Oct112009

Homicide Rate in 1926 Putnam County Worse Than 2008 Detroit

How violent was Putnam County, Florida, of which Palatka is the county seat, in 1926?

The most conservative possible count of Putnam homicides in 1926 puts the county’s rate at about 41 per 100,000 population. For comparison, poor, beleaguered Detroit led the US in homicide rate in 2008 with 37.4 per 100,000 of population. The genteel south, indeed.

I’ve gleaned these numbers from reports in the Palatka Times-Herald, the weekly newspaper of the day. An Oct. 8, 1926, story previewing the fall court session for Putnam County cites defendants in four Putnam killings as awaiting trial in the session. The killings occurred between April and September. I know of at least three other murders that occurred in 1926 that didn’t yield arrests by the fall term. Putnam’s population in 1926 was about 17,000. Seven murders in 17,000 population translates to 41 per 100,000 in my calculations. I feel relatively certain that there were more killings earlier in 1926, but I haven’t been able to scour the record yet to find them.

The Times-Herald declared in its Oct. 8 story, “The greatest number of murder cases in the history of Putnam County will be investigated by the grand jury during the fall term of the court.”

For what it’s worth, J.V. Walton successfully defended two of the accused in one of the murders tried during this fall term.

When you couple this appalling homicide rate with the mob/klan violence that exploded each weekend during the year, you begin to sense what a terrifying period this must have been. And it wasn’t just Palatka.

On Aug. 12, 1926, Florida Gov. John Martin appeared before the Gainesville Kiwanis Club and lamented Florida’s record of violence.

Here’s an excerpt from the Gainesville Sun account:

“Let us put a stop to the taking of human life in our fair state,” Governor Martin said. “Let us create a feeling of abhorrence against homicide. Here is a challenge worth of the attention of every law abiding and law loving citizen.”

The governor referred to the fact that he has recently returned from the the conference of governors of the various states held this year in Wyoming, and that while a this conference the governor of Maine had declared that in that state there have been no murders during this year. [ed-Remember, there were at least seven in Putnam County alone in 1926]

“That s a remarkable record the stat of Maine has made,” Governor Martin asserted, “and our record does not compare favorably with it. During the next few months I am going to try to arouse the people of this state to their duty in this matter.”

If I accomplish nothing else with this project, I want to disabuse anyone who reads of the notion that somehow our ancestors lived by codes of honor and decency that exceeded our own, that the civilizations they built were more humane or orderly or noble. They were not. They were subject to all the same base human instincts and fallibilities that Detroit struggles with today.

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