Troubled Experiment: Crime and Justice in Pennsylvania, 1682–1800

Troubled Experiment is “a history of crime where there should have been no significant crime,” assert Jack D. Marietta and G. S. Rowe (p. 1). Yet within a generation of William Penn’s debarkation at Philadelphia on October 29, 1682, crimes of property and violence in this Quaker paradise were unexpectedly commonplace, and after the 1720s, Pennsylvania’s “homicide rate exceeded London’s rates for the whole eighteenth century” (p. 73). Historians ever since have questioned why Penn’s “civic utopia on the Delaware” became “a society troubled by crime and disorder” (pp. 7, 263).

Perhaps more surprising than the reality of crime in Pennsylvania is the fantasy that it was, or should have been, otherwise. The myth originated with Penn: his imprisonment by the British, his “vision of a novel, enlightened society in the New World” (p. 8), his promulgation of a penal code milder than in England or any of its colonies, and his support of religious freedom and immigration—Penn seems to be America’s founding father and epic hero combined (according to William Bradford, he possessed a mind “like a mountain, whose summit is enlightened by the first beams of the sun” [An Enquiry How Far the Punishment of Death Is Necessary in Pennsylvania, 1793, p. 14]).

Marietta and Rowe correlate the dimming of Penn’s utopian vision with a perfect storm of historical and demographic forces that swept eighteenth-century Pennsylvania. The liberality of Quaker society in general and Penn’s code in particular were fertile ground for crime. By 1720, unrestricted immigration spawned a generation of rootless males that weakened community foundations, opening them to disorder. An increasingly individualistic population had less energy for the institutions of civil society. And the Revolution criminalized the Quaker pacifism on which Pennsylvania was founded, setting its citizens against one another more furiously than ever before.

Troubled Experiment chronicles those developments meticulously: chapters are devoted to the evolution of Pennsylvania’s criminal laws and courts; the demographic changes wrought by waves of immigration in the 1720s; the persistence of violent crime throughout the eighteenth century; the impact on crime of westward expansion; changes wrought by the Revolution; and new problems faced by the commonwealth. Marietta and Rowe make excellent use of statistics (the text is rich in charts and tables measuring everything from “three-year moving averages of accusations of fornication and bastardy” to “average riot accusations per 100,000 per decade” [pp. 203, 220]). They also attend to the microeconomics of crime in colonial Pennsylvania (demonstrating, for example, the consistently higher socioeconomic status of sheriffs, justices, and jurors relative to the accused). Perhaps because crime is more fascinating than statistics, each chapter is liberally spiced with salacious anecdotes of real-life rape, murder, and mayhem.

Troubled Experiment is an enlightening read, the prose calmly literate and the organizational strategy a satisfying mix of the chronological and thematic. Some readers may wince at the censorious critiques of Lockean liberalism (“this intersection of liberalism with abundant crime was more than coincidence. Liberalism supported and stimulated crime” [p. 264]) and immigration (“community and decency could not thrive with the amount of transience present in Pennsylvania” [p. 265]). Inexplicably, the radical 1790s reforms at Walnut Street Prison are virtually ignored. But those objections aside, Troubled Experiment offers a concise and readable history of crime where none should have been.

Peter Okun
Davis and Elkins College
Elkins, West Virginia