pageok
pageok
pageok
How Homicidal Was the Old West?--

Randy Roth (Ohio State), the leading historian studying homicide rates, has a piece in Reviews in American History [available only to some readers logging on through their university libraries] that examines two items of academic folklore. In this post, I address the widespread myth that homicides were rare in the "Old West."

In recent years it has become fashionable for historians (such as Robert Dykstra and Michael Bellesiles) to claim that it was a myth that the Old West was particularly violent. Notheless, other historians, such as Clare McKanna and David Peterson Del Mar, have reported very high rates of homicide in the West in the late 19th century (compared to current rates in the US).

Who is right?

Roth carefully reviews the data and confirms the work of McKanna and Peterson Del Mar, showing it to be consistent with recent work by Kevin Mullen, John Boessenecker, and (the late, great) Eric Monkkonen, .

Roth concludes:

Because the counties in McKanna's study reflect the diversity of rural southern and central California as a whole, there is reason to believe that the homicide rate in the southern two-thirds of the state (excluding San Francisco) was between 66 and 80 per 100,000 adults per year—the 99% confidence interval for McKanna's seven counties combined. If we include San Francisco and Los Angeles counties, the interval for all of southern and central California was between 60 and 70 per 100,000 adults per year—seven times the homicide rate in the United States today (and 28.7 standard deviations away). An adult exposed to that rate for sixteen years stood a 1 in 96 chance of being murdered, and an adult exposed to that rate for 45 years would have stood a 1 in 34 chance of being murdered. We cannot make assumptions about the homicide rate in northern California, which has yet to be studied. But with McKanna's study alone, we have 29 percent of the population of southern and central California (38 percent outside San Francisco); and with the addition of Mullen's study of San Francisco and Monkkonen's of Los Angeles, we have 57 percent of the population. The claim that the area was not unusually homicidal is statistically and arithmetically impossible.

The data of Peterson Del Mar and McKanna show that there is no such thing as a "fallacy of small numbers." The laws of probability make it possible to predict the character of a large population from a sample of surprisingly modest size, as long as that sample is representative of the population as a whole. That is why national opinion polls of 1,500 or 3,000 potential voters can be so accurate, even for subgroups of the population. That is the genius of statistics.

Indeed!

How homicidal was the Old West? According to the best historical evidence today, the answer is: Extremely Homicidal. Thus, another bit of academic folklore bites the dust.

liberty (mail) (www):

an adult exposed to that rate for 45 years would have stood a 1 in 34 chance of being murdered.


I have a feeling that the real (relevant) statistic is more like: an adult male who frequented saloons for 45 years had a 1 in 10 chance of being murdered, while an adult female or an adult male who kept to himself had some pretty low chance.

I suspect that most homicides were bar-brawl, adultery, pride, revenge or cowboy justice oriented, and then most of the remainder were trade, property or robbery oriented. Yes, robbery and rape occurred, but likely not at some very high level compared to today.
8.26.2007 2:49pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Depends, depends. At the XIT, the world's largest ranch, in the 1880s, the cowpokes were not allowed to possess firearms (nor their own horses, although they did have mobile phones; it all seems rather modern).

The violence level, at least from gunshots, was correspondingly reduced compared to, say, East St. Louis today.

Many a man in the Old West (and the Old East, too) owed a longer life not to peaceable intentions but to the misfires so common with cheap pistols. Nowadays, anybody can afford a powerful, reliable weapon. Encounters are correspondingly more likely to end up fatal.

I cannot quote you numbers, but as a newpaper reporter for 43 years, I can tell you that stories about misfires have almost disappeared from the police beat, compared to the 1960s. Bring back the Saturday Night Special!

It is, by the way, not really true that national opinion polls with samples as small as 1,500 are accurate. Way back in 1977, Michael Wheeler compared the statements of the little polls with the big one and found that the claims of accuracy were overblown. Nothing has changed since.
8.26.2007 3:08pm
Jim at FSU (mail):
For a supposed journalist, you have a real talent for not making any sense.

There is nothing worth rebutting in that entire disjointed pile.
8.26.2007 3:13pm
Steven Lubet (mail):
Given the general prevalence of sidearms, what does that say about gun ownership as a deterrent? Just asking . . .
8.26.2007 3:13pm
liberty (mail) (www):

Given the general prevalence of sidearms, what does that say about gun ownership as a deterrent? Just asking . . .


I don't know; you'd have to compare frontier towns of the same period, with the same mix of peoples (cowboys and Indians) and same level of law enforcement, with and without gun ownership.
8.26.2007 3:17pm
Jim at FSU (mail):
Constructive criticism version:

We need more than unsourced anecdotes if we are to join the interesting conclusions you have reached.

Truth of disarmed ranch hand story? Relevance to anything from the modern era?

Relevance of misfires story? Oh right, guns are better now so they need to be more restricted. Oh clever. Bravo. *golf clap*
8.26.2007 3:19pm
chuckc (mail):
Since, I do not have access to the article, could someone who does have access help me out with these questions?

1) How does the article define homicide?
2) Is there any breakout for justifiable homicide?
3) Is there any discussion about the differences in the infrastructure of law enforcement? Namely, today I call the police, back then I organize a posse. Do fleeing felons killed by either other citizens, or a posse count as homicides, whereas today they would count as arrests?
8.26.2007 3:22pm
rlb:
I wonder if the overall crime rate in the Old West approached 10,000 per 100k individuals like in the United Kingdom after the gun bans.

I also appreciate the statistical manipulation. To its credit the study counts a rate per 100k adults, but doesn't normalize for the much younger, much more male population of the period. Notice also that the above data purports to count the number of homicides rather than murders.

I imagine that if the authors tried to make a more true comparison, of murder rates per 100k young adult males, the conclusion would be different.
8.26.2007 3:35pm
rlb:
Oh, and they could account for modern medicine, where something like five out of every six people who are shot survive...
8.26.2007 3:54pm
EricH (mail):
they could account for modern medicine, where something like five out of every six people who are shot survive...

OTOH, the quality/capability of weapons today is higher. More deadly. Ammunition too.

Underscoring the difficulty of comparing different eras.

Ruth or Bonds? Clemens or Walter Johnson? Hitler or Bush?

[threw that last one in for our lefty friends]
8.26.2007 4:02pm
Nessuno:
Is it fair to categorize late 19th century rural central and southern California as "the old west"? I really don't think so.

The history of California is very interesting, and in my opinion, very unique, especially as compared to the "inland" west, east of of California.

Citing homicide rates in Tulare and San Diego doesn't strike me as particularly informative regarding the rates in Dodge City or Tombstone, cities more in keeping with the common understanding of "the old west."

I can't access the linked article, but what am I missing?
8.26.2007 4:08pm
Libertarian1 (mail):
I would be very curious what the results would be if they did the same study evaluation in 2007 Newark NJ or East St. Louis.
8.26.2007 4:10pm
David Sucher (mail) (www):
"... the widespread myth that homicides were rare in the "Old West."

Well it sure is not a myth among lay people. I have never heard such a notion i.e. that "...that homicides were rare in the "Old West."

Btw, may I offer the constructive criticism that you should not link to articles unless they are reasonably easily-available?
8.26.2007 4:18pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Besides rlb's observation about normalizing for age distribution, the level of policing was different in rural California in 1890 than in suburban California in 1990.

Perhaps libertarians don't think policing has any effect on conduct, however.
8.26.2007 4:20pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Interesting results. The one limitation might be that gold rush California was a rather special situation. You have essentially an invasion by a large number of young males, probably disproportionately sociopathic or borderline (that's the opinion of a psychiatrist friend): the appeal of the area is get rich quick, not farm or run cattle. Maximum opportunity for conflict (limited mining claims, women, and all the things men fight over), and minimal law.

My ancestors were among them... after the gold played out they bounced back to the Phoenix area, and repeated the process (I found records of where, in the early 1870s, there were arrests for agg. assault or attempted murder of the town JP (my great grandmother's first husband, who shot a man), and 2 of the 3 County Supervisors, all in about six months.

Other areas may show other results. I know that the Pleasant Valley Range War, north of Phoenix, accounted for something like 24 deaths in as many years, and was the state's bloodiest range war.
8.26.2007 4:20pm
William Oliver (mail) (www):
I think this discussion is looking at the wrong dynamic. The last time I looked at *modern* mortality statistics, there were two peaks in homicide rates -- very rural areas and very urban areas. The *higher* of the two were the very rural areas. The reason was not the availability of firearms, but the tradition and the perceived need of dealing with issues in the absence of law enforcement or other social control. I can certainly tell you, coming from a ranch in Oklahoma a 35 minute drive from the nearest policeman, when we had problems with vandals or thieves or drunk kids from town, we didn't think first to call the cops. We thought first to get our shotguns And we did. I never saw anybody ever get shot, but I saw a bit of brandishing here and there to run folk off. The country isn't the suburbs and the cops aren't five seconds away. That dynamic was even more true in the "Old West," where law enforcement was often non-existent or corrupt.

The other thing to remember is that in the 19th century Victorian West, it was considered reasonably socially acceptable to fight over affairs of honor. There was a very high homicide rate, but it was limited to a rather specific segment of society -- young post-adolescent males out to prove themselves. There was a very good book on homicide in 19th century Kansas not too long ago that detailed the very high homicide rate in places like Dodge and Medicine Lodge -- sorry, I don't remember the name offhand -- but it basically pointed out that while there was a very high homicide rate among that one group, your basic shopkeeper, etc. were pretty safe.

Finally, of course, you can't really discuss this without noting that even without the "regular" homicides, there was a good deal of sectarian killing that was ignored by the law, or was due to Indians. Two of my great-great-aunts were killed by Comanche, for instance, and the homestead of both families were burned. The Indian Wars were lopsided, but there was still plenty of killing of civilians on both sides. And, of course, there was violence associated with the slavery issue. Well before the War Between the States, there was a slow-burn guerilla war going on in the West. When I first got the job I work at now, I fell into a discussion with my boss about our respective family histories. We were initially excited to find that a large part of my family came from the Indian Territory/Missouri area bordering Kansas, and his came from the Kansas area bordering IT/MO. Only later did we realize that my family were Missouri Partisan Rangers, and his were Red Legs. Part of his family was in Lawrence, KS when part of my family rode in with Quantrill. Then we had an even more interesting discussion wondering which of our respective family members murdered the other. After the War Between the States, those rivalries did not go away immediately, and many still ended up being solved with blood on the ground.

It was a very violent time and a very violent place.
8.26.2007 4:24pm
rlb:
EricH:

When I think of the Old West I think of the the Colt Peacemaker and the Winchester rifle, both of which had a lot more punch than the typical crime gun of today, especially the small, concealable handguns that modern criminals prefer.
8.26.2007 4:34pm
Ben P (mail):
To add a little bit more data.

I ran into this two years ago when working on an Undergraduate History Thesis.


There were definitely parts of the old west that were extremely violent. But it wasn't just the far west.


Towns like Deadwood South Dakota, and Dodge City Kansas had murder rates of over 150 per 100,000, If I recall correctly, during one particular period Deadwood's reached nearly 300.

Getting back to the thesis. In the research I did for that paper I found that Little Rock Arkansas had not dissimilar murder rates during that period. Little Rock had a murder rate averaging about 180 during the 1830's.
8.26.2007 4:34pm
Hattio (mail):
Dave Hardy says;

Interesting results. The one limitation might be that gold rush California was a rather special situation.

The famous California Gold Rush though, was in Northern, not Southern California. And, if you think that the gold rush was the primary factor, you can compare it to other gold rushes.



Chuckc says;


8.26.2007 4:42pm
Hattio (mail):
Whoops,
Anyway, Chuckc says

Do fleeing felons killed by either other citizens, or a posse count as homicides, whereas today they would count as arrests?


I should hope they count as homicides. And yes, today they would count as homicides as well. The lack of process is what separates a murder from the imposition of the death penalty. Finally, some non-trivial percentage of those "posse" killings would be battles over range land, territory, or racially motivated killings masquerading as vigilante justice.
8.26.2007 4:46pm
Hattio (mail):
rlb,
What do you mean by an overall crime rate of 10,000 per 100,000 people. Are you suggesting 1 in 10 was a criminal or 1 in 10 was a victim? Over what period of time? Either way the statistic seems extremely unlikely. Even if there were 1 crime for every 10 people in the population as a whole in one year, (which I find unlikely), you've got other problems. First, some people are very unlikely to be a crime victim, others are probably repeat crime victims. Secondly, I'm curious as to whether they are counting each separate crime in one one incident (ie., somebody is charged with assault, robbery and theft for purse-snatching, are they considering that one crime or three).
8.26.2007 4:50pm
Clint:
Comparing to the modern day seems fairly silly.

Was the "Old West" more or less homocidal than other parts of the country during the same time? Other parts of the world?
8.26.2007 5:00pm
Joe Bingham (mail):
anybody who reads louis l'amour knows people died all the time.
8.26.2007 5:16pm
frankcross (mail):
That's an interesting question, and a quick google found that homicide rates in NYC during the time period were quite low, well below those of today.
8.26.2007 5:19pm
TMac (mail):
Harry Eagar wrote: "At the XIT, the world's largest ranch, in the 1880s, the cowpokes were not allowed to possess firearms"

http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/
articles/XX/apx1.html

...XIT men, along with certain "hired guns," often formed vigilante posses that struck back at known rustler abodes. Straight-shooting lawmen like Ira Aten were frequently hired as section foremen. Moreover, wolves and other wild animal predators, deprived of their natural prey, took a terrible annual toll among cattle, particularly during the calving season; many cowboys thus earned extra money by "wolfing" to obtain the high bounties established for wolf pelts.
8.26.2007 5:28pm
Fub:
Ben P wrote at 8.26.2007 3:34pm:
Getting back to the thesis. In the research I did for that paper I found that Little Rock Arkansas had not dissimilar murder rates during that period. Little Rock had a murder rate averaging about 180 during the 1830's.
And one of those murders took place in Little Rock's old State House in 1837 during the first session of the state legislature.

The Speaker of the House, Colonel John Wilson stabbed Major J. J. Anthony, the representative from Randolph County, to death with a Bowie knife. The cause for Wilson's ire was a clever insult delivered by Anthony, at which somebody laughed. Wilson was subsequently convicted of excusable homicide.
8.26.2007 6:17pm
LM (mail):
JL:

Since you, Clayton Cramer and others have already substantially debunked the low gun ownership aspect of Arming America's subtext of a causal relationship between the numbers of guns and homicides in early America, does this other shoe dropping suggest that Bellesiles may have been accidentally right by getting every detail wrong?
8.26.2007 6:32pm
gahrie (mail) (www):
1) There was plenty of gold in Southern California, one of my ancestors owned a mine there.

2)It's not really about gold miners per se anyway...it's large numbers of men living without the civilizing influence of women. I think if you compare areas with fairly equal gender numbers, and areas with few women, you'll get very different results.
8.26.2007 6:36pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
LM, I wondered about that, too.

TMac, if the XIT sometimes hired hunters, that does not contradict the employment policy of no guns/no personal mounts. No Roy Rogers/no Trigger.

My source is J. Evetts Haley's 'The XIT Ranch of Texas and the Early Days of the Llano Estacado.'

The point, I think, going back to LM, is that the discussion is not really about homicides but about the practice of having almost an entire population walking around armed as if for military combat. If the XIT in the 1880s was not part of the 'Old West,' I don't know what was.
8.26.2007 7:34pm
Glenn W. Bowen (mail):
never, ever link an article that has restricted access to the general readership.
8.26.2007 10:19pm
Flash Gordon (mail):
The point about lots of hot-blooded young males unrestrained by sheriffs or ladies is a good one. There are places today (Los Angeles, Washington DC, Chicago, Newark) where there are hot-blooded young males similarly unrestrained by sheriffs or ladies (or fathers) and the homicide rate is also similar.

Today the places where gun control is the strictest the homicide rate is the highest, starkly showing the fecklessness of gun control.
8.27.2007 1:10am
Brooks Lyman (mail):
I don't recall the source, except that it was not some anti-gun screed, but I read somewhere a number of years back, that at the same time that Tombstone and Dodge City were "booming," New London, CT had a higher homicide rate. I don't know whether New London was an especially egregious example or just a typical small northeastern industrial port city.

And, as many people have pointed out, the one doing the brawling (and killing) back then are the same ones doing it today - young single men. If you were married and/or stayed out of saloons and generally stayed away from trouble, you didn't have problems.

I might also ask what (if it's known) the percentage of those western homicides were committed with firearms? Bar brawls - even without any weapons at all involved - can be deadly: a blow or kick to the side of the head or other critical areas can kill, as can something as simple as being knocked down and hitting one's head on the floor. I would hazard a guess that gunshot wounds might be in the minority as a cause of death...
8.27.2007 6:51am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
How were things in the Old East?
8.27.2007 7:29am
John D Farquhar (mail):
OF course they did not have the trauma units, emt's etc. That we have today.
Now adays you can get shot up pretty good &still make a full recovery

With today's violent Assault rate (which is under reported) at around 40/100,000 &the Homoicide rate at 6.5-7.0 per 100,000, I don't see that we are any less violent, we just have better medicine, &kevlar
8.27.2007 9:42am
J. F. Thomas (mail):
Today the places where gun control is the strictest the homicide rate is the highest, starkly showing the fecklessness of gun control.

This is simply not true. And no matter how many times you, John Lott (or how many people he sues for saying his research is sloppy), or Dave Kopel say it, it doesn't make it any truer. Look up the statistics. Break it down by state, city, county or however you want to, and you simply can't make the statement magically become true. Hawaii has some of the strictest statewide gun control laws in the country and one of the lowest murder rates, as does New York City. Dallas, with almost no gun control laws has a similar murder rate to Chicago, which has strict gun control laws. And the city with the highest murder rate by far this year is New Orleans, which has very lax laws.
8.27.2007 11:59am
Tracy Johnson (www):
How else would they stop the legions of Western undead?

http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/12957
8.27.2007 12:28pm
Carolina:
It's pretty frustrating to not be able to access an article that is the subject of a post.
8.27.2007 12:28pm
Gordo:
As usual, the gun rights absolutists have hijacked this thread and are trying to either 1) distort the obvious to blunt its conclusion (high rates of firearm ownership and open carries increase homicides) or 2) discredit the study or smear the authors.

It's a losing battle, gun rights absolutists. Stick to the ACLU model that our freedoms are wotth some more mayhem and death and stop trying to claim that guns are empirically good for America.
8.27.2007 12:55pm
Smokey:
Dallas, with almost no gun control laws has a similar murder rate to Chicago, which has strict gun control laws.
Thanks, J.F., for proving that making gun ownership illegal for honest, law-abiding citizens directly results in the criminal population being the only fully armed civilian sector of the population, with the law-abiding citizens being left defenseless.
8.27.2007 2:38pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
J.F. is right about Hawaii, where I live.

Gun laws are strict and strictly enforced. Homicides are very rare, and there have been more homicidal attacks in the past couple of years by samurai sword than by firearms.
8.27.2007 3:59pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
Thanks, J.F., for proving that making gun ownership illegal for honest, law-abiding citizens directly results in the criminal population being the only fully armed civilian sector of the population, with the law-abiding citizens being left defenseless.

And I did this how? I guess this is true since the vast majority of homicides are unjustified (effective self defense uses of firearms are extremely rare). I'm sure Clayton will beg to differ, but even his website consists mainly of Jerry Springer candidates shooting at phantoms in their trailer parks or their drunk neighbors.
8.27.2007 5:10pm
Gordo:
How to reconcile Hawaii with Chicago?

Well, to get a gun into Hawaii, you have to smuggle it aboard an airplane or conceal it on a ship. To get a gun into Chicago, you have to drive across an unpatrolled state line. Given the fact that we have thousands of miles of unpatrollable land borders in the U.S., I don't see strict gun control laws working to lower crime in the continental U.S.

By "strict gun control" I mean confiscation or limitation laws. I think that mandatory gun registration and mandatory gun safety/training classes, as we require for automobiles and drivers, would be a realistic and constitutionally permissible way to lower the rate of gun violence.
8.27.2007 5:24pm
Harry Eagar (mail):
Or, you could buy it at a sporting goods store.

Sheesh.

Gunx are not banned in Hawaii. They are controlled pretty well.
8.27.2007 8:43pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
I remember reading an article saying that Bodie Ca had the highest murder rate in the old west. However almost all the murders were between drunken adult men. Otherwise the crime and murder rate was extremely low. If you didn't frequent bars and get into arguments you were safer than you are today. The population would simply not tolerate crime. For example anyone committing a rape in Bodie would get hunted down by vigilante citizens and hanged. The response by the citizens of Coffeyville Kansas to an attempted bank robbery by the Dalton Gang provides a good example of the willingness of old west townsfolk to stop crime. Compare to what happened to Kitty Genovese in Kew Gardens Queens in 1964. To be fair the New York Times stands accused of distorting the story.
8.28.2007 6:39am
Dittybopper:

EricH
OTOH, the quality/capability of weapons today is higher. More deadly. Ammunition too.


No, maybe, no, and no.

First, the quality of modern guns is no better, and in many cases somewhat worse, than guns made 100 to 150 years ago.

There are literally *MILLIONS* of guns from that era in shooting condition today. I myself, in my short 40 year lifespan, have fired an original Spencer Carbine from the 1860's (modified to fire centerfire cartridges, but other than that original), a Trapdoor Springfield from the 1870's, an original 1860 Remington cap and ball revolver (not a replica), along with several guns from the early 1900's. Hell, I've owned Mausers that were made before my grandfather was born, back in the teens, and they were in excellent shooting condition.

I have my doubts that some modern guns, even 'good ones', would make it that far. For instance, I had a Remington .22 semi-automatic rifle. The extensive use of plastic for structural parts, along with things like the magazine, and cheap metal used in other parts pretty much guaranteed that that gun, if used on a regular basis, would not last 100 years. On the other hand, I have a Remington 700 that I think will last that long, provided you can find replacements for some of the minor parts.

I don't necessarily think that the capability of modern guns is significantly greater than at the turn of the 1900's. About the only thing that has happened is that they have become lighter, and there has been some improvement in carrying capacity. Even then, things haven't really improved since the 1930's: The Browning Hi-Power was a large capacity 9mm handgun, designed by John Browning in the early 1920's, and first mass produced in the 1930's.

They certainly aren't deadlier. A revolver firing .45 Colt ammunition is certainly more fearsome than a semi-automatic handgun firing 9mm Parabellum (which, by the way, is 105 years, having been introduced in 1902). The .30'06 Springfield is also over 100 years old, and still going strong. The 12 Gauge shotgun is also way over 100 years old, as are the .45-70 Government and the .44-40.

Despite the hype you see about new ammunition and plastic guns, there really hasn't been anything new under the sun for quite a while in the firearms field. The last major advance was the introduction of the metallic cartridge, which happened in the last half of the 19th Century. Guns are no more deadly than they were 100 years ago. In fact, given the increased medical care, they are probably *LESS* deadly than they were. Back then, getting gut-shot was a slow, painful death sentence. Today, modern surgery can save all but the most grievously wounded patients.

The ammunition isn't any deadlier. Despite marketing hype from both the ammunition companies, and from anti-gun organizations (with opposing goals, but they use similar marketing!), ammunition isn't really any deadlier than it was back around 1900. It has taken a while, but the realization that the our forefathers had the right idea, that bigger, heavier, slower bullets are deadlier than smaller, lighter, faster ones (all else being equal) has been gaining some ground in the last decade or two. On the one hand, it should be obvious: You wouldn't hunt an Elephant with a .22 caliber, no matter how fast the bullet was. Likewise, most game departments prohibit the use of small, fast rounds like the .223 Remington for big game like deer. On the other side of the equation, the venerable .45-70 has been taking game like Brown Bear, Bison, and Moose reliably for well over 100 years.

As for things like the 'deadly Black Talon' round, it was shown to be comparable to other expanding bullets. "Cop Killer" bullets? You mean the ones invented by cops, that were marketed to cops, and that required a request on departmental letterhead to purchase? It was never a public problem. Even so, common deer rifles will penetrate all but the bulkiest and most uncomfortable vests.

There is a lot of hype in the firearms arena, on both sides. But guns are not more reliable today, nor are they deadlier, nor is the ammunition more deadly. Todays guns do not fire faster than those available in the late 1800's. They are perhaps lighter, and can carry a few more rounds, but they will also tend to wear out quicker.
8.28.2007 11:32am
Dittybopper:
That Remington wasn't an 1860, it was an 1858 New Model Army.

I was thinking Colt 1860 (which is a prettier gun, more graceful, but not as strong as the Remington).
8.28.2007 11:37am