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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Boyd Cothran

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

Why 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. 


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War

By Drew Gilpin Faust

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

Why 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.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Wisconsin Death Trip

By Michael Lesy

Book cover of Wisconsin Death Trip

Why 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.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

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

By Erik Larson

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

Why 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. 


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

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

By Jeffrey S. Adler

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

Why this book?

Lynching is central to the late 19th century and thus the theme that I explore in my recommendations, but Shepherd.com 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.


When you buy a book we may earn a small commission.

Closely Related Book Lists

Distantly Related Book Lists