Violence is an old story in 'Mob Town'

Thugs thriving in city streets since 1700s

Crime & The City

November 01, 1992|By SCOTT SHANE | SCOTT SHANE,STAFF WRITER

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.

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