Understanding Crime in Edwardian-Era Massachusetts – Arrests in Lowell, 1904

So, say you’re writing a scene about Edwardian-era police officers in New England, or researching the life and times of a police officer ancestor.  Or, perhaps you’re trying to get an idea of how people got into trouble with the law in the first years of the twentieth century.  You’ll need to know why Edwardian-era people got arrested.

West Gate Towers and Museum, St Peter's Street, Canterbury, Kent. Victorian photograph of policemen, via Wikipedia

In writing newspaper columns and blog posts, it’s interesting to see which topics attract the most interest.  And one of the most popular topics tends to be crimes.  But, what were the most common crimes a century ago?  In a typical year (1904), in a typical New England mill city, like Lowell, Massachusetts with its population of about 100,000 people, police made just over 5,000 arrests.

Old post card of Lowell MA jail house

Lowell City Jail (now apartments) on Thorndike Street.

What was the nature of the typical arrest in 1904?  Nearly 73% were for public drunkenness.  Another 13% were for other crimes against the public order, like truancy, which tended to happen in good weather.  Other crimes against the public order were for things that people today are no longer arrested for:  adultery, fornication, lewd cohabitation, and something called bastardy, which today would be called ‘failure to pay child support’, but in this case for a child born out-of-wedlock.  About a dozen arrests were made for those ‘violating the Lord’s day’ in 1904, or operating a business on a Sunday.
A far smaller component of the number of arrests in 1904 was for crimes against property, at just over 10%.  Almost all of these were for larceny, the theft of personal property; a smaller percentage of these arrests were for breaking & entering.  Lastly, the smallest percentage (4%) of arrests involved crimes against people.  In 1904, most of these arrests, about 80%, were assaults; only one was for murder.
The typical person being arrested was likely to be adult and male, nearly 80% fit this description.  About 12% were adult women; the remainder were minors.  Nearly half of those arrested were US-born; about 20% were from Ireland.  The remainder came from other countries.
Knowing how people got into trouble years ago not only tells us what sort of dangers our ancestors faced, but also what sort of dangers they caused too.  And, for those of us with police officers in our family tree, it gives an idea of the nature of the arrests that they made and the demographics of the people they arrested.  Either way, it makes for a fuller picture of the past and for a more interesting story to accompany a family tree.
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One response to “Understanding Crime in Edwardian-Era Massachusetts – Arrests in Lowell, 1904

  • Karen K

    Very little violent crime back then for a large city!

    I don’t know if I mentioned this to you already, but my great-grandfather was an office with the Boston Police Department, from about 1910 to 1919, when the strike happened (apparently he was involved). Definitely interesting!

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