Randolph Roth


On his book American Homicide

Cover Interview of August 29, 2010

The wide angle

The theory of homicide I develop in the book first emerged because my initial hypothesis “died a horrible death” in the face of the evidence from Vermont and New Hampshire, where my study began.

I set out to understand why northern New Englanders were virtually non-homicidal.  As I gathered data from beyond the time period I first studied, however, I discovered to my dismay that they were not.  By the mid-nineteenth century American New Englanders had become more homicidal than their counterparts in England.

The book I had planned to write on northern New England’s “non-violent” culture was in ruins.  However, when I separated by type the homicides I had found in New Hampshire and Vermont, I discovered that the patterns of homicide made sense in terms of New England’s history.

Murders of children by adult relatives or caregivers followed a long, smooth curve that was the inverse of the birth-rate: high fertility meant a low child murder rate and low fertility meant a high murder rate.

Marital homicides and romance homicides jumped suddenly in the 1830s and 1840s: decades in which jobs opened to women in education and industry and in which the ideal of companionate marriage took hold.

Homicides among unrelated adults peaked during periods of political turmoil and of loss of faith in government: the Revolution, the Embargo crisis, and the sectional crisis.

It appeared that state breakdowns and political crises of legitimacy produce surges in nondomestic homicides; the restoration of order and legitimacy produces declines in homicides.

The same pattern was evident on the national level in the twentieth century, a period for which comprehensive homicide statistics are available. The establishment of government legitimacy through the New Deal, World War II, and the Cold War appeared to have reduced homicide rates through the 1950s; the crisis of government legitimacy in the 1960s and 1970s (especially in the eyes of African-Americans) may have contributed to soaring homicide rates.

I knew that it would take more to prove my theory than evidence drawn from the history of Vermont and New Hampshire, my area of expertise.  So I extended my research to the colonial period, to early modern Europe, and outward to the South, the Midwest, the West, and the urban East.

Everywhere I looked, the domestic murder rate for children followed the inverse of the birth rate up to the end of the nineteenth century.  Marital and romance homicides increased suddenly in the 1830s and 1840s across the northern United States—as well as in England and northern France. Everywhere I looked, homicides among unrelated adults correlated with political events.

I conducted “natural experiments” to prove that correlation.  I hypothesized, for instance, that the homicide rate would soar during the American Revolution and remain high for decades afterwards in the Georgia-South Carolina backcountry, where the Revolution was a genuine civil war.  I also hypothesized that the homicide rate would hold steady or fall in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, which enjoyed political stability under patriot control throughout the Revolution, and where support for the war effort and the new federal government was stronger than anywhere else in the South.  My research in local archives confirmed these and other hypotheses.  And every measure I could find of changes in people’s feelings and beliefs supported the theory.