Past Imperfect: crime in the 1920s

Recently, a terrible crime was committed in Spokane, Washington, and the remarks of the police chief afterward occasioned discussion about whether crime is worse now than ever before.  He spoke of a lost generation, and of a loss of stability and discipline.

Those of us who read history know this is nothing new.  In the 1920s and 1930s, my current field of study, crime was prevalent and disturbing, not least because of the pressures put on society by Prohibition.  A quick bit of research turned up plenty of crimes to compete with the tragedy in Spokane:

First, police killed in the line of duty:  http://www.seattle.gov/police/recognition/memoriam/memoriam3.htm

Second, the effects of Prohibition and depression on the crime rate: http://depts.washington.edu/depress/crime_seattle_great_depression.shtml

Third, a rather stunning bibliography of crime in Seattle, put together by the wonderful folks at HistoryLink.org, which is a gold mine of information for a historical novelist:  http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=7145

Fourth, a nasty event called “the Centralia Massacre”, in which four World War I veterans were killed.

For one more resource, there’s a piece which addresses, in part, crime in the tent cities, called Hoovervilles, where homeless folks took shelter:  http://depts.washington.edu/depress/hooverville_seattle_tarpaper_carthage.shtml  As the writer says, “Violence and death were everywhere in the newspapers during the Depression.”

There are other issues with the early part of the twentieth century which uncannily mirror those we face in contemporary times.  The Ku Klux Klan was active and popular in Washington State, with the usual attendant offenses.  Prostitutes in the Tenderloin district, many of them Chinese girls tricked into coming to America with the promise of work, were abused and killed without much attention being paid to them.  Organized crime saw its heyday because of Prohibition, including, in Seattle, a corrupt police chief.  All of these events speak to the challenges of any  historical period affected by wars, poverty, prejudice and political conflict.

It’s worth noting, too, that the generation of the 1920s was the first to becalled a “Lost Generation.” The term was originally applied to ex-patriate writers, but was later widely used to describe young people disaffected by the tragedies of the Great War.

None of these things lessen the heinous nature of what happened in Spokane, but we shouldn’t look at the past with romantic nostalgia.  At least in my view, we’re better off understanding that the human condition has always meant hard times for some, easier times for others, and endless fodder for the novelist!

 

 
 


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