Billy the Kid and the name game

Posted by Matt Kuhns on May 7, 2013

I’ve written a few times now, about “the odd way in which key names seem to recur throughout the history of murder” and other criminological activity. I find it amusing, and at times bizarre or even a little eerie.

The Pinkertons clashing with a 19th century bandit named Frank James, and Ellis Parker bringing a murderer of the same name to justice in the 20th, is easy enough to write down to coincidence given that neither “Frank” nor “James” are remotely unusual names. But then there are other repetitions of names that give one a bit more pause. Isaiah Lees putting away a horrible murderer named Edward Bonney in 1861, roughly coincident with the birth of another Bonney who went on to considerably greater criminal infamy (using the nickname in this post’s title), for example. And then there’s the dumbfounding history of Henry Meyers

But all of it is ultimately just coincidence, right? Just apparent patterns observed amid random noise, with no further significance? Probably, but maybe not quite entirely.

Gregory Clark of UC Davis has conducted research into surnames and intergenerational social standing that produced a bit of buzz last fall. The result of his study of tracking surnames across hundreds of years in several countries around the world—including the United States—was that “if we want to [forecast your rank] in society, maybe as much as 60 percent of the outcome is determined at the time of conception.” In other words, family status has been remarkably, consistently durable across 100s of years in a variety of societies and economies.

The implications of this for socioeconomic policy I’ll leave to other forums. But, from the perspective of recurring names in the history of crime, it does seem to suggest that there might, might just be a little bit more going on than coincidence.

Check back in a few hundred years, perhaps, for further review.

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