Kristofer Allerfeldt. Crime and the Rise of Modern America: A History from 1865-1941. London: Routledge, 2010. 264 pp. $125.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-415-80044-0; $28.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-415-80045-7.
Reviewed by Jeffrey S. Adler (University of Florida)
Published on H-Law (June, 2011)
Commissioned by Christopher R. Waldrep (San Francisco State University)
Crime and American Culture
Not only did crime reflect American culture in the age of industry, according to Kristofer Allerfeldt, but “it [also] is perhaps fair to say that crime and criminals could make as a [sic] good a definition of modern America and contemporary American-ness as any other” (p. 1). With this premise, Allerfeldt examines the high-profile crimes that revealed the nation’s mood and character as well as the celebrity criminals whose misdeeds informed the development of modern America. In an engaging, fast-paced narrative, Allerfeldt explores the marrow of American culture through the brashness, audacity, opportunism, and ruthlessness of American criminals from the end of the Civil War to the nation’s entry in World War II. While many scholars have noted that trends in crime and deviance are grounded in culture, Allerfeldt takes this view a step further, asserting that the motivations and actions of criminals, such as the swindler Charles Ponzi and the mobster Al Capone, reveal important, defining American values. Hence an analysis of their criminal exploits unearths the norms and cultural trends of the nation during a particularly formative era. He argues, for example, that Ponzi “was the epitome of the American dream,” while Capone “resembled the robber barons in his business strategy,” which reflected the centralization, bureaucratization, and corporatization that fueled America’s rise to industrial power during the early twentieth century (pp. 15, 112).
Crime and the Rise of Modern America offers a wide-ranging portrait of American culture, examining crimes from banditry and labor violence to political corruption and terrorism. Allerfeldt develops his argument in a series of topical chapters, each filled with crisp, colorful vignettes of larger-than-life criminals, “crimes of the century,” and high-profile scandals and swindles. He avers that greed, unbridled ambition, risk taking, and acquisitiveness shaped American culture during this period. Thus, robber barons command more attention than street criminals in his analysis, and the Wall Street financier J. P. Morgan and the New York City ward boss George Washington Plunkitt are portrayed as exemplars of the nation’s embrace of an avaricious, cut-throat, “corporate” mentality, one that blurred the boundary between business and crime. Many of Allerfeldt’s prominent “criminals,” such as John D. Rockefeller, were not convicted of committing any crimes, bolstering his argument that their unethical behavior during this “era of supreme venality” represented an endemic and perhaps defining component of American values (p. 65). Amoral, unscrupulous titans of industry symbolized the criminal class that shaped industrial America. Similarly, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911 and the Black Sox scandal of 1919 epitomized the greed and corruption of the early twentieth century, just as Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb’s murder of Bobby Franks revealed the thrill-seeking ethos of the 1920s. While these were exceptional scandals, crimes, and criminals, the author argues that they personified the spirit and values of the era.
Allerfeldt writes from a traditional “American Studies” perspective, focusing on the distinctive, defining elements of American culture. He frames his study, however, in a curiously iconoclastic manner, explaining that the book fills an important void linking crime and culture, for the existing scholarship on the history of crime, with few exceptions, is “limited in scope,” lacks rigor, or consists of “purely factual encyclopaedias [sic] with little or no analysis or context” (p. 2). By contrast, he intends his book to “use criminal history in a more sophisticated fashion” (p. 6). Because Allerfeldt focuses on cultural currents and then discusses illustrative “celebrity crimes” (p. 13), he does not identify or analyze patterns of crime or draw systematically from recent legal or criminal justice history to examine or explain overall trends in criminal behavior. Although Allerfeldt notes the diversity and heterogeneity of American society, his argument, with its emphasis on core “American” values, gives short shrift to perspectives based on gender, class, ethnicity, race, place, and region. Instead, he paints American culture, and the crimes that defined it, with broad brush strokes. Nor does his analysis of culture draw from literary or cultural theory.
Lightly documented and synthetic, Crime and the Rise of Modern America seems pitched to an undergraduate audience. Allerfeldt peppers his narrative with evocative quotations, usually culled from secondary sources. While his provocative argument will engage students, specialists will likely take issue with many of Allerfeldt’s characterizations, such as his assertions that “if alcohol seemed to be an American vice, gambling was perhaps the American vice”; that “there can be few other nations which take such a robust attitude toward political corruption as the United States”; and that the conman’s “virtues were was so American” and “displayed those All-American traits of ingenuity, audacity, ambition, self-reliance [and] originality” (pp. 118, 164, 80, italics in original). Similarly, African American historians will probably dissent from his characterization of plantation slaves as “pauper gamblers,” just as criminal justice historians will question his assertion that the egregiously unprofessional and corrupt Gilded Age police “represented the forces of bureaucratization and centralization which were transforming American society” (pp. 119, 63). Western historians will also be surprised to read Allerfeldt’s description of their treatment of frontier violence, which states that “to many interpreters, academic and popular, violence played out the struggles of the West, the fight between good and evil; right and wrong; just and unjust; strong and weak with violent and Manichean clarity” (p. 29).
A number of errors mar the book, which is unfortunate for a volume with considerable classroom potential. Some are relatively minor, such as the anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells appearing as “Ida Bell,” the late nineteenth-century New Orleans police chief David Hennessy appearing as “Peter Hennessy,” the early twentieth-century Kansas City political boss Thomas Pendergast appearing as “Thomas Prendergast,” and the Chicago gangster Jim Colosimo appearing as “Joe Colisimo” and as “Joe Collisimo” (pp. 55, 213, 176-177, 2, 214). Other errors are more significant, including his assertion that “some 7 million slaves” were freed after the Civil War, though the accepted figure is four million (p. 46). To document a surge in violence, Allerfeldt states that the “U.S. homicide rate had quadrupled in the first two decades of the twentieth century” (p. 137). Recent scholarship, however, establishes that the rate rose by a more modest 22 percent. In addition, Allerfeldt offers many fascinating but undocumented statements, such as his observation that “the outbreak of war in 1941 brought perhaps the greatest surge in homosexual activity in American history” and his assertion that “not only were American criminals more powerful than those of other nations but they were also somehow more sinister” (pp. 163, 2-3).
But perhaps this book should be evaluated on other grounds. Allerfeldt is less concerned with quantitative precision or theoretical nuance than in offering broad, thought-provoking characterizations of American cultural development. Even if his treatment of patterns of criminal behavior will not persuade all specialists, and even if his analysis of cultural history is atheoretical, Allerfeldt provides an accessible and interesting portrait of industrial America and the crimes and scandals that gripped the nation between Appomattox and Pearl Harbor.
. For example, see Douglas Lee Eckberg, “Estimates of Early Twentieth-Century U.S. Homicide Rates: An Econometric Forecasting Approach,” Demography 32 (February 1995): 13.
(p. 118, italics in original),
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Jeffrey S. Adler. Review of Allerfeldt, Kristofer, Crime and the Rise of Modern America: A History from 1865-1941.
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