No exploration of Chicago's history would be complete without delving into the fascinating subject of its notorious criminal past. While the city's association with organized crime during the Prohibition era is widely known, it merely scratches the surface. From its earliest days as a frontier town, Chicago has been steeped in a reputation for crime and immorality, leaving an indelible mark on its public perception. The Encyclopedia of Chicago provides many broad overviews of the history of crime in this city, including Crime and Chicago's Image, Organized Crime in 1920s Chicago and overviews of the Chicago Crime Commission and Police in the city.
When delving into the genre of True Crime, which includes media like books, documentaries and podcasts focusing on real-life cases, you may want to get started with some lesser known crimes and criminals. To uncover such hidden gems, consider scouring historical newspapers that offer detailed accounts of specific cases. Refine your search by narrowing down criteria such as neighborhood, time period, or the type of crime that intrigues you. You can search the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Defender, and the Chicago Sun-Times Historical Archive while onsite in the research center. Once you've narrowed in on your topic, a search in our online library catalog, ARCHIE, as well as our finding aids in CARLI Digital Collections, which search across many of our archival collections, are good places to get started.
Another way to approach the genre of True Crime is through the lens of criminal justice and reform. True crime media has helped shed light on cases of injustice and become a platform for advocacy and activism. It has raised awareness about wrongful convictions, inadequate legal representation, or systemic issues within the criminal justice system, leading to movements seeking reform and improved safeguards. Looking to more general archival collections about criminal justice is a good place to start and the section of this guide on Archives and Manuscripts will point you toward collections which focus on the criminal justice system more generally.
In ARCHIE, researchers can search by "Subject” or by “Keyword in Subject headings.” Like many research libraries and archives in the United States, CHM relies on subject headings authorized by the Library of Congress (LCSH) to organize its catalog records. CHM recognizes the limitations of these subject headings, noting that many are inaccurate or insufficiently descriptive. As a part of our critical cataloging efforts, we are continuing to evaluate terminology that may be harmful or misrepresentative and are changing LCSH to local headings when deemed necessary or appropriate. Items marked with an * have been changed to a local CHM term from a Library of Congress term.
Since this is a guide about crime, its worth noting that CHM has not yet chosen to update LCSH terms like "criminals" or "juvenile delinquents." There continues to be discussion within the library community and elsewhere about how terms like this dehumanize people accused of or convicted of a crime. The Marshall Project, for example, is one organization working to combat harmful language surrounding criminal justice (https://www.themarshallproject.org/2021/04/12/what-words-we-use-and-avoid-when-covering-people-and-incarceration.) We continue to monitor these discussions as we develop our own internal policies and procedures surrounding our language choices. You can see more about our critical cataloging initiative here: https://libguides.chicagohistory.org/research/criticalcataloging
Some general subject headings found in ARCHIE include:
(Note: Broad terms, these may be geographically subdivided to include only Chicago by adding "Illinois--Chicago" to the end of the search term)
|Assault and battery|
|Brigands and robbers|
|Crime and criminals|
|Fear of crime|
|Gambling and crime|
|Victims of crimes|
In addition to Library of Congress subject headings and local headings, searching ARCHIE through the general keyword or the advanced search function is useful when seeking to narrow a search. Keep in mind the language and sensationalized terms commonly used during the relevant time period to your search. These kinds of keywords may also be helpful when searching newspaper databases. Some examples include: