Just in time for the gift-giving season, here is my “Ten Best History Books about Crime and Punishment.”
I want to thank everyone who submitted suggestions for the list: I read some of the books already, and I look forward to reading those I haven’t.
- Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson (2003)
This book continues to show up on bestseller lists–and for good reason. Larson masterfully weaves together an account of how architects and city planners designed the spectacular 1893 Columbian Exposition with the gripping tale of a serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims. If you have not read it yet, you should.
- A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York by Timothy J. Gilfoyle (2006)
Gilfoyle uses the surprisingly detailed autobiography of George Appo–a petty thief who grew up in the notorious Five Points area–to organize his history of New York City’s underworld and criminal justice system in the nineteenth century.
- Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault (English translation, 1979)
Foucault’s book has shaped most modern studies of prisons and in many ways is responsible for sparking current interest in the history of crime and punishment at American universities. If you can get past the opening description of a man being drawn and quartered, you will find it to be one of Foucault’s more accessible works.
- Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War by T. J. Stiles (2002)
Most accounts of Jesse James romanticize his life by portraying him as a care-free train-robber and product of the Wild West. Stiles, in contrast, connects the actions of James and his gang to groups of Southerners who refused to accept the outcome of the Civil War. The result is a picture of a bad man who did very bad things.
- Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend by Mitchell Zuckoff (2006)
Scams involving “robbing Peter to pay Paul” existed before Charles Ponzi came up with the idea of paying back investors in his fictional company by using the funds of new investors. But Ponzi’s scheme grew to such a scale that his name now serves as the standard term for such financial shenanigans. After the Madoff scandal and the irresponsible, if not criminal, actions of big financial institutions that led to our current recession, it is hard to pass up placing a book like this one on the list.
- Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674-1860 by Daniel A. Cohen (2006)
Much of what we know about early American crime comes from New England due to the relatively large number of printers in the area who published works about crime and criminals. Cohen traces the birth and development of New England crime literature, which is the early forerunner of the popular True Crime genre of today.
- American Homicide by Randolph Roth (2009)
Along with official murder statistics, Roth and his research team tracked down every instance of murder mentioned in newspapers and other media sources in compiling data for this mammoth study of American homicide. The result is the most comprehensive examination of murder trends over time that we have. The importance of the book and the insights it provides overshadows the at times dry academic presentation of the material.
- The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd by Richard Zacks (2002)
We do not normally think of pirates as criminals today–they seem to inhabit their own special category–but the people of early America certainly did. Zacks defends the reputation of Captain Kidd by arguing that he was not a pirate, but in making his case he presents an entertaining history of piracy.
- The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868 by V. A. C. Gatrell (1996)
Executions were public affairs in England up until 1868, and sometimes thousands of people showed up to watch them. Gatrell explores how people responded to public executions by examining diaries, broadsides, images, and literature. The results are sometimes chilling.
- The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society edited by Norval Morris and David J. Rothman (1998)
This collection of essays covers prisons in the Ancient World up to the present and addresses topics as diverse as juvenile reform schools, prisons for women, and the convict colony of Australia. Together, the essays demonstrate that locking someone up in a confined space is no simple matter.