The Olde Crimes of Dueling and…Bastardy


Dueling was still a reportable offense in Depression-era America

Abortion…fornication…bastardy…buggery…sodomy…miscegenation…seduction — all were reportable sex offenses apart from rape in the America of 1930. We know this from a fascinating volume that turned up in the IPA Collection that we are now digitizing for widespread academic and scholarly access.

Before 1930, the nation had few reliable ways of assessing the threat posed by crime — a menace that Prohibition would soon magnify to epidemic proportions. But that year the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), founded in 1894, began collecting crime statistics from its members to hand over to J. Edgar Hoover’s Bureau of Investigation (it wouldn’t be the Federal Bureau of Investigation until 1935) for what became the highly-regarded Uniform Crime Reporting Program.

There was, however, one big hitch. Back in 1930, states had wildly varying statutes defining crimes and their various degrees. Before a national census could be compiled, there would have to be a consensus of what constituted reportable crime.

That daunting task was overseen by (of course!) Bruce Smith, America’s leading police expert from (of course!) the Bureau of Municipal Research and successor Institute of Public Administration. And those acknowledged as assisting included (of course!) Smith’s longtime mentor and associate, Luther Gulick. Their efforts were codified in the aforesaid volume called “Uniform Crime Reporting: A Complete Manual For Police.”

uniform cover

This was the second edition of a book that had first appeared the year before and was included in the extensive IPA library acquired by Baruch College, along with thousands of files from the Bureau of Municipal Research and personal papers of Gulick.

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So what does it tell us?

The effort to compile a reliable set of national crime statistics goes back to at least 1871 when the National Police Convention met in St. Louis. Foreign countries like France, Austria-Hungary, Sweden, Holland, Denmark and Turkey “submitted data which were considered of value” while an inquiry to U.S. states “yielded practically nothing.” Little happened over the next half century but in 1927, the IACP formed a Committee on Uniform Crime Records. Still, police departments balked at submitting data, fearing that a rise in crime figures would be held against them. Advocates noted that health authorities were not held liable for outbreaks of disease, and by 1929 a system for uniform reporting was outlined in the first edition of the manual. The Government would furnish the monthly forms “with return envelopes requiring no postage,” Hoover wrote in the Preface, adding, “the cooperation of peace officials is earnestly requested.”

Smith and IACP grappled with the thorny problem of standardizing the counting and definitions of crime. Most measurements of crime started with people arrested. But what about unsolved crimes? The book suggests the benchmark: offenses known to the police. One thief could burglarize a dozen apartments, or a dozen thieves could burglarize one. How to count those? How many crimes were “cleared by arrest?” A single arrest could solve dozens of crimes, while dozens of arrests might solve one. How many crimes were solved by convictions? The police usually didn’t know — the judiciary kept those records. What about crimes in the rural countryside? Who kept those figures?

And what was a crime anyway? The states each had complicatedly nuanced legal definitions of murder and manslaughter, rape, robbery, assault and larceny. They were widely divergent on felonies and misdemeanors. In Delaware, felons were usually whipped — but misdemeanants were often punished more harshly, with longer imprisonment. New Jersey had no felonies — only misdemeanors and high misdemeanors. Possessing burglar’s tools was a felony in half the states, a misdemeanor in the others.

The description of crime and punishment circa 1930 was eye-popping. Abortion was a misdemeanor in Nebraska and Oklahoma, a felony almost everywhere else. Seduction, widely punished as a felony, was only a misdemeanor in Pennsylvania and South Carolina, as was sodomy, elsewhere usually a felony. Indecent exposure was a felony in Oregon, a misdemeanor in most other states.

In Arkansas, Colorado, Oregon, Pennsylvania  and Vermont, “concealing the death of a bastard,” a child conceived out of wedlock, was a felonious homicide. Seventeen states, including New York, also punished as felonious homicide the killing of a person in an out-of-state duel. Challenging someone to a duel, “posting as a coward,” and serving as a second or surgeon at a duel were felonies almost everywhere.

In Montana, it was a felonious homicide to fire a gun or missile at a stagecoach, and a felony to exhibit a motion picture of a train robbery.

The dividing line between petit and grand larceny was $5 in Maryland (worth $69.78 today) and $500 in Rhode Island.

“Indecent liberties” were considered harshly punishable as rape in New York and Connecticut and a dozen other states and territories. (The Philippines and Hawaii were still territories then.) So was “publishing the name of a woman attacked” in Florida and South Carolina. “Assault with intent to commit the infamous crime against nature” was a felony in New Jersey, Nebraska, Nevada and Utah.

It Oklahoma, it was rape to have sexual intercourse with a woman “under belief the accused is her husband, such belief being induced by artifice practiced by him…”

Other sex crimes on the books in various states that the IACP recommended reporting as lesser offenses, so-called Part II Classes, included: abduction and compelling to marry, adultery and fornication, bastardy, bigamy and polygamy, buggery, incest and marriage within prohibited degrees, intercourse with an insane, epileptic or venereally diseased partner, miscegenation, prostitution and sodomy.

Other such lesser offenses included lotteries, “riot, rout or affray”, blasphemy, vagrancy, desecrating the flag, “displaying red or black flag,” violation of quarantine and prize fights.

It’s a wonder that Smith and the IACP managed after all to compile the reporting forms that today constitute the widely respected Uniform Crime Reporting Program. But even now, the FBI says, it is “undertaking a  wholesale redesign and redevelopment of the system.”

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