Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Highways and Crime in America

I spoke yesterday of random shootings on highways and streets in recent years.  In fact, roadways have attracted criminals in America for at least 200 hundred years.

Here are some examples:

The Natchez Trace

This is a picture of a section of the Natchez Trace, an animal trail that was then used by Native Americans and then, starting in 1797, became the main overland passage from Natchez, Mississippi to Knoxville, Tennessee.

In its day, the Natchez Trace was the most efficient way to get from the Mississippi River to the Eastern States.  The typical route was to go by boat down the river, get off at Natchez and then proceed overland on the trail.  The alternative was to go by boat to New Orleans and then board another ship that traveled around Florida and up the East Coast.

The journey from Natchez was perilous.  Many travelers were ambushed and robbed along the way.  Primitive inns offered rancid-sounding meals and shelter from the weather at night, but those who slept on the floors at such places kept their saddles, saddlebags and guns ready to hand all night long.

At least two groups were identified and prosecuted for multiple killings on the Natchez Trace.  No doubt a number of other travelers disappeared, their deaths and their killers unprosecuted.

By 1812, steamships began to move people north on the Mississippi, offering a passage to more civilized areas from which to launch a journey east. By 1835, travel on the Natchez Trace had ended.

Stagecoach Robberies

Travel from settled eastern states to the west developed only over time.  The Pony Express operated for a brief period with horseback riders carrying mail in relays.  Then railways connected the country, and stagecoaches moved people, mail and goods from railroad stops to cities and towns, and between cities and towns.  The journeys were long ones because the coaches moved at speeds of five to 12 miles an hour.

Much of the gold that was mined in the California Gold Rush years was sent east or to rail stops by stagecoach.  This gold, as well as travelers' money and personal belongings, made stagecoaches attractive targets for gun-bearing thieves on horseback.

As rail lines sent spurs to smaller cities and roads improved, the need for stagecoaches declined.  The last stagecoach run was in 1918.

The battle against these thieves was a major theme of stories about the American West.  Think of the 1939 John Ford film, Stagecoach, which launched decades of movies and television programs on similar themes. Think of the novels of Zane Grey.

Bank Robbery

As cars became more available and interstate roads improved in the 1920s and 1930s, a new brand of bank robbery was enabled.

The thieves would rob small banks in small towns, then drive away, sometimes far away, to rob other banks and on and on.

When it became apparent that individual police departments were ill-equipped to handle such mobile criminals, the federal government stepped in.  Bank robbery was made a federal crime.  The FBI, a national police force, was established in part to identify and prosecute bank robbers.

Like stage coach robbery, the bank robbery phenomenon inspired art. Think of Bonnie and Clyde, who inspired at least one movie and song, and much visual art.

Serial killers

Interstate highways now offer a certain anonymity to people with bad intentions and make it difficult for law enforcement officials to identify and arrest them them for their bad acts.

In British Columbia, prosecutors now are trying a man accused of killing four women on Highway 16, an 837-mile road running from Prince George to Prince Rupert.

At least 40 people are believed to have been killed along the highway over the last 30 years.  The road runs through forested areas and intersects with logging roads to remote areas.  The dead are mostly women but include men, families, Native Americans and hitchhikers.

On this highway, there seem to have been a number of killers at work.  The Royal Canadian Mounted Police believe six of the killings were committed by a man who died of natural causes in an Oregon prison in 2006.

Author Ginger Strand's book, Killer on the Road, was released two years ago.  In it, she discusses the phenomenon of killers traveling to seek victims in various locations.  Among other points, she estimates that at least 25 former truck drivers are now in U.S. prisons after being convicted of serial murders.

The graphic at left is a map punctuated with pictures of some of the nine people killed at various spots on Interstate 70 over a period of years.  No one has been prosecuted for the deaths.

Other such maps can be found on the internet.  I believe one is enough to convey the idea.

Some serial killers became quite well known.  One who seemed almost to enjoy his fame was Ted Bundy, who killed at least 30 women (and possibly many others) in seven states.  Bundy was electrocuted in  Florida in 1989 while a crowd of 2,000 celebrated across the street from his prison.

And, as in the earlier examples, even serial killing has inspired art.  A movie was made about Ted Bundy in 2002, but it seems to have creeped out most of the people who saw it.

Think also of Bruce Springsteen's song, "Nebraska" and the Terence Malick film, Badlands, both about Charles Starkweather who killed 11 people in 1958.


Obviously roads and travel do not cause crime, but in perverse ways at different times they have made crime easier.  So has the internet, for that matter. There is no reason for this fact to keep us from leaving our homes.

But moving around is a major American theme.  Our country was settled by people who traveled here from elsewhere, from the East Coast to the West and from one state to another.  I plan to discuss this general topic in smaller pieces in future posts.

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