Criminal Chicago: First in Violence by Adler


Chicago is known as one of the most dangerous cities in America. The book First in Violence: Deepest in Dirt: Homicide in Chicago, 1875-1910, was written by Jeffrey S. Adler that focuses on the culture of violence in Chicago after the Industrial Revolution. The first chapter, “So You Refuse to Drink with Me, Do You,” illustrates the norms and values of working-class Chicagoans in the late 19th century through a series of vignettes. One man slices another’s jugular vein for refusing a drink; a newly arrived Ohioan shoots a drunkard through the brain for bumping into him. Adler argues that these men were not inherently violent but influenced by economic and demographic factors (Adler, 2009). The outbursts of violence were caused by the city’s rapid population growth due to urbanization and immigration, as well as the switch to an industrialized economy that left most workers poor and unskilled. On a macro-level, the culture of violence in Chicago was rooted in population growth and economic shifts.

Secondly, Adler provides statistical data and individual profiles of the victims and perpetrators of homicide in saloons. Saloons often witnessed homicides because they were populated by young and marginalized unskilled workers, most often bachelors, that could not secure financial or social stability (Adler, 2009). Hard-drinking and brawls were considered a regular part of working-class leisure activities that celebrated masculine identity. Although their violence was perceived as random and irrational by outsiders, it was part of a specific and systematic ritual to gain respect in the absence of social mobility. The ability to dominate other men and flout middle-class values became a form of honor and social capital. Demographic and economic shifts fostered a culture wherein violence became a medium of honor and respect.

Importance in U.S. History

The lives and values of working-class Chicagoans in the 19th century are an important part of U.S. cultural history. The working class is a group that is often forgotten in history classes in favor of “big” actors such as aristocrats or politicians. However, analyzing the mentality and habits of ordinary people allows historians to trace the root causes of their behaviors and understand subsequent mass movements, such as the formation of crime syndicates and workers’ strikes. Furthermore, it is a useful exercise to evaluate how social policies and economics impact everyday reality and behavior. The episodes recounted in Adler’s book explain that violence and alcoholism are not the results of inherent, unchangeable working-class “savagery” but of socioeconomic forces such as immigration patterns and industrialization. This framework explains why Chicago continues to be a hotbed of crime and perhaps why homicide rates are rising in other U.S. cities today (Gramlich, 2021). Scholars of U.S. history need to consider the experiences of every stratum to understand the link between socioeconomics, mass behavior, and the current state of society.

Modern Relevance

Adler’s book is relevant today because it lends an astute insight into the mechanisms of working-class culture. Violence is not a phenomenon isolated to 19th century Chicago; it could be argued that it is more prevalent today with the rise of incidents such as school shootings. Through Adler’s framework, the increase in violence today can be explained as a method of attaining social capital in the environment of post-recession unemployment, poverty, and lack of upward class mobility. These issues are partly caused by American companies outsourcing manufacturing to countries with a cheaper labor force. The switch to a service economy means unskilled workers are left jobless because they cannot adhere to “professional” office culture standards due to their lack of education. Furthermore, neoliberal austerity measures have deprived people of social safety nets and institutional support. Therefore, Adler teaches us that the solution to violence lies in educational and social reforms rather than punitive measures. Adler’s book remains impactful because it documents how the culture of violence is not random or irrational but created and perpetuated through poverty and lack of upward class mobility.


In conclusion, the first chapter of Adler’s book First in Violence: Deepest in Dirt: Homicide in Chicago, 1875-1910 exemplifies how the study of history can advance the understanding of modern problems. Chicago’s culture of violence in the late 19th century resulted from rapid population growth and poverty in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. Violence became a medium of attaining power and respect for young, unskilled bachelors that were marginalized by the new industrial economy. Their experiences are important to U.S. history because it showcases how demographic and economic changes influence the ideology and behavior of the working class, a group that is often forgotten in history classes. Furthermore, it lends us a useful insight into how violence is created, perpetuated, and should be understood today.


Adler, J.S. (2009). First in violence, deepest in dirt: Homicide in Chicago, 1875-1920. Harvard University Press.

Gramlich, J. (2021). What we know about the increase in U.S. murders in 2020. Pew Research Center. Web.

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