Editorial Board: Editor: George H. Conklin, North Carolina Central University Board: Bob Davis, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University Richard Dixon, UNC-Wilmington Ken Land, Duke University Miles Simpson, North Carolina Central University Ron Wimberley, N.C. State University Robert Wortham, North Carolina Central University
Editorial Assistants Rob Tolliver, Duke University Shannon O'Connor, North Carolina Central University John W.M. Russell, Technical Consultant
Volume 6, Number 1
Savannah Homicides in a Century
Jacksonville State University
Homicide rates are the cornerstone of measuring interpersonal violence in the United States. Criminologists, media commentators, and public officials alike will cite them as an index of the state of affairs in the country, in a state, or in a city. They generally are considered valid crime measures because homicides are quite well reported, and the essence of the crime is clear, the death of a human being. Additionally, definitions of the crime are relatively consistent from one era to another (Clark, Cobb, & Irwin, 1867; State of Georgia, 1998), and that is not the case for most other major crimes.
Although the outcome of a homicide is unambiguous, "dead is dead," the same cannot be said for associated legal, social-demographic and criminological issues associated with criminal homicides. "Degree" based on elements of the crime may be in doubt (Alvarez & Bachman, 2003: p. 12). Categorization is far more complex than suggested in legal "elements of the crime" (Flewelling & Williams, 1999). Motives may be questioned (Douglas & Olshaker, 1999). Causes and correlates will certainly be debated (Beeghley, 2003), Messner & Rosenfeld, 1999; Corzine, Corzine & Whitt, 1999; Daly & Wilson, 1999). Suspects may not be known or may be mis-identified. Thus simple reports of the number of homicides or rate statistics leave very much unsaid. As M. Dwayne Smith asked, "What don't we know about homicide that, with proper research, could be learned? (2000: p. 3)." Finding the necessary additional data to do more sophisticated analysis and selecting the appropriate categories, typologies, and classifications into which to sort these data to answer key questions about circumstances, correlates, and causality present great challenges to homicide scholars and general criminologists.
In many ways scholarship on homicide is the most sophisticated of our criminological enterprises. The seriousness of the offense has captured the attention of many serious scholars (Wolfgang, 1958; Lane, 1979; 1986; 1997; Wilson, 1993; Smith & Zahn, 1999a, 1999b; Alvarez & Bachman, 2003), and homicide is very high in the interests of our government (Douglas & Olshaker, 1999; Ressler, Burgess & Douglas, 1988; Riedel, Zahn & Mock, 1985), the mass media, and of the general public alike. From the earliest statistical analyses of Quetelet (1831, 1984: p. 25, 48-53, 68) to modern times (Alvarez & Bachman, 2003; Balkwell, 1990; Barnett & Schwartz, 1989; Beeghley, 2003; Cheatwood, 1990; Douglas & Olshaker, 1999; Egger, 1998; Fox, 1991; Hawkins, 1986; Ogle, Maier-Katkin & Bernard, 1995; Pampel, 2001; Parker, 1995; Rosenfeld, Messner & Baumer, 2001; Wilkerson, 1984), we have turned to homicide data for information upon which to build or refine criminological theory (Rosenfeld, 2004). But as most researchers have discovered, the most commonly used data sources on homicides in the United States, the seventy-five-year-old Uniform Crime Reports, as aggregated data, mask as much information as they reveal (Riedel, 1999; Flewelling & Williams, 1999).
of the problem, more recently the FBI have been releasing their Supplemental
Homicide Reports used by several scholars needing more depth of information
(Harries, 1993; Riedel & Przybylski, 1993: p. 364; Segall & Wilson,
1993: p. 343; Weisheit, 1993: p. 193). Some truly illuminating studies
on homicide have gone far beyond these FBI sources and have mined data
sets not readily available to the public or even to most criminologists.
One of the most productive data sources is police investigative reports
such as those used by Wolfgang (1958). A handful of scholars with
good police connections (Goetting, 1993: 158; Rasche, 1993: p. 79-82) or
with access to medical examiners' records (Wilbanks, 1983) have tapped
into these sources. The senior author of this study has been examining
municipal data from Savannah, Georgia from both police and coroners' records
with illuminating results. This report is a part of that larger study,
which is known as the Savannah Interpersonal Violence Study.
Southern Cult of Violence and the Savannah Homicide Study
The American South's high homicide rates have drawn special attention in academic studies of the crime (Cheatwood, 1990; Huff-Corzine, Corzine & Moore, 1986; Riedel, Zahn & Mock, 1985: p. 16, 31). A postulated “southern cult of violence” (Butterfield, 1995; Chilton, 2004; Gastil, 1971; Hackney, 1969; Redfield, 1880 ), sometimes associated with lynchings (Olzak, 1990; Soule, 1992; Tolnay, Deane & Beck, 1996) and high rates of minority-victimizations (Peterson and Krivo, 1993), has garnered considerable theoretical attention. It is into this existing state of homicide research that the current study is offered.
Savannah, a very traditional Southern city, known for its critical place in the history of the South and the Confederacy, with a large urban Afro-American population, and representative of all the issues associated with theories of violent crime correlation and causation, is its setting. In examining homicides in Savannah, multiple indicators of the levels of interpersonal violence were available for study, and case information beyond that of the UCRs were accessible.
A precursor to any homicide study is to accurately measure the level of this violence. The Savannah project has employed a diachronic approach similar to Gurr’s study of a century of crime trends in several countries (1976). Two eight-year periods in Savannah history were examined in great depth, 1896 to 1903 and 1986 to 1993, to provide two synchronic "snap-shots" of the problem. These eight-year periods were chosen because they offered the senior author the best access to the data. Both homicides and those felonious assaults with a likelihood of causing death were examined. Census, press reports, and local official data sources for the same time periods also were examined.
Savannah in Context
Savannah was founded in 1733. Initially it was "slave-free" by policy, but bowing to economic pressures in competition from other southern British colonies, slavery was introduced, and both Amer-Indian and Afro-American slaves were impressed. Surrounding plantations sought cheap labor and slavery provided that. A great port city, Savannah merchants also found slavery economically advantageous. With the coming of the Civil War Savannah was an exemplar of southern traditions, customs and practices. In the Reconstruction large numbers of Afro-American ex-slaves blended in existing populations of "free persons of color." Urban and cosmopolitan, Savannah also had large minorities of other ethnic groups, including many Irish-Americans and a small, but very influential Jewish community. Indeed, the WASP element of the population of the city was a minority in the culturally diverse population of Reconstruction Savannah. That pattern has been sustained through the 20th Century. Table 1 represents the ten-year estimates of the Savannah census by the United States Bureau of Census from 1890 to 1990. In the Census reports for 1890, 1900, and 1910 Orientals, primarily Chinese, were included in the "Black" totals. In 1920 and 1930 other races were included in the "Black" totals. In 1940 38 males and 21 females of non-Afro-American minorities were included in the total population. For 1950 and 1960 there are no disaggregated data on other races. Other races were included in the total population numbers for 1970 (588), 1980 (1,930), and 1990 (2,534).
Table 1 illustrates that in 1890, of the total population, Euro-Americans were 47% of the population (males 24% and females 23%) and various non-Euro-Americans were 53% of the population (males 24% and females 29%). In 1990, the Euro-Americans were 47% of the population (males 23% and females 24%) and Afro-Americans were 52% of the population (males 24% and females 28%). Thus the population distribution by race and sex is almost equal for both 1890 and 1990.
The Data Collection on Savannah Homicides
In the eight-year period from 1896 to 1903 Savannah newspapers, annual health officers' reports, and public health department certificates and registrations were located, reviewed, and compiled (McLaughlin, 2000). In examining homicides in Savannah from 1986 to 1993, the computer list generated by the Savannah Police Department, with both single page homicide briefings and individual case files were used. Only eight full police homicide files were not made available to the researchers. Because of the variety of sources accessed, and difficulties in retrieving both old files and sensitive current cases, the data collection took five years to complete. Even so, for both eras, the entire population of officially known homicides was captured.
Tables 2A and B examine homicides in Savannah by legal status and age classification of the perpetrator. The category of "lawful homicides" or "legally sanctioned homicides" includes both justifiable homicides committed by law enforcement officers in the line of duty and public executions. In the 1896-1903 period public executions were carried out in and by the county having jurisdiction over the case. In the 1986-1993 period all executions in Georgia were carried out at a central, state-controlled location. From 1896 to 1993, there were wide fluctuations in Savannah's homicide rate.
in the two eight-year periods focused on there were only minor change in
the rates of criminal homicide in Savannah, whereas actions by law enforcement
officials resulting in the deaths of citizens had declined dramatically.
Even excluding public executions, and evaluating only police use of deadly
force, the rate in the first period is 2.8 per 100,000 citizens at risk,
versus 0.4 per 100,000 in the second period, one-seventh the risk!
Tables 3A and B show that only the Afro-American-male homicide rates in Savannah increased between the two periods studied. The Afro-American-female rate remained constant at about 7 per 100,0000. The Euro-American-male rate dropped from about 23 to 7 and now is about the same as the Afro-American-female rate. The Euro-American-female rate remained very low. As a result, the overall homicide rate in Savannah was slightly lower for the modern period than it was in the 1896-1903 time-frame.
Although there were a total of 318 homicides in Savannah in the two time periods studied, five cases were not used in Table 4 because of missing information on race or because of the non-civilian status of the victim. The race of both perpetrator and victim were known in 97 of 101 civilian-versus-civilian homicide cases from 1896 to 1903 and in 222 of 241 civilian-versus-civilian homicide cases from 1986 to 1993.
As other studies have shown before, the majority of homicide was intraracial, Afro-Americans killing Afro-Americans or Euro-Americana killing Euro-Americans. Of the 290 cases in both time-frames for which race of both offenders and victims is know, 255 were intraracial for 87.9%. Somewhat surprising is the fact that the intraracial aspect of homicide increased slightly in the later period. Of 91 cases in 1886-1893, 76 were intraracial for 83.5%; whereas in the 1986-1993 period, 177 of 199 were intraracial for 88.9%. The frequency Afro-Americans killing Euro-Americans (male or female) rose from 6 in the first time-frame to 15 in the second, while the frequency of Euro-Americans killing Afro-Americans was unchanged at 7 in each period. But the annual rate of victimization to population at risk shows that while 2.9 Euro-Americans per 100,000 in Savannah were at risk of being killed by Afro-Americans in both periods, the risk rate for Afro-Americans dying at the hands of Euro-Americans declined from 3.1 to 1.2 per 100,000.
In the process of rechecking the data in one municipal report, the table of contents revealed a section titled "Health Officer Reports." In that section the Health Officer had recorded the commission of approximately 40% fewer homicides than the Savannah Police had reported making arrests for. Initially it was supposed that the two data sources would help correlate the various assault categories with the murder rate. How could major discrepancy be explained? In current times, typically there are more homicides committed and officially reported than there are arrests. Usually this is because some homicides go unsolved.
It seems that police in Savannah were attempting to show their productivity by arresting as many criminals as possible. Ultimately it was determined that their arrest data paid no attention to jurisdiction. If a homicide was committed in Chatham County, where Savannah is situated, and an arrest was made, that would be counted as a homicide arrest, just as today. If the alleged murderer was arrested on a warrant from another county or another state, the Savannah Police Department also would count that as an arrest. This showed the efficiency of the Savannah Police Department at getting murderers off its streets, even though they were not Savannah's murders. Many of those committing murders in surrounding rural districts of Georgia and South Carolina had fled to the "big city" of Savannah to lose themselves. Further improving their performance statistics, if another jurisdiction arrested a murder suspect from Savannah, the Savannah police also would count that as one of their arrests when that jurisdiction returned the suspect to Savannah police custody. Similar patterns of over-counting were in evidence for felonious assaults. When the three categories, cutting, shooting, and intent to murder are added together, a total of 984 people were arrested from 1896 to 1903 in Savannah.
This practice was reconfirmed by a section included in the Mayor's Annual Report for three of the years studied: 1896, 1897, and 1898. This section included a listing of murder arrests by Savannah Police officers. This points out a continuous problem in using early source material that compiled numerical representations. There was little consistency in the statistical material recorded from year to year in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With the arrest figures suspect for this earlier period, another method of cross-checking the Savannah homicide data seemed advisable. A thorough research on the number of murders reported in Savannah from 1896 to 1903 was conducted which utilized two other sources, the local newspaper and the medical examiners records. A total of 101 homicides were found to have occurred in the Savannah City limits. This cross-check reveals that police arrested 25% more people for murder than the number of actual murders known in Savannah for the period.
Comparison of the Eras
From 1896 to 1903, Savannah Police arrested 134 people for murder. But the number of murders actually occurring in Savannah was 101, with most of the difference being fugitives from other jurisdictions captured in Savannah. The arrests for the crimes of stabbing, shooting, and intent to murder totaled 984. From 1986 to 1993, 241 murders occurred in Savannah. This means that for every murderer arrested in Savannah from 1896 to 1903, the police arrested 7 for violent assault. If the real number for Savannah homicides is compared to these arrests, the ratio is closer to 1 to 10.
Between the two time periods, clearly there has been a significant increase in homicides perpetuated by Afro-American males, with a significant decline in homicides committed by Euro-American males. Yet there were no corresponding shifts in homicide patterns by women of either race.
Juveniles are increasingly likely to be identified as killers, 6% (6 of 99 known offenders) in the earlier period versus 9% (21 of 223 known offenders) in the modern one. A similar pattern, although with different rates of offending, was found for New York City (Monkkonen, 2001: p. 102).
Official use of deadly force declined substantially between the two periods. Police officers and other officials killed twelve Savannah citizens in the earlier period, versus four in the modern period. Additionally, eight were executed in Savannah in the earlier period, when executions were carried out in the county having jurisdiction over the trial (see Tables 3A and B).
The Savannah Police tried to report as many arrests as possible in the earlier era because that was how their performance then was measured. In the modern era, performance is mainly judged in terms of crime reduction. It is in the department's best interest to lessen the numbers in every way possible. Thus there are risks in comparing those measures of the same deeds because the counts themselves meant different things to police officials then and now, a point also raised by Lane in his studies of Philadelphia homicides (1979: p. 56-57).
It is disappointing to not be able to compare interpersonal violence between the two periods with more confidence. The differences in reporting practices between the two periods are profound, and the absolute comparability of statistics cannot be assured. However, this study opens new lines of inquiry to research because major pattern differences did emerge through the veil of reporting differences. It also gives one greater appreciation in the UCR for its standardization of crime data recording.
By comparing similar data sets for the same city from widely separated periods of time, a diachronic dimension is given to homicide research generally absent from most earlier studies. That the changes in patterns of homicide truly are different is inescapable, if not surprising. Euro-American (White) rates of violence were clearly declined, while Afro-American (Black) rates of violent offending increased.
This does not fit well with the theories of a generalized southern culture of violence (Butterfield, 1995; Gastil, 1971; Hackney, 1969; Redfield, 1880), but is consistent with other studies which have disaggregated southern homicide statistics by race (Vandal, 2000; Beeghley, 2003: p. 70-71; Chilton, 2004: p. 49-50). Some historical, cultural, or economic event or events have intervened to put the two major racial-ethnic groups on different pathways of offending. The impact of the two World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam, the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and since, Great Society programs, rising minority aspirations, and numerous other explanations could be offered, but without more data, they are hollow answers. Data to fill in the gaps between 1903 and 1986 are still needed to identify the point in time when the racial patterns of homicide began to diverge.
Even more interesting is the lack of change in frequencies of female offending. The great changes in the status of women between the two periods, acquiring the right to vote, greater employment opportunities, greater protection of women's rights, the Second Wave of the Feminist Movement, and the consequences of greater access to contraception and abortion all would be expected to have had some influence on women's homicide statistics. Yet they have not been shown to have done so.
Data from other cities also are needed to determine if the Savannah pattern is typical or exceptional. As is the way of scholarship, each new finding of data invites new questions. The Savannah Interpersonal Violence Study is no exception.
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Editorial Note: Tables 3A and 3B corrected on 11 January, 2009.
©2008 by the North Carolina Sociological Association