Not Saussure

December 18, 2006

Murder most foul

Filed under: history, Law, UK — notsaussure @ 1:10 pm

It being almost Christmas, one’s thoughts naturally turn to homicide. They were helped in this direction, at least in my case, by following a link over at The Flying Rodent’s place; he’s been moved to poetry by another blogger and I wondered what had so irritated him.

Part of the cause of his ire was a discussion about capital punishment, in which the old point about the ‘murder rate’ (I’ll explain the scare quotes in a moment) going up since the suspension of capital punishment in 1965 and its eventual abolition in 1969.

Since I know that crime statistics are notoriously difficult to interpret, I thought I’d do a little more digging. Eventually this took me to the oldest blog entry I’ve ever seen, an archived entry from 1996 by Tim Lambert of Deltoid. This gives the Homicide (or, more correctly, crimes initially recorded as Homicide) rates for England and Wales from 1857 to 1993. I’ve copied them into a spreadsheet and supplemented them with the more recent figures, which I took from Table 2.01 in the Home Office Statistical Bulletin, Violent Crime Overview, Homicide and Gun Crime 2004/2005.

The spreadsheet, should anyone wish to consult it, is here. One slight caveat to anyone consulting it; my Home Office figures give the rates for offences currently (as opposed to initially) recorded as homicide per million of population. Consequently, I had to calculate what population figure they were using for the relevant years and then use that to calculate what the rate was for offences initially thus recorded; for some years, my figures aren’t quite the same as Tim Lambert’s — I’m not quite sure why, but there’s not a great difference and I don’t think it alters the overall picture.

I’m not really trying to use the figures to argue anything, since my opposition to the death penalty isn’t particularly founded on stats, but I thought it worth making a few points.

First, homicide covers not only murder, but also manslaughter and infanticide (the last comprising between 1.86% and 5.89% of recording homicides between 1994 and 2005). The Home Office stats give a breakdown of what the crimes were eventually decided to be at court — murder, manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility, other manslaugher and so on — from 1994 onwards (table 2.02), but since we’re dealing with the way offences were initially recorded, we don’t have that information (at least I don’t) for cases before 1994. Consequently, the bare figure for Offences Initially Recorded as Homicide doesn’t tell us anything about what the offences were eventually determined to be or, in the cases of murder, the circumstances of the murder.

This last point doesn’t affect the figures, of course, but it’s worth recalling that ‘murder’ can mean a cool, premeditated execution killing, a killing committed in the heat of the moment, and also — which people don’t always realise — the results of a serious assualt that ended up far more serious than anyone expected. Consequently, in an example provided by the Law Commision in their recent report on Murder, Manslaughter and Infanticide, (p 4) if

D intentionally punches V in the face. The punch breaks V’s nose and causes V to fall to the ground. In falling, V hits his or her head on the curb causing a massive and fatal brain haemorrhage


This would be murder if the jury decided that the harm that D intended the punch to cause (the broken nose) can be described as ‘serious’.

Parliament apparently didn’t think this was murder when they passed the Homicide Act 1957, but the Court of Appeal decided it, in fact, was very shortly afterwards (see the Law Commission Report, paras 1.26 — 1.29).

Nor, returning to the figures, do we know anything about what the recording practices were in the past. That certainly seems to vary; In 1967, 14.49% of cases initially recorded as homicide were eventually determined to have been something else, while in 2003/4 it was down to 7.68%. Does that mean they were overly suspicious in 1967 or that we’re nowadays unduly willing to go along wth the initial determination? I don’t know.

However, which things having been said, it’s certainly the case that recorded homicide rates have doubled from the 1950s and 1960s, when they were 0.7 per 100,000 of population, to 1.4 per 100,000 of population in the 1990s.

That, though, is only half the story; if we go back further in time, it seems that — for whatever reason, but it can’t be capital punishment — the rates in the 1950s and 1960s were particularly low: the mean average rates per 100,000 for each decade were

1860 1870 1880 1890 1900 1910 1920
1.7 1.6 1.5 1.1 0.9 0.8 0.7
1930 1940 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990
0.8 0.8 0.7 0.7 1.0 1.2 1.4

However you interpret the figures, and I’m not going to try, it’s obviously a mistake to try to infer that because the death penalty was abolished, the murder rate went up, because that leaves you at a loss to explain why it went down from the 1860s onwards. It’s always a mistake to infer causality from correlation, of course; I once saw an elegant demonstration of how you could quite closely correlate the number of television licences with the homicide rate, too.

Obviously, something as complex as homicide has a multitude of causes; as a guess, and it’s only that, it might be worth looking at the relative price of alcohol as one, but only one, factor, given the role alcohol seems to play in many crimes of violence (see Home Office stats, ‘Offence Profile’ pp 21-22).

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  1. Not exactly Cheerful Charlie today are you?

    Comment by Jeremycj — December 18, 2006 @ 1:49 pm

  2. Certainly not. It’s almost Christmas.

    Comment by notsaussure — December 18, 2006 @ 1:57 pm

  3. I see the years, but I don’t see any averages (using firefox windows).

    Comment by Skapusniak — December 18, 2006 @ 3:51 pm

  4. Oops. Sorry about that, Skapusniak; it was your browser — WordPress didn’t think much of the way I do tables.

    Comment by notsaussure — December 18, 2006 @ 4:59 pm

  5. If you compare the results against periods when Britain was at War you may find the reason for the murder rate dropping. During times of war, patriotism tends to reduce crime. In recent times crime figures were abnormally low during the Falklands War.

    Comment by Daily Referendum — December 18, 2006 @ 6:23 pm

  6. Good work NS, it’s good to see a blogger who’s willing to research complex issues and present conclusions based upon verifiable facts.

    In other words, no blog of the year awards for you.

    Comment by Flying Rodent — December 18, 2006 @ 7:54 pm

  7. […] Excellent, well-researched piece over at Not Saussure on murder rates and the death penalty. Most definitely worth reading. […]

    Pingback by Bel is thinking : Blog Archive : Capital punishment — December 18, 2006 @ 8:00 pm

  8. If you murder someone, I assume you think you are not going to get caught. Therefore a death penalty will not make any difference to the figures.

    Comment by Andrew Allison — December 18, 2006 @ 9:54 pm

  9. I think you may find that the murder rates were so low in the 50’s because divorce was made easier after the Second World War. People who would previously have killed each other merely filed for divorce instead – and were grateful to have the option.

    Since then, expectations have risen. The “Me Generation” expects total fulfilment in life and is murderously frustrated when such unrealistic expectations are (of course) unfulfilled.

    [extreme generalisation mode OFF]

    Comment by Tom Paine — December 19, 2006 @ 9:51 am

  10. I was the “other blogger” who moved ‘Ratty’ to write his witty (well, witty-ish) poetry. I am grateful to you for your research which, no matter how you look at it, confirms what I have been saying over and over again that there has been a startling jump in homicide from the 1960s up to the present day. Of course, those of a liberal disposition will look anywhere and everywhere for a causal factor other than the fact that this huge, inexorable rise coincides with the abolition of the death penalty.

    Alright, for the purposes of discussion I, too, will ignore it and in doing so I will cast around for anything else that happened in the 1960s and which has continued to the present day. And would you know it, golly-gosh, it coincides almost exactly with liberal revolution in which the well-off, liberal establishment gradually destroyed old moralities and pushed through their agenda for for greater and greater licence in drink, drugs, pornography and personal behaviour.

    Well, that’s my theory, but in starting this discussion over at my place I began by remarking on the fact that although the bodies of the totally innocent are mounting and mounting, one never hears the liberal establishment even commenting on the tragedy, let alone offering any theory as to why the slaughter is so huge. Why? Because, I suggest, they are only too well aware of the cause but as they are unwilling to have their own life-styles restricted in any way, and just so long as it is the sub-class who murder each other, then they have no incentive to change their minds. As I remarked over the death of the lawyer, Tom ap Rhys Pryce, when the Calibans come out of their caves, as they are already beginning to do, and start slaughtering the soft, easy, rich targets of our affluent areas in which so many of our liberals live, then you might expect a change!

    Incidentaly, you wondered why the murder rate was so high in the earlier part of the 19th c. and suggested that alcohol might be a feature. Indeed it was because alcohol consumption peaked in the 1870s before declining under the pressure of the temperance movement and a Victorian middle-class that had not been subverted.

    Comment by David Duff — December 19, 2006 @ 1:17 pm

  11. I found this PDF file while browsing, it kills half an hour and makes interesting reading.

    Comment by Daily Referendum — December 19, 2006 @ 7:35 pm

  12. sorry the full url is:

    Comment by Daily Referendum — December 19, 2006 @ 7:37 pm

  13. Thanks to the ‘Daily Referendum’ for the link, particularly page 15 with the handy stats on the right providing the homicide figures since 1900 and a note to the right of that informing us that “Since the early 1960s the rate of homicides per million of population has more than doubled.”

    And still the bodies of the innocent pile up, and still the liberals refuse to face it.

    Comment by David Duff — December 19, 2006 @ 10:49 pm

  14. Wow, what a lot of comments. I’ll respond in more detail tomorrow, possibly in another post, but I have to say that I don’t understand David Duff’s final point at all.

    Yes, the link provided by The Daily Referendum produced exactly the same figures for I quoted in my post. I also quoted figures going back to 1860 and discussed the fact that recorded homicides in the 1960s seem to have been at an historically very low level.

    One point worth remembering in all this is that the absolute numbers are mercifully very small; this pile of bodies is counted in hundreds. The number of homicides (not murders) recorded each year is comparable to the number of requiring hospital treatment as a result of injuries sustained at home while using a sponge or loofah (in other words, it’s a very unusual event). The number of people killed, for example, in 2004-5 in the course of burglaries or robberies was 33.

    That’s one of the reasons I’m unhappy about making making generalisations about homicide in the UK — quite simply, it’s dangerous to generalise about very unusual events, and it’s even more dangerous to try to generalise from them about society as a whole.

    Comment by notsaussure — December 20, 2006 @ 12:05 am

  15. The point is, notsassure, that ‘Liberals’ are to blame for everything bad in the world, while ‘il-Liberals’ like David are responsible for everything good, thanks to their their brave actions such as – er – what is it they do again?

    Comment by Not Duff — December 20, 2006 @ 12:13 am

  16. I’m sorry if I failed to make myself clear, I’ll try again.

    I think the (more-than) doubling of the homicide figures since the phasing out of capital punishment is, putting it mildly, a problem. I find the humorous insouciance with which you compare it to accidents with a loofah to be … well, let us just call it ‘complacent’. However, it does serve as yet another example of the way in which liberals, having supported a liberal policy, then turn their backs on the consequences. Faced, for example, with five slaughtered women in Ipswich, they prattle on about decriminalising drugs and prostitution!

    I, too, checked into the background of your historical statistics and it was interesting to note that the homicide rates peaked in the 1870s following the Beer Act of the 1830s which freed-up drinking. By the end of the century, the Temperance Movement and the weight of a respectable middle-class – plus the hangman – had reigned in the worst excesses, and the homicide rate dropped and held more or less steady until the 1960s.

    I simply ask, what happened then? I think I know but you (and your readers) can tell me if I’m wrong – but need to demonstrate another theory if they are going to convince me.

    Comment by David Duff — December 20, 2006 @ 10:32 am

  17. Where I think you’ve gone wrong, Mr Duff, is that you’re assuming, like most socialists, that there’s a theory that’ll explain complex human behaviour and that there’s a simple legislative solution to social ills.

    What I’m suggesting — apart from the fact you can’t assume causality from correlation — is that the effects you attribute to the abolition of the death penalty fail to explain the fall in the homicide rate from 1860 onwards. That can’t have been anything to do with the death penalty, since it can’t have been more of a deterrent in 1920 than it was in 1860. There have to be other factors at work; you realise this, since you agree that alcohol consumption seems to have had something to do with it.

    You ask for ‘a theory’. My response is that there isn’t one theory about the cause for increases and decreases in something as complex as the rate of recorded homicide. This, to recap, comprises three separate crimes — murder, manslaughter and infanticide, with murder accounting for about 60% of all recorded homicides (at least in recent years).

    These crimes, moreover, are committed in very different circumstances. Andrew Allison suggests that people aren’t thinking of the consequences when they kill. That, I’m sure, is true in some, though not all, cases — a mugger might be more deterred by the prospect of execution than is he by the prospect of 20-odd years in prison when he considers taking a knife out with him. Personally, I doubt he’s planning either on getting caught or — more importantly — on using his knife to do more than frighten his victim, but who knows? It might be a factor in some cases, and if one person is deterred that’ll have a significant effect on the incidence of murder in such circumstances; that was the point of my comparison with the accident rate involving sponges and loofahs — murder is that rare, which I don’t think people always appreciate.

    You mention the murder of Tom ap Rhys Pryce; the circumstances in which he was killed are, mercifully, very rare indeed and — you will be pleased to learn — becoming even rarer. A total of 22 people were killed by strangers ‘in the furtherance of theft or gain’ in 2004-5, as compared with 32 the previous year and 36 the year before that. You mention the murders of the Ipswich prostitutes; assuming the killings now cease, the activities of their killer(s) will probably account for around 0.75% of the total recorded homicides, not just murders, for this year. It’s so rare a crime that the activities of one or two drug-crazed or deranged individuals (who are probably not going to weigh up the possible consequences of their actions as carefully as would you or I) makes a significant difference to the figures.

    You ask for ‘a theory’. I don’t think there is one. I think there are a whole range of factors that affect — to a different extent at different times — the overall homicide rate.

    We’ve mentioned the price of alcohol. Tom Paine has suggested the readier availability of divorce as method of extricating oneself from unwanted relationships. I’ll suggest a third possible factor — demographics.

    The group most at risk of murder last year were males aged between 16 and 30, suffering murder rate of 42 per million of population, as compared with next most vulnerable group, victims of infanticide at 37 per million, and a rate of 15 per million overall. They’re also the group most likely to commit violent crimes.

    Consequently, I think we ought to be taking a look at the varying proportion of males in that age-group over time. I suspect we might find the baby boom had something to do with the homicide rate, since I’d expect the rate of violent crime to increase as the proportion of young men in the population aged 16-30 increases. I wouldn’t, though, just look at the birth rate, since that would ignore the effects of large-scale emigration to the colonies in the latter part of the C19th/early C20th and of young people migrating her, either as young men or as infants with their families. I don’t know, but I’d be very surprised, as I say, if the age-profile of the population didn’t have a lot to do with it.

    But certainly, I think the question of why the homicide rate increases or decreases is far too complex to be reduced to a simple proposition like ‘because of the abolition/retention of the death penalty/.

    Comment by notsaussure — December 20, 2006 @ 2:33 pm

  18. I appreciate your thoughtful response.

    You wrote: “You ask for ‘a theory’. I don’t think there is one. I think there are a whole range of factors that affect — to a different extent at different times — the overall homicide rate.” I could not agree more.

    Writing on this subject over at my place, I did point out the difficulty of analysing the causes of human actions which stem from a myriad of converging factors. However, there are usually some factors which, to use the current imagary, assume the shape and volume of an elephant in the living-room! (And anyway, what other means to we have to take policy decisions?)

    In this case, it seems obvious to me (if not others) that the libertine lifestyle wished on the population by a liberal elite over the past 40-years is exceedingly influential. You raised 19th c. history and it is very clear that the general drunkeness created by the Beer Act of 1833 *helped* raise the homicide rate to a peak in 1870 before it was stamped on by the Temperance Movement and the Church-driven attitudes of the bourgeoisie (plus the rope) and which brought the statistics down. In other words, one particular factor (drink) was picked out and combined with a societal change brought about a more civil society (not a perfect one, please note).

    Today, I suggest the same *sort of thing* is going on:
    “And liberty plucks justice by the nose;
    The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
    Goes all decorum.”
    If murder is simply a particular of a general will or mood, then hanging is the same. It is but a first step toward recreating a civil society. It would be, as it used to be, a public acknowledgement of the special horror of murder in the great litany of human failings. Also, and with an irony that Shakespeare would have relished, the monumental act of judicial execution would re-instate a little of the respect for life which has almost disappeared today.

    Comment by David Duff — December 20, 2006 @ 4:41 pm

  19. On the hanging debate, it’s worth bearing in mind that in the 300 hundred years up to it’s abolition in the 1960s the numbers hung and the offences for which it was merited both declined. In the nineteenth century, even minor stealing warranted the death penalty, yet by it’s abolition, only murder (and treason) did. Executions moved from being public affairs to being held in private. The technology changed from causing death through strangulation to causing death thru neck breaking.

    All these changes might have had an effect, and it seems to me, incomplete to focus solely on murder.

    Comment by JohnM — January 3, 2007 @ 5:57 pm

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