Crime and the Birth of Modern America (HISM173)

Lecturer(s)Dr Kristofer Allerfeldt
Credit Value30
ECTS Value15.00
Duration of ModuleOne term (11 weeks)
Total Student Study Time300 hours including 11 x 2 hour seminars and 276 hours independent study

Module aims

The aims of this course are diverse. Essentially, it will examine the cultural and political significance of crime as the US emerged as the world's leading economic power: how the history of this period is reflected and shaped the changes in criminalization, law enforcement, crime detection and sentencing. It will look at how attitudes to pleasure, wealth and work can be better understood by looking at what was taboo, outlawed or frowned on in this quickly evolving society. This module will look at commonly held stereotypes, like the immigrant criminal and the social bandit model of the American West. It will examine the origin of such unlikely American icons as Chicago's tommy-gun wielding mobster, the machine politician or the electric chair. In short, it will attempt to explain why the US, "land of the free", has become the nation which imprisons more of its population than any other.

Intended learning outcomes

Module-specific skills

1. Demonstrate an understanding of key themes and issues in the history of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century American society, culture and politics.
2. Demonstrate an awareness of historiographical and theoretical debates in the various subject areas studied.
3. Demonstrate an understanding of the nature and significance of criminal behaviour and criminal justice in the history of the US during this period.
4. Demonstrate an awareness and understanding of a wide selection of primary source materials and be able to critically evaluate their historical value.
5. Demonstrate an ability to evaluate different disciplinary perspectives on crime and American history.
6. Propose and begin work on a dissertation on some aspect of this subject if they so choose.

Discipline-specific skills

7. Analyse and synthesise widely different types of historical material and evidence.
8. Identify and understand the nature of original sources.
9. Critically understand key historical concepts and debates.
10. Research independently and present interpretations of different historical issues.

Personal and key skills

11. Demonstrate capacity for independent critical study and thought.
12. Apply key bibliographical skills (including the use of online searching aids).
13. Construct and defend a sustained argument, both in written form and orally, using primary and secondary materials.
14. Work as an individual and with a tutor and peers in an independent, constructive and responsive way (e.g. lead a group discussion or task).
15. Analyse, summarise, and organise material to produce a coherent and cogent argument, within specific deadlines.

Learning and teaching methods

The module is taught through weekly two-hour seminars on a set theme. Students will be required to undertake preparatory reading of primary and secondary materials. Group and/or individual presentations will serve as the basis for discussion guided by the module tutor(s). Essays will be assigned, discussed and returned in individual tutorials. The module syllabus each year will be student-led, selecting topics from the list of possible seminar topics.


Two 3000 word essays.


First 3000 word essay worth 37% of the overall module mark, second 3000 word essay worth 38% of the overall module mark. 25-30 minute individual presentation (to include visual aids) worth 25% of the overall module mark.

Syllabus plan

Week 1: The Crimes of the Century
Week 2: The Criminal in US history
Weeks 3 to 10: a selection from the following topics according to student choice:
a) Sex Crimes
b) The Wild West?
c) Industrialization and Crime
d) Immigration and Crime
e) Police Forces
f) Fraudsters, Quacks and Swindlers
g) Political Crime
h) Prohibitions
i) Race and Hate Crime
j) Terrorism
k) The Evolution of the US Prison State
Week 11: Conference Workshop with Assessed Presentations

Indicative basic reading list

Indicative basic reading list:
George CS Benson, Political Corruption in America (Lexington Mass., 1978)
David Critchley, The Origin of Organized Crime in America: The New York City Mafia, 1891-1931 (London, 2008)
Timothy J Gilfoyle, A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth Century New York (New York, 2006)
Roy Edward Lotz, Crime and the American Press (New York, 1991)
James A Morone, Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History (New Haven, 2003)
David F Musto, Drugs in America: A Documentary History (New York, 2002)
Charles Ponzi, The Rise of Mr Ponzi (Naples, Fl., 2001)
Michael M Topp (ed), The Sacco and Vanzetti Case: A Brief History with Documents (New York, 2005)
Christopher Waldrep (ed), Documenting American Violence: A Source Book (Oxford, 2006)
Indicative web based resources:
Lynching in America:
FBI files website:
Report on the Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States:
Immigration to the US - Harvard Open Collections:
The evolution of the Mafia:
Other resources:
Documentary films : eg The People Versus Leo Frank (2009) and Sacco and Vanzetti (2006)