My project using the Chicago Homicide Database looked at the deaths either of women or caused by women in Chicago from 1900 to 1930. I chose this particular direction because I was interested in the differences in why women were murdered compared to why women murdered other people. I wanted to see if there were clear connections or themes in the deaths of women as well as any commonalities in female defendants.1
Before beginning this assignment and actually looking at the data instead of my own perception of what I would find, I thought I would likely see a notable amount of domestic violence (either against a woman or by a woman), as well as some cases revolving around abortion and child abuse. I thought there might be some interesting cases involving organized crime or kidnappings but rationally, it wasn’t all that likely. I hypothesized that there would be more male defendants but a relatively even distribution of who killed women as well as who women killed when looking at gender. I certainly underestimated just how many deaths would be attributed to car accidents.
I had also expected some accidents due to questionable labor practices or factory machinery but cars didn’t really come to mind. One last assumption I had was in regards to civil unrest and riots or labor strikes. Knowing about some of the events occurring during my time period such as the Chicago Race Riots, I expected to see a good number of crimes towards or by women during that time.
As an overview, the database has a total of 9857 crimes from my time span of 1900 to 1930 in Chicago. The main categories I looked at while evaluating the data set was the gender of the victim and defendant, the relationship between said victim and defendant, as well as the general characteristics of the homicides that took place. Women made up 20.6% of victims and 8.4% of defendants. However, it’s important to know that murder rates were relatively low to average at this time in Chicago, especially among white people living there. 2
The relationship between female victims and the defendants for their murder has a large range and the percentages were somewhat surprising to me when evaluating them. 23% of the defendants were married to their female victims while 23.3% were complete strangers. 22% were acquaintances with the defendant while 8.6% were either family or intimate partners (but not married). At first, these statistics were somewhat confusing as I expected more to be attributed to those close to the female victim but that was explained by the fact that the highest percentage when looking at the actual circumstances of the deaths was car accidents at 18.9%.
However, crimes I previously assumed would be the highest which involved family and intimate partners (domestic violence, jealousy, child abuse, etc.) totaled to be 25.6%. While statistics made these types of crimes seem less significant due to the categorization which lowered the numbers at first glance, the idea that most of the crimes against women were through “family matters” was somewhat correct.
Another interesting aspect of the data set when looking at female victims is the rate of death with “illegal abortions”. 14.6% of deaths in women were due to abortions. While I had expected abortions to show up as they were more dangerous in earlier times, I had not expected to see the number as high as 14.6%. It totaled higher than accidental shootings, fights, and arson which is surprising as I had considered abortions to be quite a rare occurrence 100 years ago.
Continuing on the topic of abortion, it’s somewhat revealing to see that one of the most present circumstances surrounding both a woman’s death and a woman’s conviction of a crime revolves around abortion. It was a deadly process for women undergoing an abortion, whether you’re looking at the fact that abortion was illegal at the time or the sheer death rate or those procedures.
One of the largest categories for both female victims and defendants is domestic violence. This means either a woman being killed by someone they’re living with (and usually related or married to) or vice versa. This was one of the factors I knew would play a large role in the data for this project because it’s still a notable issue to this day. It’s reasonable to assume it was an even more common occurrence from 1900 to 1930.
An interesting note for this issue is that rising divorce rates around this time period could potentially be leaving a mark on the statistics for the Chicago database. As divorce became more accepted in society and it was easier for people to leave a potentially abusive household, it is very plausible that lowered death and injury caused by domestic disputes would shrink noticeably. 3.
After looking over and compiling all of the data for female victims and defendants, I want to address the assumptions I made and others have probably made when thinking about crime in Chicago. My theory that most crimes would be committed by men was correct at 71.9% (while keeping crimes committed by an unknown individual in mind) but I was incorrect in assuming that killers of women would be evenly distributed between the sexes. Similar to how female defendants were more likely to kill men (66.8% of victims were men), men were more likely to be the killers of women at a rate of 69.0%.
I was definitely correct in expecting domestic violence and abortion to show up in both cases, but I failed to anticipate the likelihood of car accidents during this time period which was the leading cause of death in female victims with 24.4% of deaths being accidental.
When looking at the narrative that this data portrays, it’s hard not to gain a negative perspective of how women lived during this time period in Chicago. If pursuing an abortion, the fear of physical harm was coupled with the fear of being arrested no matter what one’s reason for an abortion was at the time. Domestic violence was a very prevalent issue for both sides, but it also points out areas where more data would be useful. To fully interpret and create a solid narrative for this data, socioeconomic information would be incredible. Also, bringing in racial divides more and the statistics around the race of victims and defendants would paint an even better and more detailed picture of what homicide looked like in the city.
To understand the role of the sexes in homicide, the most important aspect is relationships. This is true for both female defendants and female victims, but especially defendants. As domestic violence was one of the largest causes of homicide in this data set, who one lives with, is married to, or related to plays a crucial role in the data for these deaths. Violence towards women is also important to look at as the large percentage of defendants in the cases of female victims are men and the cases of men killed by women usually had the surrounding circumstance of domestic violence or self-defense by the woman. While I expected results to be quite different, the trends we still see today are also seen for women in the past regardless of whether they are the victims or the defendants.
- Homicide in Chicago 1870-1930, 2004. https://homicide.northwestern.edu/.
- Jeffrey S. Adler, “Murder, North and South: Violence in Early-Twentieth-Century Chicago and New Orleans,” The Journal of Southern History 74, no. 2 (2008).
- Cynthia Grant Bowman and Ben Altman, “Wife Murder in Chicago: 1910-1930,” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-) 92, no. 3/4 (2002): p. 739, https://doi.org/10.2307/1144242.