Quotable Pennsylvania: Crime and Violence

Like all other states, Pennsylvania is no stranger to violence. Though William Penn had hoped the province would be a peaceful utopia, it really never was that way. From fighting between colonial powers (and even other colonies like Maryland and Connecticut), massacres of Native peoples in Pennsylvania, international conflicts and brutal warfare in the 18th and 19th centuries, state-sanctioned violence against organized labor and vigilante battles between pro and anti slavery forces, assassinations, political violence, and violent crime and police brutality everywhere up through the present. It all happened in Pennsylvania.

In fact, William Penn was granted the Pennsylvania Colony to settle a war debt King Charles II owed his father, Admiral Penn. So you could even argue that violence and fighting was part of the very foundation of the state.

This isn’t to say that Pennsylvania is a “violent” place, but violence in many forms has shaped its history and has closely impacted the lives of many of its people. Understanding the these shapes and forms as well as how people have responded to it helps us understand Pennsylvania better.

These quotes aren’t exhaustive by any means, but do help demonstrate some of the common ways that Pennsylvanians have historically experienced violence in their lives. You’ll notice that the last few describe the frequent violence around the turn of the 20th century between law enforcement and organized labor, a particularly dark era in the state’s history.

Recommended listening: “Stay Woke” by Meek Mill (a native of Philadelphia).

Just four days after abolitionists built Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia, it was destroyed by a pro-slavery mob, 1838. Library Company of Philadelphia.

“Though assassination has been rare in Pennsylvania, it cannot be concealed that homicides have been very frequent.”

-William Bradford, 1793
“An Enquiry How Far the Punishment of Death is Necessary in Pennsylvania,” page 38

“Our city and suburbs are now a garrison. Military companies are continually arriving from distant counties, to relieve those of our own and adjourning counties and we exhibit to a stranger almost every appearance of a town besieged or threatened with an attack from an invading army…But we are in the midst of something still worse. The State is at war, and it is at war with treason, raising a parricidal hand against the law. This is worse, much worse, than a foreign war. [It indicates that] something is rotten in the state of Pennsylvania. Corruption is at work within us; the elements of mischief are among us, a part of ourselves.”

In 1871 Octavius Catto was murdered in the street by a white man for his efforts helping Black Philadelphians vote. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

-The Public Ledger, 1844
Quoted in “Violence in Philadelphia in the 1840s and 1850s,” Pennsylvania History 1969 Page 404

“What is crime in Pennsylvania anyhow? It seems to be settled that in the mining regions deputy sheriffs have the right to kill unarmed strikers on sight. They may pursue them and shoot them down as they would mad dogs. And in the end the deputy sheriffs are glorified as martyrs- not hanged as murders.”

New York Evening Journal, 1898 (Responding to the Lattimer Massacre)
New York Evening Journal, March 10, 1898

New York Evening Journal, 10 March 1898. Lattimer Massacre Project.

“There is a breaking point between conservatism and radicalism. If the State of Pennsylvania continues to send men out to club citizens, and old men at that, there will finally have to come the preparation for defense by the working class. When we held out next meeting after the clubbing of this man we advised all men who had guns to strap them on their backs, a right guaranteed them under the Constitution of both the United States and also the State of Pennsylvania.

In fact, in Pennsylvania we have come to the conclusion that since this organization known as the State police are housed, wined, dined, and controlled by the corporations, we must prepare to protect ourselves from their brutality in times of labor troubles.”

-Allentown Labor Herald editor David Williams, 1915
Final Report and Testimony Submitted to Congress by the Commission of Industrial Relations, vol. 11.

This watercolor of a policeman handling a recently clubbed man was drawn by Sydney Ware, an inmate at Eastern State Penitentiary, and included in his illustrated 1893-1899 prison statistical register. Pennsylvania State Archives.

“In Pennsylvania a standing army, under the name of State Constabulary, is maintained for the purpose of menacing and awing the working people in to humiliating submission to the unholy mandates of an unyielding plutocracy.”

-Elmer Greenawalt (President of the Pennsylvania Federation of Labor), 1909
Quoted in “Justice to All: The Story of the Pennsylvania State Police,” page 138

“I know of no body of men on the continent that can be compared with the Pennsylvania State Police, unless it be the North-Western Mounted Police of Canada. Every thinking man in Pennsylvania feels that the State Police should be enlarged. Its cooperation with this Department [of Health] is of very great importance, but the salient point is that the men are perfectly competent to cooperate with the most complete efficiency with any State department, in the execution of any sort of work that the department may engage. Not only in emergencies but in our everyday work we profit constantly by the assistance of the Force.”

-Samuel Dixon, 1916
Quoted in “Justice to All: The Story of the Pennsylvania State Police,” page 252-253

A staged photograph of Pennsylvania State Police mounted troopers arresting a man, c. 1917. “Justice to All: The Story of the Pennsylvania State Police.”


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