The Wild West was Much Safer than New York at its Tamest

Posted by | February 19, 2009 | myth busting | 9 Comments

Myth busting the Wild West.

In the cowboy towns that epitomized the Wild West: “Abilene, Ellsworth, Wichita, Dodge City, and Caldwell, for the years from 1870 to 1885, there were only 45 total homicides. This equates to a rate of approximately 1 murder per 100,000 residents per year”.

Measured by murder rate, in 2007 New York was 6 times; DC, 31 times; Newark, 37 times and Baltimore, a staggering 45 times more wild than the Wild Wild West.

DC – 183 Murders (31 per 100,000 residents)
New York – 494 Murders (6 per 100,000 residents)
Baltimore – 281 Murders (45 per 100,000 residents)
Newark – 104 Murders (37 per 100,000 residents)



  • Josh says:

    That’s interesting, and reminds me of something Malcolm Gladwell mentions in his most recent book, “Outliers.” He mentions crime statistics for the South at one point in the book, saying that murder rates are/were higher in the South, but that property crimes and muggings lower. The research he cites in the book relates this fact to the “code of honor” popular in that culture (which comes from the Scots/Irish background of most of the residents, especially of the mountainous regions).

    As long as both sets of data are statistically valid, they create an interesting portrait of human motivation.

    It seems that, when everyone is heavily occupied with the business of survival, murder would be less frequent. The need to be able rely on your fellow human being in desperate times probably makes you less likely to kill him/her when you get upset. It does this by creating a necessary closeness between you, either literal physical closeness (small township), or metaphorical, in the sense of an empathic relationship to others in your situation.

  • admin says:

    Its a good point. Certainly murder statistics don’t tell the whole truth, in London or Paris, murder rates are lower than US cities but burglary is higher since you are very unlikely to get shot while doing it.

    That being said, these facts can be appropriated for or against gun control. The information above was originally posted by gun nuts to justify gun ownership (wild west = guns and low crime), when in fact they could equally be asking why American cities have so much gun crime.

  • Josh says:

    I hadn’t even thought of that perspective. It doesn’t seem to say much about guns to me, though, since there was a preponderance of guns and gun-use about in the Old West. It would be interesting to see (though probably impossible) a comparison of per capita gun ownership in the Wild Wild West versus the cities listed above. I’ll bet there were even more guns available back then than there are now. At least in the “average” household.

    But I agree wholeheartedly with your point. The American fight for gun ownership and “2nd Amendment Rights” is totally confusing to me.

  • AverageJoe says:

    This strikes me as a little naive. Did the authors of this “no longer available” tome give a methodology of what qualified as murder in these towns? Surely what we consider murder today is different than the frontier of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Did the lynching of African Americans qualify as murder in the authors’ eyes? The genocide of the indigenous people? How many killings in retaliation for lesser crimes (property theft, trespassing, verbal assaults, taunts and insults, etc.) were qualified as the meting of justice rather than murder?

  • admin says:

    @averagejoe True enough, I guess its like saying that China’s execution rate is below the US because it doesn’t publish that stats.

  • Eric Silva says:

    “…but burglary is higher since you are very unlikely to get shot while doing it.”

    @admin That’s quite a claim. Do you have any data to back it up?

  • admin says:


    Absolutely no data to back that up, and its difficult to find data that doesn’t have some prior agenda re gun ownership or not.

    However, I am largely but not rabidly opposed to gun ownership, so its not like I had a pro gun agenda stating that. To allege that they are not a deterrent would be false, but perhaps they are not worth the other risks.

    I think 90% of the gun ownership argument in the US could be resolved if gun control were relaxed outside of metropolitan areas and tightened within them. Dense populations and guns are a dangerous mix and I’d bet that the majority of people who are most pro gun don’t live in dense metropolitan areas.

  • Nick says:

    There are several problems with this contention.

    1) It’s not clear that these towns practiced proper record-keeping. Presumably a lot of people “disappeared” and weren’t counted as homicides.

    2) Many gunfights were ruled “self-defense” and therefore didn’t show up as homicides.

    3) These are only a few towns of the Wild West. Lots of people were killed during this period in New Mexico, or El Paso, or Deadwood, or Oklahoma.

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