Odysseus and his men cowering beneath the mighty Cyclops

Odysseus in the Cave of Polyphemus – Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678) – Pushkin Museum

In a previous article, I wrote about the history of stranger-friendship and hospitality in Greece and early America. In short, both cultures possessed strong traditions about hosting guests from the unknown. Honor and religion compelled them to feed, clothe, and house strangers. As America’s fealty to ritual concepts of honor and religion faded, these traditions diminished.

During the 20th century, that decline folded into a burgeoning distrust of people outside our community. By the end of that century, the stranger had little to recommend them and much to misgive. “Stranger danger” became the watchword of families everywhere.

The Definition of a Stranger and Its Challenges

The slipperiness of the issue does not elude me. Trust in a concept like “the stranger” — which we’ll broadly define as “someone you know little or nothing about” — is difficult to quantify.

To be sure, there have been efforts. A survey from the Pew Research Center shows that 71% of Americans think interpersonal trust has worsened in the past 20 years. Another of their surveys says that only half of Americans trust their neighbors. There are no numbers from a comparative study to draw on or means with which to evaluate trust. We have concrete evidence in the form of metal chains, safes, and deadbolts sold, but it’s difficult to pin down the underlying cause.


Instead, it’s better to say that the 20th century stoked our imaginations, often driving our assumptions about strangers into sinister territory. For the majority, life in the cities replaced life in the country and organized crime accompanied it. Political and police responses followed and ran hotter with every passing decade. A news machine hyper-accelerated by innovations in technology cataloged and fed the labor pains of a faster, stranger city life. By the time of the 1990s, citizens had the information and animus to see the presence of strangers differently.

The Roaring 20s

Deseronto Ponies, Girls' Softball Team

Deseronto Ponies, Girls’ Softball Team – Photo Source: Deseronto, Ontario Archives

In 1916, the term “city slicker” was coined to describe city dwellers who tracked unwanted sophistication into the country. It reflected a reality that was increasingly harder to ignore: America was trading farm work for factory lines. The 1920 census revealed that, for the first time, most Americans were living in cities.

This phenomenon didn’t stem from any single source. For instance, the United States emerged from World War I with favorable reparations from Germany and was flush with cash. Also, leaps in mass production and cars produced a windfall and a new avenue for factories. The economy, and workers, gravitated toward cities.


In that same year, temperance transitioned into law. In an attempt to reduce society’s social ills, such as domestic violence, Congress passed the Volstead Act. The sale, consumption, and manufacture of alcohol became a federal crime.

Instead of combating vice, the Volstead Act organized it. Controlling the supply of alcohol proved impossible. Manufacture of spirits was easy and too much drink existed among the populace already. The Volstead Act created an even stronger thirst and higher prices, which in turn fueled the black market. Criminals already experienced in operating around the law now possessed a hot product which everyone wanted.

This became the cornerstone of an empire. Liquor money opened channels to city hall. Bootleggers hired lawyers and muscle. Gangs became well-financed. Crime families pulled together into arrangements like the Commission, the governing body of the American Mafia. The gangs of the Wild West pale in comparison.

What It Meant for the Stranger

This amounts to a drastic transition in everyday relationships. More Americans lived in cramped tenement environments. Bodies and lives intermingled. Moreover, the new face of crime no doubt added to anxieties about outsiders. Random acts of malice and small-time rackets continued, but now there was a class of more professional thieves.

Noir and Crime Fiction

Being a copper I like to see the law win. I’d like to see the flashy well-dressed mugs like Eddie Mars spoiling their manicures in the rock quarry at Folsom, alongside of the poor little slum-bred guys that got knocked over on their first caper and never had a break since. That’s what I’d like. You and me both lived too long to think I’m likely to see it happen. Not in this town, not in any town half this size, in any part of this wide, green and beautiful U.S.A. We just don’t run our country that way.

Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Coincidentally, this became fodder for a new genre of crime fiction: noir and hardboiled detective stories. In both Britain and America, murder mysteries primarily belonged to “gentleman investigators” like Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes or Edgar Allen Poe’s Auguste Dupin. Murders were ordered, logical, and performed by individuals for straightforward personal gain. The authorities were impartial arbiters. The “dirty cop” was a rare abomination.

The predations of the Mafia and the 1920’s made those stories seem quaint and hollow. A new generation of writers responded by publishing stories that hewed closer to life in American metropolises. The heroes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were good-hearted but jaded by experience and loose with their personal morals. They were often thwarted by politicians and policemen contaminated by mafioso money.

To most Americans, that was a more realistic picture than the parlor murders and petty crimes of the English gentry.

The News and Radio

With radio news, the public would nurture a greater sensitivity to these issues. On August 31st, 1920, a Detroit station aired the first radio news broadcast. While early tech enthusiasts toyed with broadcasting in prior years, 1920 marked a radical departure in content. Eventually, this news format arrived on television, which had its own news station by 1940.

This didn’t initially have an effect, however. Ownership of radios was at 1% in 1923. TV ownership was likewise dismal in its fledgling years. Still, they’d crop up again in history (and in this article).

The News and Radio

Even without radio, the news immediately pounced on the new crime wave.

In the 1890’s, thirty years before its radio outlet, news had already begun to make sausage from tragedy. News magnate William Randolph Hearst cultivated an explosive style of print called “yellow journalism.” This style recognized that high emotion sold more papers and pandered to it. For instance,when Americans stewed over the thought of war with Spain, Hearst decided to bend the truth. He famously quipped to a reporter, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” Anger and suspicion became a key component of selling print.

1930s and Beyond

Notice About the Kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr. - Source: Wikimedia Commons

Notice About the Kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr. – Site: Wikimedia Commons

And that print got plenty of ammunition as the decade moved forward. A spate of child kidnapping cases rocked the country. A notable example was the 1932 kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby.

By this point, radio ownership was higher than 50%. Paper and airwaves carried the story to every ear, and it often grew worse with travel. As we’ll discuss later, news amplified the size of the problem and distorted statistics.

There were so many kidnappings in Depression-era America that newspapers listed the less sensational cases in small type, the way real estate transactions or baseball trades were rendered. There were so many kidnappings that some public officials wondered aloud if they were witnessing an epidemic.

In fact, they were.

From New Jersey to California, in big cities and hamlets, men and women sat by a telephone (if the household had one) or waited for a postman’s knock, praying that whoever had stolen a loved one would give instructions for the victim’s deliverance. There was usually a demand for money, sometimes for a fantastic sum, other times for a small amount that might even be negotiated down. It was possible to put a dollar sign on the value of a life.

David Stout (for CrimeReads), “The Forgotten Kidnapping Epidemic That Shook Depression-Era America”

At this point, radio ownership was higher than 50%. Paper and airwaves carried the story to every ear, and it often grew worse with travel. As we’ll discuss later, news amplified the size of the problem and distorted statistics.

Stranger Danger

From the 1950s to the 1980s, parents adjusted to this new reality. Children played (and play) less and less outdoors.

Peter Gray, an evolutionary psychologist and researcher at Boston College who has studied how children educate themselves through play and exploration, argues that opportunities for children to play outside with other children have decreased over the last 60 years, leading to rising rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents.

According to Gray, the decline started at the end of the 1950s, deepened in the 1980s, when missing children began appearing on milk cartons and public service announcements asked if parents knew where their child was.

Christina Caron, Risky Play Encourages Resilience

“Don’t talk to strangers,” “don’t walk with strangers,” and the tenets of stranger danger passed between parents and kids. Educators and public servants would later discourage the use of the phrase “stranger danger.” It turned out that over 90% of child abusers were people that their victims already knew, not strangers.

More News and the 1980s

Television and radio gained greater and greater influence as they became more and more affordable. By 1963, 91.3% of American homes had a TV, and most got (and continue to get) their news from television. Kidnappings received broadcasting slots, photos, and more media attention than print could provide.

Source: The American Century

Source: The American Century

Etan Patz

The kidnapping of Etan Patz, like the Lindbergh case before it, then kicked off a new news cycle in the 1980s.

Plenty of kids had gone missing before, but Etan’s case seemed specially designed to provoke a mass hysteria. In 1979, the six-year-old boy’s mother arranged for him to walk to the school bus stop on his own. She watched him depart from her Manhattan fire escape. Another mother was waiting two blocks away in an apartment overlooking the bus stop site, but Etan never arrived. . . .

High-quality photographs of Etan taken by his father, a professional photographer, blanketed the city and the national news media for months, which stretched into years. Fear began to mount, and eventually all were afraid. Children’s faces, including but hardly limited to Etan’s, began appearing on milk cartons. In 1982, CBS Evening News informed rapt and terrified adults that up to fifty thousand American children were being kidnapped by strangers every year.

Meagan Day, “How the ‘Stranger Danger’ Panic of the 1980s Helped Give Rise to Mass Incarceration”

Twenty-Four Hours

Simpson's Mug Shot - Source: George Sand and Wikimedia Commons - Photographer: Peter K. Levy

The tradition of yellow journalism, as Etan Patz’s case indicates, was already warping the country’s psyche. The trial of O.J. Simpson guaranteed that trend would continue.

The case was like a pilot program for new viewership tactics and approaches: 57% viewership for a single court case. The media decided to stretch its coverage to the human limit. Twenty-four hours. No stops. News from dawn until dusk. Every story, no matter how local or how national, becomes the story, squeezed into the straitjackets of O.J. and Etan Patz.

The fallout is self-evident. Our current news cycle has measurable impacts on our fragile human brains. We struggle daily with “fake news” on our current coronavirus pandemic, either propagating it or fighting to disempower it.

Back to the Stranger

The Scream - Artist: Edvard Munch (1863-1944) - National Museum of Art, Architecture, and Design, Oslo, Norway

Cumulatively, these massive factors are a pressure cooker. Organized crime, child abuse, and exaggeration corrupt our perception of strangers. To a certain degree, as my earlier examples show, that fear is somewhat justified. The organization of crime and the hazards of high-density living are not figments of the imagination.

Nevertheless, it blackens even our smallest social interactions with strangers. Such an environment will never allow our older guest rites and stranger-friendship traditions to flourish. The trust simply isn’t there.

Moreover, it’s damaged our society in key ways beyond misinformation or mere perception. One of the responses to “stranger danger” has been mass incarceration — a response that has few positive results beyond more bodies in jail.

The Great Crime Decline and Reforming the Stranger’s Image

In recent years, the argument for holding strangers in doubt has weakened. Crime in large cities has actually fallen. Factors have diminished.

The modern news cycle, however, keeps them in play. Social media’s and traditional media’s engagement with COVID reflect narratives of fear and xenophobia. Yellow journalism convinces us that our neighbors are less trustworthy despite a plummet in actual crime. We are reacting to the specters and terrors of a prior century, not the real circumstances of our schools and communities.

Yet we have a chance at something better. Modern life prevents us from pursuing the pure xenia of the Greeks and the hospitality of southern gentlemen, but it also doesn’t suffer from the anxieties of Italian tenements or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. It is an opportunity to return unencumbered to the generosity of an older era.