"A Rogue's Paradise": Crime and Punishment in Antebellum Florida.

AuthorKapan, Marlyne Marzi

by James M. Denham Reviewed by Marlyne Marzi Kaplan

Crime existed in Florida--even before Miami Vice unearthed it. Locals knew of it, archivists chronicled it, land developers denied it. But few Florida historians tracked crime over the 40-year period preceding the Civil War.

In "A Rogue's Paradise": Crime and Punishment in Antebellum Florida, 1821-1861, James M. Denham, associate professor of history at Florida South University, combs court records and news reports to cull law-breaking and law enforcement patterns. From those, he gains insight into the cultural and social life of Florida--the territory (1821-45) and the state (1845-61).

Denham identifies factors leading to the pervasive violence. In part, Florida mirrored other Southern states; criminal acts were overlooked as "hot-blooded" retaliation-excusable conduct if it upheld the South's "cherished honor code." Yet unique factors affected antebellum Florida--its extreme isolation, sparse settlement, vast frontier. A paradise. Or maybe not.

The phrase, "a rogue's paradise," appeared in 1828. William Hasell Hunt, editor of the Pensacola Gazette lauded efforts to erect a district jail: "Florida will no longer be a paradise for rogues." (Amen.)

But voguish rogues are not Denham's superstars. His cast embraces not only villians but also victims, constables, sheriffs, judges, juries, citizens. Ordinary folks, faced with starkness and violence, played many roles. Some were (and, assuredly, some were not) folk heroes.

Topic groupings, at times, seem forced, repetitive, overly broad, e.g., crime, the law, and society; crime and its causes; courts, judges, and law enforcement officers; crime against persons, crime against property; crime against public order and morality; domestic violence and women; acts committed upon or by blacks; outlaw gangs and lynch mobs; jails and escapes; policing the frontier. But the flexible headings free Denham from chronological reportage. Seeking substance in the shadows of our violent past, he offers his version, his vision of a "heritage of honor and frontier."

Denham is a tracer of lost history. One curious appendix covers both legal and extralegal executions. Another lists prosecution tables by county; another names judicial officers. Exhaustive endnotes and bibliographies offer a trove of astonishing sources. Although nearly half the book is consigned to arcane appendices, no researcher will wish an appendectomy.

Yet this is no book of statistics. The...

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