The occurrence among us within the last few years of crimes of singular atrocity and wanton cruelty has called the attention of many thinking persons to the condition of mind under which such acts are committed. A fellow-creature at whose deeds a whole community shudders, while he himself, even after they have been brought home to him, looks upon them with entire indifference, must have a moral nature very unlike that of ordinary human beings. Nothing is more difficult than to study such a being fairly. Instinct, Law, and Theology have all taken up their positions with reference to him.
Instinct urges the common mind to swift, certain, and extreme measures. As the serpent when he is trodden on strikes, as the man who is smitten returns the blow as if he were a machine of which the spring is suddenly released, so a popular gathering executes prompt vengeance on the doer of an atrocious deed, where law does not stand between him and the instinct of the multitude. If lynch-law knew enough to have a Latin motto for its symbol, it would be cito, certe, sœve. It listens to no argument, for it is very little more than a mere animal movement. One might as well reason with a she-bear from whom he had stolen her cubs, as with a border mob dragging a murderer to the nearest tree. “Why, what evil hath he done?” was Pilate’s very fair question to the roughs of Jerusalem. “Crucify him!” was all the answer he got. Instinct, whether we call its rulings natural justice or natural injustice, has its place, none the less, in settling the character and determining the punishment of crime. It rids society of a nuisance or subjects the offender to a cautionary discipline. It strengthens the abhorrence of crime in a community, and to some extent deters those who are ill-disposed from carrying out their inclinations. But it makes mistakes about persons, it gratifies dangerous passions in those who execute its mandates, and it has no graduated scale of punishment. À la lanterne is its shortest, most frequent, and very convenient formula. Civilization may hide it more or less completely under statutes and moral and religious precepts, but it lies as a struggling force beneath their repressive weight, and every now and then betrays itself in the court-room and even in the sanctuary.
Law is an implement of society which is intended for every-day work. It is a coarse tool and not a mathematical instrument. It deals with the acts of criminals and their immediate motives. Its efforts to get behind these proximate causes are not very satisfactory to those who have made a special study of the mechanism of human actions. It arraigned men formerly because the devil had prompted them to kill their fellow-man. Not being able to hang the devil, it followed the Hudibrastic method and swung off his victims as a substitute. It does indeed recognize complete mental alienation as an excuse of forbidden acts, and heat of passion as their palliation. But while it accepts the chemist’s analysis of the contents of a stomach, it cares very little for a psychologist’s analysis of a criminal’s mental and moral elements, unless this criminal can be shown to present the technical conditions of the state defined as insanity. Its scale of punishments is graduated in a rough way, but it has no fixed standard except the hanging point. Instinct, tradition, convenience, in various combinations and changing from age to age, settle the marks on the scale below this highest level, which itself is only conditionally fixed, and changes in different times and places, so that in some communities crime never reaches it. Of relative justice law may know something; of expediency it knows much; with absolute justice it does not concern itself.
Theology, as represented in the formulæ of its councils and synods, while nominally treating of divinity, has chiefly contemplated the divine character in its relations to man, and consequently, inverting its thought, has become little more than traditional anthropology. Deriving its warrant, or claiming to, from the supreme source of law, it has transferred the whole subject of moral transgression from the region of the natural to that of the supernatural. It lent the devil to the lawyers to help out their indictments. It comes with its accepted axioms about human nature to confound the studies of the philosopher. Measuring the finite by an infinite standard, it abolishes all terms of comparison. Testing all humanity in the scholastic vacuum left by pumping out the whole moral atmosphere, it sees two souls, one freighted with the burden of fourscore guilty years, the other chargeable only with the lightest petulance of pulpy infancy, drop with the same swiftness into the abyss of boundless and endless retribution, just as the feather and the guinea fall side by side in an exhausted bell-glass and reach the bottom at the same moment. Accepting the mechanical idea of transferable moral responsibility, it violates the plain law of homology, which declares that like must be compared with like, that virtue cannot be meted out with a yard-stick, that courage cannot be measured in a pint pot (though sometimes found in it), that a right or wrong act cannot be weighed in a grocer’s balance. Theological speculation has thus climbed out of sight of the facts of human nature, to find itself
“Pinnacled dim in the intense inane,”
and the anthropologist of to-day must request it to stand aside, as the geologist of yesterday has done with the old cosmogonies.
In the face of all these obstacles, the subject of crime and the character of the criminal must be studied calmly, exhaustively, and independently of all inherited prejudices. The idols of the market, of the bench, and of the pulpit must be treated as so many stocks and stones by the naturalist who comes to the study of man as Huber gave himself to the study of bees, or Agassiz to that of tortoises. Savage instincts, barbarous usages, ancient beliefs, will all find themselves confronted with a new order of facts which has not been studied, and with new interpretations of facts which have never been hazarded.
Every novel growth of ideas has to encounter the weight of vested opinions and mortgaged prejudices. It has to face a society more or less unprepared for it; the Chinese with their fixed customs, the North American Indians with their feral natures, are not in a condition to listen to the last revelations of that multiple Messiah, modern civilization, as it speaks through its anointed races. The Pi-Utes and the Kickapoos of the wilderness are hard to reason with. But there is another tribe of irreclaimables, living in much larger wigwams and having all the look of civilized people, which is quite as intractable to the teachings of a new philosophy that upsets their ancestral totems. This is the tribe of the Pooh-Poohs, so called from the leading expression of their vocabulary, which furnishes them a short and easy method of disposing of all novel doctrines, discoveries, and inventions of a character to interfere with their preconceived notions. They may possibly serve a useful purpose, like other barbarous and semi-barbarous human beings, by helping to keep down the too prolific family of noxious or troublesome animals—the thinking, or rather talking and writing ones. Beyond this they are of small value; and they are always retreating before the advance of knowledge, facing it, and moving backwards, still opposing the leaders and the front rank with their inextinguishable war-cry, Pooh-Pooh! But the most obstinate of them all can scarcely fail to recognize that the issues of to-day really turn on points which within easy remembrance would have hardly been considered open to discussion except in proscribed circles.
In place of the question of the deity’s foreknowledge as limiting human freedom, we have under discussion the statistician’s tables showing that the seeming contingencies of what we call voluntary action are so much matters of certainty that they can be confidently predicted. So many persons, of such and such ages and sexes, will, within a given district and within a given time, commit suicide by such and such methods, distributed according to their age and sex. So many children will die within the same district and period from drinking hot water out of the spouts of. tea-kettles. In other words, will, like weather, obeys definite laws. The wind, be it not irreverently spoken, by no means literally bloweth where it listeth, but where it must, as certain precedent conditions have settled the question for it, and we know every morning whence it cometh and whither it goeth. No priest or soothsayer that ever lived could hold his own against Old Probabilities. The will, like the wind, is anything but free; it is so largely governed by organic conditions and surrounding circumstances that we calculate upon it as on sunrise, and all the provisions are made for its anticipated decisions, as those minute habiliments, mysterious and manifold, are got ready beforehand for an expected little stranger.
In place of the doctrine of predestination, in virtue of which certain individuals were to become or remain subjects of wrath, we are discussing organic tendencies, inborn idiosyncrasies, which, so far as they go, are purely mechanical, and are the best excuse that can be pleaded for a human being, exempting him from all moral responsibility when they reach a certain extreme degree, and exculpating him just so far as they are uncontrollable, or unenlightened by any moral sense.
We hear comparatively little of that “original sin” which made man ex officio a culprit and a rebel, and liable to punishment as such. But we have whole volumes on hereditary instincts of all kinds, sometimes in the direction of the worst crimes, and the more of this kind of original sin we find in a man, the more we are disposed to excuse his evil deeds.
While our catechisms are still charging man with the responsibility of “evil,” including suffering and death, our text-books are inferring from the material record of the earth’s strata that it existed in the form of violence, disease, and destruction of life, long before man or beings like man existed on our planet.
In place of following or combating the theorists who consider this world as an intermediate penitentiary adjusted for the discipline of souls that have sinned in a previous state (E. Beecher), or who maintain that it was contrived before-hand to accord in its discords with “the miracle of sin” (Bushnell), we have to fight for or against the iconoclastic doctrines of the evolutionists.
In place of considering man as a creature so utterly perverted from birth that the poles of his nature must be reversed, the tendency is to look upon him rather as subject to attractions and repulsions which are to be taken advantage of in education. As he does not give himself these attractions and repulsions, but receives them through natural parentage, nor educate himself, but lies at the mercy of his conditions, the tendency is, again, to limit the range of his moral responsibilities.
In place of debating upon the forfeits of criminals to society, philosophers and philanthropists are chiefly occupying themselves with the duties of society to criminals.
At the bottom of all the more prevalent thought of the time is the conviction that there is not enough in the history of humanity to account for the suffering which we are forced to witness, and that the hardest task of those who think and feel is that which Milton set himself—
To justify the ways of God to man.
All these newer modes of thought are to a large extent outgrowths of what we may call physiological psychology. The foundations of this were laid in those studies of individual character made. by the phrenologists, much in the same way that the foundations of chemistry were laid by the alchemists. In the pursuit of an unattainable end, and in the midst of great hallucinations, they made those observations and discoveries which, divorced from their fancies and theories, lent themselves to the building up of a true science.
But the development of the connection of motive and determination has been, in the main, an expansion of the doctrine of reflex action. This doctrine, which started from the fact of the twitching of a decapitated frog’s hind legs, has grown to such dimensions that it claims to solve some of the gravest questions in psychology, and to deal, in the face of the great endowed and incorporated beliefs, with the most serious problems of responsibility and retribution.
Following the idea of Descartes, who considered all the lower animals as only living machines, and man himself as a machine with a superadded spiritual essence, we may glance a moment at the movements of the human mechanism. Circulation, secretion, and nutrition go on in health without our consent or knowledge. The heart’s action is felt occasionally, but cannot be controlled by a direct act of the will. The respiration is often perceived and partially under the influence of the will, but for the most part unnoticed and involuntary. Passing to what we call the voluntary movements, we find that even when they obey our wishes the special actions which conspire to produce the effect wished for are neither ordered nor taken distinct cognizance of. Nothing shows this more clearly than the voice. Its tones and character, varying with the state of mind and feeling, are regulated by the nicest adjustments of a system of delicate antagonizing muscles, the very existence of which would never be suspected but for the researches of the anatomist. Sudden and sharp sensations produce involuntary movements of voluntary muscles. By a similar mechanical connection different impressions produce their corresponding emotions and ideas. These again produce other ideas and emotions by a mechanism over which we have only a partial control. We cannot always command the feelings of disgust, pity, anger, contempt, excited in us by certain presentations to our consciousness. We cannot always arrest or change the train of thoughts which is keeping us awake, however much we may long to do so. Now the observation of certain exceptional natures tends to show that a very large portion of their apparent self-determinations or voluntary actions, such as we consider that we should hold ourselves responsible for, are in reality nothing more nor less than reflex movements, automatic consequences of practically irresistible causes existing in the inherited organization and in preceding conditions.
It is to a comparatively recent work, which treats of these subjects from a new point of view, namely, the study of the mental and moral conditions of individual criminals, that the reader’s attention is now called. The slight analysis will itself furnish the text of a running comment. It will not, of course, be inferred that the critic always agrees with or is responsible for the author’s statements or opinions. Neither should the reader suppose that all the facts or opinions cited from the work are entirely original in the author. Many things, on the contrary, in this, as in every such work, are commonplaces to all who have studied its subject.
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In the year 1868, M. Prosper Despine, Doctor of Medicine, gave to the public three large volumes in which the psychology or mental mechanism of crime is studied from nature. The first volume expounds his general doctrine as to the motives of human action, and the degree to which they are ordered by the will or simply automatic. The second volume begins with the consideration of mental alienation and imbecility, and passes to the description and illustration of moral insanity and idiocy as seen in criminals. Then follow clinical observations, as they may be called, upon parricides and homicides. The third volume studies the mental and moral conditions of infanticides, suicides, incendiaries, robbers, and others belonging to the criminal class. This quasi-medical study of criminals is followed by an attempt to lay down the proper moral treatment to which they should be submitted.
M. Despine’s own abstract, or his analytical headings of his chapters, would exceed the limits of this article. It will be expedient instead of following these to give a more general view of the drift and method of the book.
And first, though the author alludes to the difficulty with which new doctrines get a hearing, though he evokes the injured and somewhat weary ghosts of Copernicus and Galileo, he begins with an expression of reverential feeling. Science represents the thought of God discovered by man. By learning the natural laws he attaches effects to their first cause, the will of the Creator.
M. Despine had been struck with the absence of emotion (sang froid) which appears as so frequent a trait in criminals. This set him to studying their psychological history, and for that purpose he ransacked the Gazette des Tribunaux from the year 1825 until the time of writing, to study the cases there recorded, exactly as a physician studies a similar record of bodily diseases. Out of this clinical study came his ideas about crime and criminals, and working his way backwards into general psychology he arrived at the conclusions which he has unfolded in his first volume.
The instincts, or natural desires, are the great springs of human action. The perfection of man consists in the perfection of the instinctive faculties, and these again are determined by the organization of the brain, their instrument. Studying the races of mankind in succession, the author finds in each inherent and characteristic differences, which belong to it as much as its stature, color, and other outward characteristics. So in individuals, and in their different conditions relative to sex, age, state of health or disease, and other variable circumstances, he finds a wide range of diversities. A man who had always been amiable and affectionate became exceedingly irritable and quarrelsome after an attack of small-pox, and retained this character fourteen years later, when he was the subject of the observation. A profligate mentioned by Plutarch had a fall and struck his head, after which accident he became a most virtuous citizen.
In studying the criminal we wish to know how far he is such in virtue of his own free act. As the doctrine which M. Despine teaches might be misinterpreted to mean more than he intends, his own statement of his position may be here introduced: “Although I have demonstrated the very small part taken by free-will in the performance of human actions, I have not hesitated to proclaim still more emphatically that no one has more fully recognized and proved the existence of this power than myself.” M. Despine cannot therefore be reproached with either atheism or fatalism.
His test of free-will, or self-determination, is the sense of effort by which a desire is overcome, and the self-approval or self-reproach which follows a right or wrong action. But desire is only overcome by the sense of duty. Where this does not intervene there is nothing to hinder the strongest desire from having its own way; there is no occasion for effort. Under these circumstances the man is as much a machine as the newborn babe, which has no choice, but simply obeys the impulse of its desires. There is no struggle between desire and the sense of duty before the commission of a crime, and no remorse after it, in persons destitute of the moral instinct.
Nothing, then, is in the way of the selfish motive which leads to crime except some stronger selfish motive, as fear, for instance. Crime will be like our ordinary every-day acts, without moral character and without moral responsibility. A careful study of criminals shows that in a large proportion of cases they are devoid of the ordinary moral instincts; that they have no struggle beforehand except of purely selfish principles, that they have no true remorse for their guilt, and that their apparent repentance is nothing but fear of the future suffering with which they are threatened. These offenders against the laws of society are moral idiots; their “crime” is not a sin any more than eating or drinking or the satisfaction of any other natural desire. Our impressions about their mental conditions are mostly mere reflections of what we think would be our own feelings. Contrast the two following extracts, the first from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, the second from M. Despine.
“Peter in his bonds slept secure, for he knew God protected him, and Tully makes it an argument of Roscius Amerinus’ innocency that he killed not his father, because he so securely slept.”
“How far from the reality presented by facts to the idea which moralists and poets have formed of the criminal! The tiger tears his prey and sleeps; man becomes a homicide and is sleepless, says Chateaubriand, taking for granted an impossibility, namely, that the criminal is endowed with the sentiments which make man a moral being. But the observer who studies the facts relating to the sleep of criminals has an opinion directly opposite to that of the poet. ‘Nothing more nearly resembles the sleep of the just than the sleep of the assassin,’ said, in 1867, Maitre Guerin, the courriêriste of the Monde Illustré, speaking of an individual who after committing a horrible, premeditated murder lay down tranquilly and slumbered soundly.”
“I slept sound till three o’clock, awaked, and writ these lines: —
Come, pleasing rest, eternal slumber fall,
Seal mine, that once must seal the eyes of all;
Calm and composed my soul her journey takes,
No guilt that troubles, and no heart that aches—
Thus wrote Eugene Aram on the night before he was hanged.
The moral sense may be paralyzed for the moment, and its voice silenced by passion. In this condition a man may do a great wrong, use the most unmeasured language, or commit the most violent acts, without any thought of their evil nature. He is completely blinded, and his conduct is involuntary, because it is not combated by his moral sense. There is no struggle in the consciousness, and without this struggle there is, the author maintains, no proper exercise of free-will. When a man in a certain extremity of passion strikes another, M. Despine would recognize no more self-determining agency in what he does than he would in the involuntary movement by which one withdraws his hand from the accidental contact with a heated iron.
M. Despine’s doctrine as to the passions is a reassertion and a philosophical expansion of the epigrammatic saying of Horace, Ira furor brevis est: Anger—more generally, passion—is an insanity of short duration.
A man, the author says, ought to bear everything rather than do wrong. But it is not in a man’s power, he adds, to bear everything; some things are too much for the forces with which nature has endowed him. We must, if we would not be unjust and cruel, allow for the existence of special moral impossibilities, which differ greatly in different individuals in virtue of the instinctive impulses peculiar to each. The existence of such moral impossibilities can only be denied by persons whose nature is such that they can know nothing of them by their own experience.
To recapitulate his leading ideas in his own language: “The sense of duty being a necessary condition for the exercise of free-will, it becomes evident that one who does not possess the moral sense, or who has lost it for the moment in a state of passion, is deprived of free-will, of moral liberty, and is not morally responsible for his wrong-doings; if he commits any evil deeds, it is because the desire which prompts him to commit them is stronger than the innocent selfish desires which would lead him in another direction, and where selfish desires alone exist, whatever may be their character, as they are not matters of choice, the strongest always prevail over the weaker ones, by the action of a natural law.”
In short, it is evident that the author substitutes mental automatic action for exercise of the will in the very cases commonly thought to involve the largest amount of responsibility, as implying the greatest amount of guilty volition. Instinct with its horror of cold-blooded, remorseless acts of cruelty, Law with its penalties roughly graduated in the ratio of the inveterate malignity of the outrage, Theology with its deadly sins in distinction from venial offences, are all squarely met with the statement, professedly derived from a careful study of the facts as shown in the history of criminals, that the most frightful crimes, committed without a sign of compunction, and leaving not a shadow of regret, are without any moral character whatever; from which it follows that the unfortunate subject of moral idiocy is just as innocently acting out the tendencies he inherits as the rattlesnake, which we hate by instinct, which we extirpate through legislation if necessary, which we take as a type of evil in our theologies, but which is just as much a poor, dependent, not ill-meaning citizen of the universe as the lamb and the dove, which are our most sacred symbols.
There is nothing absolutely new in this doctrine. Reid compared the condition of the man destitute of that inner light which gives the sense of right and wrong to that of the blind man with reference to colors. When Dr. Reid wrote, “Daltonism” had not been described. It was not generally known that many men are from their birth unable to distinguish between certain colors, green and red for instance. So, too, when he wrote, the term “moral insanity” and the condition corresponding to it were not distinctly recognized. Careful observation has revealed the frequent existence of Daltonism, and M. Despines book is mainly a collection of observations and studies to show that moral Daltonism, or partial mental blindness, though Instinct, Law, and Theology have generally overlooked it, is of frequent occurrence. “Blood reddens the pavement—that’s all,” said a would-be murderer who had just missed killing his man and regretted his failure. “Cut my head off or send me to the galleys, I don’t care which; but I’m sorry I didn’t kill him.” To the lamp-post, shouts lynch-law; Full term of imprisonment, pronounces the Chief-Justice; Bound for perdition, exclaims the Priest. A moral idiot, says M. Despine; take him up tenderly (to the constable); treat him gently, for he is an unfortunate brother entitled to a double share of pity, as suffering under the gravest of inherited calamities.
This congenital want of moral sense shows itself very early. M. Despine quotes largely from a writer in the Gazette des Hopitaux on Children as Subjects of the Law. He recognizes a large class of children characterized by their physical development, to whom education seems of no use, and on whom the ordinary motives to good action are thrown away. These children constitute the infant school of crime, for out of this class come the great majority of adult criminals.
We need not follow M. Despine through the more or less detailed histories of crime and criminals. Such accounts are commonly sought for by readers fond of lively sensations, and there is enough of the exciting element to afford this vulgar interest. But while it is impossible to read about the famous criminals here mentioned without recognizing a certain melodramatic fascination in their stories, these are not told with any such aim, but always to get at the mechanism of crime, the mental and moral conditions, so different from those of the student who is trying to analyze them, under which the criminals acted.
A few of the more obvious predisposing causes of moral insensibility may be briefly referred to. Many criminals come from families in which insanity prevails, in some of its common forms, and in many of them it either exists at the time the act considered as a crime was committed, or declares itself afterwards. — In the collection of casts at the Medical College in Boston is one taken from the face of a toothless old creature who died insane at La Salpetrière, — the old woman’s hospital of Paris. These were once the features of the famous Théroigne de Méricourt, “La belle Liégoise,” the beautiful fury who headed the Parisian mob which brought back the Royal family from Versailles to Paris. It is probable that in cases like this a less degree of the mental perversion, which afterwards became recognized as insanity, already existed while the subject of it was only noted for violence or eccentricity of conduct.
Age is a notable factor in the production of moral obliquities. Thus incendiarism is a specialty of young persons between the ages of ten and twenty-five years. There is no large community which cannot furnish examples of young children who had an irresistible tendency to set fire to anything that would make a good blaze. Of this state of mind M. Despine says: “The neuropathic tendency which produces the incendiary passion not infrequently gives rise to hallucinations, and these have commonly a relation to the prevailing passion. Thus the person hears voices that cry to him, Burn! Burn!” There can be little doubt that similar “neuropathic” conditions account for other obliquities of conduct chiefly observed in children and adolescents.
Sex shows itself in the extraordinary moral perversions of hysteria. In a case adjudged at Berne, in 1864, a married woman accused herself falsely, under the influence of hallucination, of lying and theft, of infidelity to her marriage vows, and called herself the assassin of her husband.
Intoxication suspends the influence of the will, and turns the subject of it into an automaton not properly responsible for his actions, excepting when he drinks to fit himself for the execution of a criminal purpose. M. Despine gives a lamentable picture of the habits of many of his countrymen. The abuse of alcohol is a scourge growing worse all the time. In the army, according to General Trochu’s report, the old soldiers have by no means the value generally attributed to them, on account of the great prevalence of drinking habits among them. Absinthe comes in for its denunciation. For the last ten years, says a writer whom M. Despine quotes, this strange drink has been sought after with the same passion that opium is in China. “If during the warm season one will walk along the boulevards between the hours of four and six in the afternoon, he will be surprised to see what an incalculable number of glasses of absinthe are set out on those little tables which are allowed to obstruct the sidewalk. What multitudes are to be found in this rash assembly! At this hour Paris is poisoning itself!” Drunkenness is a desperate disease, to be cured by prohibitory measures of all sorts. “Qui a bû, boira.” The patient must be restrained, as he has lost the power of self-command. The most radical measures are recommended to prevent the production of alcoholic drinks. M. Despine would even limit the cultivation of the vine by law.
The author makes small account of the religious professions so common in convicted criminals. They are found for the most part to be dictated by fear of the future, and not by remorse for the crime committed. Strange instances are given of the manner in which crime sometimes goes hand in hand with devotion. In 1858 one Parang was condemned to death for robbing and murdering an old lady. His wife said, “This happened the other day, and while he was at the old woman’s, I was praying to God that he might succeed in his enterprise.” A member of a band of assassins and robbers was in the habit, as a witness stated, of going down on his knees in church, and praying, like an Italian brigand, after a robbery or other misdeed.
Those who remember the “chourineur” in Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris, may find in the pages of the work before us portraits of criminals with fiercer instincts and far more malignant natures than those of the stabber of that famous story. Jarvot, who had murdered a couple of old people, said that after he had killed the wife he was no longer master of himself; “the devil pushed me on; if there had been a dozen of them, a dozen I should have killed; I did not know any longer what I was about.” Here is the story of the too famous Lacenaire, a criminal with thirty different charges against him, — forgeries, robberies, assassinations; here is the frightful record of Dumollard, “l’assassin des servantes,” who kept a private cemetery for his victims, as we were told in our newspapers of the time, on his own premises; sixteen young women were known to have been murdered by him; here is a long account of the examination of Charles Lemaire, a pale-faced, blond-haired young cut-throat, nineteen years old, whose regrets after a bloody deed were only that he had not killed three other persons, of whom his father was one. A very brief extract from the trial will repay the reading, shocking as it is to common humanity. It fixes for us the zero of moral sensibility, and incidentally gives us a glimpse of how they manage an examination in France, which, whether better or not, is very different from the English and American way.
The President. After your mother’s death your father said to you, “You are now the only object of my affections. I will work for you as I worked for your mother.” Such language must have made a strong impression on you?
The Prisoner. Not the slightest.
The President. You have not been willing to work?
The Prisoner. As much as at any time; yes, I have always been a lazy fellow.
The President. But this thing is odious that you are saying!
The Prisoner. I know that very well; I understand perfectly that if all the world was like me, it could never go on.
The President. So you understand that everybody else must work, and you do not choose to do anything?
The Prisoner. To work, one must make an exertion, and that I will not do.
* * *
The President. Your father was afraid you would poison him?
The Prisoner. He was wrong about that. I had thought of doing it, to be sure; I had even spoken of it to him; it was not the will that was wanting, but I am not much of an expert at that business.
* * *
The President. And your only regret is that you did not kill three persons in place of one?
The Prisoner. Four.
The President. You did not stop at the thought of parricide, then?
The Prisoner. On the contrary, I was happy in the idea of vengeance; I will hold to that to the last.
The President. So you keep to the same sentiments.
The Prisoner. Always; they will never change. If I had spared my father, I should have left out the principal part of the performance.
This youth, of not unprepossessing aspect, kept up his character from the first moment when he stood twirling his mustache at the bar, to the last hour when he wanted his locks smoothed down, his forehead well shown, and his back hair parted before going to execution; and he stretched his neck out for the axe as calmly as if he had been John the Baptist. — The mob stones such a wretch, or tears him in pieces, or strings him up to the next bough; the court has the gallows or the block ready for such a criminal; the priest points to the fiery oubliette, where God forgets his creatures, ready-heated for such a sinner; the philosopher sees in such an unfortunate a malformed human being. These monsters of crime, he will tell you, do not come into the world by accident; they are the product of antecedent conditions. There is just as certainly something wrong in their nervous centres, — wrong proportion of parts, insufficiency here, excess there; some faulty or even diseased state, as there is a disarrangement in the electric telegraph apparatus when it does not work well under the ordinary surrounding conditions. In most cases crime can be shown to run in the blood, as M. Despine proves by different examples. — An instance illustrating this fact was recently reported by Dr. Harris, of New York, and is briefly mentioned in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal for January 28, 1875. Finding crime and poverty out of proportion prevalent in a certain county on the upper Hudson, he looked up the genealogy of the families whose names were oftenest on the criminal records. He found that a young girl called Margaret was left adrift about seventy (?) years ago in a village of the county. Nine hundred descendants can be traced to this girl, including six generations. Two hundred of these are recorded as criminals, and a large number of the others, idiots, imbeciles, drunkards, and of otherwise degraded character. If genius and talent are inherited, as Mr. Galton has so conclusively shown; if honesty and virtue are heirlooms in certain families; if Falstaff could make King Henry know his son by a villainous trick of the eye and a foolish hanging of the nether lip, — and who that has seen two or three generations has not observed a thousand transmitted traits, villainous or other, in those all around him? — why should not deep-rooted moral defects and obliquities show themselves, as well as other qualities, in the descendants of moral monsters? Shall there be whole families with supernumerary fingers, families of “bleeders,” families with deep-dimpled chins, with single strands of prematurely white hair, and other trivial peculiarities, and shall there not be families in which it is the fatal instinct of the child, almost as soon as it can distinguish right and wrong, to say, “Evil, be thou my good?” We have a right to thank God, with the Pharisee, that we are not as some other men, but we must not forget to ask with the Apostle, “Who maketh thee to differ from another?” We cannot add one cubit to our stature, and there is no more reason for believing that a person born without any moral sense can acquire it, than there is that a person born stone-deaf can become a musician. Its apparent absence does not prove, however, that it does not exist in some rudimentary form, and in such cases it may be developed to a certain extent, like other imperfect faculties.
It is plain enough from M. Despine’s doctrines as to the mechanism of crime, especially in the worst cases, that he would substitute a moral hospital for a place of punishment. Moral idiocy is the greatest calamity a man can inherit, and the subjects of it deserve our deepest pity and greatest care.
A slight sketch of the programme laid down in the work before us for the treatment of criminals is all that can be here given. Its author does not consider himself at all as an idealist, working in a sphere of Utopian impossibilities. He would only extend to adults the methods which have been successfully applied on the large scale to young persons in various reform schools, especially in that of Mettray in France, the course pursued in which and the admirable results it has produced are detailed at some length. Miss Carpenter, to whom he refers, holds the same belief as M. Despine, considering adult criminals as only larger children whose regeneration society must attempt by means similar to those used with the latter. Criminals must be “moralized,” to give an English termination to M. Despine’s French word.
Of course, then, hanging is not the best use to which the criminal can be put. The author argues against capital punishment on the ground that it is unjust as applied to moral idiots, immoral considered as revenge, useless as a means of intimidation, and dangerous to society by cheapening the value of life.
The convict prisons of France (bagnes) are, to borrow the energetic language of Dr. Bertrand, “lazarettos which one enters ailing and comes out of pestilential.” “Vice,” says Edward Livingston, “is more contagious than disease.”
Transportation has replaced the convict prison, but the transported criminal having had no fitting moral treatment, and being in constant relation with persons of evil disposition, comes back as bad as or worse than he went away.
Solitary imprisonment injures the subject of it in mind and character, unfits him for resuming his relations with the community when he is discharged, and leads to insanity and to suicide.
All too severe penalties are less likely to be indicted than if they were more moderate, because the juries will try to fasten on some doubt so as to avoid their infliction. Magistrates are liable to grow cruel by the mere effect of habitually sentencing criminals. The old author of the Antiquities of Paris says that the origin of the criminal chamber of the parliament, called the Tournelle, explains its name, which was given because the counsellors served in rotation, three months at a time; perhaps, as he suggests, for the reason that the habit of condemning men to death was liable to render them hard-hearted and inhuman. It used to be thought that a certain magistrate in this community had become too used to flaying his eels, so to speak, and that he had grown somewhat too indifferent to the suffering he inflicted in the form of a sentence, though a kind-hearted body enough by nature.
We are to have done with gibbets and fetters, then, for the most desperate offenders, and are to substitute moral hospitals. We are to give up the idea of punishment for these unfortunates, and institute proper methods of palliative and curative treatment. If restraint is used it is only as the strait-jacket is employed to keep a maniac from doing mischief; if pain is inflicted, it is only as a blister or a moxa is applied to a patient. M. Despine borrows a lesson from our famous countryman, Rarey, whose treatment of horses was founded on a patient study of equine psychology. How much may be learned from studying the mental and moral characters and developments of children, and of the lower animals, we hardly know as yet, but it would not be very rash to predict that another generation will see great volumes on Comparative Psychology and Psychological Embryology.
It may seem rather singular to many readers, that while the most frightful acts are considered as proofs of innocence, that is, of moral idiocy, and to be treated as disease, not vindictively, offences less grave in aspect are to be visited with penalties proportioned in kind and degree to their character. The whole question is how far there was an act of self-determination. If the person committing homicide, for instance, was destitute of moral instincts, as shown by his killing wholesale, without compunction, without remorse, with every kind of barbarity; if he were in a violent passion at the time; if he were drunk, not having got drunk on purpose: he was an automaton that did mischief, to be sure, but was no more to blame for the particular acts in question than a locomotive that runs off the track is to blame for the destruction it works. If, on the other hand, the criminal who had committed a less aggravated offence gave evidence that he had a consciousness he was doing wrong, and if there was no proof that he was blinded by passion or drink, he should undergo a moderate punishment to give him a salutary lesson and to deter others from doing like him.
In short, the man who commits the most atrocious and multiplied enormities seems to be looked upon by M. Despine as in a state of moral mania; and no superintendent of an insane asylum would consider the worst acts a patient suffering from mania could commit as so fitly calling for the employment of discipline, as a slight offence committed by a patient who, though not perfectly sane, knew better than to do what he had done.
The preventive treatment of crime is considered at length, but inasmuch as this includes pretty nearly every civilizing agency, and the elimination of pretty nearly every social wrong, it may be very briefly disposed of here. It involves the moral education of the people, — removing, combating, and suppressing all the causes of moral degradation, such as poverty, luxury, popular excitements, drunkenness, the contagion of bad passions, and restraining the publication of criminal trials and of debasing literature. Persons shown to be dangerous should be shut up, it is maintained, before they have a chance to repeat their acts of violence or other wrong.
This is a very suggestive hint. Do we not see, in certain well-known localities of our own city, gamblers and other sharpers, well known as such, lying in wait day after day for their victims, undisturbed by the very officers who from time to time parade the story of their breaking into apartments and capturing faro-tables, “chips,” and similar implements of rascality in the dens at the doors of which these rogues watch for their prey? and is there no way of dealing with them as the poor evening strollers are dealt with from time to time on the strength of their well-known characters and occupation? Have not some of our great cities gangs of burglars whose business is as publicly notorious as any calling that is not advertised in the papers? and must the law wait until they have robbed or killed some new victim before it undertakes to meddle with them? Honest-minded people may well ask why these dangerous persons should not be dealt with as summarily as harmless drunkards and homeless vagrants. Moral treatment might possibly do something for them, and even if it took the form of discipline, it might not hurt them. At any rate the community would be better protected, and the shameful insult of allowing these notorious rogues to have their regular stands, like the apple and orange women, would be spared to our citizens. A little something of the Turkish Cadi’s methods infused into our city police management would be very refreshing.
A principal object of this article is to call attention to the questions discussed in the very curious and remarkable work of M. Despine, and to the book itself as one which cannot fail to interest any one who will take it up, whether he agrees with its somewhat startling propositions or not. The psychologist will be attracted by its studies of the working of motives in the minds of criminals; the philanthropist will find confirmation of many of his cherished beliefs; the magistrate may learn something which will cause him to think more leniently of the unhappy creatures whom he is compelled to sentence; the divine may be led to reconsider his traditional formula of human nature. How far the practical measures recommended may prove generally applicable is another matter. They can be met at every step by the most obvious objections. Yet that they are founded in essential justice and true humanity towards the criminal, very many will be ready to grant. What society in its present imperfect condition cares most for is the cheapest and surest protection against the effects of crime, not the moral education which is expected to prevent the formation of the criminal character, or the remedial measures which are to restore the criminal to moral sanity. That the movement of reform should be in this last direction is plain enough, but even M. Despine himself does not look forward to the time when sin and crime shall be educated out of the community. The millennium is a delightful vision, but our imaginations can hardly make it real to us when we see what men are as we know them at present. The evil-doers as well as the poor we have always with us. We cannot help smiling at the sanguine hopes of those simple-hearted reformers who look forward to the time when ginger will not be hot in the mouth; when there shall be cakes but no ale;
When the roughs, as we call them, grown loving and dutiful,
Shall worship the true and the pure and the beautiful,
And, preying no longer as tiger and vulture do,
All read The Atlantic as persons of culture do.
What we are doing now is only getting ready for the twentieth century, and this book is full of suggestions of great social changes involving new duties which will call for the self-devotion of a yet unborn generation of brothers and sisters of charity.
Independently of all the instruction the psychologist will derive from this most interesting work, of the practical lessons it suggests or enforces, the reader who is in search of mere entertainment will find enough to keep him in good humor. There is always a peculiar delight in reading a book written in a foreign language, if we are tolerably familiar with that language. Effects of style which a native would never dream of, add to the value of whatever merit there is in what we are reading. An idea worded in our own tongue is like silver on silver; the same idea reaching us through an alien idiom is like zinc on silver, — the contact produces a kind of galvanic effect. Besides, a Frenchman always amuses an English-speaking reader, with his dramatic way of putting things, no matter what he is talking about. He cannot give an account of his mother’s funeral without provoking an Anglo-Saxon’s smile. One sentence must be quoted here in the original; it illustrates this sub-ridiculous impression made at a serious moment, — the incendiary was imprisoned for life, — and conveys at the same time in a neat and compendious form the leading doctrine of the work and the comment of “common-sense” as represented by one of the great tribe of the Pooh-Poohs: —
“Le Président. Vous pretendez que la multiplicité des incendies est une prevue de la folie. En vérité, les bras me tombent! Il suffira donc de commettre six incendies pour être inviolable et sacré!”
We learn, too, the most wonderful things about ourselves in a Frenchman’s books. Some years ago feu Monsieur Trousseau, the famous Parisian doctor, told the audience which listened to one of his lectures that if a milliner left the boulevards for Broadway, in six weeks after she had opened her shop the bonnets she made would frighten a Choctaw. M. Despine tells us we have in this country adherents of the sect of Adamites, a religious body which dispenses with all the disguises in the way of clothing which have been contrived since the days of innocence. This could hardly be as far north as New England. Possibly he may refer to New York, where, as we know on the excellent authority of Mr. William Allen Butler, some of the persons who live in the most showy quarters of the city are so destitute that they literally have nothing to wear. M. Despine quotes Mittermaier as saying that an incendiary was hung in Boston in 1846, the first for a long time, that incendiary fires became more frequent after that in the city and its neighborhood, and that an inquiry instituted by the government showed that all the incendiaries were present at the execution referred to. Two incendiaries, Russell and Crockett, were hung in Boston in 1836, and it has commonly been said that there were no more incendiary fires for a long time afterwards. The ingenuity of French writers in twisting English names and words into fanciful shapes is a never-failing source of pleasure in reading any of their books which give them a chance to do it. If they can get the letters wrong they will. Thus we are introduced by M. Despine to Miss Marry Carpenter and Mr. Edgard Poe, and recognize a well-known arrangement for affording healthful, useful, but involuntary exercise and amusement to convicts as Le Thredmill. Altogether one can find a good deal of entertainment in a book written with a very startling theory as its basis and a very important practical purpose as its chief end. Many who take it up with no higher aim than entertainment may find in its pages reasons for reconsidering their long-cherished views of human nature, the springs of human action, and the claims of those who have been considered as self-elected outcasts to commiseration, even while a social order in which justice is practically impossible treats them according to the law of expediency as locally and temporarily interpreted.
Some books are edifices to stand as they are built; some are hewn stones ready to form a part of future edifices; some are quarries from which stones are to be split for shaping and after use. This book is a quarry of facts; it furnishes many well-shaped inferences and conclusions; and some of these are so put together that they may be considered as forming a threshold if not a porch for that fair temple of justice which we may hope is yet to be constructed.
* * *
There is a considerable literature relating to the subject of prison reform, to which only a brief reference need be made in this connection, as the object of the paper before the reader is rather to open for him the question of the true moral condition of criminals as responsible beings in the light of an individual study of their mental conditions, than to deal with the practical matters which can only be properly handled by men of trained experience who devote themselves expressly to their consideration.
The very intelligent and interesting reports and communications of Mr. F. B. Sanborn, of Massachusetts, as Secretary of the Board of State Charities and as member of the Social Science Association, are full of information with reference to the reformatory methods which have been on trial, more especially during the last twenty years. Of these, the Irish system, so called, the invention of Captain Maconochie, carried out to some extent in Great Britain by Sir Walter Crofton, is the one most promising of lasting results. To state its principal features in a single sentence, it proceeds on the idea that no man is utterly incorrigible, or at least that no man is to be dealt with on that supposition, until proper efforts have been made to reclaim him; that hope and not fear is the chief motive to be addressed to the criminal; it makes provision that while he brings upon himself, by his crime, consequences which prove a very severe discipline, he can yet by his own effort obtain their gradual and progressive alleviation, shortening of the term of imprisonment, relaxation of the most trying parts of the discipline, and in due time promotion to what is called an intermediate prison, followed, where there is sufficient evidence of reformation of character and habits, by a conditional discharge, the restored patient, if we may call him so, still remaining under the general superintendence of the moral health-officer commonly known as policeman.
This Irish system is, our secretary says, “common-sense applied to convicts.” It is really an attempt to extend to moral unsoundness, which, as we have seen, often has many of the characters of congenital imperfection, the reform which Pinel introduced into the treatment of common insanity.
To see what can be done with boys and adolescents it is only necessary to refer to M. Bonneville de Marsangy’s most interesting account of the Colonie Pénitentiaire of Mettray. Allowing for the dramatic element which is born with the gesticulating Frenchman, and comes out in his rhetoric, the results claimed for that institution are extraordinary. The account given by M. Demetz of the “Maison Paternelle,” where children from families of good condition who have proved refractory to domestic influences, young reprobates dyed in the wool with perversity, are taken into a kind of moral bleachery and come out white as lambs, is still more surprising in the results alleged to have been obtained.
The motives which have proved so efficient with young persons have been relied on by the two reformers to whom the Irish system is due, in the case of adults, and the best effects have followed their substitution for harsher measures. “The prevention of crime and the reformation of the criminal,” says Mr. Sanborn, “are the great objects of prison discipline, and any system which does not secure these is costly at any price.” But we must remember Lord Stanley’s saying that “the reformation of men can never become a mechanical process.” Those who look into the methods which have proved successful will see that they are the same by which savages and barbarians are reclaimed, so far as that is ever effected, namely, the personal efforts of self-devoted individuals. A system may be perfect, but if it is not administered by sincere and faithful agents, it is of little use.
It need not be supposed that those who take the views of criminal psychology of which M. Despine may be considered the extreme advocate are always in favor of that emollient treatment of crime, of the influence of which Coleridge gives an eloquent and slightly absurd portraiture in his tragedy of Remorse. The guilty creature whom “our pampered mounte-banks” (my lord chief justice and other functionaries) have shut up in a dungeon is wrought upon by the influences of nature, — her
sunny hues, fair forms, and breathing sweets,
(Her) melodies of woods and winds and waters,
Till he relent, and can no more endure
To be a jarring and a dissonant thing
Amid this general dance and minstrelsy;
But, bursting into tears, wins back his way,
His angry spirit healed and harmonized
By the benignant touch of love and beauty.
Such hopeful and florid anticipations indulged with reference to a criminal like Mrs. Brownrigg—
Dost thou ask her crime?
She whipped two female prentices to death
And hid them in the coal-hole—
might well provoke the satire of the author of the Needy Knife-Grinder and the laugh of the readers of the Anti-Jacobin.
But it is not every reformer who would confine society to secondary punishments, excluding capital ones, and it is not a necessary consequence of physiological views of the criminal nature, that sharp discipline shall not be applied to it. M. Bonneville de Marsangy, an old and experienced judge, whose work on the amelioration of the criminal law is of very high authority with prison reformers, says, with reference to the case of Dumollard, and M. Victor Hugo’s plea against capital punishment, “I add that if, having to pronounce against one of those abominable attempts which shock the feelings of the public, the jury, guided by false notions of philanthropy, should at the present time reject the death penalty, it would in so doing thrust back all civilization; for in annulling the supreme guaranty of public security, it would infallibly restore the era of private revenges, and with these all the bloody and horrible reprisals of barbarous ages.” It seems a little singular to find a magistrate writing in behalf of the criminal, recognizing not the less the claims of instinct even in the form of lynch-law. Insanity itself is not necessarily a sufficient reason against discipline, and it is the esoteric opinion of a celebrated expert that a whipping may, under certain circumstances, be very useful to a patient who is not in full possession of his reason. Captain Maconochie, the father of the Irish system, does not condemn punishment, as such, but believes it indispensable. It is not, however, to be administered as a vindictive measure, but as a benevolent means, having reform for its object. His men at Norfolk Island, where the experiment was first instituted, had to endure the legal penalties of imprisonment and hard labor, in the fullest sense of the words, as a retribution of their misdoings. Mr. Sanborn believes that habitual criminals should be sentenced for much longer periods than they commonly are, — twice and even three times as long. Obviously these reformers are not fanatics; they are not ultraists and Utopians; they have striking results to show, and the objections and obstacles they have to encounter are such as the advanced guard of every onward movement of society must expect to encounter.
* * *
In looking over this whole subject we must remember that anthropology is in its infancy, in spite of the heaven-descended precept of antiquity and the copy-book pentameter line of Pope. Instinct still moves in us as it did in Cain and those relatives of his who he was afraid would lynch him. Law comes to us from a set of marauders who cased themselves in iron, and the possessions they had won by conquest in edicts as little human in their features as the barred visors that covered their faces. Poor fantastic Dr. Robert Knox was still groaning in 1850 over the battle of Hastings; not quite ineptly, it may be. Our most widely accepted theologies owe their dogmas to a few majority votes passed by men who would have hanged our grandmothers as witches and burned our ministers as heretics.
Insanity was possession in times well remembered. Malformed births, “monsters,” as they were called, frightened our New England fathers almost as much as comets, the legitimate origin and harmless character of which eccentric but well-meaning citizens of the universe had to be defended against learned and excellent John Prince, the minister of the Old South, by Professor Pierces predecessor at the fifth remove in the Chair of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy of Harvard University. Abbas (probably Haly Abbas, the great physician), says Haller, came very near being thrown away, at his birth, as a monster. By and by came the nineteenth century, and Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire’s treatise on Teratology, which did for malformations what Cuvier’s Ossemens Fossiles did for the lusus naturœ, as fossil organic remains were called by the old observers of curious natural phenomena.
Just in the same way moral anomalies must be studied. “Psychology,” says M. Ribot (Heredity, Translation, London, 1875), “like physiology, has its rare cases, but unfortunately not so much trouble has been taken to note and describe them. — There are some purely moral states which are met with in a certain class of criminals—murderers, robbers, and incendiaries—which, if we renounce all prejudices and preconceived opinions, can only be regarded as physiological accidents, more painful and not less incurable than those of deaf-muteness and blindness. — These creatures, as Dr. Lucas says, partake only of the form of man; there is in their blood somewhat of the tiger and of the brute: they are innocently criminal, and sometimes are capable of every crime.” The writer of this article may perhaps be pardoned for saying that he published in this magazine for the year 1860 a tale which he has never forgiven one of his still cherished and charming friends for calling “a medicated novel,” the aim of which was to illustrate this same innocently criminal automatism with the irresponsibility it implies, by the supposed mechanical introduction before birth of an ophidian element into the blood of a human being.
How different are the views brought before the reader in this paper, as regards the range of the human will and the degree of human accountability, from those taught by the larger number of the persons to whom we are expected to look for guidance, is plain enough. They may dispute the dogma “omnis peccans est ignorans,” if they will, but they cannot efface the prayer “forgive them, for they know not what they do,” which recognizes moral blindness, nor the petition “lead us not into temptation,” which recognizes moral infirmity. Moral psychology does no more for the criminal than to furnish a comprehensive commentary on these two texts. If we cannot help feeling more and more that it is God who worketh in us to will and to do, by the blood we inherit and the nurture we receive; nay, even if the destructive analysis of our new schoolmen threatens to distil away all we once called self-determination and free-will, leaving only a caput mortuum of animal substance and “strongest motive,” we need not be greatly alarmed.
For the belief in a power of self-determination, and the idea of possible future remorse connected with it, will still remain with all but the moral incapables, — and the metaphysicians, — and this belief can be effectively appealed to and will furnish a “strongest motive” readily enough in a great proportion of cases. In practice we must borrow a lesson from martial law. A sentry does not go to sleep at his post, because he knows he will be shot if he does. Society must present such motives of fear to the criminally disposed as are most effective in the long run for its protection. Its next duty is to the offender, who has his rights, were these only to be hanged with a rope strong enough to hold his weight, by an artist who understands his business. A criminal, as we now contemplate him, may deserve our deepest pity and tenderest care as much as if he were the tenant of a hospital or an asylum instead of a prison. And in the infliction of the gravest penalties it must not be taken for granted that while we are punishing “crime” we are punishing sin, for if this last were in court the prisoner might not rarely sit in judgment on the magistrate.