Murder Article: Why Men Murder (1957)

Murder Article

Every hour and a quarter, 24 hours a day, a murder is recorded on a U.S. police blotter. Men shoot and stab each other. They crack each other's skulls with sash weights. They poison. They use fists. They put bombs in planes, killing dozens to do away with the one life they are after.

In 1957, the last full year on which figures are available, almost 7 000 persons were known to the police to have died by murder. In actuality, there were more than that, for the undetected murder - masquerading as death by natural causes or by accident—never becomes a murder statistic. Yet: While the total number of major crimes in the country has gone up for at least 20 years and has risen far faster than the growth of population, the rate of murder has been falling almost steadily. Murder, in other words, is one crime that is growing less and less popular.

This is no cause for rejoicing. The United States still holds clear title to being the world's most murdering nation. Our murder rate appears to be almost eight times as high as England's, twice that of Japan, four times that of West Germany, 13 times that of Norway.

Relatively, murder is not a major cause of death. Known murders amount to less than half our known suicides—and claim less than a fifth of the number of lives sacrificed in auto accidents. Statistically, the murderer is only one-ninetieth as big a killer as heart disease.

Why men are willing to put their own lives in jeopardy to extinguish those of others has been puzzled over since Cain slew Abel. The theme of murder is used dozens of times each week by television script writers. It has inspired stacks of heavy tomes. Legal philosophers, sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists have theorized endlessly. But the cause of murder still remains a considerable mystery. Students of murder can spot only the ostensible reasons for it - greed, jealousy, fear, revenge, or a sudden insane anger that seizes a person and, a moment later, blots out all memory of his deed.

But some progress has been made, much data collected. Here is what we know of murder, as of the spring of 1959:

Murder is an Adult's Crime

Despite the headlines, murder is not predominantly committed by crazy juvenile delinquents. In a group of cities with a total population of 40,000,000, persons in the 30-34 age group, in 1957, committed more murders than any others - 15 percent of the total. The 25-29 age group was close behind. But murders by kids 18 years old and less were only 8.7 percent. Women as well as men commit murder, and the bleak statistics leave large areas for free play of the imagination on cause. Divorced men are nearly six times as likely to be murdered as married men. Widowed men are four times as likely to be murdered. Do most such men expire while a woman scorned, brimming with furies worse than hell, stands over them clutching a smoking gun? The statistics do not say.

Murder, though, is predominantly a man's crime. Women killed less than a quarter of those who met death at the hands of others in 1957. On the receiving end, divorced women stand a three-to-one greater chance of being murdered than their married sisters. Single women are the safest.

Murder and the Map

A man's chance of being murdered - or of murdering - varies greatly according to geography. Sixteen Southern states, with only 29 percent of the population, had more than 42 percent of the murders. Southern cities have the highest per-capita rate. Macon, Ga., with a 1957 rate of one murder for each 4,542 residents, led all the rest. Columbus, Ohio, was the most murder-free big city, with one murder for each 41,054 people, closely followed by Buffalo and Milwaukee.

But that was by no means the tops in performance. Among 557 U.S. cities of more than 25,000 population, 189 of them - on the basis of police reports had no murders at all.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation cautions that there are pitfalls in comparing crime data among cities. It lists many non-comparable environmental factors: climate, size of population and its stability, its composition as to age, sex, and race; economic status, the size an efficiency of the police force, policies of prosecuting officials and courts, local attitudes toward crime, and the city's facilties for education, recreation and religious worship.

Among the great metropolitan areas, New York had the largest number of murders in 1957. But it could muster evidence that it was a pretty safe place if live: one murder there for each 24,000 residents. The Los Angeles-Long Beach area, despite TV's Lieut.Friday, had one for each 19,500. In Chicago the rate was one for each 13,000.

Murder and The Calendar

During hot weather, as you might expect, more murders are committed. For the 10 years starting with 1948, the frequency of murder climbed in late spring stayed high in the summer, and dwindled in the fall. But here a strange phenomenon occurs: In five of those 10 years, the single month with the highest incidence of murder was December.

Police explain the warm-weather peak as resulting from anger induced by discomfort. It's hot, one citizen offends another with a hair-trigger temper, and gunshot settles the issue. Opportunity is also a factor: The woodsy, isolated areas frequented by those escaping the heat are convenient murder locales.

As for the December peak, the cops also have some theories - though these can't, in the nature of things, be readily tested. For one thing, the winter solstic is near, days are short, and darkness encourages the crime of ultimate secrecy. There is more drinking during the holidays, and this can lead to arguments culminating in murder. Finally, people are walking around with money in their pockets for Christmas presents, and murder may be a by-product of the sharp increase of robbery then.

Monthly Variations in Three Major Crimes

How They Do It

Police records indicate that murder weapons change little from year to year. An exotic weapon gains publicity because of its very rarity; the booby-trapped auto or the bomb-laden suitcase are sure of headlines. An imaginative dentist became notorious when he filled a victim's cavity with slow-acting poison.

But by far the largest number of murders are committed with four "standard' weapons: hand guns, cutting instruments, blunt instruments, and - surprisingly - bare hands. Hand guns are, of course commonly revolvers or automatics; cutting instruments range from razors to switchblade knives and cleavers. The blunt instrument is a tire iron, bat, poker.

Because of its admixture of races and cultures, and its extremes of wealth, New York City supplies a rich sample of modes in murder. A study of 320 murders in 1958 showed that about half the killers used knives or other cutting instruments. They used hand guns only half as often and blunt instruments only a fourth as often. They killed with their bare hands only one time in eight. Far down the list were rifles, shotguns, poisons, and the automobile.

A persistent murderer seldom change! his modus operandi. An English killer got caught after his sixth slaying only because he extinguished each of his victims in the same way - by strangling. He was in a rut.

Why They Do It

The reasons given for murder in a courtroom are probably seldom the real ones. The police, the prosecutor, even the court, elicit only the apparent causes. The murderer himself is the last person to ask for a motive. He wants only to save his neck, if necessary by distorting the truth.

In Society and the Criminal, Sir Norwood East says, "Murder is rather frequently due to an intensely emotional situation operating suddenly upon a man who has always behaved in a perfectly normal manner except for the few seconds when the murder is committed."

Many a bridge player will understand why one perfectly normal man shot his wife dead some years ago when she led the wrong card. One serious student of murder suggests that while family life discourages suicide, its rubbing-raw from sheer intimacy may tend to encourage murder.

F. Tennyson Jesse, in Murder and Its Motives, says the true murderer is a colossal egoist - he's sure he can kill and get away with it. In his book, Areas of Psychology, F. L. Marcuse adds, "Low intelligence as a causative factor in crime has not been shown."

Jesse sets up six categories: murder for gain, revenge, elimination, jealousy, lust of killing, and from conviction. The last category covers homicide by the state - capital punishment.

The Marcuse book also lists six classifications of criminals: the accidental (the drunken driver involved in a fatal accident), the situational (he steals and maybe murders to get food), the irresponsible (the idiot), the neurotic (he murders because of a covert hatred of his father), the psychoid (unfathomable and unpredictable), and the professional.Brooklyn's icy-eyed "Murder, Inc." to the contrary, the professional killer, to whom murder is a business, is only a small minority among murderers.

In The Mind of the Murderer, W. Lindesay Neustatter remarks, ". . . motive, without the whole background in which it is set, tells little of the criminal's psychology." He classifies murderers as the schizophrenic (with delusions of persecution), the hysteric, the mental defective, the paranoiac (victim of a systemized delusional insanity), the epileptic (with epileptic automatism and amnesia), the constitutionally unstable psychopath, and finally the chap who is simply depressed possibly due to low blood sugar (momentary malnutrition).

The cops have a pretty good batting average in apprehending suspects. Over a long period, approximately 87 out of each 100 murders and 83 out of each 100 manslaughters are "cleared" on the books by arrests.

The Perfect Crime?

But the titillating question is, how many murderers get away with it?

Only two out of three persons arrested and formally charged with murder or non-negligent manslaughter are actually convicted of either crime or even a lesser one. A man charged with murder may, in the end, turn out to be merely naughty in the eyes of the law, due to extenuating circumstances.

Of 1,654 persons booked for the two top categories of crime and held for prosecution, in 198 cities of more than 25,000 population in 1957, only half were found guilty of the offense charged. An additional 297 were convicted of a lesser offense (negligent manslaughter, justifiable or excusable homicide, etc.). A third of the total, 536, went free - many of them, no doubt, because they were innocent.

While the tools of murder change little, the law and the public's attitudes do. King David murdered Uriah the Hittite to claim Bathsheba, and escaped scotfree except for "displeasing" the Lord. Solomon evidently regarded the Sixth Commandment as a vague religious injunction. The New Englanders who hanged the Salem witches would today be tried, themselves, for murder. Would Sacco and Vanzetti, Boston's anarchistic immigrants, be sent to the electric chair in 1959 on the strength of the questionable evidence of more than 30 years ago?

The good guys ventilated the bad guys with sixguns on America's frontiers and often escaped arrest. Maybe they had better character references. The killing of infants, invalids and the aged was accepted homicide among the Eskimos at one time because, when food was scarce, life was only for those who could earn their keep.

Murder is murder not only in its time and place but also in the murderer's own image of himself. For he can say with Shakespeare's Othello:

"An honourable murderer, if you will;"For naught I did in hate, but all in honour."

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