Violence is an old story in 'Mob Town'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Officer Benjamin Benton, a 45-year-old father of five, was shot on a September night while arresting two men who had crashed a party on Biddle Street. The bullet entered behind his left ear and killed him instantly.

A few weeks later, Officer Bentons partner, Robert Rigdon, testified against the accused killer and began to receive death threats. As the 35-year-old policeman stood in his living room talking to his wife, a man fired a sawed-off rifle through a rear window, hitting him in the side and neck.

Even in a city battered daily by gun violence, the murder of two Baltimore police officers came as a shock. The killings got detailed coverage on The Sun's front page -- right below the price of the paper - "One Cent" -- and the year - 1858.

Many Baltimoreans in 1992, dazed by police shootings, carjackings, and stray bullets felling children, are coming to think of their city as a combat zone. The homicide rate is at a historic high.

But if they believe that once upon a time this town was a safe and peaceful place, their nostalgia is misplaced.

In 1773, when Baltimore was an overgrown village of 5,000, a resident wrote to the newly founded newspaper, The Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser, to express alarm over "the late frequent robberies." He shuddered over "the nocturnal meetings of hardened villains" and called for street lamps and a constabulary.

Violence is woven into the fabric of Baltimore's history, from its origins as a tobacco port in the 1730s through its flourishing as one of America's great metropolises in the 1800s to its status as a struggling urban center today.

Gunfire has punctuated street life here for two centuries.

The immediate cause of shootings, stabbings and beatings has shifted over the decades - highway robbery. public drunkenness, anti-immigrant mobs, rum running, narcotics dealing - but the bullets have kept flying.

Sketchy records and changing definitions make crime rates difficult to compare over time. But murder statistics, recorded by the Health Department in the 1800s and the police in this century, suggest a few key points.

Through most of the city's history, violent crime has roughly kept pace with the population. But during a few periods, a volatile brew of social factors has driven the homicide rate much higher than the two-century average.

In the 1850s, about the time of the police shootings, political violence compounded the toll of street murders, cementing Baltimore's sobriquet of "Mob Town." The beginning of the 1880s witnessed a surge in handgun killings by "gangs of ruffians," prompting the grand Jury to demand stiffer penalties for carrying concealed weapons.

Not until the 1960s did the city see another dramatic rise in killings. In 1968, the homicide rate surpassed the record set in 1856 - 26 deaths per 100,000 population. Ever since, Baltimore's drug trade has continued to fuel violence.

Last year the homicide death rate reached an all-time high of 42 per 100,000 population.

But fear of crime has been a constant in Baltimore's history, from the days of the muzzle-loading rifle to the era of the semiautomatic hand-gun.

Travelers looking out for highwaymen on the pitch-dark dirt roads of the 18th century or urbanites of the chaotic 1850s certainly lived in fear for their property and their lives.

Indeed, some horrors that once were commonplace are now rare or gone: mob violence, usually politically or ethnically motivated; lynchings of black men and beatings inflicted on black slaves and servants for the slightest alleged offense; sexual assaults on women for which the victims were blamed because they dared appear alone on the street after dark.

Historians who have studied 19th-century Baltimore stress that city life was harsh and hazardous, especially for those blacks and recent European immigrants crowded into slums.

In Baltimore before the Civil War, says Joseph L. Arnold, a historian at the University of Maryland at Baitimore County, "it could be dangerous walking around town. Street lighting was primitive, and there were a lot of sad, violent, dangerous people, a lot of poverty and alcoholism. It was a dreadful period for the bottom of society."

Robert J. Brugger, history editor at the Johns Hopkins University Press and author of a history of Maryland, says "violence in the city was fairly rampant in the 1840s and 1850s," and that "if you got brained, you could wait a long time to get medical care, while someone rode for help on horseback."

"Desperadoes" and "demons"

To peruse the newspapers from the few weeks between the two police murders in 1858 is to experience the shock of recognition. The language is archaic, but the daily police reports sketch a portrait of violent crime not so different from what is happening 134 years later.

Assaults and even murders are reported as routine news, usually in brief items.

A German immigrant is shot by a stranger In his brother's home at Howard and Montgomery streets. A man is gunned down on the corner of Bond and Lancaster. A customer in a liquor store on Light Street is shot in the forehead when "rowdies" burst in. A man is shot in a "fracas" on Little McElderry Street.

"Nine desperadoes" Invade the house of a woman on Frederick Street, beat her senseless and stomp her face. Two assailants attack a man near Aisquith Street with clubs, "completely beating the scalp from his head." Two young Germans, leaving a ship at Harbor and walking toward Camden Station, are attacked by thugs on Pratt Street and severely beaten.

"The demon of murder seems to have stalked abroad on Sunday night," a reporter writes one Tuesday morning, "as not less than four attempts to take life are reported as having taken place within that period of 12 hours."

One of those attempts is a horse-powered ancestor of the modern drive-by shooting: "At nine o'clock three men drove furiously down French Street in a buggy and when near High Street a pistol shot was fired from the vehicle, and a ball from the weapon shattered the left hand of a man named Michael Clarke, who was passing on the sidewalk." The shooter's speeding buggy then outran pursuing police, the newspaper says.

On a Wednesday evening, some gunmen approach a house on Bath Street and open fire through the windows, wounding four adults and one child. Among the injured adults is John Hopkins, the nephew of banker and philanthropist Johns Hopkins. The news seems no big deal; it is reported in two paragraphs, above an item entitled. "Anniversary Meeting of the Evangelical Knowledge Society."

A few days later comes an 1858-style carjacking - really a bus-Jacking. Several pistol-toting men take over one of Coleman and Bailey company's new horse-drawn omnibuses on Broadway and spend the day riding around the city making mischief, beating up one man, threatening others with their guns and evading the frantic police.

GUNS! GUNS!! GUNS!!!

If the prevalence of guns comes as a surprise, the back-page advertising offers one explanation. "GUNS GUNS!! GUNS!!!" begins an enthusiastic ad for a gun shop on Pratt Street. "All guns warranted, and as cheap as any other respectable establishment in the United States," concludes another, for a dealer on South Calvert Street.

One familiar consequence of the proliferation of guns is reported in a One-paragraph item on a Tuesday: "A lad named Robert," of Columbia Street, age not given, has been accidentally shot in the face while playing with a pistol along with some pals.

This street crime of the 1850s unfolded against a background of political mob violence unlike anything in recent decades.

"Baltimore had a long, tumultuous history of this kind of activity," says Goucher College historian Jean H. Baker.

The demographics of Mob Town were a major factor. A large population of males between 16 and 25 not only drove the rate of street crime up, but organized themselves into groups bearing considerable resemblance to modern youth gangs, Dr. Baker says.

Some young toughs served in the city's volunteer fire companies, whose fierce rivalries regularly turned major fires into brawls, with police fighting the firemen as the firemen fought each other and the buildings burned down.

Others joined political clubs with such telling names as the "Blood Tubs" (notorious for dunking the heads of their opponents in a vat of pig's blood), the "Rip Raps" and the "Plug Uglies," most of them affiliated with the anti-immigrant American Party, better known as the Know-Nothings.

The gangs' everyday weapon was the awl, a shoemaker's tool resembling an ice pick. But guns of every description turned up at Election day riots from 1856 to 1859, as Know-Nothing ruffians fought to prevent Irish, German and other immigrants from voting.

Newspaper election accounts of those years read like war dispatches. During the mayoral election of 1856, "a most terrible and fatal riot" took place around Lexington Market, with Rip Raps and Plug Uglies facing off for hours against the New Market Fire Company, fighting "entirely in guerrilla fashion, and almost wholly with fire arms."

The day's toll, including a major gunbattle around Mount Vernon Square, was approximately 10 dead and 250 injured. Despite a blast of criticism from the outraged governor, who threatened to send in the militia, the same bloody story was repeated in election after election.

Benjamin Herring, Baltimore police chief in the late 1850s, defended his department's performance with the familiar complaint of modern law enforcement: We catch them, and the courts let them go. The magistrates, he said, were political hacks who ignored evidence against their party allies.

"We often arrested 40 or 50 persons in one night, every one of whom were released the next morning by the magistrates," he said. "The roughs defied the police, knowing how secure they were." Western District police had arrested one celebrated miscreant 147 times.

The consequence of such laxity, Mr. Herring said, could be read in the records of the three men charged with the two police murders of 1858.

"They had been arrested for crimes time and time again, but nothing was done with them," he Said. "They were allowed to do as they pleased, until they thought any crime, even the murder of policemen, could be committed with immunity to themselves."

Baltimore's rowdy reputation faded only slowly. In 1868, when Baltimore hoodlums attacked the Washington-Philadelphia train looking for political foes, the Washington Star described the gun-wielding bullies as "one of the most villainous and cut-throat-looking mobs that ever disgraced even Baltimore."

Still, police reform and political stability after the Civil War seem to have had considerable success in reducing street violence. Only in a handful of years between the 1860s and 1950s did the murder rate rise above 12 per 100,000.

But Baltimore was no oasis of calm.

In 1870, of 24,499 people arrested, 3,800 were charged with violent offenses, from "fighting in the street" to "abusing family." Moreover, the absolute number of murders was rising along with the city's population, and sensational crimes regularly pushed up the level of fear.

"Epidemic of crime"

In 1904, two armed men halted the train from Lake Roland to Roland Park, robbed the passengers and shot the conductor in the eye. The public followed breathless reports as Baltimore detectives tracked the robbers to Ohio and Colorado, and train passengers felt insecure as never before.

In 1920, The Sun reported a "Rising Tide of Crime Rolling Across City." This "unparalleled. . . epidemic of crime" included in a week one murder, one attempted murder, 52 assaults, 15 robberies, 11 burglaries A band of "yeggmen" - safe-crackers - was making its way south toward Baltimore.

The murder rate for 1920, 7 per 100,000 population, was about at the 19th-century average.

But the brutal details of the newspaper report must have left readers unnerved: two girls, 8 and 11, sexually assaulted by a 51-year-old man; a 52-year-old woman blackjacked into unconsciousness at Sharp and Ostend by a robber who took the $4.82 in her purse; a 32-year-old woman shot to death by her brother.

By 1922, 900 cases were pending in the city court, which was bogging down under the caseload. The police commissioner demanded 500 more men to keep abreast ot crime.

In 1923, there were nearly 75,000 arrests, a figure that occasioned some soul-searching by a newspaper columnist, who calculated that it meant one arrest for every 4.5 males over 18.

"Every-fifth man you meet on the street, in church, at the club or at the office or shop has - on the average - been arrested in 1923," his commentary said, while noting that the figures included traffic and drunkenness cases.

By the 1940s, with the city's population approaching 900,000, even the routine daily roundup of crime begins to sound quite daunting, as in this Evening Sun report of 1944; "Two men were shot and killed and two others wounded, five men were held up and robbed, two women were stabbed, another was slugged, one's pocketbook was snatched another was attacked here last night and early today."

But as the suburbs had burgeoned after the advent of streetcars in the 1890s, the well-to-do began to commute out of the city's danger zones.

Unlike the 19th century, when rich and poor often lived on adjoining streets in the dense city, the wealthy and powerful often could avoid the suffering that violent crime inflicted on the less fortunate.

The celebrated attorney Clarence Darrow, lecturing in Baltimore in the early 1930s, advised his listeners to stick a pin in a map of the city to mark the place where every criminal arrested "lives, was raised, and had his environment."

"If you do," he said, "you will find that all the pins will huddle together in that section of the city where there is poverty, want, underprivilege and overcrowding."

The poorest sections of Baltimore, then as now, were predominantly black, and poverty and crime went hand-in-hand. In 1926, when 15 percent of Baltimore residents were black, 68 percent of the city's murders were blacks, killing blacks. In 1946, of the year's 97 murder victims, 68 were black, 29 white. The risk of crime was by no means equally shared between races or economic classes.

In the 1950s, public attention was riveted by juvenile crime. The phenomenon was by no means new; in 1894, city police arrested 887 boys under 14. But now it was portrayed as more organized, more threatening, more violent.

"Teen-Age Gangs ... In Baltimore" was the headline of an Evening Sun series in 1953 that focused on fighting among so-called "drape gangs," named for the fashionable clothing style of the times. In details that sound uncannily contemporary, the stories describe teen-agers stealing cars nightly and fighting, often with guns, over turf and "face," or respect.

On Easter Monday in 1956, 20,000 teen-agers rampaged through the Baltimore Zoo, poking animals with sticks and showering them with stones, committing a dozen purse-snatchings and slashing a 17-year-old girl with a knife. If the toll was modest, the incident still belies the quiet image of the 1950s.

Culture of violence

Even during relatively low-crime decades, Baltimore's murder rate, like the nation's, far outpaced that of many comparable foreign cities. In 1926, a Baltimore official compared the 57 people murdered the previous year with the four people murdered in similar-sized Montreal and joined the chorus of American voices over the years worried over the country's culture of violence. Last year, 304 people were killed in Baltimore, 77 in Montreal.

For two centuries, Baltimoreans have looked aghast at the crime around them and sought solutions, arguing in turns for fighting poverty, making weapons unavailable, boosting police protection or imposing harsher punishments.

Today, as crime reaches into the suburbs with the carjacking-murder of Pam Basu in Savage and last week's shooting of four Randallstown bank tellers, emotional calls for tougher penalties are being heard.

Back in 1859, when juries convicted three Baltimore toughs for the murders of Officer Benton and Officer Rigdon, there was no debate over the penalty. They set up the gallows outside the brand new city jail, and some 30,000 citizens turned out for the spectacle.

'It would be difficult to conceive of a popular excitement more intense in feeling" than the atmosphere of the hangings on April 8, 1859, wrote historian and eyewitness Thomas Scharf. There was plenty of drama - one gallows confession, another last-minute avowal of innocence, and hundreds of police mobilized to prevent friends of the accused from trying to spring them.

Scharf wrote that "the supremacy of the law was vindicated" by the hanging. Such public executions might have been expected to give pause to criminals, but the newspaper crime reports reflect no sudden turnaround.

Just 10 days after the hanging, an Officer Davis was patrolling the Southern District on a Saturday night when "he was fired upon by some parties concealed close by," The Sun reported. "Several shots were discharged at him, either from guns or heavy horse pistols."

The assailants missed. The brief newspaper report appeared far down on the front page, just below a roundup of real estate transactions.

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