Eric Monkkonen, 62; UCLA Scholar Studied Murder in N.Y., L.A.
Eric Monkkonen, a UCLA urban historian whose fascination with the deadliest crime led to groundbreaking analyses of 200 years of Los Angeles and New York City homicide statistics that punctured myths and underscored sobering realities, has died. He was 62.
Monkkonen died at his Culver City home May 30 after a 10-year battle with prostate cancer, his son, Paavo, said Tuesday.
A professor of history and policy studies, Monkkonen was the author of several books, including “Murder in New York City,” which was published in 2001 by University of California Press. A dogged investigator of newspaper, police and coroners’ reports dating as far back as the 1780s, he produced a work unique for its long view and scholarly insights.
Along the way he became an expert on the characteristics of murder in America.
He found, for instance, that homicide in America has not changed much in 200 years, that it remains a crime committed mostly by men in the heat of passion “to assert manliness, power or territory.”
He also found convincing proof that violence was endemic to American culture. Over two centuries, New York’s murder rate was more than five times as high as London’s even after excluding murders with guns. Moreover, Americans have had a disinclination to prosecute murderers. Leniency was the rule during the first three decades of the 19th century in New York, for instance, with most murderers going unpunished. During the same period, London executed four times as many killers.
“The United States has tolerated a homicide rate much higher than all of the rest of the Western world except Russia,” he told The Times recently in an unpublished interview. “Our freedoms are impinged by these high homicide rates.... Whole parts of our city are dangerous, and we all know it and we don’t go there.”
He intended to bring the same thorough analysis to the study of murder in Los Angeles, work that he was unable to complete because of his illness.
“Eric stands out as a real pioneer in this kind of work ... as an urban scholar doing urban history,” said Edward M. Freedman, managing editor of the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, which in August plans to publish one of Monkkonen’s first papers describing his Los Angeles research.
The article, “Homicide in Los Angeles, 1827-2002,” offers an overview of the prevalence, causes and nature of murder in the city and county of Los Angeles over a period stretching back to the region’s years as a Mexican territory.
According to Freedman, Monkkonen documented a long history of violence, as well as a homicide rate that has consistently exceeded that of other major cities.
The scholar also found that what goes up at some point goes down, and that one of the ebbs in L.A.'s murder rate occurred, surprisingly, after World War II.
Conventional wisdom held that wars begat violence at home, that men returned from combat with a propensity to use weapons and kill. Monkkonen speculated that returning soldiers were so sickened by gunplay that they were less inclined to murder. He also suggested that their domestic orientation -- they came home and started families, launching the postwar baby boom -- actually had a calming effect, as far as murder trends were concerned.
“A lot of the value of Eric’s work is this combination of insight and imagination that a great scholar brings,” Freedman said.
A Kansas City native who grew up in Duluth, Minn. -- “in a big house right next to the woods” -- Monkkonen attributed his passion for murder studies to nothing in his childhood. It wasn’t until he was a graduate student studying urban crime at the University of Minnesota in the late 1960s that he began to develop an interest in murder.
“I focused on murder in part because murder is something that can be pretty clearly studied over a long period of time,” he told Associated Press in 2001.
After earning his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Minnesota between 1964 and 1973, he taught at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte for a few years. He came west to UCLA in 1975, partly on the strength of an innovative dissertation that was published that year by Harvard University Press.
That work -- “The Dangerous Class: Crime and Poverty in Columbus, Ohio” -- previewed one of the themes he would expand upon in later research, that economic neediness does not automatically cause a spike in the homicide rate.
“In some of New York City’s most miserable periods,” including the Depression, “murder rates were at their lowest,” he wrote in “Murder in New York City.”
He also found that murder was, by and large, “a problem of men,” and he exhorted men to take responsibility for it. “If men take charge of anything,” he wrote, “it must be of the notion that real men don’t kill, that self-respect means shrugging off an insult, and that the better manliness accrues to him who does not fight. Other countries have done this, and so can the United States.”
His New York study, which was based on a carefully constructed database of 1,781 cases, deflated a number of other conventional wisdoms. He found that factors such as crowding, corruption in the justice system and riots are not always preconditions for a homicide hike. He also concluded that cities are not necessarily more murderous than the country. In fact, he found that New York had a lower homicide rate than the nation as a whole during the first half of the 20th century, before 1958.
The latter may have been the most debated point in the book among historians. “This runs counter to much other evidence,” Donald Fyson wrote in 2003 in the journal Urban History Review.
In spite of that view, the book won high praise.
“I can think of no book on homicide from which I’ve learned more,” wrote Roger Lane, an emeritus professor at Haverford College in Pennsylvania and author of the 1997 book “Murder in America.”
Lane, who along with Monkkonen is one of the two deans of homicide scholarship in the United States, called his friend’s book “the biggest, longest, and most careful longitudinal study [of murder] ever, in the world’s most important city.”
For his latest research, Monkkonen recently won the cooperation of the Los Angeles Police Department, gaining access to rare volumes detailing every homicide in the city back to 1899. He told the Los Angeles Daily News last year that he had built a list of more than 6,600 murder cases between 1830 and 1960 and hoped to bring it up to the present day within two years.
Among his findings was that Los Angeles was more violent than New York at the turn of the 20th century, with 15 homicides per 100,000 people in Los Angeles compared to four per 100,000 in New York.
Despite the grim nature of the crime he studied for years, Monkkonen maintained a sense of optimism that was tempered by the historian’s long view.
“The American heritage may take centuries to correct,” he wrote. “This can cheer us, however, if we rein in our expectations for quick success and look at homicide as a history we can overcome.”
Monkkonen is survived by his wife, Judy, and sons Pentti and Paavo.
A memorial service will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. Thursday in the California Room of the UCLA Faculty Center. Donations may be sent to the UCLA Foundation -- Monkkonen Fund, c/o Teofilo Ruiz, UCLA Department of History, Los Angeles, CA 90095.
Times staff writer Jill Leovy contributed to this report.