Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Bad to the Bone: All About Criminal Motivation

"Criminals are Made, Not Born!"

"Why their crimes are worse than mine! Ten times worse!" the ill-fated James Allen of the judges and politicians in I Am a Fugitive (1932) when he is told that he has to complete his sentence on a Georgia chain gang.

The "father of sociology", Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), had a life-long interest in crime and its role in society. His innovative ideas on how social structure affects human behavior influenced sociologists for generations to come. Durkheim believed that crime is natural behavior whose composition is the result of many diversified forces.

Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive (1932), a powerful film with a timely social message
Paul Muni in I Am a
Fugitive
(1932), a
powerful film with a
timely social mes-
sage

Durkheim's ideas led to the famous Chicago School of Sociology, a set of principles that became very popular in the 1930s. This school of thought focused upon society as the embryonic force behind criminal behavior. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Great Depression transformed the political, financial and social landscape of America. The terrible cycle of unemployment, poverty and despair altered the American psyche as well. Banks, corporations and government institutions were perceived as the real enemies of the people then. Even violent and notorious criminals, like John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde and especially Pretty Boy Floyd, immortalized in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, were viewed by the public as quasi-heroes and somewhat justified in their crimes. They were often thought of as outlaws rebelling against unjust sociological forces. Films of that era, such as I Am a Fugitive (1932) reflected that belief as well. The plot revolves around a war veteran named James Allen who is arrested and convicted for a crime he did not commit. Although an honest man, he eventually is forced into a life of crime by society's institutions. This was an extremely powerful message during the Depression era.

Andrew Kehoe, once described as the
Andrew Kehoe, once
described as the
"world's worst
demon" for killing
dozens of children
in a school explo-
sion in Michigan
in 1927

In 1927, a deeply disturbed farmer in Michigan named Andrew Kehoe, 55, committed a despicable crime. Embittered by years of imagined persecution by a local school board and a burdensome tax code which threatened to take away his farm, Kehoe planted as much as 1,000 pounds of dynamite under the floors of the Bath Consolidated School. He detonated this bomb on the morning of May 18, 1927, while school was in session, killing 42 children and injuring over 60 others. When police later searched his farm, they found a sign, painted earlier by Kehoe, which read, "criminals are made, not born."

Robert Merton, a disciple of Durkheim, said criminal acts were the result of socially created behavior rather than momentary impulses. Merton said that society offers the same goals and rewards to all its citizens. But the means and opportunity to reach these goals are not the same for everyone in society. As a result, anomie, French for "normlessness" results. Merton said people will commit crimes because they feel cheated out of something to which they were entitled.

However, anomie couldn't explain white-collar crime in which the perpetrators are usually wealthy, educated and not deprived from any of society's rewards. It simply didn't seem logical that people who were already rich would steal more money because they felt "cheated." For those crimes, the explanation had to be elsewhere.

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