Examining the transcripts of nearly two hundred murder trials, The Ecology of Homicide presents the voices of victims and perpetrators of crime, as well as the enforcers of the law, to show how the combined effects of poverty and disinvestment accumulated to sustain and deepen what Eric C. Schneider calls an "ecology of violence."
2020 | 264 pages | Cloth $39.95
American History / African-American Studies/African Studies / Public Policy
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Table of Contents
Foreword, Howard Gillette Jr.
Chapter 1. Dancing with Knives: The Ecological Structure of African American Homicide in Postwar Philadelphia
Chapter 2. Killing Women and Women Who Kill: Intimate Homicides
Chapter 3. Race and Murder in the Remaking of West Philadelphia
Chapter 4. Dirty Work: Police and Community Relations and the Limits of Liberalism
Chapter 5. The Children's War
Chapter 6. Street Wars: Shooting Police and Police Shootings
Dancing with Knives
The Ecological Structure of African American Homicide in Postwar Philadelphia
The Problem of Homicide
Why do African American men kill one another, as well as others, with such alarming frequency? Both historical and contemporary studies show that African American men are by far the largest number of victims and of perpetrators of urban homicide, and those studies that have disaggregated the data indicate that urban homicide has clustered in a handful of black neighborhoods. In other words, homicide has been both socially and spatially concentrated in African American communities. In Philadelphia from 1948 to 1952, the homicide rate for whites was 1.9 per 100,000 persons, while for African Americans the rate was 22.5, producing an overall homicide rate of 5.7 per 100,000 for the city. Homicide among black men has driven the city's homicide rate since World War II, if not before. The data are incontrovertible; the question is how do we account for them? Some scholars have postulated that a subculture of violence, created in the South among whites and African Americans, moved north with the great migration. Since the late nineteenth century, the South has had the highest regional homicide rates in the United States, and few would deny the existence of a peculiarly southern worldview. A southern culture of violence would have been most apparent in northern cities during the 1940s and 1950s, when the wartime and postwar migration deposited tens of thousands of southern African Americans in northern ghettoes. Yet overall, homicide rates among African Americans, while much higher than those among whites, were declining in this period and only began their meteoric rise in the mid-1960s among African Americans too young to have been exposed directly to a southern culture of violence. This raises the question, at what point would a southern culture of violence become "northern"? The view of culture inherent in this question is largely static, seeing it as simply handed down from one generation to the next, like the family Bible. Moreover, efforts to identify southern values that might support homicidal violence have failed. As an attempt to explain African American homicide in the several decades after World War II, this variant of subcultural theory is unsatisfactory, both empirically and theoretically.
A second stance posits that a subculture of violence characterizes inner-city communities and is rooted in a distinctive value system and a personality structure that are at odds with those found in mainstream society. But subcultural theorists have difficulty explaining how a particular set of values arose, how and why they changed, and how they can be reconciled with sudden shifts, such as the doubling of the national homicide rate in the 1960s, that affected both blacks and whites. In addition, most scholars now see culture as fluid and performative, something that articulates with the social setting in which it is performed and thus something that changes over time. The subculture of violence theory fails this test.
Other scholars see value systems, such as a "code of the street," developing in response to a local social setting and therefore not indicative of an independent value structure. The street code may involve only a minority of residents, but it is so threatening and so dominates the public sphere that virtually all community members must learn how to negotiate it. Such practice, with its ties in particular to the assertion of manhood, sociologist Elijah Anderson argues, is closely tied to the social ecology that has brought extreme poverty to ghetto areas as a result of structural change. In another version, violence is seen as instrumental and situational, something that is employed rationally by a few actors and offers them protective value. Both of these views are suggestive, but because they are rooted in an analysis of the crack cocaine trade, they are theorized too narrowly to be applied to the whole postwar era.
Homicide is a gendered activity, but efforts to explain homicide in terms of gender are also unsatisfying. Men commit approximately 85-90 percent of homicides, regardless of time, place, or culture. The evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, examining familial homicides, argue for its basis in natural selection: spouses, in-laws, and nonnatal children (i.e., stepchildren) rather than blood kin account for most of these murders. However, given wide variation in homicide rates across time, place, and cultures, what is constant (male gender) is much less interesting than what is variable, namely, the rates at which homicides are committed. Historian David Courtwright sees gender ratios rather than gender per se as what counts: societies where family formation is impossible because of an excess of one gender or the other are characterized by high rates of violence. Low marriage rates reinforce homosocial bonds and the male irresponsibility associated with violence, a trend most apparent on the frontier West and in the modern inner city. As historian Jeffrey Adler notes, however, this argument fails to explain the experience of European immigrant groups (Poles, for example) at the turn of the twentieth century with high gender imbalances but low homicide rates.
Other scholars have explained the history of homicide by referring to Norbert Elias's concept of a "civilizing process." According to Elias and his many followers, the high homicide rates that characterized premodern European societies have declined over the past five centuries as states have secured borders and monopolized force, political participation has legitimated state authority, markets have embedded individuals in relationships of mutual dependence, and, most important, habits of thinking, acting, and behaving have become more self-restrained. These historians resort to "American exceptionalism" to explain the much higher rates of American homicide, which would make African Americans more exceptional still. However, as historian Randolph Roth has pointed out, the decline in homicide in Western Europe was marked by great variation over time, and advances in medical treatment explain much of what appears to be a decline in homicide. That is, hospital emergency rooms now save many lives that in earlier years would have been lost, which reduces the overall difference in homicide rates between premodern and modern societies. Efforts to apply Elias's theory in the United States have also proved problematic if only because of regional variations in homicide, rural-urban differences, and even differences among cities at the same point in time, all suggesting that the civilizing process, if at work at all, operates at such a level of abstraction that it is useless for understanding the very phenomenon it purports to explain. Modernization theory, which links the decline in violence to the rise of Protestantism and individualism, is another variant of this argument. One might note, however, that Protestantism and individualism have never been at odds with violence in the United States.
Sociologist Loic Wacquant, in accounting for the increase in violence in urban black communities, argues that the civilizing process has actually gone into reverse. He associates violence with a "decivilizing process" in which institutional life has declined, the economy has become informalized (employment in the formal sector of the economy has been replaced by short-term, episodic employment and the rise of an underground economy), and the state, with the exception of the police and the criminal justice system, has largely disappeared. While I agree with Wacquant's conclusions about the modern inner city, his version of history is wrong. Wacquant posits a romanticized golden age "communal ghetto" in the mid-twentieth century, itself presumably the product of a civilizing process, which is contradicted by the high, very noncommunal homicide rates of the postwar period.
Historian Roger Lane's "industrial exclusion" thesis compares the historical experiences of African Americans and various European immigrant groups and proposes that the latter's inclusion in the industrial economy lowered homicide. According to Lane, the demands of tending soberly to industrial machinery for sixty-hour work weeks, combined with limited access to alcohol, reinforced habits of self-discipline and prevented congregation on street corners and outside bars except for the weekends, while the expansion of urban school systems forced male children to ingrain this same discipline. African Americans, Lane argues, never acquired "industrial virtues." Systematically excluded from the industrial economy except during times of extreme labor shortages or during strikes, African American homicide rates declined during the 1940s and 1950s when the industrial economy briefly opened up before jobs were permanently exported to the suburbs, the Sunbelt, and eventually overseas. And yet homicide rates also declined during the nineteenth century in areas with little or no industry and only modest school attendance. Lane cannot explain why homicide rates have diverged so dramatically in the recent past: unlike Detroit, Philadelphia, and St. Louis, New York and Los Angeles have enjoyed remarkable declines in violent crime, and these cities are not reindustrializing. Something else has been at work.
Criminologist Gary LaFree links the rise in violent crime in the late twentieth century to a crisis in the legitimacy of American institutions. The dramatic increase in economic inequality during the 1960s and 1970s, the decline in the traditional family, and growing mistrust of government are all correlated with rising rates of robbery and murder, while increased spending on welfare programs, education, and incarceration are correlated with stabilization or modest declines in violent crime as alternate institutions were developed. This hypothesis seems clearly applicable to African Americans who have suffered from economic inequality, have had little reason to trust governmental institutions, and have had family structures under increasing stress in the postwar period. When extended backward in time, however, the correlations that appear in the postwar period are no longer clear, with the possible exception of the political legitimacy argument. Randolph Roth argues that low homicide rates are associated with a belief that government is stable and just, with trust in the probity of public officials, with the existence of "fellow feeling" within groups, and with the perception that one is part of a legitimate social hierarchy. The crux of the argument is that homicide rates have varied historically with faith in government: sometimes this faith is in local government and at others in national government, depending on the situation Roth wishes to explain. In the late 1990s, for instance, homicide rates diverged dramatically in Philadelphia and in New York City—staying high in the locale with the African American mayor and dropping in the city with a conservative white Republican one, both under the same presidential administration. Place clearly matters, but the argument for a link between attitudes toward government and homicide in the twentieth-century city seems tenuous at best. To understand the root and cause of homicide, we need to look at the phenomenon itself.
Jim Crow City
Within specific locations, such as Philadelphia, black and white homicide rates moved up and down more or less in tandem, showing that the same larger historical forces affect both. Despite variation over time, the rate among African Americans was consistently much higher than that among whites, and this persistent difference requires explanation. A number of scholars have linked high crime rates either to segregation or to the more recent concentration of poverty and social isolation of the poor. Here I propose to look at the 1940s, to show how homicide was linked to the process of ghettoization in the era before the poor became socially and spatially isolated, during the period Wacquant has identified as the "communal ghetto."
The process of ghettoization—funneling a stigmatized group into spatial enclaves preserved formally by government policy and informally by the actions of the majority community along its borderlands—muted the impact of events that drove down homicide elsewhere in American society during the postwar period. The exclusion of African Americans from industrial employment may have been declining during the war under pressure from civil rights groups, but with peace those opportunities dried up. As government housing policies lured working- and middle-class whites to areas of new settlement and redevelopment policies further concentrated African Americans in areas of lowered opportunities for legitimate employment, vice markets flourished, pulling both residents and police into their orbit. Lacking access to regular employment and thus deprived of traditional roles as breadwinners, black men exercised their masculinity more readily and more visibly through participation in street life, confrontations among peers, and dominance over women, all of which led easily to violence. Undoubtedly aware of prevailing bias, black men had no basis for a belief in the criminal justice system either to protect them from the vicissitudes of a volatile world or to settle their grievances. Logic alone prompted them to rely only on themselves and to carry knives or guns for self-protection. They did so in distinct areas, for the color line in the postwar city remained clearly drawn, maintained not just by custom but by the violence African Americans encountered as they ventured into white residential areas. While pacification of city streets occurred most obviously in elite and middle-class sections of the metropolis, working-class and poor neighborhoods relied more on informal social controls that were stressed by racial transition. Here, where both normative and institutional restraints on violence were tentative at best, homicide among low-income African Americans became a social production of the segregating city.
This emphasis on the ecological structuring of behavior derives from the Chicago School of sociology's emphasis on social ecology, which contemporary sociologists William Julius Wilson and Robert Sampson have revived by relating ecological dissimilarities with incidences of spatial inequality by race. But individuals are not just acted upon by their social settings; they create them. Historians, with their emphasis on agency, look to the role of human actors in making, resisting, and responding to social environments. While this perspective is usually applied to social activists, murderers are no different than any other agents except in the objects of their agency. Murder is clearly the result of a social ecology, a social situation (a "habitus" to use Pierre Bourdieu's terminology), but it is simultaneously determined by the actor. The assertion of masculinity appears frequently as a proximate cause of violence because it was through the creation and presentation of self that these actors internalized and reproduced the ecological structure of violence. To put the matter simply, murderers are both the product and the producers of a social ecology of violence, as I hope to demonstrate through specific case histories below.
An analysis of the transcripts of 195 trials for homicide (first- and second-degree murder and voluntary manslaughter) that took place in Philadelphia between 1940 and 1949 provides evidence for my claims. The race of the defendants and the victims can be identified in nearly 90 percent of the cases, and 83 percent of the defendants and 78 percent of the victims were African American. With transcripts that often run to the hundreds of pages, these trials provide a unique window into the relationship between homicide and ghettoization in Philadelphia during the 1940s.
At first it seems difficult to relate the mundane nature of these homicides to any larger theme either in American history or in the literature on homicide. Nearly 40 percent of the homicide cases resulted from disputes among friends or acquaintances (38.9 percent) and a third of the murders (32.8 percent) involved a family, spousal, or relationship killing, as homicide was turned inward toward intimate others. Disputes among strangers, often over apparently trivial matters, accounted for only about a fifth of the homicides. Only a few (6.6 percent) involved a felony, such as a robbery or holdup, where premeditation was established and where violence might be more clearly interpreted as instrumental. Certainly no one reading these materials would be convinced of rational-choice theories in which criminals weigh the odds of punishment and calculate the potential gains of crime before pulling the trigger.
The most common form of homicide occurred between friends, usually after a bout of drinking. These killings happened in the hundreds of bars that dotted the city's streets ("taprooms" had their own classification in Wolfgang's study, and 8 percent of the city's murders occurred there), especially in poor and working-class neighborhoods, or on the streets outside as victim and murderer stumbled their way home, or in someone's living room. Easy conviviality gave way suddenly to outbursts of rage, and men carrying weapons faced off over accumulated grievances normally hidden under a guise of friendship but now violently exposed. For example, John Byrd murdered his friend Shorty Lewis as they walked down the street arguing after Shorty refused him money for a bottle of wine. Byrd told Shorty to stop joking, and "one word led to another about me being high." Byrd explained that he stabbed Shorty because he had treated him so many times and Shorty never treated him back, a clear violation of a male code of mutuality and generosity. That the murder was not intentional did not stop Byrd from bragging about it. When he saw a female acquaintance, Adelle Hall, he threatened her, showing her a bloodstain on the pavement and telling her, "I killed that nigger Shorty, and I will give you the same thing." Although Byrd worked for a butcher, perhaps accounting for his familiarity with knives, he also had a criminal past that suggested familiarity with a criminal underworld as well: he had a long series of arrests for gambling, drugs, disorderly conduct, breaking and entering, and larceny, and he said he had carried a knife because he had gone to a dance and "men dance with knives."
Of course, if one expected others to be armed in a location where no external authority kept order, where alcohol fueled both conviviality and its opposite, and where fights might break out among competitive males seeking to assert their dominance over others or gain the attention of females, going unarmed could be considered foolish. A reputation for violence was useful to counter potential threats posed by others and, less instrumentally, was part of one's masculine identity, one that had to be constantly asserted and defended. Alcohol and edginess triggered the sort of incidents that cost Shorty Lewis his life and sent John Byrd to prison for an eight-to-sixteen-year stretch for second-degree murder. But it was the social setting—the insecurity of the neighborhood and the precariously established masculinity negotiated by the men who lived there—that established a social ecology of violence.
While Byrd and Lewis were participants in a criminal underworld where a resort to violence might be anticipated, even those who had no criminal pasts routinely carried weapons and reacted when their manliness was threatened. Ernest Jordan stabbed Allen Latney, whom he had visited nearly every day since childhood. The pair got into an argument when Latney refused to move over in the back seat of a car to let Jordan and a young woman in. "I came out and walked over to the car and said to Allen, 'Allen, straighten up, I got a girl coming out too,' and told him to sit up straight so that I and my girl can get into the car too. So he cursed me and told me to get out and take a walk and he reached for his back pocket and I went into my pocket and flipped my knife open and cut him in the throat." Latney started bleeding profusely, and the young people bundled him back into the car and drove him to the hospital, even notifying police of the incident once they warned Jordan to get out of the car and flee. But Latney died two hours after being dropped off in the emergency room, and Jordan faced a second-degree homicide charge. By disrespecting his friend, cursing at Jordan in front of a woman he hoped to impress (and who was not his wife), Allen Latney made a fatal mistake that not even the claims of lifelong friendship could overcome. Such homicides were not limited to African American neighborhoods—poor white men also killed their friends in alcohol-induced bouts of violence (43 percent of white homicides between 1948 and 1952)—but acquaintance homicides happened even more frequently among African Americans (52 percent of the homicides involving black males), evidence of the precariousness of masculine identity in the ghettoizing city.
Male honor was at the root of many killings, as men acted as patriarchal protectors of women they perceived as vulnerable—and who might not have other sources of protection than vigilant menfolk. Frank Newton stabbed Harry Brown after Brown repeatedly accused the thirty-one-year-old of paying inappropriate attention to the teenaged daughter of a neighbor ("I know you're Mary's nigger") and called him a "rotten son-of-a-bitch." The last exchange led to a fistfight in the street that ended with Newton pulling a knife. Archie Burney, Richard Crump, and Irwin Hobbs got into a fight with another man after stopping him from going out with the intoxicated wife of a mutual friend. When Hobbs stopped Jean on the street around 2:00 a.m. and told her to go home, her companion, James Shivers, told Hobbs to mind his own business. The dispute sputtered out, and Burney, Crump, and Hobbs continued on to a diner and placed their orders. About ten minutes later, Shivers appeared outside the window and beckoned Hobbs to come out. When Hobbs ignored him, Shivers entered, saying, "If any one of you fellows wants to fight, come on and fight." After another exchange of words, Shivers suddenly reached inside his coat, pulling out an iron rod, and beat Hobbs over the head and knocked Burney into the lunch counter and onto the floor. Someone swung a chair, causing Shivers to stagger, while Burney grabbed a knife and plunged it into Shivers's stomach. By then the police arrived and called for an ambulance, with Shivers explaining that the men had tried to take a girl away from him. Several witnesses in the diner all testified that Shivers had started the fight, so the jury accepted Burney's assertion of self-defense.
Shivers's actions made the jury's decision easy, but at a time (1942) when many husbands and fathers were leaving for war and women enjoyed an unchaperoned nightlife, jurors probably sympathized with men who seemed to be acting chivalrously. Hobbs explained to the jury that he hoped that if his wife were in a vulnerable situation, a friend might intervene on her behalf. (It is notable that these accounts were told solely from the perspective of the male defendants, and neither Mary nor Jean testified during the trials.) On dangerous neighborhood streets, especially late at night, men looked out for each other and prepared to act violently to protect the interests of their friends.
Disputes with strangers were very similar to those among friends, occurring frequently in the same type of locations, involving alcohol, and originating largely for the same reasons. Chance encounters might not damage one's standing among peers, but they went to the heart of one's self-identity, as a man not to be trifled with. Even as minor an occurrence as an accidental brush of shoulders on a street could lead to violence, as when "Sonny" Clark charged into a pool room to confront the teenager who had jostled him. Refusing to accept an apology and calling the young men punks ("you jitterbugs, I will kick you all in the ass"), the older Clark went after the boys who showed restraint and kept retreating. The show of submission did no good and perhaps even encouraged Clark to assert his dominance over the youths he viewed so contemptuously. The "houseman" intervened, telling Clark to accept the apology and forget it, but Clark ordered him out of the way and punched Joseph Harvey, who then pulled a pistol and fired as he fell to the ground, killing Clark. Since Harvey was backing away and Clark was intent on harming someone, anyone, in the group, the court found Harvey guilty of voluntary manslaughter, sentencing him only to time served up to twenty-three months. Clark's violence makes little sense except in a neighborhood social ecology where manhood depended on toughness, the ability to intimidate others, and the readiness to use violence to impose one's will on inferiors. The fact that Clark was a well-known "badman," a neighborhood Stagger Lee with a reputation for violence, determined both Clark's aggressiveness and the teenagers' fearful retreat.
The use of a gun in the Clark homicide was somewhat unusual. Only a third of Philadelphia's homicides in this period were committed with guns, according to Wolfgang, and there were no major racial distinctions (34 percent of black homicides versus 30 percent of white) in their use. But about half of the homicides involving African Americans (47 percent) were committed with knives or piercing instruments while whites were much more likely to beat someone to death than to knife someone (42 percent versus 17 percent). This distinctive racial pattern indicates the insecurity in African American neighborhoods, where individuals had to rely on themselves for protection. When African Americans confronted each other in a bar, on the street, or in a home, they were much more likely than whites (81 percent vs. 47 percent) to be armed with either a gun or a knife. While fistfights and stompings clearly could cause death, the use of a weapon increased the odds of a fatal outcome. Carrying weapons may have increased feelings of personal security, but they guaranteed an environment of social insecurity that was an essential contributor to the ecology of violence.
Weapons were a stock in trade for people dealing in illegal goods and services. Disputes over dice games, over payouts after someone hit a number, or in thinly disguised brothels and speakeasies accounted for 10 percent of the homicide cases and indicate the importance of the vice trade in the underground economy of black neighborhoods. There was no appeal to authority here, no mediator to settle a grievance or negotiate a debt repayment: everything was handled mano a mano. "Bow Jack" Jackson shot Willie Smith after an argument about drawing a card in a game of "skin." Both men reached for the same card, and "Little Willie" Smith said, "Before I let you take advantage of me, I will kill one of you all." The other card players told Smith that it was Jackson's card, but Smith refused to listen: "He said, 'I will kill you, motherfucker,'" and jumped up but was restrained by the other men. Jackson left the game, and about five minutes later Smith left as well. Jackson may have been waiting for him, because the other gamblers heard some shots almost immediately and ran outside: "I looked out the door about half a minute. Then I seen Willie Smith stumble around the corner and fall in the street." Jackson argued that Smith had a gun and that when Smith drew his revolver, they fought over it. "When he hit me, I turned him loose. Then he swung off to shoot me, and I fired the pistol." The jury acquitted Jackson, even though he had time to leave the scene without confronting Smith and, based on his own account, probably had a gun in his possession. The jury apparently thought it should leave the small world of West Philadelphia hustlers and gamblers to run according to its own social codes, which of course only further encouraged men to carry weapons and use them.
The second most common form of homicide—domestic or relationship violence—had its own patterns. This was the main form of homicide in which black women featured prominently as murderers. Thirty-two African American men (29.3 percent of black male defendants) and seventeen African American women (58.6 percent of black female defendants) were charged in spousal, family, or relationship murders, including three women charged with infanticide. Whereas domestic homicides with white male defendants clustered in 1945 and 1946 (only five cases) and were clearly related to postwar adjustments between returning veterans and their spouses, domestic homicide among African Americans continued at a steady pace throughout the decade, indicating a more entrenched form of violence. Most of these cases, including the ones with female defendants, involved violent men who were abusing their spouses or girlfriends, leading to the death of one or the other. Many of these cases were characterized by long-standing abuse, exacerbated by alcohol. Relationships were strained and sometimes collapsed under the pressure of poverty and irregular employment. The interventions of friends or relatives were ineffectual, only seeming to delay a fatal outburst.
Oliver and Louise Euell had a history of violence throughout their seventeen-year marriage. Oliver had been stabbed with a butcher knife in the arm, head, and nose one time when Louise was drunk, and on another occasion, he had beaten her seriously enough to be arrested. Their son had been removed from the home and sent to the Catholic Protectory for his safety. A drunken quarrel over two dollars spent on ale led Oliver Euell to beat his wife to death. Mary Wilson told her husband, Arthur, that she was leaving him because she did not want to kill him. The two quarreled over money, and Mary had left her husband several times: "I in turn, as soon as I could learn her location, I asked her to come back with me and she did," Arthur asserted. "She leaves me because she says I don't make enough money and . . . I can't afford to get another job because I am on parole." After she told him she was leaving for good, Arthur pulled out a knife and slit her throat. Men, imbued with patriarchal notions of family, asserted romantic but deadly claims over women who seemed to be slipping away. Such claims should be understood in the context of a social ecology where violence and masculinity were intertwined. Men displayed prowess through dominance over others, and violence was integral to that display.
Social constructions of patriarchy demanded that men support their wives, even if they found it impossible to do so. For example, eighteen-year-old Hazel Johnson had come to Philadelphia from North Carolina to visit her sister, Marilyn, who was employed as a domestic. Hazel, who had been married at fifteen, liked the big city life, and her husband, Hilbert, followed her north to look for work but had difficulty making ends meet. Marilyn was asked in court if the couple fought over Hazel's clothing and other purchases, but she said no "because it was understood that I was buying her clothes." The twenty-three-year-old Hilbert worked as a day laborer and could not afford to splurge on his wife, but it no doubt rankled that his sister-in-law provided the things he could not. The Johnsons' quarreling got bad enough that Hazel asked her sister for carfare to return home to North Carolina because Hilbert was threatening to kill her. Marilyn came over and asked Hilbert what was the matter with him, but he said nothing, seething silently and perhaps fearing further emasculation in the eyes of the two women. Hazel warned Marilyn that Hilbert had a knife on him, but Marilyn thought that he was calm and headed home after inviting the two to come for dinner the next evening. Hilbert told police the argument continued after Marilyn left. "Hazel then struck at me and I slapped her. Hazel then said I am not going to live with you anymore, then we started down the stairs to the first floor and when we got to the third step from the bottom, she stopped and said, 'Hilbert why not just let's break it up?' I then took the knife out of my right-side pocket and opened it . . . and I said I am not going to argue with you, then I cut her, I really did." Asked why, he replied, "I love the girl and did not want her messing with anyone else." Similar phrases appeared again and again in domestic/relationship homicides as men, stuck on a romantic ideal that clashed with the realities of life as unskilled laborers or casual workers in a Philadelphia ghetto, tried to assert permanent possession over their wives and girlfriends.
In other incidents, women killed their abusive husbands or boyfriends or incited others to attempt it for them, but the circumstances were nearly identical to those in which men were the perpetrators. A history of violent abuse led to these homicides, but instead of a man going too far and killing a spouse, these women drew a line that an abusive partner finally crossed. After Andrew Vance beat Mary Jones with a rubber hose, she asked her twenty-four-year-old son, Melvin, for help. Melvin showed up with several friends and asked Vance why he was beating his mother. It is not clear if threats were exchanged, but the next day when Melvin returned to help his mother move out, Vance greeted him and his friends with a blast from his twelve-gauge shotgun, killing one of the young men.
Police officer Edward McBride found Sam Minor dead in bed after being summoned by neighbors. He thought Minor might have been unconscious, but when he went to shake him, "I noticed a pool of blood by his right shoulder. Lifting it up I saw it was all gummy and I thought the man was probably dead." He went next door and found Charlotte Anderson, Minor's common-law wife, and "to me she appeared to have been badly beaten, her face was swollen, very badly bruised." He told Charlotte that Minor was shot, and her friend told him "he should have been shot." Charlotte Anderson had been in the hospital a few days earlier because Minor had beaten her with an iron pipe, and because she remained in pain, she begged him to take her back. Minor refused, telling her, "Oh, bitch, go on suffering and die." "She told me," McBride reported, "that when he came home . . . he sat upon the bed and she placed the shotgun against his back and fired one shot." The court was lenient with Anderson despite obvious premeditation, finding her guilty of manslaughter and sentencing her to two to three years' imprisonment. The involvement of seventeen African American women in domestic homicides (by comparison, white women appeared as defendants in only three cases in my sample, and two were infanticides) suggests the pressures placed on black unions. A history of black female wage earning gave women comparative independence from their mates, likely exacerbated male feelings of inadequacy, and heightened tensions between partners that sometimes exploded into homicide.
Women involved in nondomestic homicides acted in ways and for reasons very similar to men. Drunken brawls, jealousy, petty arguments, and involvement in the vice trade all led women to homicide. Peggy Lloyd dumped oil on Pepper Berry and set her ablaze after the two housemates had a quarrel about whether or not Berry should go out for more booze. Erseline Carter killed James Matt, who was affected by paralysis, after a round of drinking in his apartment. Matt threatened to shoot his nephew, Carter asked to see the gun, and the two argued over whether or not Matt would shoot someone—a foolish challenge to a paralyzed man's vulnerable sense of masculinity. Matt said he should kill her, reached over and cut Carter on the thigh, and Carter grabbed a knife and stabbed him in the chest. Beulah Perry and her sister Sadie Washington decided to rob a john and hailed a man passing in the street below, who came upstairs. While one had sex with him, the other stole his wallet. When he protested, their housemate Charles Armstead intervened and hit the man in the head with a hammer and killed him. Perry and Washington fled, and Armstead hid the body in the outhouse, later tossing it over the fence into the vacant lot where it was found. Both domestic and nondomestic homicides were the actions of women fending for themselves in a social setting where the intemperate use of violence supported claims of male dominance—and conversely of female resistance.
Felony homicides (that is, a homicide occurring during the commission of another felony) were relatively rare (6.6 percent). These were almost always "economic" crimes—in the sense that robbery was the motive—and the most common scenario was a holdup in which a shopkeeper resisted his robbers and was killed. Since shopkeepers were frequently white, these homicides made front-page news and prosecutors treated them as hot-button political cases where a first-degree murder conviction made the defendant eligible for the death penalty. A series of robberies of North Philadelphia stores by two holdup men led police to stake out a grocery store at 18th and Berks. The officers were hidden in the back when two robbers came into the store near closing time, and while one opened the cash register, the other ushered the owner, Benjamin Kahn, to the back of the store at gunpoint. Kahn dove for the floor and called out for help, and in an exchange of gunfire, one of the police officers, George Mitchell, was killed. Both holdup men got away, but twenty-three-year-old Theodore Elliott and his twenty-four-year-old cousin, John Frank, were soon arrested. Pressure to convict was intense, and the police moved Elliott from police station to police station, keeping him from his family and allegedly without food until he signed a confession. Kahn was a weak witness, admitting he had failed to pick out either man in police lineups, though on the stand he definitively identified Elliott as the triggerman. Each of the robbers claimed the other was the shooter, although Frank, an admitted heroin addict, stated believably, "When we go in on a holdup, I am a little nervous with a gun, so Elliott always takes the gun and he marches the people back. I go for the money. I usually go over the counter." Elliott subsequently withdrew his not-guilty plea, and a three-judge panel sentenced him to death, while Frank was given life imprisonment. The prominence of cases with white victims, the prosecutor's request for the death penalty, and frequent allegations of police misconduct and beatings likely solidified beliefs among African Americans that the criminal justice system was not to be relied on as it was biased and meted out more punishment than justice to black defendants.
Interracial homicides, such as the murder of Officer Mitchell, occurred rarely—only a dozen cases (7 percent) in my sample over the decade—but it is notable that only one occurred before 1944. That year the Philadelphia Transportation Company's white workers walked off their jobs to protest hiring black motormen and conductors, effectively shutting down the city's war production efforts through their strike. Only federal intervention forced workers back to their jobs amid noticeably increased racial tension in the city. The interracial homicides that appeared during and after 1944 were a mixed lot, however: a black cabbie who killed one of a group of white teenagers in a wild melee that swirled around the dispatch station was acquitted; a white bartender shot a black patron who threatened him with a knife and was acquitted, even though it appeared he chased the fleeing man up the street firing a pistol; a white longshoreman was acquitted of killing a black longshoreman in a street fight involving several men swinging baling hooks and knives. Both the defendant and the deceased had arrest records, and the jury did not want to convict a white man in a brawl among thugs.
The increase in interracial homicides, even though their number remained small, reflected the divisions in a city where race was contested at nearly every turn. The series of acquittals made it seem as if juries decided that the racial contest for the streets was best settled there rather than in court, an ominous portent for a city experiencing wrenching social change. The failure of authorities to act more forcefully in interracial incidents underscored the prevailing view among African Americans that self-reliance was the best protection when venturing in inner-city streets.
Homicide in the postwar city had distinctive racial, gender, and social patterns. The character of most homicides—the brutal, messy confrontations between friends and the violent abuse of spouses—was based in a precarious masculinity that had few supports other than violent self-representation in the ghettoizing city. In the absence of community safeguards against violence and without trusted authorities to intervene, violent men and women responded to the social insecurities of ghetto life by acting collectively in such a way that ensured further violence.
Homicide rates for African Americans and for whites declined in the mid-1950s (Figure 1). The trauma of postwar readjustments in marital relationships that helped cause homicide to spike in 1945-46 ended, and family formation in the 1950s helped bring homicide rates down. The anticipated postwar recession did not occur, and the city enjoyed a modest, if temporary, prosperity. African Americans greeted the opening of public housing projects that replaced some of the city's worst dwellings in North Philadelphia with enthusiasm—until it became apparent that patterns of segregation were (literally) being cemented in the city. A new liberal Democratic city administration promised reform and renewal, although these hopes were eventually dashed.
The respite from homicide was relatively brief. As Philadelphia's black neighborhoods expanded and consolidated, as white ethnic enclaves resisted the expansion of black settlement, as construction and other unions rejected NAACP demands for integrated training programs and battled picketers in the street, as schools became vehicles for miseducation, as factories closed and buildings were left for arsonists, as the drug economy replaced the mainstream one, as police meted out street justice and the courts prescribed ever-longer prison sentences, and as poverty concentrated in spatially isolated communities, ghettoization proceeded apace. As it did, so did black homicide.