Early American Crime and Media-DC Public Safety-200,000 Requests a Month

Welcome to DC Public Safety – radio and television shows on crime, criminal offenders and the criminal justice system.

See http://media.csosa.gov for our television shows, blog and transcripts.

This radio program is available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2010/03/early-american-crime-and-media-dc-public-safety-200000-requests-a-month/

We welcome your comments or suggestions at leonard.sipes@csosa.gov or at Twitter at http://twitter.com/lensipes.

– Audio begins –

Len Sipes: From our microphones in downtown Washington, D.C., this is D.C. Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. You know, we’re going to have an interesting conversation today, ladies and gentlemen, about crime and the media, but it won’t be crime and the media 2010, it will be crime and the media 1704. And we have what I consider to be one of the most interesting gentlemen I’ve ever talked to, Dr. Anthony Vaver – Tony Vaver. He is the author-publisher of earlyamericancrime.com, that’s www.earlyamericancrime.com, that’s one word but before introducing Tony, our usual commercial. We’re up to 200,000 requests for D.C. Public Safety Radio Television blog and transcripts. We are always appreciative of your comments and your suggestions, either good or bad, in terms of new programs or in terms of what it is that you like and dislike about the show. If you need to get in touch with me directly, it is by email: Leonard L-E-O-N-A-R-D.sipes S-I-P-E-S not T but P@csosa.gov. Or you can follow me via twitter. That’s twitter.com/lensipes L-E-N-S-I-P-E-S. And back to our guest, Dr. Anthony Vaver, author and publisher of earlyamericancrime.com. Tony, welcome to D.C. Public Safety.

Anthony Vaver: Thank you, Leonard. Thank you for having me.

Len Sipes: All right, we started off the show with the concept of the media, crime and the media. Everybody’s interested in crime and the media, but we’re talking about 1704, or when newspapers were just established in the United States. We’re talking about the history of media coverage, and I just find this extraordinarily interesting, because you cannot understand America, you cannot understand the criminal justice system, you cannot understand crime, unless you know where we came from, unless you know what was happening a couple centuries ago. That understanding grounds us, correct?

Anthony Vaver: That’s correct, and that’s one of the reasons why I started the site, is because crime is so much a part of our history, of our culture, of our society. And it just seemed to me that we don’t really know a lot about the early history of our crime, going back to our colonial days, and even into the early United States. And that seemed like an odd notion to me, given the place of crime in our current-day society.

Len Sipes: And again, the idea of understanding – somebody once said about the Civil War that before the Civil War, we referred to this country as the United States ‘are,’ and after the Civil War, we referred to this country as the United States ‘is,’ so before the Civil War, we were basically sort of a country, almost a confederacy. The fifty states had an immense amount of power, but after the Civil War, it settled the question that we are indeed one country. And fifty states – well, not fifty states – I forget how many states there were back then, but the point is that we were a solid country, and we referred to ourselves as a solid entity rather than an entity of states. And that’s a profound difference in terms of how Americans looked at their country, and it makes a profound difference, I suppose, in terms of how we look at ourselves today. The American Civil War defined us, but everything that we’re going to talk about today defined the criminal justice system of today.

Anthony Vaver: That’s right, and when we talk about the criminal justice system, especially in early colonial America, there’s no way to really talk about it as one entity, and that’s for a variety of reasons. And one of them is the colonies all have their different ways of going about — their different laws, their different ways of punishing crime, so you can’t really talk about crime in one way in the way that maybe we can today, to a great degree, that there are different laws. You have people who are coming over and where there’s essentially no criminal justice system, so they’re making the laws up as they go along.

Len Sipes: They’re making it up as they go along, and that’s an interesting concept.

Anthony Vaver: That’s right, and it’s not even necessarily the people who served as judges or had great insight into the law; usually, it’s the person in the community who has the most experience, and that could have been just as – even as a lawyer, but it could even be where they had more experience in court, maybe transcribing the court proceedings, or the barristers, whatever. Whoever had the most experience was the one who is usually the one who is ending up making all the laws.

Len Sipes: Just to ground our listeners, that before the American Revolution, we were in essence an English entity made up of colonies. Thirteen colonies all under the British crown, correct? So English common law came with English rule.

Anthony Vaver: That’s right, and they thought of themselves as English people and when we, you know, talk about the newspapers as reporting on crime, they’re also reporting a lot about the goings on over in England, and very often, you have reports about criminal happenings over in England also being reported over here in America, so you have the famous Jack Sheppard in 1724 who is escaping from Newgate prison, and all of his exploits are being reported in the American papers, because there’s great interest in what’s going on.

Len Sipes: Well, that’s very interesting. So even at that point, even in the earliest days of our history, there were folk criminals, so there were criminals who – people were extraordinarily interested in crime and criminals.

Anthony Vaver: Absolutely, and when you have the first newspapers, where you – you had your first regular newspaper in 1704, and they included stories of crime, and most especially pirates. Pirates were of big fame because of their affect on shipping and trade, and a lot of the newspapers were there to facilitate information that was important to people who are involved in trade and the merchants, so to know that there were pirates out there who were getting in the way of their ships going across the Atlantic – that was important information for them to know.

Len Sipes: Understood. Now, the media coverage of that time – I remember reading newspapers from that era. Not physical newspapers, but reproductions. Or not even reproductions – simply accounts. And wow, they make today’s newspaper reporters look like – I don’t know – scholarly madams. I mean, you know, people complain about newspaper coverage, about media coverage and crime today. Back then it was just a thousand times more scandalous. Is that a way of accurately putting it?

Anthony Vaver: Or you could say sensational –

Len Sipes: Sensational, better word.

Anthony Vaver: Right, there isn’t sort of the protocols in place that we think about in terms of newspapers, although the very early accounts, when you talk about the very early eighteenth century, a lot of the newspapers, because it took so long for the information to be disseminated, a lot of the stories of crime were very short. They were just simple reporting that so-and-so was executed last Wednesday, and left it at that, because at that point, most of the people in the community, by word of mouth, already knew about it. So this is just reiterating what’s going on.

Len Sipes: That’s just being the paper.

Anthony Vaver: That’s right. But as newspapers go along, you have a greater readership; they become more sophisticated, more interested in what’s the goings-on of what’s happening in America itself, and so you get greater accounts of what’s going on. What’s actually interesting, I just read a book called American Homicide, and it talked about – it’s a pretty amazing project – where they compiled murder statistics historically and went through all the newspapers, all the court trials, everywhere that they could get some sense of what the nature of murder is all about. And at the very end, he actually discussed that the statistics for the twentieth century are actually much less complete because the people, in terms of reporting on the crimes or counting on them, of murder, that the issue of motive was reported right away, whereas now, because you have to wait for the cases to go through the court, that the kind of reporting isn’t as detailed. So when you talk about newspaper accounts being willing to speculate all over the place as to why this person committed the murder, and the circumstances behind it, they’re much more detailed, actually, in this early accounts.

Len Sipes: Or speculative.

Anthony Vaver: Exactly, yes, yes.

Len Sipes: Okay. Now crime is a political issue throughout this entire era, and again, they’re under English rule up until the revolution, and then the American colonies form a country and pretty much go off on their own, and crime and politics and media coverage were as intermingled then as they are intermingled now, correct?

Anthony Vaver: Absolutely. So crime can often be used to make points, and one of my interests is in the institution of convict transportation, where convicts from Great Britain were transported to colonial America, and that began in 1718, and only came to an end in 1775, when the American Revolution came along and put a stop to that. And that’s actually when Great Britain had to scramble and eventually came up with the idea of sending their convicts halfway around the world to Australia.

Len Sipes: To Australia.

Anthony Vaver: So actually, colonial America was the first destination for convicts in terms of being transported out of –

Len Sipes: The American colonies – again, this is a matter of balance – Georgia, which I was just through the other day, was a penal colony, correct?

Anthony Vaver: It wasn’t, actually.

Len Sipes: Okay, tell me.

Anthony Vaver: It was set up as a place to send debtors, and the experiment – it first started off where James Oglethorpe sent a couple shiploads of debtors to the colonies, thinking that they could be better put to use there, and unfortunately, they were disappointed with the results. They were just – as some of the politicians said – they were just as unwilling to work in the colonies as they were in England, so in actuality, Georgia never really did serve as a place for convicts. In fact, none of the colonies ever did function as a penal colony. What happened is most of them were sent to Maryland or Virginia and they were auctioned off as indentured servants. They would serve for seven years on a plantation.

Len Sipes: But is there a way of getting a sense as to what percentage of the American population at that point were made up of people, whether they were debtors or whether they were burglars, regardless of their crimes – an awful lot of these individuals came over and settled in the American colonies.

Anthony Vaver: That’s correct. And mostly, as you can imagine, once they finished out their term, it’s very expensive to return back to England, and we actually don’t know a lot about what happened to them. Some of them went down to the Carolinas, some of them went off to the cities, but there were people who sometimes changed their name so they could rid themselves of their criminal past, so it’s very difficult to actually trace what indeed happened to these people. But there over 50,000 that were sent over.

Len Sipes: Fifty-thousand, that’s amazing.

Anthony Vaver: Fifty thousand sent through the eighteenth century and basically they accounted for, for that particular time, a quarter of all of the immigrants coming from Great Britain.

Len Sipes: That’s amazing. Twenty-five percent of everybody residing in the colonies at that point –

Anthony Vaver: Not residing – of the ones, of the immigrants coming over.

Len Sipes: Of the immigrants coming over. Twenty-five percent of the immigrants coming over. Okay.

Anthony Vaver: Coming over during the eighteenth century were –

Len Sipes: Amazing, but a very large percentage, nevertheless. And what was the impact? You know, we talked about English cities during this time, and we have this Dickens-esque sense of overcrowded cities, of kids just running pell-mell, of shoplifting and burglaries and drug addiction and drunkenness and overcrowding and poverty, so that was the English experience. I don’t know how stereotypical all that is, but they used to execute people on a regular basis for minor crimes. So they could pick you up shoplifting and execute you in England – correct or incorrect?

Anthony Vaver: That is correct, and that is where they ended up coming up with the convict transportation system. Before that time, if you were a petty thief and were picked up, for your first offense, you could claim what was called ‘benefit of clergy,’ and this was something that grew out of the Middle Ages, where if you could prove that you could read, then you were obviously a part of the clergy, and therefore fell under ecclesiastic laws as opposed to the secular laws.

Len Sipes: So they would memorize a passage of the bible and read it.

Anthony Vaver: Exactly. So that’s what ended up happening; it ended up being a farce because you would have all these criminals, then, that knew what to do. They’d memorize a passage and they’d come in, they’d say it, and they were let off. So finally, the parliament just institutionalized that and said, “Okay, anybody who comes in does their first offense, you’re branded with a ‘T’ on your thumb to show that you’ve actually been caught once, and then let go.” And then your second offense, if you were brought back in, that’s when you were subject to execution. But either way, there were a lot of crimes that sort of fell in the middle, where it didn’t seem like letting the criminal go with a brand – and sometimes the branding, if you could put a few coins in the brander’s hand, you could make it a little colder than what it needed to be to actually make it brand the actual thumb, or you’re hanging someone for an offense, and there really wasn’t any middle ground. And that’s when they came up with the idea of convict transportation and sending people over to the colonies so that they can actually work over here, and the colonies that needed the labor could put these people to work.

Len Sipes: Ladies and gentlemen, we’re more than halfway through the show. Our guest today is Dr. Anthony Vaver, Tony Vaver. He’s an author and publisher of earlyamericancrime.com – www.earlyamericancrime.com. He is a PhD. Tony, was my stereotype of English cities during that time period correct?

Anthony Vaver: Bigger cities, absolutely. In terms of the cities in colonial America, they were quite different. I mean, they were –

Len Sipes: Now, isn’t that fascinating. With all those criminals that England shipped over to the United States – I keep saying the United States – to the colonies – with all those criminals that they shipped over here, and we’re talking about what, again, fifty thousand?

Anthony Vaver: Right. But again, most of those went to the plantations to work on plantations. But as the cities grew, then crime did become more of a problem. So, when you get into the later parts of the eighteenth century, you do have a rise in property crime and theft, in burglary. And that’s what – so the American cities, then, begin to take on more of the character of the English cities.

Len Sipes: Okay. And the newspaper coverage of the time, in terms of this rising crime in Baltimore and Philadelphia and New York and Boston and Savannah – Charleston and New Orleans I think were the big cities of the times – they said what about this rising crime? Did it become a political issue?

Anthony Vaver: Absolutely. And certainly, it called for greater and greater punishments. So for burglary, which really wasn’t much of a problem, when you have towns where most people knew each other and could handle it – once you start having bigger cities where you have criminals who are journeymen, who are traveling around all over New England and committing burglaries in different places, it becomes more and more of a problem, and so there was greater and greater cause to create greater penalties for this.

Len Sipes: But it wasn’t prisons at the time, right? It was like branding individuals, or flogging them publicly or putting them in stocks or fining them, right?

Anthony Vaver: That’s right, that’s right. And a lot of the colonies had, for burglars, like a three strikes and you’re out kind of proposition, where the first time that they were caught, they were subject to branding and to whipping. And then, their second offense would be something harsher than that. Maybe they were banished from the colony, and if they were caught once again, then they were subject to execution.

Len Sipes: Interesting.

Anthony Vaver: So, burglars were actually executed up until the very late eighteenth century, so even after the United States was formed. But to go back to another example of how crime was used politically – as you can well imagine, here was England sending over all of these convicts to colonial America, and a lot of the people here didn’t take a liking to that, that they were treating America as a dumping ground for the people that they didn’t want to take care of over in England –

Len Sipes: Which was true.

Anthony Vaver: Exactly, that’s right. Of course, ironically, as soon as these convicts landed, they were bought up almost as soon as they landed, because they were such a bargain in terms of labor, and the need for labor on the plantations was so great. So even though we didn’t like the idea of them being sent over, the actions of the plantation owners were quite different, because they actually wanted them. Well, Ben Franklin, who ran the Pennsylvania Gazette, he was one of the people who didn’t take too kindly to Great Britain sending over their convicts, so he used his newspaper where he first reported on several crimes that were going on in Maryland – for example, a gang of thieves who broke into a Maryland home and then robbed a store of goods. He gave another example of a forger who came from a well-respected Maryland family, but supposedly turned to crime under the influence of the transported convicts that were employed on the plantation. So he goes through and talks about some of these crimes that are going on in Maryland, and then he comes up with a proposal, saying, “Well, if England thinks that it’s a good idea to send over as trade their convicts, we certainly should send something back,” and he proposed sending rattlesnakes back to England. But he also went on to point out that actually, England was going to have the better of the deal, because rattlesnakes actually give warning before they attempt their mischief, which the convict does not.

Len Sipes: So we have newspapers and politics, sensational, very, very, very sensational attacking newspaper articles, and politics and crime are all intertwined, almost as they are today. I mean, again, it makes the newspapers and the media coverage of today seem tame compared to the newspaper coverage back then, or the media coverage back then, but it was all intertwined, just as it is today, and we had a three strike system back then, just as we do today.

Anthony Vaver: Yes, absolutely.

Len Sipes: Amazing, and that was under the English system. One quick question: the individuals who were transported as convicts, were they indentured servants? Were they given their freedom after a certain amount of time?

Anthony Vaver: Right. They would serve for seven years, and at the end of that seven years, then they were given their freedom, and for a little while, they were allowed to – once they served out their term, they were then subject to certain provisions from the planter, to help out the convict to get settled here in America. But then eventually the Virginia legislature thought that was too generous and really took away all of those provisions. So they were essentially out on their own, once they finished.

Len Sipes: And the whole system ended when the English instituted slavery.

Anthony Vaver: Well, they worked right alongside slaves throughout this period, and it really was the American Revolution that brought an end to the indentured servants in terms of the convicts coming over.

Len Sipes: Okay. But it was slavery that was pretty much the death knell of the indentured servant or convict labor, through the American Revolution.

Anthony Vaver: Right. Eventually, slavery does take over as the chief form of labor on the plantations.

Len Sipes: On the plantation system – but basically, it was – when did slavery begin?

Anthony Vaver: Slavery goes back to – the very beginnings are like the late seventeenth century, but it’s during the eighteenth century, during this time, that it really comes into its own. And you do have sort of the development of the slave system, and seeing the benefits – one of the problems, when you have an indentured servant – yes, it’s cheaper, but on the other hand, once they’re done, then you’ve lost their labor.

Len Sipes: You’ve lost their labor. And again, I’m certainly no expert on slavery; I was told that slavery began along the lines of the convict laborer / indentured servant, where the whole idea was to be free, but the planter system wouldn’t support that eventually, and then the whole thing become total slavery as we understand it today, I guess.

Anthony Vaver: Yeah, I don’t know much about that myself. Not surprisingly, a lot of the merchants who transported convicts over were also, or had been, slave merchants as well, so they had the experience in moving large numbers of people across the ocean, so they also ended up being the ones to transport convicts.

Len Sipes: Tony, we only have a couple minutes left in the program. Give me a sense of the typical American – because both under English rule and the United States, it’s still American – the average American in 1750 in terms of crime. Is it, where we say to ourselves today, “Certainly, I’ll go to New York, and certainly, I’ll go to Manhattan, but I’m not going to go to this part of the city, or I’m not going to go to that part of the city, because they’re dangerous.” Do we have that same sense of dangerousness in 1750 as we do in the United States of today?

Anthony Vaver: I don’t know if it’s to the same degree, or in the way that we particularly think about it, but certainly, when you do have large reports of crime and a sense of – for example, I’m very interested in burglaries lately, and you have a slew of burglaries that are taking place among the shops, say, in Boston. Certainly that gives the shop owners – you know, they become scared that they’re going to be subject to it. So that returns back to our political point of how that only generates more and more support for firmer penalties in terms of that crime.

Len Sipes: Right. Now there was a period of American history, before we go – try to cram all this into a half an hour show is pretty tough to do – but there was a period in our American history. I mean, Baltimore was known as ‘Mob Town.’ You know, that’s my home city, and it was political, and it was – you would actually have like the Gangs of New York, by Martin Scorsese, you would have gangs go after each other, and it was pretty scary. I mean, there was a certain point where – I’m trying to put this into context – it strikes me that the early American city of 1750 was principally property crime, correct?

Anthony Vaver: That’s correct. That’s –

Len Sipes: Not necessarily violent crime, stranger to stranger violent crime?

Anthony Vaver: That’s right, that’s right. I mean, usually when people talk about crime – and this was, you know, even the case over in England – when you said ‘crime,’ you basically meant property crime, is what comes to mind. Whereas today, when we talk about crime, I think there’s usually much more of a violent aspect to it.

Len Sipes: Yes, and that’s what –

Anthony Vaver: In terms of our imagination.

Len Sipes: And that’s what people seem to fear the most, but then again, at a certain point where the United States does become the United States under the article of the confederation – eventually it went to the Constitution – and we, if you will, controlled our own cities. It’s no longer under English rule. But these cities are pretty ‘mobbish’ places, politically, but not necessarily – did people see this disruption, the growing political parties and the opposition of the political parties, and then we had immigrants coming in. My Irish ancestors – not ancestors – my Irish family tells me all these stories about the Irish when we first came to the United States, and how – I mean, there was a lot of political turmoil, ethnic turmoil, but was that considered crime in the same way that we consider crime today?

Anthony Vaver: Well, certainly, as you do have an immigrant population moving into the cities, that really is something that does contribute to the rise in crime – also in terms of the way that you relate to your community – when you have Pennsylvania, where you have a Quaker society that’s trying to put in a just society, where everybody shares the same values, but once it becomes clear that you have these immigrants who are coming in who have very different ideas of how society should be and how society functions, then you have a conflict. You have a conflict between those groups, so the idea that we’re all in it together suddenly breaks down, and once you have that breakdown of community, then you have greater and greater opportunities for crime to be carried out.

Len Sipes: And the signs go up saying, “No dogs and Irish allowed inside of the store.”

Anthony Vaver: Right, right, right.

Len Sipes: Which it certainly does send a certain message. Our guest today – and Tony, I’ve got to have you back. We’re out of time, and I really do need to have you back, because I find this all immensely interesting. It doesn’t sound like there’s a whole heck of a lot of difference between the American experience of 1750 or the American experience of 1800 and what we have today. Our guest today, ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Tony Vaver. He is the author-publisher of earlyamericancrime.com – really fascinating website. I like to go to it. And it grounds me in my understanding of the criminal justice system, and it will do the same for you. Earlyamericancrime.com. The address: www.earlyamericancrime.com. Ladies and gentlemen, this is D.C. Public Safety. We are up to 200,000 requests for the radio, television show, blog, and transcripts. Again, we really, really, really appreciate all of your comments. Some of them don’t deal with the show; some of them deal with personal situations. We’ll try to help you out the best way that we can. If you need to get in touch with me, it’s leonard.sipes@csosa.gov. Court services and offender supervision agency in Washington, D.C. You can follow me or the program via Twitter at Twitter/LenSipes and please have yourself a very, very pleasant day.

– Audio ends –

%d bloggers like this: