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Dynamic Range

Chicago’s murder legacy

In this 1908 photo, a Chicago police officer holds up the dead body of Lazarus Averbach. Averbach was an alleged anarchist who was shot and killed by police during his attempt to reportedly assassinate Police Chief George M. Shippy. (Chicago Daily News/Chicago Historical Homicide Project)
The violence in Chicago this summer has been staggering and has garnered the city some unwanted national attention. But Leigh Bienen says Chicago has always been a town defined by murder and violence. It’s not surprising she should feel this way. As the creator of the Chicago Historical Homicide Project, Bienen, a professor at Northwestern University’s School of Law, has spent years pouring through a database of more than 11,000 murders committed in Chicago between 1870 and 1930. 

The database was compiled from thousands of pages of hand-written police records, some of which are available on the project’s website. Bienen says it is one the most complete records of historical murders in any American city. Some of the murders tracked by police were high-profile: those committed by the infamous pair of Leopold and Loeb, for instance. But Bienen found herself most moved by the more ordinary but still tragic murders committed by the non-famous: husbands killing wives, mothers killing children. 

In the audio above, Bienen lists examples of the most common kinds of murders that cropped up throughout Chicago history. Unfortunately, there is a lot that observers of today’s climate of violence will find familiar.  

Dynamic Range showcases hidden gems unearthed from Chicago Amplified’s vast archive of public events and appears on weekends. Leigh Bienen spoke at an event presented by Chicago History Museum in November of 2011.

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