The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 89, July 1985 - April, 1986

Book Reviews

employees, cultural mores, or a gruesome glimpse of the human trage-
dies that have made the oil field a twentieth-century legend.
Texas Tech University, Southwest Collection RICHARD MASON
Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth Century
American South. By Edward L. Ayers. (New York: Oxford University
Press, 1984. Pp. ix+353. Acknowledgments, introduction, tables,
notes, index. $24.95.)
To provide a better understanding of the South as a violence-prone
region, Edward L. Ayers examined patterns of crime and violence as
well as the workings of police forces, courts, and prison systems during
the course of the nineteenth century. The antebellum South did not
have a strong criminal justice system, because slavery kept black people
under rigid control. Most whites who were convicted of crimes had to
pay fines, but only a small number served time in prisons.
In the wake of emancipation, when the state assumed control over
blacks, the South's criminal justice system quickly changed from one
that prosecuted a small number of white criminals to a greatly ex-
panded system that dealt largely with blacks accused of crimes. Far
more than they had in the antebellum era, white southerners united in
supporting police forces and penitentiary systems. As courts became
preoccupied with black wrongdoing, the black prison population
soared, whereas the white prison population remained at about the
same level as it had before the war. The marked increase in prisoners,
coupled with the South's postwar poverty, resulted in the convict lease
system replacing penitentiaries. Along with other forms of forced la-
bor, the convict lease system bridged the transition from an agri-
cultural system based on slave labor to an early form of industrial capi-
talism plagued by shortages of labor and capital.
Ayers has written an able book that makes contributions on a num-
ber of fronts. He has provided the most valuable account to date of the
convict lease system. His work, along with those of Jacquelyn Dowd
Hall and Joel Williamson, explains why lynching became a southern
phenomenon in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. He has
reenforced the findings of historians who recently have examined
southern religion and discovered that in the nineteenth century the
church used its power of excommunication to play an important role in
enforcing laws and moral precepts. The author makes his most impor-
tant point, which is also his most controversial, in explaining why the
South became a more violent region than the North. To do that he em-

Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 89, July 1985 - April, 1986. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117151/. Accessed July 28, 2014.