Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Murder Project: “Doing the Big Job”

July 30th, 2009 · 1 Comment

Part of our goal with The Murder Project series is to assess how hitman prices have changed over time. Our assumption going in is that these prices shift according to the certainty (or lack thereof) of capture, and so more lawless epochs will be marked by lower murder-for-hire fees. A logical guess, perhaps, but does the evidence bear it out?

Today we start in the most obvious place for historical data of this nature: Luc Sante‘s classic Low Life, the preeminent non-fiction account of New York’s filthy, boozy expansion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the book’s chapter on the city’s pre-La Cosa Nostra gangster culture, Sante offers a couple of “menus” of thug-for-hire services. The first list, created by the notorious Whyos around 1883, quotes a price of “$100 and up” for “doing the big job.” (For comparison’s sake, a mere punching went for $2.)

Later on, Sante reprints this 1914 rate sheet from a Lower West Side gang—the prices quoted are maximums:

Stealing a horse and rig: $25
Poisoning one horse: $35
Poisoning team: $50
Non fatal shooting: $100
Fatal shooting: $500

Using our handy inflation calculator, we can see that the baseline for 1883 contract killings was about $2,300, while the high end for such a violent service some 31 years later was a little over $10,600. All in all, that doesn’t sound too terribly out of line with the 2004 Australian study we mentioned the other day.

So is it possible that murder-for-hire rates have actually remained static in the United States over the long haul? And if so, might this totally blow our original hypothesis out of the water? That’ll require knowing more about homicide case clearance rates in Old New York. And that’s a rich topic we’ll have to save for another post.


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