walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

Bill James, _Popular Crime_, an excerpt

I'm going to try really hard to make this a Fair Use thing, because I really want this to stay up here and not violate copyright, because I want to convince people that this book is worth running out right now and buying. Because it is. And I rarely say that when I'm only a fifth of the way through a book.

From chapter 9:

"A 2003 study by the National Center for Health Statistics reports that the murder rate in the United States was 1.1 per 100,000 population in 1903, increasing to 4.9 per 100,000 in 1907, then to 6.3 by 1914. This, if true, would make the homicide rate in 1914 essentially the same as it is now, and the rate pre-1905 dramatically lower than it is now." James has already asserted that this cannot possibly be true. What follows is is explanation of why he believes that.

"There were no national crime statistics compiled early in the 20th century, and the rates reported now are based on those homicides which later researchers happened to catalogue." A little later, "Over the last hundred years a large number of events have been re-classified as murder."

And then a long and detailed and very salient list follows:

justifiable homicide
someone breaking into your apartment, you shoot him
"Until about 1970, when parents beat their children to death they very often escaped punishment."
"if a trench collapsed and a worker was killed, that was a tragic accident. Now, it's negligent homicide."

More examples, then, "A hundred years ago, substantial numbers of black people were murdered in the South -- in fact, I would predict that the murders of southern blacks alone, if they could be tallied, might exceed the number of homicides estimated by the NCHS study for the years 1900-1903."
[<-- That, Dear Readers, is a conservative estimate in the generally understood meaning of the term, precisely the opposite of how I blogged that it is typically used.]

More examples:

medical malpractice leading to death
killing of citizens by police officers

And on that topic (I sort of wish he'd expounded on the medical malpractice, because, like the lynching numbers, it, too, would have swamped every officially counted homicide):

"Frank Hamer, who set up the ambush that killed Bonnie and Clyde, has been reported to have personally killed 65 people in the performance of his police duties. (In the 1920s the Texas Bankers Association offered $5,000 rewards to police officers for the deaths of outlaws. This led to several innocent people being set up and murdered by Texas police officers -- a practice which Hamer is credited with having put an end to, busting up the murder ring.)"

Really puts a whole different perspective on any sense of how lawless we are vs. how lawless our great-great grandparents were.

Still more:

strikers killed by hired strike-breakers

And then, on a personal note:

"When I was in high school, the football coach used to work us hard on hot days and not let us have water. Of course, across the country a few kids every year would die from this practice, but ... [ellipsis his] that was just the way it was. Kids still die occasionally from that kind of practice, but when it happens now, it is called reckless homicide. The estimate that there were only 1.1 murders per 100,000 people in the United States at the start of the 20th century is, in my view, utterly preposterous, at least in the modern understanding of the term, "murder"."

And it is that last sentence that makes the book the joy and wonder that it is. He never loses track of how _we_ view something _now_ vs. how someone else viewed something _then_. And he even does a bang up job extracting the parts we and they could agree on (somebody died and there was blood all over the place, say). He's not trying to _be_ objective: he's openly highlighting the difference in perspective and attempting to identify something underneath that that is held in common.

There have been books that I loved up until a point, and then they took a turn for the worse. If that happens, I will come back and say so. But I really do not expect that to happen, and even if it does, the first fifth of this book is worth the price of the whole book.
Tags: non-fiction, not-a-book-review
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