To Haverford College professor Roger Lane, a much-sought-after expert on why we kill, Philadelphia’s latest murder epidemic is hardly shocking. It’s the inevitable product of history.

To Haverford College professor Roger Lane, a much-sought-after expert on why we kill, Philadelphia’s latest murder epidemic is hardly shocking. It’s the inevitable product of history.

Otherwise, he’s talking with those hands, occasionally clapping them or quickly snapping his fingers when he wants to animate an idea or theory. Add in a touch of repetition, and you can tell he’s done this before.

It’s the professor and social historian in him that emerges, at will, inside his modest home on the grounds of Haverford College, where he’s still listed as a research professor of social sciences. Now 73, Lane arrived at the school in the unforgettable fall of 1963, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He taught his last class in 2001, but won’t let Haverford call him professor emeritus. “No matter how it looks, or how people pronounce it, it still means ‘old fart,’” he says.

- Advertisement -

But people listen to this old fart—especially these days. Lane’s primary expertise is murder. When we first approached him for an interview in early April, Philadelphia had just reported its record-pace 100th murder victim this year. By the time this story went to press, that number had risen to 168. That figure includes the year’s deadliest four-day stretch, when 12 killings April 20-23 spiked the homicide total to 128, a 17 percent increase over last year’s pace, which peaked at 406.

It’s not so much that there are murders, Lane says. Rather, it’s the absurd trends—like the slaughter of innocents—and the lack of simple patterns that are so terrifying. Still fresh in most minds is the Amish schoolhouse massacre—and six months later, the April 16 murder spree at Virginia Tech. “No surprise,” Lane says.

The Main Line has had its share of high-profile murder cases, too. John du Pont comes to mind. But, in general, our area is “too dull for great cases,” says Lane.

He still has a fire that burns inside, so perhaps it’s fitting that Lane is sitting in front of the living room fireplace where he once conducted upper-level seminar classes. It’s been six years since his final class, but he’s never rearranged the room. There are still several long couches, a stack of extra chairs, a coat rack and overflowing bookcases.

When he gets the chance to teach—even if it’s for a class of one—Lane seizes it. Carpe diem. “We’re American. We’ll find a way to kill you. We’ll do it with our teeth if we have to,” he says. “We love violence—The Sopranos, Jesse James, Billy the Kid. We’re tough guys. We don’t take shit from anyone. [Murderers] have it cued. It’s been built into our culture.”

- Partner Content -

Lane runs through a litany of summations of his books—decade by decade, chronologically. “I think we can get fond of our own voices,” he admits later. “I’ll talk to anyone—associations of defense lawyers, journalists. I’ll talk at the old-age home or a mystery writers association. I’ll talk at the funeral parlor.”

Little more than 5-foot-5 and 135 pounds, Lane is unassuming in stature. A mild-mannered professor at a tiny Quaker college, his scholarly work stands as an antithesis: It’s gigantic in the field. “What you see is what you get,” he says. “Wait. What day is it? I’m taller on Mondays.” But more vigilant, perhaps, on Tuesday, now the most common day for homicides. Years ago, it was Fridays and Saturdays, usually after a payday, when free time—combined with alcohol or drug use—spelled disaster. “Tuesday,” Lane stresses. “Is this a statistical accident? No. It’s telling us who’s doing this. It’s kids who are unemployed.”

A former consultant for the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence and the National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, Lane has researched murder in America from Colonial to modern times. Four of his books center on cops, crooks or violence.

Titles include Violent Death in the City: Suicide, Accident and Murder in 19th Century Philadelphia (1979), Roots of Violence in Black Philadelphia (1986) and Murder in America: A History (1997). Lane was even quoted in Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto. “It brought the world (including the FBI) to my door,” he says. “There was coverage in the New York Times and the Washington Post; the BBC and CNN. At that point, no one knew who he was, but I had him pegged.”

SEX, SPORTS AND SCHOOLING: A History of Growing Up Since 1900, Roger Lane’s latest book, is a multi-generational tome due out by year’s end. It’s based on his experiences and those of his three children and three grandchildren. Here’s where Lane’s story gets more intriguing. His youngest child, Joanne, whom he and second wife Marjorie adopted as a newborn, is African–American. Now a 23-year-old graduate student at New York University, Joanne is an alumna of the Baldwin School and the University of Pennsylvania.

- Advertisement -

Even as he was reporting that the rate of African-American murders—especially those involving 18- to 24-year-old males—is eight times higher than all other races, Lane was a role model in the Main Line African-American community—particularly in Ardmore. In 1964, he helped found Serendipity Day Camp at Haverford College, which was initially geared toward African-American children.

“Roger has always put his heart and soul into making sure there was good communication with—and opportunity for—many of Ardmore’s young people,” says Serendipity’s Marilou Allen. “Roger still has that same pull in the community—though many of those young people are now parents.”

Lane also is the only white member in a black gospel choir, the Main Line Interdenominational Choir, which he started in 1971. He remains involved on the condition that he “not sing, which I see as racial discrimination,” he jests. “Hell, I’m Irish. Of course I can sing.”

As a social historian focusing on hard urban realities, Lane has sometimes caught flack from African-American academics—even friends—who prefer that he hide certain statistics. “No one could deny them, but my job was to explain them, or to explain the KKK,” he says. “But I always had every sympathy. Anyone who knows me knows my motives. And they are anything but racist.”

Very much a white New Englander, Lane was born in Rhode Island and grew up in Massachusetts and Connecticut. He once lived in Greenwich, Conn., next to Stamford, where baseball’s Jackie Robinson and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall paid pioneering visits. His mother, Eileen O’Connor, was from an Irish working-class family. Always sympathetic to minorities, she held a position on the national board of the YWCA when it was integrated. After her own three sons left the nest, O’Connor filled it again. “She took in all kinds of guys,” Lane recalls. “Kenyans, Chinese, Japanese, juveniles in trouble.”

Lane’s stepfather, Alfred Baker Lewis, was an aristocratic Philadelphia insurance executive, an investor and the last white on the national board of the NAACP between the 1940s and the 1970s. A staunch socialist, he also organized the funeral of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. It was his mother’s influence, however, that sparked Lane’s interest in history. At bedtime, she’d give her boys a choice of three story categories: childhood, mermaids or history.

“Childhood stories were about when she was a kid,” he says. “Mermaids was myth, like Hercules or Robin Hood. History was similar to mermaids, except about real-life characters like Genghis Khan.

“They were all varieties of history,” Lane says. “She taught us about the past and about everyday, ordinary people.

After that, I never wanted to write about the presidents, but rather ordinary people. Presidents can be fascinating, but you already know about them. With ordinary folks, you have to dig and find out. But ordinary people get into the newspapers, too—especially if they die violently. Then they have a history, too.”

After his undergraduate years at Yale, Lane literally “stumbled” onto his expertise while in graduate school at Harvard. He wasn’t sure what path his doctoral work would take. Then, “after a three martini lunch” following a second-year oral exam, he staggered into advisor Oscar Handlin’s office. Handlin was working on a history of American liberties and freedoms, and suggested Lane write about the police and civil liberties. Lane narrowed his focus, writing a history of the Boston police. By 1967, it grew into his first book: Policing the City: Boston 1822-1885.

Soon enough, Lane began questioning conventional wisdom on criminology, which maintained that the biggest cities generate the greatest crime rates.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute,’” Lane recalls. “I looked at Boston, and there was no question in my mind that the city was more orderly and organized than a seaport town should be, and there was minimal police involvement. So I did a study of crime in Massachusetts in the 19th century, and the more the violence decreased, the more it could be attributed to the role of the Industrial Revolution and [the early formation of] public education.”

Lane argues that good citizenship, then and now, began with pupils learning to “sit still, take turns, mind the teacher, hold their water and listen for the bell.” Such regimentation was perfect for the transition to factory work. From 1948 to 1952 (the height of the Industrial Revolution in America) and even through the mid-1950s, crime rates were at their lowest. Back then, Philadelphia was a leader in providing skilled manufacturing jobs.

“The Irish and Italians, initially, didn’t have anything to do except get drunk and fight,” he says. “Maybe it was the volatile ocean ride that made them aggressive, and kill each other at rates that were off the charts. Then they settled, got jobs, built those row homes in South Philly, got married—marriage is the cure, but then you put your wife at risk—and got caught up in making something of themselves. And padding their wallets.”

By the 1980s, African-Americans were figuring into the statistics more and more prominently. Blacks sat out the Industrial Revolution, Lane says. “Those jobs were too good for them,” he says of the societal protocol back then. “Add in guns, and the fact that increasingly they weren’t forced to sit still, mind Sister Mary Discipline and hold their water, and crime among blacks has increased while all others declined.”

IN HIS BOOK, MURDER in America, Roger Lane explains why our country has homicide rates five and 10 times that of industrialized peer nations. “The answer is not frontierism, like some would have us think—and guns count,” he says. “It’s cultural. It’s slavery.”

Lane snaps his fingers. “It works like this: The plantations were beyond law enforcement. Enslavement was illegal. But on the plantation, who were they going to complain to? There’s no law. [The masters] have the whips and chains. Respect didn’t cross racial lines, so now [the slave] had to win respect.”

In the South, there was always a code of honor, too. Aristocrats dueled as a matter of honor, even in the backwoods. But as time progressed, duels weren’t at 30 paces, yet still among men who believed they were above the law.

“Homicide is the result,” Lane suggests. “Now, they say, ‘What? You said something about my mama, my sister, my sneakers!’ It’s self-defense, so they take matters into their own hands. ‘Don’t disrespect me.’ It’s the code of the streets, the code of the schoolyard and a code like any Southern aristocrat would have had.”

State by state, the Wild West was settled by Southerners. The Winchester rifle was “the Gun That Won the West.” Those states remain the most violent, Lane says, and the most tolerant of violence. “Now the South has come back to haunt us up north,” he says.

If the tide of murder is to recede, three issues remain—particularly in urban areas like Philadelphia. They’re political, economic and cultural in nature, and all are uphill battles.

Politically, Lane says the country and its cities (if states allow it) must address gun control and dry up the handgun trade. However, he admits, the chances of undoing the lobbying power of the National Rifle Association are slim. “Guns are what separate us from France, England and Japan, where there’s staunch gun control,” he says.

Economically, Philadelphia and other urban areas need to find jobs for those whose offices are currently street corners. “We need to get something to absorb their energies,” Lane says. “Maybe we can overhaul the sewer system and hire some strong backs.”

The toughest challenge, however, is cultural. Crackheads used to kill each other over drugs—especially in Philadelphia in the ’90s, a decade that began with a still-record 503 homicides. “Now they kill each other over nothing,” Lane says. “They’re like barons. And if they have a gun, they’re not just going to fight back; they’re going to kill you.”

In many ways, Lane says, violence is inbred, natural and almost normal in Philadelphia—or anywhere, for that matter.

“They think, ‘I don’t have anything, but I have my respect,’” he says. “But if you try to take that away, I’m going to kill you. And if I have a gun, then it’s something entirely different than the schoolyard.”

WHEN ROGER LANE’S HAVERFORD students stopped talking in class about violence and murder because they figured he was the expert, he stopped teaching it and moved on to the history of the family. “That’s sex, sports and school. And with that, there was never trouble getting them to talk,” he says.

Lane’s daughter Joanne (“Jo” for short) has another year left in a master’s program in Latin American and Caribbean studies at NYU. She remembers those later Haverford College classes her dad taught at the house. On snow days, she’d sit in and witness just how popular a college professor her father was. As such, she often saw him in a different light. “He’s a strong storyteller,” she says. “It’s a way of teaching, an anecdotal style. It’s a charismatic way. He’ll suck you in.”

At Penn, Jo double-majored in African-American studies and history, with a minor in Latin American studies. She may add a master’s in public health, then try to work in global heath or some field that requires interdisciplinary skills. She’d like to make an international impact.

Athletic like her father, who was once a boxer until he broke his nose so many times he couldn’t get it to stop bleeding, Jo was in three soccer leagues. She also played violin in two orchestras.

Her father has been a huge influence on her, but in subtle ways. She wasn’t pressured, only guided. She never had to go Yale or Harvard like Lane and his brothers did. Both parents answered her questions and were accepting of whatever path she took.

Jo admits her childhood wasn’t typical, but it wasn’t unusual either. The Ardmore community helped raise her, particularly with regard to cultural exposure. Roger and second wife Marjorie, a retired Lower Merion School District teacher/administrator, welcomed the help. “They realized what was happening, but also didn’t realize it,” Jo says. “None of my adoption was ever forced.

It was all natural. They didn’t adopt me as a charity case.”

The Lanes also have a black godchild, Amber Blount, the daughter of Crystal Whiting Blount, a student of Marjorie’s at Harriton High School and now one of her best friends.

Linda Gerstein, who joined Haverford’s history department two years after Lane, was Jo’s first babysitter. At Haverford, Jo’s race, Gerstein says, was a non-issue, especially given the Lanes’ influence in the local black community.

When the Lanes’ founded Serendipity Day Camp, enrollment was 98 percent African-American. Lane’s two children from his first marriage—Michael, 49, who lives in Media, and Margaret Mary Rosenbloom, 50, an early childhood educator in Pittsburgh—were the only white campers. “They helped us pretend it was integrated—especially for the photo opportunity,” Lane says.

Now it’s a 50-50 mix.

“All that involvement pre-dated Joanne,” Gerstein says. “It’s who Roger was. No one would’ve predicted he’d adopt a black child. But when it happened, no one raised an eyebrow, either. For white middle-class parents to adopt a black child was against the grain. It wasn’t politically correct, but that wasn’t Haverford’s view. In a way, it was Roger’s demonstration that what’s important in the formation of character is education and culture, not genes or biological nature.”

Gerstein, another Harvard Ph.D. who, at 69, continues to teach at the college, had her own stereotype to battle. Briefly, she was Haverford’s only female professor. If Gerstein and Lane were medical doctors, you’d say they have a similar bedside manner, though Lane’s is more informal. “Students were always at the house,” Gerstein recalls. “He held his office hours there. His office was next to mine, but he was never in it. He’d just walk down the street. That living room was set up for students. The first thing he’d say was, ‘Here’s the Coke, here’s the lemonade and there’s the toilet.’”

Once, Gerstein and Lane were Haverford’s two youngest history professors. Then they became the two oldest. He’d have enormous classes, attracting 50 to 100 when most of Haverford’s general courses wouldn’t top 25. His seminar enrollment, however, was capped at 15, so they could all fit in front of the living room fireplace. “Students just had to have the Roger Lane experience,” says Gerstein. “A lot went on [to study and teach history]. Roger molded them.

They wanted to be like him.”

Many of those devotees were instrumental in setting up a scholarship fund for minority students at Haverford College in Lane’s name. Gerstein believes Lane should be celebrated for his social consciousness, his activism and his intellect. As a citizen, he remains a role model— despite his interest in murder.

“He always put his money where his mouth was,” she says. “He was a model for that—especially at Haverford, a moral institution. He didn’t speak in Quaker lingo, but he followed the Quaker ideals for living a moral life. He lived his social consciousness, and put it into action. He’s not just a talker, and he was always willing to take risks.”

Take the Unabomber, for example. Kaczynski’s manifesto included a long excerpt from a Lane article titled “Urbanization and Criminal Violence in the 19th Century: Massachusetts as a Test Case.”

“It was eerie at the time,” Lane admits. “He was an individual revolutionary. I knew he’d be highly educated (another Harvard graduate), and that he probably graduated from college in the ’60s and stopped thinking. As it turned out, everyone he quoted was writing in the ’60s.”

Lane shirks the notion that his writings may have inspired murders. Rather, he’s helped explain the sociology behind violence. By studying death, and by approaching society from the bottom up, he’s sought lessons about life.

Lane’s connection to the Unabomber was the only thing that ever scared Jo. At the time, she joined her dad for an interview at a local news station. On air, he rattled on about how the uncaptured Unabomber had to be a real lunatic. “When we came home, my mom really laid into him,” Jo recalls. “But my dad’s a bully that way. He has his own mindset, and he just does what he does.”

“Tough” is how Gerstein sums him up—down to that white fisherman’s sweater and jeans. “He could wear a tweed jacket and a tie when he had to,” she says. “He cleans up nicely, but most times he’d be wearing those jeans and that sweater. They were part of his ‘tough.’”

Our Best of the Main Line & Western Suburbs Party is July 25!