Exploring Three Moments of Crisis in the Criminal Subculture of Union County, South Carolina: 1856, 1859, 1870

Elaine Parsons
Duquesne University

When the Ku-Klux Klan emerged in Union County, South Carolina in 1870, the county saw a quick and dramatic increase in violence and social disorder. This paper describes this disorder and places this event in context by comparing it to two earlier sudden peaks in violence, in 1856 and 1859. These 1856 figures correspond with the national political chaos surrounding the 1856 elections. The 1859 increases anticipate the John Brown raid, and point to a general atmosphere of crisis as sectional comity broke down. Just as both of these years gave rise to urban riots, particularly in northern cities and on the west coast, so too they may well have led to a sense of instability, heightened tension, and fear which encouraged criminal behavior and increased government responsiveness.

The blue line on the graph shows the number of criminal indictments in the county over time. The similarity between the 1870 “klan” peak and the 1856 and 1859 peaks becomes more striking when one considers the red line, “Degree Distribution Entropy,” which measures the extent to which criminal indictments are evenly distributed through the network. A low degree distribution entropy indicates a highly centralized and contained criminal subculture, A high degree distribution entropy describes a system where a large portion of the population were named in indictments.

The high entropy of 1856, 1859, and 1870 suggests a combination of three dynamics: the willingness of a broad range of people to engage in criminal behavior; a readiness on the part of Union County citizens to bring neighbors to court, and /or a desire and ability on the part of officials to criminalize the behavior of a wider spectrum of individuals. Each points both to a breakdown of social order and to a heightened government role in attempting to restore it.

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