Murder Metropolis

Murder Metropolis

Los Angeles has a long and sordid history of murder, a pattern that will likely be difficult to break.

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2m 39sec

the source: “Homicide in Los Angeles, 1827–2002” by Eric H. Monkkonon, in Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Autumn 2005.

As any film noir buff can attest, Los Angeles has a long, sordid history of murder. From its origins as a Spanish mission to the present day, Los Angeles’s homicide rate has placed it at or near the top of the list of most dangerous cities during almost every time period. Gruesome killings, such as the notorious “Black Dahlia” murder of Elizabeth Short in 1947, and celebrity murders, such as that of O. J. Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Simpson, in 1994, or of Robert Blake’s wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, in 2001, garner lurid media coverage and help reinforce Los Angeles’s reputation as a place where life comes cheap. There’s   a tradition of violence that authorities may find difficult to break, writes Eric H. Monkkonon, a historian at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In its earliest days, when Los Angeles was still part of Mexico, the population was small, and it took only  two or three murders to give the settlement an inflated per capita homicide rate. Yet by the start of the 20th century, when Los Angeles had been a U.S. city for more than 50 years, its murder rate averaged higher than 11 per 100,000, “a figure about 1.5 times that of the whole United States and three times more than that of New York City.”

Monkkonon notes that there are some mysterious anomalies. What, for instance, accounts for the sharp decline in the homicide rate during the Depression (ironically, the period most often depicted in gritty novels such as 1939’s The Big Sleep)? Or for a similar decline in the 15 years after World War II? Stricter law enforcement and economic optimism are among the expert guesses.

It’s “astounding,” says Monkkonon, that in years prior to 1967 (when the data still indicated victims’  birthplaces), 67 percent of those murdered were not from Los Angeles, which lends support to the notion that rootlessness and anomie  explain some of the city’s peculiarity. Many of the killers also came from out of town, including Missouri’s William Edward Hickman, the abductor and murderer of 11-year-old Marian Parker in 1927, and Colorado’s Harvey M. Glatman, the 1950s serial murderer known as the Lonely Hearts Killer.

Monkkonon cites the high percentage of homicides ruled “justifiable” by the authorities (seven percent, or 3,345 deaths during the years he studied) as evidence that an ethic of “street justice” has reigned for much of Los Angeles’s history. Half of these justifiable homicides were committed by citizens with guns, suggesting “an armed population, some of whom may have been waiting for their chance.” Justifiable homicides peaked (as a percentage of all homicides) during the 1940s, perhaps explaining part of the postwar dip in the homicide rate.

In 2003 the overall homicide rate for the city stood at 8.3 per 100,000 residents, as low as it was in the late 1960s, but still quite high, especially in a period when other big cities saw declines in their murder rates. Monkkonon, in a bleak coda, expresses doubt that metropolitan  Los Angeles, splin­tered into dozens of juris­dictions, can muster the concerted effort needed to “accept its history, and change it.”

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