe's poor and dispossessed, many European governments saw the opportunity to rid themselves of the burden of supporting the destitute by encouraging emigration to the United States. Their efforts were reinforced by numerous voluntary associations and societies dedicated to helping European paupers start a new life across the Atlantic.

A small number of European states went further than this and sent felons and convicts to the United States as out as well. This happened not just on a few isolated occasions but was carried out as a deliberate and consistent policy over several decades. Not only petty thieves, beggars and alcoholics, but also serious and violent offenders and even convicted murderers were shipped over. In some instances they were not merely deported after they had finished serving their prison sentences, but were sent off to the United States after being sentenced, as an alternative to imprisonment. Some states carried out this policy in an atmosphere of secrecy and deception, deliberately misleading the immigration authorities in America by providing the convicts with falsified documents of identity.

Published in History Review

Clive Emsley argues that nineteenth-century perceptions owed more to media-generated panic than to criminal realities.

Criminal statistics are notorious for their unreliability. How, for example, can we have statistics for perfect murders since, by definition, the perfect murder is never discovered. Yet if the statistics of Victorian crime can be taken as telling us (and the Victorians) anything, then the message was that homicide was not particularly serious, and that its incidence was declining from the middle of the century; in the 1860s the annual rate of homicides known to the police was 1.7 per 100,000 of the population, in the 1890s it was 1 per 100,000. Moreover, if we probe into the individual homicides in the criminal statistics, we find that a majority were committed within the family or amongst acquaintances. Serial killers, like Cream, appear to have been rare though, of course, when they did appear, the newspaper press exploited the horrors to the full, and readers lapped up the grisly details: the Ratcliffe Highway murders in December 1811; Mary Ann Cotton who was executed in Durham Gaol in March 1873 after allegedly murdering perhaps as many as twenty – husbands, lovers, children and step-children; and, of course, Jack the Ripper in 1888.

Victor Bailey looks at the alarming rise in British crime in the second half of the twentieth century.

The history of crime in the twentieth century is inevitably dominated by the explosion of criminality in the last thirty years. In the first half of the century the level of crime recorded by the police grew at a much more moderate rate, extending a pattern of slow growth since the 1870s. From 1900 to 1914, the crime level remained constant. Recorded crime in- creased by 5 per cent a year between 1915 and 1930; by 7 per cent between 1930 and 1948 (compared with a post-war annual growth rate of 10 per cent and more). The main increases in these early decades occurred in theft and breaking-in offences, reflecting the growing opportunity for larceny in a more affluent society. Drunkenness offences, in contrast, declined steeply, owing to tighter licensing laws and changing leisure habits, while at the other extreme, the number of murders was lower in the inter-war years than in Victorian times. It all suggests that the major economic and political crises of the period – the First and Second World Wars, the General Strike, the mass unemployment of the Depression years – had little impact on criminal activity.

Death and the Dolce Vita

A young woman lies dead in the water, a whirlwind of a murder mystery shattering the victim’s downbeat, humble family. Around the corpse swirls a grotesque array of dark forces of political corruption, social privilege, drugs, sex and money, some dogged police work and some craven cover-ups, and tricksy tabloid hacks snapping at the heels of louche protagonists and bit-part fantasists. If all this sounds more like the plot of the Danish sleeper TV hit The Killing than a work of dour history, it is for good reason.Read more »
More articles by Robert S.C. Gordon

The standing of Britain’s police forces may be in decline at home, yet their insights into policing methods and practices are still sought eagerly elsewhere, according to Clive Emsley and Georgina Sinclair.

Local police trainees in Tripoli, Libya are taught riot drill by men under the command of fomer Metropolitan Police Superintendent Len Allen, c.1950. Photo: Getty Images/Hulton ArchiveAt any one time over the past decade or so there have been officers from British police forces serving on overseas peacekeeping missions in countries ranging from Kosovo to East Timor, to Iraq and Afghanistan, to name only the most notorious postings. During the same period a sizeable number of British police officers have provided ad hoc policing assistance in many parts of the world and hundreds of police officers from other countries have visited the UK to be trained and to absorb aspects of British practice. The notion of the unique ‘British Bobby’ has been central to these exchanges.

Crooked Talk: Five Hundred Years of the Language of Crime

The British obsession with crime has long roots. Gruesome, moralising accounts of murder and violence have been a mainstay of the press since the invention of print. Some of the earliest best-sellers were the ‘coney-catching’ pamphlets of the 16th century, which chronicled the crimes of swindlers and thieves against their unwilling victims or ‘coneys’. Glossaries of the vocabulary of crime have just as long a history. Among the earliest guides to the world of crime was Robert Copland’s Highway to the Spital-House (c.Read more »
More articles by Nick Poyntz

How far, asks R.D. Storch, did the reforms in the system of law enforcement, and the detection, trial and punishment of criminals introduced in the nineteenth century make for better order and a real reduction in crime?

By 1900 England was a considerably less crime-ridden and more orderly society than it had been in 1800. Exactly how this improvement came about is still a matter for debate. The entire machinery or detection, law-enforcement and punishment of crime to which we are the uneasy heirs was created in the nineteenth century. Was the nineteenth-century invention of a modern, efficient and articulated system of criminal justice responsible for better order and the reduction of all types of crime by 1900?

Before the nineteenth century, a formidable battery of capital statutes had been established to deter crime and legitimate the rule of the propertied classes. As a system of crime control, the old capital code was not very effective. Prosecutors and juries developed many stratagems to circumvent the execution of the full penalty of the law. Relatively few criminals ever made the fatal journey to Tyburn. The nineteenth century saw the dismantling of the old draconian code, the improvement of the efficiency of the courts, the implanting of a modernised police force and the invention of the penitentiary. These reflected a new definition of public order which appeared in the l790s and triumphed by 1850.

Robert D. Storch argues that the state of policing before Peel was not always as bad as the reformers liked to claim.

In the Tudor and Stuart periods, English constables were important local figures in rural parish life. Drawn from the more substantial members of the village community, the status of constables appears to have been on a par with churchwardens and overseers of the poor. Propertied village worthies seem to have rotated through all three offices. Constables in this period have been characterised as 'headmen' - high-status locals who played a mediating role between the village and central authorities, and functioned both as agents of the Crown and village representatives. Despite perennial criticism, the state took the old constabulary seriously enough to assign it an important role in the enforcement of its plans to reform morality and control crime. This was especially true in the seventeenth century, but as late as the 1780s, magistrates attempted to mobilise and pressurise the constables to act against moral offences, drinking and local disorders - though apparently with disappointing results.

Richard O. Collin tells the story of Italy’s parallel police forces, and how they have contended with Mussolini, the Red Brigades – and the Mafia.

Looking at Italy today, penologists see a curiously non-violent society which becomes progressively less murderous with every passing year.

Despite past images of Mafia gunmen, jealous lovers, and Red Brigade assassins, present-day violations of the Italian criminal code tend to be rather more gentle. Even twentieth- century Italian civil conflicts have been relatively bloodless; the 1919-22 turmoil that saw Mussolini’s fascisti destroy the country’s fledgling democracy only cost about 2,000 lives – and produced about as many books.

When Italians themselves have looked at Italy, however, they have historically seen rampaging anarchy, time-bombs ticking, and daggers drawn as criminals and subversives compete for the honour of destroying the social order. When the peninsula found itself haphazardly unified in the mid-19th century, Italy’s founding fathers inherited many policemen and many enemies. Nervously, they recruited even more policemen to fight bandits and revolutionaries (often the same people).

So suspicious were Italy’s early leaders that they created mutually antagonistic police organisations to ensure that none became too powerful, according to the time-honoured principle of divide and rule.

Women as perpetrators of crime, rather than its victims, were figures of especial fascination and loathing in the Victorian popular press. Judith Knelman delves deeper.

The domestication of women early in the reign of Queen Victoria – inspired largely by her example – made it especially difficult for the English to believe that women would harbour, let alone indulge, murderous impulses. By this time the popular press had, through its sensational treatment of such figures, defined the murderess as a cold-blooded monster who operated by stealth and was particularly attracted to poison as a weapon. Such women, having betrayed the trust of their nearest and dearest, could not be understood as women, and so they were loudly derided as traitors to their sex. The crude woodcuts of nineteenth-century broadsides often showed a freshly hanged female figure being gawked at by an assembly of her moral superiors. Newspapers were more reliable but not much less subtle in their depiction of murderesses.

From about 1830, newspapers faithfully recorded all the physical and psychological details they could muster of the few women who were prosecuted for murder. Before that, newspaper reports of murder cases were fairly short and to the point, the point usually being that an execution date had been set. But these could be supplemented with colourful, sometimes poetic and often fictitious accounts in the form of broadside ballads chanted and sold in the streets.