The best books on crime and punishment in the Antebellum South

Why am I passionate about this?

I am a professor of history and Director of the Lawton M. Chiles Jr. Center for Florida History at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida. I am a specialist in Southern, social, criminal justice, and legal history. I am the author or co-author of seven books, including three that address criminal justice at the state and federal level. My articles and reviews on criminal justice history have appeared in the America Historical Review, American Journal of Legal History, Journal of Southern History, Florida Historical Quarterly, Florida Bar Journal, and Georgia Historical Quarterly.


I wrote...

A Rogue's Paradise: Crime and Punishment in Antebellum Florida, 1821-1861

By James M. Denham,

Book cover of A Rogue's Paradise: Crime and Punishment in Antebellum Florida, 1821-1861

What is my book about?

A Rogue’s Paradise paints a portrait of law-breaking and law enforcement on the Florida frontier. Using court records, government documents, newspapers, and personal papers, the book explores how crime affected ordinary Floridians - whites and blacks, perpetrators, victims, and enforcers. I contend that although the frontier determined the enforcement and administration of the law, the ethic of honor dominated human relationships. The narrative traces the growth and development of this sparsely settled region through its experience with crime and punishment.

Among the issues examined are Florida’s criminal code, its judicial and law enforcement officers, the accommodation of criminals in jails and courts, outlaw gangs, patterns of punishment, and the attitude of the public toward lawbreakers. Much of the story is told through the lives of those who participated in the Florida criminal justice system at all levels: criminal, sheriff, judge, jury member, and victim.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth-Century American South

James M. Denham Why did I love this book?

This is a classic, pioneering study of the major elements of southern crime and punishment at a time that saw the formation of the fundamental patterns of class and race—and how they shaped the South’s criminal justice system.  Ayers studies the inner workings of the police, prison, and judicial systems, and the nature of crime, while at the same time adeptly linking the antebellum with the post-bellum criminal justice system. 

By Edward L. Ayers,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Vengeance and Justice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Exploring the major elements of southern crime and punishment at a time that saw the formation of the fundamental patterns of class and race, Ayers studies the inner workings of the police, prison, and judicial systems, and the nature of crime.


Book cover of Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South

James M. Denham Why did I love this book?

No book was more fundamental in shaping and revolutionizing our understanding of the mores and values of the Antebellum South than Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s Southern Honor. Using legal documents, letters, diaries, and newspaper columns, this book reveals how the South’s honor system shaped and influenced how southerners lived, worked, and fought with one another. “Primal Honor” also influenced the way that Southerners made, enforced, or did not enforce the law.  Southern men adopted an ancient honor code that shaped their society from top to bottom. By claiming honor and dreading shame, they controlled their slaves, ruled their households, established the social rankings of themselves, kinfolk, and neighbors, and responded ferociously against perceived threats. Honor required men to demonstrate their prowess and engage in fierce defense of the individual, family, community, and regional reputation by duel, physical encounter, or war. Subordination of African-Americans was uppermost in this Southern ethic. Any threat, whether from the slaves themselves or from outside agitation, had to be met forcefully. Slavery was the root cause of the Civil War, but, according to Wyatt-Brown, honor pulled the trigger.

By Bertram Wyatt-Brown,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Southern Honor as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award, hailed in The Washington Post as "a work of enormous imagination and enterprise" and in The New York Times as "an important, original book," Southern Honor revolutionized our understanding of the antebellum South, revealing how Southern men adopted an ancient honor code that shaped their society from top to bottom.
Using legal documents, letters, diaries, and newspaper columns, Wyatt-Brown offers fascinating examples to illuminate the dynamics of Southern life throughout the antebellum period. He describes how Southern whites, living chiefly in small, rural, agrarian surroundings, in which everyone knew…


Book cover of Criminal Injustice: Slaves and Free Blacks in Georgia's Criminal Justice System

James M. Denham Why did I love this book?

Of the many books that explore African-Americans’ experience in the South’s antebellum Criminal Justice System this work stands out.  In this comprehensive study of the criminal justice system of a slave state. Glenn McNair traces the evolution of Georgia’s legal culture by examining its use of slave codes and slave patrols, as well as presenting data on crimes prosecuted, trial procedures and practices, conviction rates, the appellate process, and punishment. Based on more than four hundred capital cases, McNair’s study deploys both narrative and quantitative analysis to get at both the theory and the reality of the criminal procedure for slaves in the century leading up to the Civil War.

By Glenn McNair,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Criminal Injustice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Criminal Injustice: Slaves and Free Blacks in Georgia's Criminal Justice System is the most comprehensive study of the criminal justice system of a slave state to date. McNair traces the evolution of Georgia's legal culture by examining its use of slave codes and slave patrols, as well as presenting data on crimes prosecuted, trial procedures and practices, conviction rates, the appellate process, and punishment. Based on more than four hundred capital cases, McNair's study deploys both narrative and quantitative analysis to get at both the theory and the reality of the criminal procedure for slaves in the century leading up…


Book cover of American Homicide

James M. Denham Why did I love this book?

In this comprehensive study of homicide in America, Randolph Roth charts changes in the character and incidence of homicide in the U.S. from colonial times to the present. The book is particularly strong in addressing the South’s penchant for violence. In readable fashion, Roth argues that the United States, especially the South, is distinctive in its level of violence among unrelated adults―friends, acquaintances, and strangers.  Roth notes that the homicide rate rose substantially among unrelated adults in the slave South after the American Revolution; and it skyrocketed across the United States from the late 1840s through the mid-1870s, while rates in most other Western nations held steady or fell. That surge―and all subsequent increases in the homicide rate―correlated closely with four distinct phenomena: political instability; a loss of government legitimacy; a loss of fellow-feeling among members of society caused by racial, religious, or political antagonism; and a loss of faith in the social hierarchy. Those four factors, Roth argues, best explain why homicide rates have gone up and down in the United States and in other Western nations over the past four centuries, and why the United States is today the most homicidal affluent nation.

By Randolph Roth,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked American Homicide as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In American Homicide, Randolph Roth charts changes in the character and incidence of homicide in the U.S. from colonial times to the present. Roth argues that the United States is distinctive in its level of violence among unrelated adults-friends, acquaintances, and strangers. America was extraordinarily homicidal in the mid-seventeenth century, but it became relatively non-homicidal by the mid-eighteenth century, even in the slave South; and by the early nineteenth century, rates in the North and the mountain South were extremely low. But the homicide rate rose substantially among unrelated adults in the slave South after the American Revolution; and it…


Book cover of Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705-1865

James M. Denham Why did I love this book?

Philip J. Schwarz’s Twice Condemned adeptly analyzes the history of enslaved African Americans' relationship with the criminal courts of the Old Dominion from roughly 1700 to the end of the Civil War.  Based on over four thousand trials from the colonial, early national, and antebellum periods, no other book does such a comprehensive job of analyzing the prevalence, longevity, and variety of behavior attributed to slave convicts. This book also provides a detailed picture of how one slave society evolved, and along the way, it uncovers previously unexamined aspects of slave culture, and of slave owners' attitudes toward the "domestic enemy" in their midst.  Schwarz argues that the judicial system for slaves served two purposes: it helped slave owners control slaves and enabled authorities to sanction criminal behavior. This dual function of slave trials mirrored the two kinds of slaves' behavior judges tried to suppress.

When focused on slave resistance, this study illuminates some of the many ways black Virginians were able to confront the seemingly overwhelming power of the white society that enslaved them. Twice Condemned provides a fascinating portrayal of slave culture and slave resistance to white society not only as a means of resistance against oppression but as a means of individual empowerment.

By Philip J. Schwarz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Twice Condemned as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Schwarz, Philip J. Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705-1865. [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press]. [1988]. xvi, 354pp. Reprinted 1998 by The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd. LCCN 98-4424 Hardcover. New. Analyzes the history of enslaved African Americans' relationship with the criminal courts of the Old Dominion during a 160 year period. Before Twice Condemned was first published in 1988, historians often focused primarily on isolated or dramatic examples of the sometimes deadly conflict present in societies based on slave labor. But Twice Condemned analyzes the prevalence, longevity, and variety of behavior attributed to slave convicts. In doing…


You might also like...

A School for Unusual Girls

By Kathleen Baldwin,

Book cover of A School for Unusual Girls

Kathleen Baldwin Author Of Sanctuary for Seers: A Stranje House Novel

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Loves God Mother to Many Wilderness Adventurer History Enthusiast

Kathleen's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

A spy school for girls amidst Jane Austen’s high society.

Daughters of the Beau Monde who don’t fit London society’s strict mold are banished to Stranje House, where the headmistress trains these unusually gifted girls to enter the dangerous world of spies in the Napoleonic wars. #1 NYT bestselling author Meg Cabot calls this exciting historical series "completely original and totally engrossing."

A School for Unusual Girls

By Kathleen Baldwin,

What is this book about?

A School for Unusual Girls is the first captivating installment in the Stranje House series for young adults by award-winning author Kathleen Baldwin. #1 New York Times bestselling author Meg Cabot calls this romantic Regency adventure "completely original and totally engrossing."

It's 1814. Napoleon is exiled on Elba. Europe is in shambles. Britain is at war on four fronts. And Stranje House, a School for Unusual Girls, has become one of Regency England's dark little secrets. The daughters of the beau monde who don't fit high society's constrictive mold are banished to Stranje House to be reformed into marriageable young…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Antebellum South, criminal justice, and homicide?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Antebellum South, criminal justice, and homicide.

The Antebellum South Explore 16 books about the Antebellum South
Criminal Justice Explore 42 books about criminal justice
Homicide Explore 39 books about homicide