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First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt:   Homicide in Chicago 1875-1920
By Jeffrey S. Adler
Illustrated. 384 pp.
Harvard University Press. US$35.00
ISBN-10: 0674021495 / ISBN-13: 9780674021495

In his book, First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt: Homicide in Chicago 1875-1920 , author Jeffrey Adler takes a lively look at a violent time in Chicago’s history, a time when Chicago was knee-deep in murders while the rest of the country was only up to its ankles. Adler examines the period with a historian's scrutiny and eye for detail. He does this in a style that is immediately engaging and that keeps the pages turning until the end.

As much sociology as history of crime (Adler writes, "Homicide is a 'social event.'"), First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt looks at specific murders and relates them to the larger forces in Chicago and America that impacted the murderers. The period covered in the book was a time of rapid and sometimes frightening change in America. Industrialization and poverty, immigration and ethnic conflict -- these combined to produce one of the deadliest times and places in American history. Interestingly, the same time period in Chicago saw a drop in other types of violent crime. In many ways other than murder, it was a relatively orderly period.

To write this book, Adler analyzed approximately 6,000 Chicago murder cases that took place within the 45 years that is the time span of the book. Through careful study, he was able to discern patterns that changed and shifted within that timeframe as the city grew. He writes, "The choice of victim, the location of the violence, the triggering incident,...the instrument of death, and even the number of shots fired or punches thrown changed between 1875 and 1920. Simply put, the sparks that generated murderous behavior shifted as Chicago grew."

Adler begins each chapter of First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt with a specific case and describes what took place. Then he shows how that case is typical of murders of that particular phase in this part of Chicago's history. For example, in the chapter entitled, "I Loved My Wife So I Killed Her," we learn that most wife-killers in this period were ruled by a passion not seen earlier. Although a few of the 94 men who killed their wives said they hated them, the vast majority cited their love for their wife as a reason behind the killing.

All in all, this is a fascinating, well-researched work of criminal history. It is highly readable and will appeal to students and criminologists, and to a general readership as well.

Jeffrey S. Adler teaches history and criminology at the University of Florida.

Thomas Eddingby, for Notable Book Reviews
Notable Book Reviews received one or more copies of this book in exchange for this review.
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