Respect, Defense, and Self-Identity

Profiling Parricide in Nineteenth-Century America, 1852-1899

by Phillip Chong Ho Shon (Author)
©2014 Monographs X, 184 Pages
Series: Violence Studies, Volume 2


Ever since Oedipus unwittingly killed his father and married his mother in Sophocles’ play, parricide – the killing of a parent or another close relative – has been a dominant motif in works of literature, film, psychoanalytic theory, and criminology. Yet, parricide, for much of the twentieth and twenty-first century, has been framed as an adolescent phenomenon, with child abuse proffered as the overriding cause related to the killing of parents. Respect, Defense, and Self-Identity provides a new way of understanding parricides by analyzing the behavior of offenders and victims at the scene of the crime in relation to the sources of conflict. This book examines the conflict between parents and their offspring across the life course and argues that parricides are shaped by factors such as respect, defense, and self-identity. Respect, Defense, and Self-Identity is recommended for classroom use in courses such as criminology, homicide, family violence, and social work.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • About the Data
  • Organization of Chapters
  • Chapter 1. Sources of Conflict
  • Parricides throughout History: A Review of the Literature
  • Argument
  • Finance
  • Defense and Abuse
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 2. Weapon Usage in Nineteenth Century American Parricides
  • Weapon Usage in Previous Literature
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 3. Pre-Offense Characteristics of Nineteenth-Century American Parricide Offenders
  • Reconciling Theory of Crime and Theory of Parricide
  • History of Institutionalization and Criminal Behavior
  • History of Temperamental Difficulty and Disreputable Personality
  • Discussion and Conclusion
  • Chapter 4. Post-Offense Characteristics of Nineteenth-Century American Parricides
  • Crime Scene Behaviors in the Context of Signature Theory of Homicide and Investigative Psychology
  • Continuity of Violence as a Post-Offense Characteristic
  • Mass murder
  • Suicide
  • Mutilation
  • Covering-Up as a Post-Offense Characteristic
  • Usual and Unusual Behaviors as Post-Offense Characteristics
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 5. Murder-Suicide and Mass Murder in the Context of Parricides
  • The Convergence of Murder-Suicide and Mass Murder
  • Post-Parricide Suicide
  • Post-Parricide Mass Murder
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 6. Existential Boundary Crossings: Parricides as Identity Projects
  • Existentialism, Identity and Crime
  • Boundary Crossings and Identity Projects in Nineteenth-Century American Parricides
  • Boundary Crossings and Identity Projects in Nineteenth-Century French Parricide: The Case of Pierre Rivière
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 7. Comparing Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Parricides
  • General Patterns in Parricide throughout the Latter Half of the Twentieth Century
  • The Asymmetrical Distribution of Risk of Homicide for Biological Fathers and Biological Mothers in Female Offender Parricides
  • Convergence and Divergence in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Parricides
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 8. Reconciling Theory and Data
  • Freud’s Influence on the Theory of Self, Society, and Parricide
  • A Critique of Freudian Theory of Parricide
  • Self-Identity throughout the Life Course: A Conflict-Based Theory of Parricide
  • Toward a Reinterpretation of Oedipus Rex
  • Concluding Remarks
  • References
  • Recommended Readings
  • Index
  • Series Index


I must confess that there are very few new ideas in this book. Any student can readily see the influence that American historians of crime and violence have had on this project, in particular, Barbara Hanawalt, Roger Lane, Jeffrey Adler, and Eric Monkkonen. Indeed, the preceding scholars have had a tremendous influence on how I have thought about and understood the act of killing within a social, political, and economic context. Furthermore, others may see a rather obvious connection in the ideas presented in this book to the works of David Canter, Robert Keppel, and Gabrielle Salfati, especially in relation to how victims and offenders interact with one another and with others who happen to be present at the scene of a parental killing. I would like to think that I have simply—and successfully—aimed the analytical lens at parricides in nineteenth-century America. Finally, and although it may not seem like it at times throughout this book, I am heavily indebted to Kathleen Heide: her pioneering work on adolescent parricides has served as a reference point for how I have understood parricides, and has served as an invaluable impetus for my own diverging works.

Portions of chapter 1 were previous published as “Sources of conflict between parents and their offspring in nineteenth-century American parricides: An archival exploration,” Shon, P., Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, ← ix | x → November 2009, Vol. 9, Issue 4, pp. 249–279, and is reprinted by permission of Taylor & Francis (http://www.tandfonline.com). Portions of chapter 2 were previously published as “Weapon usage in attempted and completed parricides in nineteenth-century America: An archival exploration of the physical strength hypothesis,” Shon, P., Journal of Forensic Sciences, 2010, Vol. 55, Issue 1, pp. 232–236, and is reprinted by permission of John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Portions of chapter 3 were previously published as “Pre-offense characteristics of nineteenth-century American parricide offenders: An archival exploration,” Shon, P., & Barton- Bellessa, S., Journal of Criminal Psychology, 2012, Vol. 2, Issue 1, pp. 51–66, and is kindly reprinted by permission of Emerald Group Publishing Limited. Portions of chapter 4 were previously published as “Post-offense characteristics of nineteenth-century American parricides: An archival exploration,” Shon, P., & Roberts, M., Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling, 2008, Vol. 5, pp. 147–169, and is kindly reprinted by permission of John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Portions of chapter 5 were previously published as “An archival exploration of homicide-suicide and mass murder in the context of nineteenth-century American parricides,” Shon, P., & Roberts, M., International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 2010, Vol. 54, Issue 1, pp. 43–60, and is kindly reprinted by permission of Sage Publications. Portions of chapter 6 were previously published as “Existential boundary crossings: An archival exploration of identity projects in nineteenth-century American parricides,” Shon, P., Human Studies: A Journal for Philosophy and the Social Sciences, 2012, 35, 445–457, and is reprinted with kind permission from Springer Science + Business Media B.V.

Phillip C. Shon ← x | 1 →


Although fables, myths, and works of fiction have been fruitfully mined as sources of data and inspiration for literary critics and psychotherapists regarding the dynamics of parricide and the purported motives of offenders, the publication of Paul Mones’s (1991) When A Child Kills and Kathleen Heide’s (1992) Why Kids Kill Parents recalibrated the parameters of parricide as a subtopic within the discipline of criminology; their works demonstrated that the study of parricide need not be dependent on the creative imagination of literary critics and filmmakers (e.g., Bunker, 1944; Carpetto, 1984; Kanzer, 1948; Freud, 1945). By examining the offense characteristics of parricides and interviewing offenders as sources of primary data, the two works empirically substantiated what previous works on parricide had only been able to claim tentatively and equivocally: first, that parricides represent a rather infrequent class of homicides; second, that parricides resemble general homicides in that they tend to be a male-dominated phenomenon, as victims and offenders; third, that parricides are not necessarily intrapsychic crimes since they ebb and flow with the undulations of general violence in society (Marleau & Webanck, 1997; Shon & Targonski, 2003).

Yet, despite such sociologically-informed findings about the characteristics of parricide, throughout much of the twentieth century, models for ← 1 | 2 → understanding parricide have been shaped by Freudian assumptions, with explanations dominated by references to its Oedipal roots—parricide interpreted “as a defense against hostility or incestuous desires” or an explosive culmination of “unresolved incestuous conflict” or excessive maltreatment (Bourget, Gagne, & Labelle, 2007, p. 306; Bender, 1959). That is, parricide has been overwhelmingly framed as offenses adolescents perpetrate against their parents, the relationship between parent and offspring implicitly presupposed as an asymmetrical one, despite the changes in life circumstances and life stages of both participants throughout the life course.

That preceding assumption about parricides was reflected in Heide’s (1992) seminal work. Why Kids Kill Parents provided a taxonomical classification of adolescent parricide offenders as well as a tacit rationale and motivation of why children kill their parents. Thus, severely abused children kill their parent(s) as a way of escaping the physical, mental, emotional, and sexual abuse suffered at the hands of a parent, the killing viewed as a desperate and violent reaction against the perpetrators of prolonged violence. The severely mentally ill child describes adolescent parricide offenders who kill their parents in a delusional and schizophrenic state, their crimes adumbrated by symptoms of psychological deterioration well before the murder. Thirdly, dangerously antisocial children refer to those who are sociopathic, incapable of empathizing with the pain and suffering of others, and who are only motivated by the gratification of their own desires and pleasures.

Perhaps abuse, mental illness, and defects in personality are and have been notable justifications of parricide offenders as they use violence as a means of preserving their physical and psychic integrity, that mentally ill and sociopathic children do target parents as a function of their proximity, availability, and opportunity. But this presupposition cannot be retroactively extended to earlier periods, for the industrial revolution in nineteenth-century America alone significantly reconfigured the parent-offspring relations along with the social organization of the family (Rotundo, 1993). Furthermore, the assumptions of twentieth-century America about crime cannot be applied to earlier historical periods (Zahn & McCall, 1999) for the very definition of abuse has been subject to the vagaries of historical and cultural contingencies—contingencies that have shaped the constitutive definitions of childhood and abuse (demause, 1974). For instance, Boots and Heide (2006, p. 433) state that parricide offenders in U.S. are “significantly more likely to be classified as severely abused” when compared to non-U.S. cases, and that offenders in ← 2 | 3 → other countries are “commonly depicted as children who were dangerously antisocial than U.S. cases.”

Such assertions could be explained by the fact that American legal and cultural sensibilities are overly “sensitive” to claims of child abuse and maltreatment, especially after homicides committed by juveniles came under media scrutiny and became constructed as a social problem (Boots & Heide, 2006; Heide, 1999); or, it may very well be that the very definition of abuse is a cultural and historical accomplishment. Thus, what gets defined as child abuse in America is parental authority and right of discipline exercised too far. Parricide offenders in other countries may be classified as being “more dangerously antisocial,” not because there are more of them, but because the very act of killing one’s parents—no matter how justified it may be according to American cultural and legal sensibilities—precisely exemplifies the challenge to and subversion of absolute parental authority. For example, a child in South Korea who stabs and kills her father because he demanded excellent—perfect—grades, and customarily used verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive means to gain compliance would not be viewed as “killing out of desperation or terror,” self-defense, or abuse. The father’s verbal, emotional, and physical abuse may not even be called that; the killing of a parent would violate one of the most sacred and canonic ideals of a Confucian value system; one could even argue that the act of killing one’s parent would undermine the political and social infrastructure of that society (Freud, 1914). And it is those very contingencies which may have shaped the contours of parricide throughout history that have not been examined in prior research as they relate to the study of parricide.

Consider the case of Marshall Sosby from Adrian, Michigan. In 2008, he was charged with two counts of murder—killing both of his parents. He called 911 and reported that he witnessed his mother shoot his father; he then reported that his mother shot herself in the back of the head after killing her husband. When the police showed up and processed the scene, they found the crime scene to be inconsistent with the story reported by the seventeen-year-old son. Upon further questioning, Marshall confessed that he killed both of his parents because they had taken away his cell phone privileges and prohibited him from playing videogames.


X, 184
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (July)
literature film psychoanalytic theory criminology adolescent phenomenon
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 184 pp.

Biographical notes

Phillip Chong Ho Shon (Author)

Phillip Chong Ho Shon is Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology. He received his PhD in criminal justice in 2003 from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Dr. Shon has authored several articles and books, including How to Read Journal Articles in the Social Sciences and Language and Demeanor in Police-Citizen Encounters. His research interests include police behavior, police-citizen encounters, law and society, sociology of law, criminology, and homicide studies.


Title: Respect, Defense, and Self-Identity
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