The Men of Mobtown

Policing Baltimore in the Age of Slavery and Emancipation

By Adam Malka

352 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 3 halftones, 2 graphs, 17 tables, notes, bibl., index

  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-3629-0
    Published: April 2018
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-3630-6
    Published: March 2018

Justice, Power, and Politics

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What if racialized mass incarceration is not a perversion of our criminal justice system’s liberal ideals, but rather a natural conclusion? Adam Malka raises this disturbing possibility through a gripping look at the origins of modern policing in the influential hub of Baltimore during and after slavery’s final decades. He argues that America’s new professional police forces and prisons were developed to expand, not curb, the reach of white vigilantes, and are best understood as a uniformed wing of the gangs that controlled free black people by branding them—and treating them—as criminals. The post–Civil War triumph of liberal ideals thus also marked a triumph of an institutionalized belief in black criminality.

Mass incarceration may be a recent phenomenon, but the problems that undergird the “new Jim Crow” are very, very old. As Malka makes clear, a real reckoning with this national calamity requires not easy reforms but a deeper, more radical effort to overcome the racial legacies encoded into the very DNA of our police institutions.

About the Author

Adam Malka is assistant professor of history at the University at Buffalo, SUNY.
For more information about Adam Malka, visit the Author Page.


“[Malka] provides a significant contribution to the history of policing in the United States, pressing readers to consider uncomfortable truths.”--Journal of Southern History

"In this absorbing history of policing in 19th century Baltimore, Adam Malka uses a close case study to fill out our understanding of the evolution of policing, vigilantism, and property in 19th century America."--CrimeReads

"Turns the conventional wisdom about racial policing in the United States on its head. Far from being a grotesque, late twentieth-century distortion of American political principles, race-based disparities in arrests and incarceration, according to Malka, are expressions of core liberal values and emerged alongside assumptions about African American freedom. . . . This argument is original, important, and timely."--Journal of Social History

“An innovative and closely argued study of race and status in antebellum Baltimore, The Men of Mobtown seeks to recover the connection between the rise of professional policing and the perpetuation of white men’s racial power.”--Richard Bell, University of Maryland

The Men of Mobtown tells a new and significant story of policing, one that accounts both for the rise of men in uniforms and for the role that private citizens, often constituted as mobs, played in regulating life on the streets of a teeming port city. Malka demonstrates how white supremacy and racism provided a cover and a rationalization for the acts of men who aimed to marginalize, if not wholly suppress, the ambitions and the lives of black city dwellers.”--Martha S. Jones, Johns Hopkins University

“In this provocative history of policing in nineteenth-century Baltimore, Adam Malka demonstrates that the vexed relationship between African Americans and law enforcement is nothing new. Malka persuasively demonstrates that modern policing, never mind the prison industrial complex, was built on an older tradition of white male vigilantism disproportionately directed at African Americans. Men of Mobtown provides a much-needed historical perspective on contemporary racial injustice.”—Stephen Mihm, University of Georgia