Bloody deeds in Boston and Basel

A Drawing which shows the assassination of Philip Barton. © Library of Congress Prints and Photographs, USA

Murders and killings happen noticeably more often in the USA than in Europe. And that’s not a new phenomenon, as a Swiss researcher has now shown. Even 200 years ago there was a greater readiness to resort to violence in Boston than there was in Basel. By Simon Koechlin

(From "Horizons" no. 104, March 2015)

​Violence is part and parcel of the history of mankind. One of the earliest stories in the Bible tells how Cain killed his brother Abel. In Homer’s Iliad, the Greeks raze the city of Troy to the ground. And over 5,000 years ago, in the southern Tyrolean Alps, an unknown man shot an arrow into the back of another. The mummified corpse of the victim is known today as ‘Ötzi’.

But the history of human violence leaves many questions unanswered. “For a long time, for example, historians only bothered with wars and ignored the violence that takes place in everyday life”, says Silvio Raciti, who has completed his doctorate at the History Department of the University of Bern. Furthermore, only a few historical investigations have hitherto delved into whether different places on earth display a greater or lesser tendency to resort to violence.

Thanks to a research scholarship, Raciti was able to compare the type and frequency of acts of violence in Boston in the USA and in Basel in Switzerland from 1750 to 1860. His particular focus was on homicides, and he based his work primarily on court records and newspaper reports. The number of homicides fluctuated, but was higher overall in Boston than in Basel. During the period under investigation there were on average some four homicides per 100,000 residents in Boston each year, whereas the number in Basel was less than two. Today, the homicide rate in the USA is roughly five per 100,000 people per annum, whereas it’s less than one in Switzerland.

“Violence as a means of conflict management was more acceptable in Boston than in Basel”, says Raciti. This is obvious from a comparison of the times of the crimes and the identities of the perpetrators. In Basel, physical attacks occurred primarily at weekends and on evenings, and they were carried out almost exclusively by young men from the lower classes. In Boston, however, killings occurred at all times of the day and on work days too. The perpetrators there also included older men and women.

A weak state?

In the USA, the right to self-defence was in any case already far more established back then than was the case in Europe. If you could make a convincing case that you felt threatened, then you could kill an adversary without any danger of punishment, as is clear from an event that happened in 1806. It involved two politicians who had been locked in a long-running battle. When one of them anticipated that they might clash one particular morning, he took a pistol with him just to be safe. He later encountered the son of his adversary in the centre of Boston, who made as if to hit him with a stick – at which the politician promptly shot him dead. He was later acquitted.

But the imponderability of the US legal system was also responsible for conflict taking a more violent turn there than was common in Europe, says Raciti. Court proceedings lasted a long time, and it wasn’t possible for the victim to get financial compensation at the end of it all. People also often fought against the police, who spent most of their time combatting the sale and consumption of alcohol instead of fighting violent crime. This is an important result of his investigations, believes Raciti. The USA’s higher homicide rate is often chalked up to the supposed weakness of the state. But in fact the state is just as efficient over there as it is in Europe – “it’s just that its resources are deployed differently”.

Simon Koechlin is the chief editor of Tierwelt and a science journalist.