Outlaws and Lawmen: Crime and Punishment in the 1800s
by Kenneth McIntosh
American society in the 1800s had a rough edge to it. In a nation made up of people of diverse backgrounds and heritage, social controls needed to be strict and enforceable. The extreme economic inequality of America's cities and the wide-open moral code of the frontier led to a culture of crime and violence that still plagues our country. During the 1800s, professional police forces were established in cities, towns, and territories across the continent. On the frontier, "justice" was often swift and severe, with "hanging judges" making their reputations as representatives of the law in a lawless land. Long prison sentences in miserable conditions were the rule for criminals, and many a prisoner might have preferred the option of a quick execution. Before the reform of the legal system--which is an ongoing process--there was definitely a separate law, and a separate standard of penalties, for the rich and for the poor. The evolution of a humane penal system and a fairer protection of all citizens under the law is an important contribution of 1800s America to the modern world.
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