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Italian immigrants and violent crime

On Sunday, Aug. 4, 1901, the Boston Globe invited five prominent Italians and Italian Americans to respond to the question: “Is the Italian More Prone to Violent Crime than Any Other Race?”

The Charlestown State Prison, circa 1900

The Charlestown State Prison, circa 1900 (photo courtesy http://www.csail.mit.edu/)

The question was not simply a product of anti-Italian stereotypes. As the table below notes, crime statistics of the time showed that while Italians committed few crimes against property or public order, they were highest on the list for crimes against persons, i.e., violent crimes.

The five respondents were Fr. Ubaldus Da Rieti, Giuseppe De Marco, Dr. Joseph Santosuosso, and A.A. Badaracco, and George. A. Scigliano. Each of the men answered the question in a different way. hey did not deny that Italians seemed to be prone to violent crime, but like Bushee they limited it to certain groups and attributed it to cultural or environmental factors.

Ubaldus claimed that the violent offenders were actually not Italians, but a sub-group composed of Albanians, Arabs and Greeks who had migrated to Italy years before and then came to America with Italian immigrants. Moreover, these groups were of the lowest classes and thus prone to violent crime.

De Marco objected to the question’s implication that all Italians were prone to violent crime. He attributed the violence to the peasant custom of settling conflict by means of the personal vendetta. However, he emphasized that only a small proportion of Italians were doing this in America: that the majority of Italians were law abiding, and that the newspapers were more interested in headlines than truth.

Santuossuo made sure to clarify what the question was: Not if Italians were committing most of the violent crime, but if the crimes they were committing were more often violent crimes. He accepted the latter as valid, and said that it ultimately stemmed from the passionate nature of Italians and the fact that the recent history of Italy and the harsh conditions of immigration did not provide a positive outlet for that passion.

Badaracco began by stating that the newspapers were responsible for the giving Italians a bad name when each murder committed by Italians was headlined “Another Italian Murder,” but that murders committed by Yankees were not similarly headlined “Another Yankee Murder.” Moreover, Badaracco noted that the crimes that Italians did commit were often a response to attacks by anti-immigrant “hoodlums” or exacerbated by the harsh conditions of immigration.

Finally, Scigliano responded by noting that the crime appeared to be rising in the last few years, but said it was due solely to the “economic and social” context of immigration, mainly overcrowded living quarters and low wages. When these were rectified, Italian crime would subside.

The charge that Italians were prone to violent crime was addressed by others as well, notably Fredrick Bushee, a social worker from the South End House. Bushee visited the North End a few years before the Globe forum, providing an interesting description of “Italian Immigrants in Boston” that was published in the Progressive magazine called The Arena in 1896. Bushee defended the North End Italians against the charge that they were prone to crime by claiming — like De Marco — that violence was mainly limited to a sub-group of Italians, and that it stemmed from the vendetta. As Bushee put it, the violence was due to:

.”..some of the Calabrians, whose fierce countenances do not invite friendliness. They are the ones who carry knives and so frequently use them. This method of procedure, so revolting to us, is simply their way of fighting , for they do not how to use their fists….Under the influence of a stronger public opinion and a more rigid enforcement of the law than was the custom in Italy, this evil is gradually being lessened. The dangerous character which has been given to the North End by these acts of violence, has, however, been greatly exaggerated….” (p. 724).

Seven years later, in 1903, Bushee wrote a detailed study of crime Boston in a section of his book Ethnic Factors in Boston. The statistics he provided show why the Globe question and the Italian reputation for violent emerged: While Italians were not being incarcerated for crimes against property or public order, they were disproportionately being so for crimes against persons — crimes of violence:

crime-insert

Bushee analyzes some of the causes for Italian violence, more or less repeating what he had said in the earlier, above noted, article. He also discusses crime among other immigrant groups, in some cases making comparisons between them. For example, he found Greeks were more likely to be arrested for not holding sales permits, which stemmed from their unfamiliarity with the law, and that “Americans,” British and Scots were prone to crimes of sexual immorality, due to their presence in the restaurant trade, where many single women were also employed.

I will conclude with his comparison of crime between Italians and Irish, which reveals what we have already learned about Italians and violence. It also shows that Bushee was not above stereotyping the Irish — yet also not without a sense of humor:

“If it were not for the well-known serious crimes of the Italians, they might be ranked as one of the more law-abiding of the nationalities. Their record for the less serious offenses is below the average, and few Italian women are arrested….[C]rime would not be so great in the North End if it were not for the quick tempers of the men and their enforced idleness. Most of the Italians are not naturally vicious; the conditions of their life are responsible for the greater part of their crime….

“Crime among the Irish is very different from than among the Italians [Among the Irish] misdemeanors are very prevalent, though serious crimes are not so common [….] There is a moral degradation among Irish families as a result of drink which is not found among other nationalities. And this brings with it a kind of immorality not serious in the eyes of the law, yet demoralizing to the family life.

“For quarrels which are serious affairs, for flashes of anger which mean a knife thrust, one must go to the Italian quarter; but for tin-pan and broom-handle bruises, for nocturnal disturbances of drunken men and women, for the unremitting bellow of brazen voices, there is no place like an Irish street. When one sees a man rolled down stairs by his wife and mother-in-law, armed with a tin dish and a rolling pin, the air thick with dust and expletives, we know that his name is Pat” (419-420).”

About James Pasto

James S. Pasto is a senior lecturer at Boston University, co-founder of the North End Historical Society and editor of the society's journal. To share stories about North End's past, e-mail pasto@bostoniano.info. To find out more about the North End Historical Society, visit alexgoldfeld.com/NEHS.html.