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Murder in New Orleans

The Creation of Jim Crow Policing

New Orleans in the 1920s and 1930s was a deadly place. In 1925, the city’s homicide rate was six times that of New York City and twelve times that of Boston. Jeffrey S. Adler has explored every homicide recorded in New Orleans between 1925 and 1940—over two thousand in all—scouring police and autopsy reports, old interviews, and crumbling newspapers. More than simply quantifying these cases, Adler places them in larger contexts—legal, political, cultural, and demographic—and emerges with a tale of racism, urban violence, and vicious policing that has startling relevance for today.

Murder in New Orleans shows that whites were convicted of homicide at far higher rates than blacks leading up to the mid-1920s. But by the end of the following decade, this pattern had reversed completely, despite an overall drop in municipal crime rates. The injustice of this sharp rise in arrests was compounded by increasingly brutal treatment of black subjects by the New Orleans police department. Adler explores other counterintuitive trends in violence, particularly how murder soared during the flush times of the Roaring Twenties, how it plummeted during the Great Depression, and how the vicious response to African American crime occurred even as such violence plunged in frequency—revealing that the city’s cycle of racial policing and punishment was connected less to actual patterns of wrongdoing than to the national enshrinement of Jim Crow. Rather than some hyperviolent outlier, this Louisiana city was a harbinger of the endemic racism at the center of today’s criminal justice state. Murder in New Orleans lays bare how decades-old crimes, and the racially motivated cruelty of the official response, have baleful resonance in the age of Black Lives Matter.


"[Adler has a] remarkable ability to craft a narrative that brings the quantitative data set—2,118 homicide cases—to life in such vivid and gut-wrenching detail."

Journal of African American History

“In this ambitious urban history, Adler authoritatively reconstructs the racist and violent policing forces in the Crescent City—he seems to leave no document unturned, unanalyzed, or uncontextualized. Prodigiously researched, Murder in New Orleans demonstrates that we must look to cities like New Orleans in the 1920s and 1930s if we hope to discover the origins of the nation’s current carceral state.”

Ibram X. Kendi, National Book Award–winning author of Stamped from the Beginning

“Masterfully exploiting New Orleans’ rich police records, Adler forces us to rethink the origins of the racialized war on crime. Jim Crow criminal justice flowered in New Orleans in the 1930s and 1940s, despite a sustained fall in the city’s historically high homicide rates. Yet the decline in murder did not stay the hand of rough justice, as white New Orleanians came to associate African Americans with street violence and robbery. Adler shows how, in conflating race control and crime control, New Orleans’ unusually hard-boiled policing anticipated the mass arrest and incarceration practices of our own time.”

David T. Courtwright, author of Violent Land

“Adler illuminates the experience of homicide in one of the most violent American cities as it moved from the Roaring Twenties through the depressed 1930s. The rates and nature of murder, and responses to it, reflected changing conceptions of honor and justice, migration patterns, economics, household structure, gender roles, and technology, with the only constants being racial difference and tight white dominance. This is a model of social history, its conclusions often surprising and always insightful.”

Roger Lane, author of Murder in America: A History

Murder in New Orleans is an important case study of racism in pre-World War II criminal justice that reveals how the past bleeds into the present.”

Tony Platt, University of California, Berkeley

“Recommended. . . Murder in New Orleans reads like the script for a documentary film.”


"The major strength of Adler’s work rests in the sources. He has succeeded in finding an urban area that had no dearth of crime and homicide statistics and records. Adler has reviewed a total of 2,118 homicide cases during the interwar period, and his primary source materials serve as a valuable foundation for any examination of criminal justice in New Orleans. He also expands his view beyond the courts, analyzing other diverse records such as coroners’ records and newspapers. Utilizing this fantastically cohesive body of primary sources, Adler helps explain the origins of the current incarceration crisis, which most assuredly rest in the interwar period."

The Journal of Southern History

"Carefully researched and well written."

Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"This most interesting book is a brilliant companion to an understanding of many elements of crime and the response to crime, not simply in interwar New Orleans but also more generally in America in this period."

The Critic

Table of Contents

List of Figures

One: “It’s Only Another Negro Fight and Not Important”
Two: “If You Hit Me Again I Will Stick You with This Knife”
Three: “She Made Me Her Dog”
Four: “Give Me the Gat”
Five: “The Iron Hand of Justice”
Six: “Cheaper than a Dime Sandwich”

Appendix: Methodology and Sources

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