Police Report

"I do not remember just what whim it was that led me to visit the police court ... perhaps it was because, in my revolt against unreality, I was in the humor to see life whose reality asserts itself every day in the newspapers with indisputable force"

The money, all but thirty cents, was found upon him; and though he represented that he had lawfully earned it by haying in Dedham, the fact that it was in notes of the denominations which the plaintiff remembered was counted against him, and he got the ninety days which his captor had prophesied. He, too, sat down, and I saw him no more.

Now arose literally a cloud of witnesses, and came forward from some of the back seats, and occupied the benches hitherto held by the plaintiffs and witnesses in the preceding cases. They were of all shades of blackness, and of both sexes and divers ages, and they were there in their solemn best clothes, with their faces full of a decorous if superficial seriousness. I must except from this sweeping assertion, however, the lady who was the defendant in the case: she was a young person, with a great deal of what is called style about her, and I had seen her going and coming throughout the morning in a high excitement, which she seemed to enjoy. It is difficult for a lady whose lips have such a generous breadth and such a fine outward roll to keep from smiling, perhaps, under any circumstances; and it may have been light-heartedness rather than light-mindedness that enabled her to support so gayly a responsibility that weighed down all the other parties concerned. She wore a tight-skirted black walking-dress, with a waist of perhaps caricatured smallness; her hat was full of red and yellow flowers; on her hands, which were in drawing with her lips rather than her waist, were a pair of white kid gloves. As she advanced to take her place inside the prisoner's bar she gave in charge to a very mournful-looking elder of her race a little girl, two or three years of age, as fashionably dressed as herself, and tottering upon little high-heeled hoots. The old man lifted the child in his arms, and funereally took his seat among the witnesses, while the culprit turned her full-blown smile upon the judge, and confidently pleaded not guilty to the clerk's reading of the indictment, in which she was charged with threatening the person and life of the plaintiff. At the same moment a sort of pleased expectation lighted up all those dull countenances in the courtroom, which had been growing more and more jaded under the process of the accusations and condemnations. The soddenest habitué of the place brightened; the lawyers and policemen eased themselves in their chairs, and I fancied that the judge himself relaxed. I could not refuse my sympathy to the general content; I took another respite from the thought of my poor thief, and I too lent myself to the hope of enjoyment from this Laughable After-piece.

The accuser also wore black, but her fashionableness, as compared with that of the defendant, was as the fashionableness of Boston to that of New York; she had studied a subdued elegance, and she wore a crape veil instead of flowers on her hat. She was of a sort of dusky pallor, and her features had not the Congoish fullness nor her skin the brilliancy of the defendant's. Her taste in kid gloves was a decorous black.

She testified that she was employed as second-girl in a respectable family, and that the day before she had received a visit at the door from the defendant, who had invited her to come down the street to a certain point, and be beaten within an inch of her life. On her failure to appear, the defendant came again, and notified her that she should hold the beating in store for her, and bestow it whenever and wherever she caught her out-of-doors. These visits and these threats had terrified the plaintiff, and annoyed the respectable family with which she lived, and she had invoked the law.

During the delivery of her complaint, the defendant had been lifting and lowering herself by the bar at which she stood, in anticipation of the judge's permission to question the plaintiff. At a nod from him she now flung herself half across it.

"What'd I say I'd whip you for?"

The Plaintiff, thoughtfully: "What'd you say you'd whip me for?"

The Defendant, beating the railing with her hand: "Yes, that's what I ast you: what for?"

The Plaintiff, with dignity: "I don't know as you told me what for."

The Defendant: "Now, now, none o' that! You just answer my question."

The Judge: "She has answered it."

The Defendant, after a moment of surprise: "Well, then, I'll ast her another question. Didn't I tell you if I ever caught you goin' to a ball with my husband ag'in I'd"—

The Plaintiff: "I didn't go with your husband to no ball!"

The Defendant: "You didn't go with him! Ah"—

The Plaintiff: "I went with the crowd. I didn't know who I went with."

The Defendant: "Well, I know who paid fifty cents for your ticket! Why don't he give me any of his money? Hain't spent fifty cents on me or his child, there, since it was born. An' he goes with you all the time,—to church, and everywhere."

The Judge: "That will do."

The plaintiff, who had listened "with sick and scornful looks averse," stepped from the stand, and a dusky gentlewoman, as she looked, took her place, and corroborated her testimony. She also wore genteel black, and she haughtily turned from the defendant's splendors as she answered much the same questions that the latter had put to the plaintiff. She used her with the disdain that a lady who takes care of bank parlors may show to a social inferior with whom her grandson has been trapped into a distasteful marriage, and she expressed by a certain lift of the chin and a fall of the eyelids the absence of all quality in her granddaughter-in-law, as no words could have done it. I suppose it will be long before these poor creatures will cease to seem as if they were playing at our social conditions, or the prejudices and passions when painted black will seem otherwise than funny. But if this old lady had been born a duchess, or the daughter of a merchant one remove from retail trade, she could not have represented the unrelenting dowager more vividly. She bore witness to the blameless character of the plaintiff, to whom her grandson had paid only those attentions permissible from a gentleman unhappy in his marriage, and living apart from his wife,—a wife, she insinuated, unworthy both before and since the union which she had used sinister arts in forming with a family every way above her. She did not overdo the part, and she descended from the stand with the same contemptuous hauteur toward the old man who succeeded her as she had shown toward his daughter.

The hapless sire—for this was the character he attempted—came upon the stand with his forsaken grandchild in his arms, and bore his testimony to the fact that his daughter was a good girl, and had always done what was right, and had been brought up to it. He dwelt upon her fidelity to her virtuous family training, with no apparent sense of incongruity in the facts—elicited by counsel—to the contrary; and he was an old man whose perceptions were somewhat blunted as to other things. He maundered on about his son-in-law's neglect of his wife and child, and the expense which he had been forced to bear on their account, and especially about the wrongs his family had suffered since his son-in-law "got to going" with the plaintiff.

"You say," interpreted the judge, "that the plaintiff tried to seduce the affections of your daughter's husband from her?"

The old man was brought to a long and thoughtful pause, from which he was started by a repetition of the judge's question. "I—I don' know as I understand you, judge," he faltered.

"Do you mean that the plaintiff—the person whom your daughter threatened to beat—has been trying to get your daughter's husband's affections away from her?"

"Why, he hain't never showed her no affections, judge! He's just left me to support her."

"Very well, then. Has the plaintiff tried to get your daughter's husband away from her?"

"I guess not, judge. He hain't never took any notice of my daughter since he married her."

"Well, does your son-in-law go with this person?"

"With who, judge?"

"With the plaintiff."

"De ol' woman? No, he don' go wid de ol' woman any: she's his gran'mother."

"Well, does he go with the young woman?"

"Oh, yes! Yes! He goes with the young woman. Goes with her all the time. That's the one he goes with!"

He seemed to be greatly surprised and delighted to find that this point was what the judge had been trying to get at, and the audience shared his pleasure.

I really forget how the cause was decided. Perhaps my train, which I began to be anxious not to lose, hurried me away before the dénoument, as often happens with the suburban play-goer. But to one who cares rather for character than for plot it made little difference. I came away thinking that if the actors in the little drama were of another complexion how finely the situation would have served in a certain sort of intense novel: the patrician dowager, inappeasably offended by the low match which her grandson has made, and willing to encourage his penchant for the lady of his own rank, whom some fortuity may yet enable him to marry; the wife, with her vulgar but strong passions, stung to madness by the neglect and disdain of her husband's family,—it is certainly a very pretty intrigue, and I commend it to my brother (or sister) novelists who like to be praised by the reviewers for what the reviewers think profundity and power.

It was nearly a year later that I paid my second visit to the police court, on a day, like the first, humid and dull, but very close and suffocatingly hot. It was a Monday morning, and there was a full dock, as I have learned that the prisoner's pen at the right of the clerk's desk is called. The clerk was standing with that sheaf of indictments in his hand, and saying, "John O'Brien!" and John O'Brien was answering, "Here, sor!" and the clerk was proceeding, "Complained of for being drunk guilty or not guilty pay a fine of one dollar and costs stand committed to the House of Industry," and then writing on the indictment, and tossing it aside. As I modestly took my stand at the door, till I should gather courage to cross the room to one of the vacant seats which I saw among the policemen, one of those officers of the court approached me and said, "No room for you here to-day, my friend. Go up on the Common." In spite of my share of that purely American vanity which delights in official recognition, I could not be flattered at this, and it was with relief that I found he was addressing a fellow habitué behind me. The courtroom was in fact very full, and there were no seats on the benches ordinarily allotted to spectators; so I at once crossed to my place, and sat down among the policemen, to whom I authorized my intrusion by taking my notebook from my pocket. I have some hopes that the spectators thought me a detective in plain clothes, and revered me accordingly. There was such a person near me, with his club sticking out of his back pocket, whom I am sure I revered.

I had not come to report the events of this session of the court, but to refresh the impressions of my first visit, and I was glad to find them so just. There was, of course, some little change; but the same magistrate was there, serene, patient, mercifully inclined of visage; the colored attorney was there, in charge, as before, of a disastrous Irish case. The officials who tried to keep order had put off their flannel coats for coats of seersucker, and each carried a Japanese fan; neither wore a collar, now, and I fancied them both a little more in flesh. I think they were even less successful than formerly in quelling disturbances, though they were even more courtly in the terms of their appeal. "Too much conversation in the court!" they called out to us collectively. "Conversation must cease," they added. Then one, walking up to a benchful of voluble witnesses, would say, "Must cease that conversation," and to my fellow-policemen, "Less conversation, gentlemen;" then again to the room at large, "Stop all conversation in the court," and "All conversation must cease entirely."

The Irish case, which presently came on, was a question of assault and battery between Mrs. O'Hara and Mrs. MacMannis; it had finally to be dismissed, after much testimony to the guilt and peaceable character of both parties. A dozen or more witnesses were called, principally young girls, who had come in their best, and with whom one could fancy this an occasion of present satisfying excitement and future celebrity. The witnesses were generally more interesting than the parties to the suits, I thought, and I could not get tired of my fellow-spectators, I suppose, if I went a great many times. I liked to consider the hungry gravity of their countenances, as they listened to the facts elicited, and to speculate as to the ultimate effect upon their moral natures—or their immoral natures—of the gross and palpable shocks daily imparted to them by the details of vice and crime. I have tried to treat my material lightly and entertainingly, as a true reporter should, but I would not have my reader suppose that I did not feel the essential cruelty of an exhibition that tore its poor rags from all that squalid shame, and its mask from all that lying, cowering guilt, or did not suspect how it must harden and deprave those whom it daily entertained. As I dwelt upon the dull visages of the spectators, certain spectacles vaguely related themselves to what I saw: the women who sat and knitted at the sessions of the Revolutionary tribunals of Paris, and overwhelmed with their clamor the judges' feeble impulses to mercy; the roaring populace at the Spanish bull-fight and the Roman arena. Here the same elements were held in absolute silence,—debarred even from "conversation,"—but it was impossible not to feel that here in degree were the conditions that trained men to demand blood, to rave for the guillotine, to turn down the thumb. This procession of misdeeds, passing under their eyes day after day, must leave a miasm of moral death behind it, which no prison or work-house can hereafter cure. We all know that the genius of our law is publicity; but it may be questioned whether criminal trials may not be as profitably kept private as hangings, the popular attendance on which was once supposed to be a bulwark of religion and morality.

Not that there was any avoidable brutality, or even indecorum, in the conduct of the trials that I saw. A spade was necessarily called a spade; but it seemed to me that with all the waste of time and foreign alloy the old Puritan seriousness was making itself felt even here, and subduing the tone of the procedure to a grave decency consonant with the inquiries of justice. For it was really justice that was administered, so far as I could see; and justice that was by no means blind, but very open-eyed and keen-sighted. The causes were decided by one man, from evidence usually extracted out of writhing reluctance or abysmal stupidity, and the judgment must be formed and the sentence given where the magistrate sat, amid the confusion of the crowded room. Yet, except in the case of my poor thief, I did not see him hesitate; and I did not doubt his wisdom—I am far from pronouncing his sentence unjust—even in that case, his decisions seemed to me the result of most patient and wonderfully rapid cogitation, and in dealing with the witnesses he never lost his temper amid densities of dullness which it is quite impossible to do more than indicate. If it were necessary, for example, to establish the fact that a handkerchief was white, it was not to he done without some such colloquy as this—

"Was it a white handkerchief?"

"Sor?"

"Was the handkerchief white?"

"Was it white, sor?"

"Yes, was it white?"

"Was what white, sor?"

"The handkerchief,—was the handkerchief white?"

"What handkerchief, sor?"

"The handkerchief you just mentioned,—the handkerchief that the defendant dropped."

" I didn't see it, sor."

"Didn't see the handkerchief?"

"Didn't see him drop it, sor."

"Well, did you see the handkerchief?"

"The handkerchief, sor? Oh, yes, sor! I saw it,—I saw the handkerchief."

"Well, was it white?"

"It was, sor."

A boy who complained of another for assaulting him said that he knocked him down.

"How did he knock you down?" asked the judge. "Did he knock you down with his fist or his open hand?"

"Yes, sor."

"Which did he do it with ?"

"Put his arms round me and knocked me down."

"Then he didn't knock you down. He threw you down."

"Yes, sor. He didn't t'row me down. Put his arms round me and knocked me down."

It would be impossible to caricature these things, or to exaggerate the charitable long - suffering that dealt with such cases. Sometimes, as if in mere despair, the judge called the parties to him, and questioned them privately; after which the case seemed to be settled, without further trial.

I have spoken of the theatrical illusion which the proceedings of the court produced; but it often seemed to me also like a school where had boys and girls were brought up for punishment. They were, indeed, like children, those poor offenders, and had a sort of innocent simplicity in their wickedness, as good people have in their goodness. One case came up on the occasion of my last visit, which I should like to report verbatim in illustration, but it was of too lurid a sort to he treated by native realism; we can only bear that sort when imported; and undoubtedly there is something still to be said in behalf of decency, at least in the English language. I can only hint that this case was one which in some form or other has been coming up in the police courts ever since police courts began. It must have been familiar to those of Thebes three thousand years ago, and will be so in those of cities which shall look back on Boston in an antiquity as hoary. A hard-working old fool with a month's pay in his pocket and the lost soul with whom he carouses; the theft; the quarrel between the lost soul and the yet more fallen spirit who harbored her and traded at second hand in her perdition, as to who stole the fool's money,—what stale materials! Yet I was as much interested as if this were the first case of the kind, and, confronted with the fool and the lost soul and the yet more fallen spirit, I could not feel that they were—let me say it in all seriousness and reverence—so very bad. Perhaps it was because they stood there reduced to the very nakedness of their shame, and confessedly guilty in what human nature struggles to the last to deny—stood there, as a premise, far past the hope of lying—that they seemed rather subjects for pity than abhorrence. The fool and the lost soul were light and trivial; they even laughed at some of the grosser facts; but that yet more fallen spirit was ghastly tragical, as bit by bit the confession of her business was torn from her; it was torture that seemed hideously out of proportion to any end to he attained; yet as things are it had to be. If then and there some sort of redemption might have begun!

The divine life which is in these poor creatures, as in the best and purest, seemed to be struggling back to some relation and likeness to our average sinful humanity, insisting that if socially and publicly we denied it we should not hold it wholly outcast in our secret hearts, nor refuse it our sympathy. Seeing that on their hopelessly sunken level their common humanity kept that symmetry and proportion which physical deformity shows, one could not doubt that a distorted kindliness and good-nature remained to them in the midst of their depravity: the man was like a gray-headed foolish boy; the two women as simple and cunning as too naughty children. It could be imagined that they had their friendly moments; that in extremity they might care for each other; that even such a life as theirs had its reliefs from perdition, as in disease there is relief from pain, and no suffering, out of romance, is incessant. They had certainly their decorums, their criterions. On their plane, everything but the theft and the noisy quarrel was of custom and for granted; but these were misdemeanors and disgraceful. Like another hostess of the sort, the fallen spirit was aggrieved at these. "Do you think I keep thieves in my house? . . . The tithe of a hair was never lost in my house before. . . . I'll no swaggerers. . . . There comes no swaggering here. . . . I will bar no honest man my house, nor no cheater; but I do not love swaggering." This is the sum of what she said that she had said in rebuke of the lost soul; that thieving and that swaggering, they incensed her, and roused in her all the instincts of a moral and respectable person. Humanity adjusts itself to all conditions, and doubtless God forsakes it in none, but still shapes it to some semblance of health in its sickness, of order in its disorder, of righteousness in its sin.

I dare say that it was not a wholesome feeling, this leniency that acquaintance with sinners produces. There is much to be urged on that side, and I would like to urge it in considering the effect of daily attendance upon the police court of these spectators whom I have tried to study for the reader's advantage. I must own that the trial at which I have hinted did not affect them seriously, and I doubt if they psychologized upon it. They craned their necks forward and gloated on those women with an unmistakably obscene delight. If they were not beyond being the worse for anything, they were the worse for that trial. Why were they present? Theoretically, perhaps to see that justice was done. But if justice had not been done, how could they have helped it? The public shame seemed purely depraving both to those who suffered it and to those who saw it; and it ought to have been no part of the punishment inflicted. It was horrible, and it sometimes befell those who were accused of nothing, but were merely there to be tortured as witnesses. The lawyer who forced that wretched hostess to confess the character of her house used no unfair means, and he dealt with her as sparingly as he might; yet it was still a shocking spectacle; for she was, curiously enough, not lost to shame, but most alive to it, and, standing there before that brutal crowd, gave up her name to infamy, with atrocious pain and hate; her face was such a visage as hell-fire might flash into sight among the newly damned, but such as our familiar and respectable sunlight would do well not to reveal to any eyes but magistrates' and priests'. Till one has seen such a thing it is incredible that it should be, and then incredible that it should possibly he of daily occurrence. It was as if the physicians in charge of a public hospital should permit that rabble to be present at a clinique for some loathsome disease, to see that there was no malpractice. If the whole trial could have taken place with closed doors, and with none present but the parties, the lawyers, and the court, what possible harm could have been done? I think none whatever, and I am so sure of this that I would not only have all the police trials secret, but I would never have another police report in print—after this! Then the decency of mystery, and perhaps something of its awe, would surround the vulgar shame and terror of the police court, and a system which does no good would at least do less harm than at present.

It will be perceived that like all reformers I am going too far. I begin with demanding secrecy in police trials, and I end by suggesting that they be abolished altogether. But in fact nothing struck me more forcibly in the proceedings of the police court than their apparent futility. It was all a mere suppression of symptoms in the vicious classes, not a cure. This one or that one would not steal, or assault and batter, for the given term of his imprisonment, but this was ludicrously far from touching even the tendency to theft and violence. These bad boys and girls came up and had their thrashing or their rap over the knuckles, and were practically bidden by the conditions of our civilization to go and sin some more. What else is to he done I confess that I do not know. Perhaps there is no cure for vice and crime. Perhaps there is nothing but prevention, in the application of which there is always difficulty, obscurity, and uncertainty.

The other day, as I passed the courthouse, that sad vehicle which is called the Black Maria was driving away from the high portal into which it backs to receive its dead. (The word came inevitably; it is not so far wrong, and it may stand.) The Black Maria may still be Maria (the reasons why it should ever have been I do not know), but it is black no longer. On the contrary, it is painted a not uncheerful salmon color, with its false sash picked out in drab; and at first glance, among the rattling express wagons, it looked not unlike an omnibus of the living, and could have passed through the street without making the casual observer realize what a dreary hearse it was. I dare say it was on its way to the House of Industry, or the House of Correction, or Deer Island, or some of those places where people are put to go from bad to worse; and it was fulfilling its function with a merciful privacy, for its load of convicts might have been dragged through the streets on open hurdles, for the further edification of the populace. But I could not help thinking—or perhaps the thought only occurs to me now—that for all reasonable hope as to the future of its inmates the Black Maria might as well have been fitted with one of those ingenious pieces of mechanism by which some of our adoptive citizens propose to disable English commerce, and driven out to some wide, open space where the explosion could do no harm to the vicinity, and so when the horses and driver had removed to a safe distance

But this is perhaps pessimism.

Presented by

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In