Degree Type


Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

John Dobson


In the years between the world wars Iowa's rural law enforcement officers shared the majority of their countrymen's belief that they faced the threat of an engulfing "crime wave" and recast themselves from sedate peace keepers into a kind of front line soldiers locked into a mortal "war against crime" to resist the wave. The wave was a myth. With the exception of the mass disregard of the nation's prohibition laws and the dramatic but very rare occurrence of bank holdups, crime, as jail records of the period show, was perpetrated by young, local men from the bottom rung of their society who preferred to target property rather than people for their crimes;The crime wave idea took hold in the hinterland shortly after it originated in the big cities when the nation's press replaced sales-generating war stories with equally thrilling crime stories. The appearance of crime stories reflected their profit-getting appeal, and not the reality of an increase in American criminality;Despite being the stuff of myth, the idea of a crime wave had immense power to alter the people's and the authorities' perceptions of crime. Rural crime incidents, once viewed as deplorable anonymities, became seen as proofs of the wave. Lawbreakers therefore required quick apprehension and certain punishment if ruralites were to deter the other criminals they believed haunted the hinterland;Accomplishing this fell to Iowa's rural sheriffs. They gratefully accept the help of the state's newly-emerging police detectives and highway patrolmen as they deputized hundreds of local citizens who had been recruited by the state bankers into vigilante bands, and they organized themselves behind their own voluntary Iowa State Sheriffs' Association in pursuit of police professionalization. When the New Deal's leaders usurped the crime wave myth and added their own "war against crime" corollary in order to assume national law enforcement prominence, Iowa's sheriffs joined the rest of the country's police in accepting Washington's leadership.



Digital Repository @ Iowa State University,

Copyright Owner

Douglas Michael Wertsch



Proquest ID


File Format


File Size

292 pages