The best books for understanding late-19th-century America through the prism of death, violence, and killing

Peter Boag Author Of Pioneering Death: The Violence of Boyhood in Turn-Of-The-Century Oregon
By Peter Boag

Who am I?

As a student, the Gilded Age bored me to no end. Since then, I have come to understand that the era’s paradoxes, contingencies, and uncertainties are what has created modern America; they have preoccupied my research and writing since. I undertook Pioneering Death as a meditation on how one of the darkest and most intensely personal events—parricide—is both an expected and unexpected outcome of the interconnectedness between place, region, and nation during the Gilded Age. I hope my very select booklist about death, violence, and brutal killings assists you to recognize how these are central to the human condition and how they are foundational to modern America. 

I wrote...

Pioneering Death: The Violence of Boyhood in Turn-Of-The-Century Oregon

By Peter Boag,

Book cover of Pioneering Death: The Violence of Boyhood in Turn-Of-The-Century Oregon

What is my book about?

On an autumn day in 1895, eighteen-year-old Loyd Montgomery shot his parents and a neighbor in a gruesome act that reverberated beyond the small confines of Montgomery's Oregon farming community. The dispassionate slaying and Montgomery's consequent hanging exposed the fault lines of a rapidly industrializing and urbanizing society and revealed the burdens of pioneer narratives boys of the time inherited.

In Pioneering Death: The Violence of Boyhood in Turn-of-the-Century Oregon, Peter Boag examines the Brownsville parricide as an allegory for the destabilizing transitions within the rural United States at the end of the nineteenth century. Boag uncovers how Loyd's violent acts reflected the brutality of American colonizing efforts, the anxieties of global capitalism, and the buried traumas of childhood in the American West.
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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence

Why did I love this book?

Cothran’s beautifully written chronicle tells a sad and all-too-common story from the 19th century, the effects of which continue to haunt America today. While he focuses on the Modoc people of southern Oregon and Northern California and one of the most famous “Indian Wars” that is largely forgotten today, this tale is relevant to any place in the world where indigenous people have suffered the brutalities of colonization, are blamed for the very brutalities that they have suffered, and then become further victimized in histories that paint the colonizers and their murderous acts as innocent. 

By Boyd Cothran,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Remembering the Modoc War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On October 3, 1873, the U.S. Army hanged four Modoc headmen at Oregon's Fort Klamath. The condemned had supposedly murdered the only U.S. Army general to die during the Indian wars of the nineteenth century. Their much-anticipated execution marked the end of the Modoc War of 1872-73. But as Boyd Cothran demonstrates, the conflict's close marked the beginning of a new struggle over the memory of the war. Examining representations of the Modoc War in the context of rapidly expanding cultural and commercial marketplaces, Cothran shows how settlers created and sold narratives of the conflict that blamed the Modocs. These…

Book cover of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

Why did I love this book?

Historians, in writing about change over time, typically focus on the living and fail to notice that their subjects are constantly dying. Missing this simple fact, historians also do not notice that the dead compel change as much as, perhaps more than, do their survivors. What I so love about Faust’s compellingly written The Republic of Suffering, is that it is a dead-on reckoning of how the unfathomable carnage of the Civil War shaped those who survived that conflict, their memory, and the nation they went about piecing together in the wake of enormous and violent human death-toll.

By Drew Gilpin Faust,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked This Republic of Suffering as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST • An "extraordinary ... profoundly moving" history (The New York Times Book Review) of the American Civil War that reveals the ways that death on such a scale changed not only individual lives but the life of the nation.

More than 600,000 soldiers lost their lives in the American Civil War. An equivalent proportion of today's population would be six million. In This Republic of Suffering, Drew Gilpin Faust describes how the survivors managed on a practical level and how a deeply religious culture struggled to reconcile the unprecedented carnage with its belief…

Wisconsin Death Trip

By Michael Lesy,

Book cover of Wisconsin Death Trip

Why did I love this book?

Lesy’s classic book about sorrow, decline, and death in the American countryside during the 1890s is something I first came upon in graduate school in the 1980s. It haunted me then and has haunted me since for its grim portrayal of rural Wisconsin. Lesy’s ability to tell a history through juxtaposing both every day and simultaneously disturbing photographs of life and death with textual snippets of the same from local newspapers is genius. More than what academic histories typically had done in their approach to this topic prior to the publication of Lesy’s work, Wisconsin Death Trip provided then and still provides today a more creative and emotion-driven model for exploring the tragedies of our past and how they shape us.

By Michael Lesy,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Wisconsin Death Trip as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book is about life in a small turn-of-the-century Wisconsin town. Lesy has collected and arranged photographs taken between 1890 and 1910. Against these are juxtaposed excerpts from the Badger State Banner, from the Mendota State (asylum) Record Book, and occasionally quotations from the writings of Hamlin Garland and Glenway Wescott.

Book cover of The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America

Why did I love this book?

The Devil in the White City is the riveting story of a serial murderer whose actions connect directly to American values on display at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. This exceptionally well-written book came to me in about 2005 when my father placed into my hands. I could not put it down and it facilitated my imaginings about how I might explain a single and long-ago act of violence from the perspective of the broader, painful history that is also the story of America. That Larson’s story of serial murder takes place in the same era as did the parricide case that I explore in my own book, only further helped to illuminate the dark path into the past that I was wandering down. 

By Erik Larson,

Why should I read it?

17 authors picked The Devil in the White City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Chicago World Fair was the greatest fair in American history. This is the story of the men and women whose lives it irrevocably changed and of two men in particular- an architect and a serial killer. The architect is Daniel Burnham, a man of great integrity and depth. It was his vision of the fair that attracted the best minds and talents of the day. The killer is Henry H. Holmes. Intelligent as well as handsome and charming, Holmes opened a boarding house which he advertised as 'The World's Fair Hotel' Here in the neighbourhood where he was once…

Book cover of First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt: Homicide in Chicago, 1875-1920

Why did I love this book?

Lynching is central to the late 19th century and thus the theme that I explore in my recommendations, but covers this tragic subject elsewhere. Instead, for my last book, I offer Adler’s study that explains the persistently high and even increasing rates of violence and homicide in Chicago during an era when varied modern social controls—urban reform, the discipline of the factory floor, expanding education and the bureaucratic state—swept over that city as they did over America, too. According to older theories about social turbulence and murder, these should have declined. Instead, the opposite was true, though the forms that violence took did change. Perhaps it was Adler’s intention to leave frighteningly unanswered what it is about people generally, and Americans specifically, that the dark impulses they have run so deeply that they are impervious to social control.

By Jeffrey S. Adler,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Between 1875 and 1920, Chicago's homicide rate more than quadrupled, making it the most violent major urban center in the United States--or, in the words of Lincoln Steffens, "first in violence, deepest in dirt." In many ways, however, Chicago became more orderly as it grew. Hundreds of thousands of newcomers poured into the city, yet levels of disorder fell and rates of drunkenness, brawling, and accidental death dropped. But if Chicagoans became less volatile and less impulsive, they also became more homicidal.

Based on an analysis of nearly six thousand homicide cases, First in Violence, Deepest in Dirt examines the…

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