Race and Homicide in Nineteenth-century California

High murder rates have always been considered an indication of a society in turmoil, and nineteenth-century California was no exception. A rapidly growing population, booming mining camps, insufficient or nonexistent law-enforcement personnel, and many ethnic groups with differing attitudes toward law and personal honor created a situation in which violence was common and legal responses varied broadly. Clare V. McKanna Jr. has published widely on the history of criminal justice in the West. For Race and Homicide in Nineteenth-Century California, he studied coroners' inquest reports, court case files, prison registers, and other primary sources, as well as numerous printed sources, to analyze patterns of homicide and the vagaries of the state's embryonic justice system. The nature of crimes, he discovered, varied with the ethnicity of perpetrators and victims, as did trials and sentencing patterns. Marginalized individuals, like the state's diminishing Indians, fared worst, and Hispanics, whose traditional legal system differed in important ways from the imported practices of the new white majority, did little better. Homicide in the Chinese community was largely confined to fellow Chinese and was often prompted by rivalries among various secret societies. Whites, coming from a number of backgrounds, carried their own conceptions of honor and their own predilections toward violence. McKanna presents here a vivid, carefully detailed portrait of a society in flux, where ancient Spanish and Chinese legal practices collided with English common law and the Code of the West, where greed, poverty, and down-right meanness created tensions that frequently led to bloodshed. The text, enhanced with testimony from contemporary sources and illustrated with period photographs, is an engaging and richly intelligent study of a frontier society where the law was neither omnipresent nor, frequently, impartial.