Communities and Networks Disrupted: Parricide and America's 1890s Agrarian Crisis

Thursday, January 5, 2012: 3:20 PM
Chicago Ballroom B (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Peter Boag, Washington State University
While not the most common form of homicide in America, patricide and matricide have often occurred.  Only a few historians have studied them beyond isolated cases (notably Lizzie Borden) and for their broader historical implications.  My larger project on parricide in America, 1880-1920, explores rural American parricide as a window on the agrarian crisis and how what was happening in rural America informs the construction of the notion of adolescence, a concept that only crystallized at that time.  Historians who study adolescence, on the other hand, typically look for its antecedents in the urbanization process.

My proposed paper on parricide in 1890s rural America fits the 2012 AHA’s theme of “Communities and Networks.” Its primary task is to examine key moments of public debate in newspaper forums and in court trials where rural communities as communities came together to make sense of the seemingly senseless acts that disrupted hierarchies on which family and local social networks had long been based.  In these settings and through various activities, including casting blame on either the victims or the perpetrators of parricides (and sometimes both), communities affected by parricide rallied to salvage traditional order that was otherwise coming unhinged in the American countryside in the 1890s (due to terrible depression; urban America supplanting rural American in overall social, economic, and cultural import; and rural exodus to the city).  The secondary task of the paper is to show how in all this rural communities worked to affix culpability on young people for their actions.  They did so through (re)examining standard notions of childhood and adulthood and deciding what to do with those who seemed, due to their crime, to be neither children nor adults.  In doing this, they helped define adolescence and thus contributed to the social changes that were otherwise undoing rural America.