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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.

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.

Tim Stanley draws parallels between a New York gang war of the 1900s and an act of horrific violence in south London.

Conflict relocated: New York's Chinatown, c.1900In May a British soldier was murdered in the streets of Woolwich, London. One of the alleged killers gave the following statement to camera: ‘We swear by the Almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone ... I apologise that women had to witness this today but in our lands our women have to see the same.’

The message was that the attack was tit-for-tat, bringing the war in which the British have been involved in foreign lands home to the streets of London. The wise would reject either the statement’s political analysis or the perverse morality behind it, but it’s undeniable that a large part of the power of the scene came from seeing something we normally associate with the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan happening in England. The attacker, wielding a machete in his bloodstained hands, was out of place and time.

Death and the Dolce Vita

A vision of the culture, politics and media of 1950s Rome through the lens of the greatest crime scandal of the day.

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.

What was behind Colonel Thomas Blood’s failed attempt to steal the Crown Jewels during the cash-strapped reign of Charles II and how did he survive such a treasonable act? Nigel Jones questions the motives of a notorious 17th-century schemer.

Illustration of Colonel Thomas Blood by G.Scott, 1813Money was always a problem for the merry monarch. Generous with courtiers, supporters and mistresses, the pensions that Charles II (r.1660-85) actually owed to lesser mortals were often either in arrears – or never paid at all. But Charles knew the value of majesty to monarchy and after his penurious years of exile did not stint in putting on a show. He spent the huge sum of £32,000 on remaking the Crown Jewels, which had been broken up, melted down or sold off by Cromwell’s Commonwealth. A couple of silver spoons and the famous egg-sized ‘Black Prince’s Ruby’ (actually a spinel, which adorned the state crown and was worn on the helmet of Henry V at Agincourt in 1415 and by Richard III at Bosworth in 1485) were all that survived. Fortunately, however, detailed descriptions of the vanished jewels remained in their former home, the Tower of London, from which they were accurately reconstituted.

Identifying those who took part in the recent riots in London and other English cities may prove easier than in past disorders, but the recent widespread introduction of surveillance technology brings its own problems, argues Edward Higgs.

Security camera at London (Heathrow) Airport. Photo / Adrian PingstoneIn August 2011, after four nights of rioting, the English public awoke to newspapers full of photographs of looters with headlines inviting them to ‘Shop a Moron’. Many citizens did so, although some grainy images released by the police from closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV) were of poor quality and many rioters took the sensible precaution of wearing scarves round their faces. In London some looters even sacked a fancy dress store to acquire masks to hide their identities.

‘Riotous assemblies’ are, of course, nothing new in England, nor are problems of identification in such circumstances, although riots in the past often had aims other than simple looting. In 1723 Parliament passed the Criminal Law (or Black) Act, which mandated the death penalty for those who had recently

in great numbers, armed with swords, firearms, and other offensive weapons, several of them with their faces blacked, or in disguised habits, unlawfully hunted in the forests belonging to his Majesty, and in the parks of divers of his Majesty’s subjects …

The ‘Waltham Blacks’, as they were known, were opposed to the corrupt administration of the forests by Sir Robert Walpole and his Whig cronies.

Crooked Talk: Five Hundred Years of the Language of Crime

Nick Poyntz reviews Jonathan Green's history of how crime has been described over the past five centuries.

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

A century after the execution of Dr Crippen for the murder of his wife, Fraser Joyce argues that, in cases hingeing on identification, histories of forensic medicine need to consider the roles played by the public as well as by experts.

Dr Crippen and Ethel Le Neve on trial at the Old Bailey

Traditionally the history of forensic medicine in murder cases focuses on the ‘experts’ in the field, such as toxicologists, psychologists and pathologists. It often neglects the ordinary people to whom the body in question has profound personal meaning and whose contribution to the investigation is more peripheral but nevertheless significant. 

The infamous murder of Cora Crippen presents an ideal opportunity to redress the balance. When human remains were discovered at 39 Hilldrop Crescent on July 13th, 1910, Cora Crippen had been missing since February 1st. The lumps of flesh discovered beneath the cellar that constituted ‘the body’ had been buried for between four and eight months, making them unsuitable for a direct formal identification. Consequently identification of the corpse depended on the relationship between experts and laymen and the construction and comparison of two apparently incompatible images: the concrete evidence of the dead body reconstructed through its examination by doctors and the more abstract picture of the missing woman built from physical descriptions of her while alive and gathered from those who knew her. This story of cooperation between the two groups that helped to establish the identity of the remains in the cellar is rarely heard.

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