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Homicide in Chicago, 1870–1930
Created and maintained by the Chicago Historical Homicide Project, Northwestern University School of Law.
Reviewed June, 2012.

Everyone has heard of the Haymarket Riot of 1886 and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. Those murderous milestones in the history of Chicago have now taken their place alongside thousands of other violent deaths—arising from arson, barroom brawls, robberies, reckless driving, building collapses, boiler explosions, and numerous other causes—in one stunning online archive. The Web site revolves around the records of eleven thousand homicide cases logged by the Chicago police from 1870 to 1930. The original handwritten records (preserved in recent decades by the Illinois State Archives) have been carefully transcribed and coded by the Chicago Historical Homicide Project, and the data is presented here in a well-designed and accessible interactive database.

Capone vs. McSwiggin on the front page of theThe Chicago Daily News, April 28, 1926

Scholars, teachers, students, and members of the public can explore the history of one great city’s homicide trends by choosing from a menu of search criteria that includes the names of the parties; the dates or addresses of the incidents; the gender, race, age, or occupations of victims (or defendants); and the circumstances of the killing (number of victims, method of killing, and, grimly, the level of violence). Researchers seeking to conduct their own longitudinal analyses are invited to download the entire database in one of three formats: ibm spss Statistics, Microsoft Access, and Microsoft Excel. Other sections of the site detail the historical and legal contexts of Chicago during this explosive period of industrial expansion and reform, provide a roundup of “crimes of the century,” and serve up digital copies of some of the most valuable published primary sources related to Chicago crime during this period, including the Reverend William T. Stead’s famous 1894 reform tract, If Christ Came to Chicago, and the Illinois Crime Survey of 1929.

Especially useful to scholars and lay readers alike is the site’s posting of the double issue that the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology published in 2002 about the project. The academic articles, on topics ranging from juvenile homicide to husband killing to criminal law practice in the 1920s, attest to the scholarly promise of the database. The lead article, by the project director Leigh B. Bienen (a senior lecturer at the Northwestern University School of Law) and Brandon Rottinghaus (a political science professor at the University of Houston), highlights major statistical facts about Chicago homicide during this sixty-year period. Nearly three-quarters of all homicides in the city involved men killing men, and when women were murdered their slayers were also overwhelmingly male. Well over half of all murders across the period involved guns.

The site is a bit vague about the circumstances under which these marvelously revealing records were originally produced. Both lay viewers and experts will want to know more about why the Chicago police started recording homicides in this way. On the other hand, visitors to the site are wisely left to form their own theories about what exactly violent crime in the city has had to do with broader forces of urbanization, immigration, industrial capitalism, and the evolution of morals and manners. This site provides an invaluable resource for exploring those and other questions about the history of American violence.

Michael Willrich
Brandeis University
Waltham, Massachusetts