Origin of Crime in Society (Part III)

The final installment in a sociologist’s three-part study

This is part three of a three-part series. Read part one here and part two here.


In the first paper of the present series it was shown that the proportion of crimes against property bears an intimate relation to the material status of society, and that the important fluctuations in the crime ratio largely depend on two main factors. One of these is the struggle for existence as enhanced by a disturbance of the standard of living, through such incidents as war, pestilence, or hard times, and the opportunity which the public places in the way of the offender, these two facts constituting the degree of effective temptation offered for the commission of delinquencies. The other is the character of the offender, which mainly determines who in a given community will enter the criminal career, and what form of felony he will adopt. In the second paper it was found that the ordinary legal punishments have no substantial effect in reducing the crime ratio, because they neither lessen temptation nor modify the character of the man who falls; they do nothing to mend his weakness. It now remains to consider some of the substitutes for arbitrary legal punishment which will be efficacious to reduce the crime ratio. In reviewing this field it is understood that only such measures as are capable of affecting the structural conditions of society will be discussed. Those ephemeral expedients which seem to promise relief, but really contribute no remedy, will not be considered. The argument, then, divides itself into two branches: How shall the social environment be improved? and, How shall the character of the criminals be modified? Taking up the consideration of the first, the meaning is best conveyed by illustrations.

Some of the devisees of the late A. T. Stewart were apprised by anonymous letters that if certain moneys were not forthcoming the body of the noted merchant would be “resurrected” for ransom. The devisees, acting according to the dictates of common sense, employed a man to watch the vault where lay the remains of the late Mr. Stewart, for the space of a month. On the night after the watchman was discharged from duty, the body was carried off and held as a ghastly hostage. Then it took months of detective work and large sums of money to discover the thieves. This case fairly represents how the frustration of crime by a watchman is better than punishment, and would have cost far less money than the outlay in tracing the offenders, the interest on which sum would have defrayed the costs of guardianship till a secure vault could have been built for the remains.

Similarly, on Monday, October 28, 1878, the news went forth that on the morning of the previous day the Manhattan Savings Institution had been plundered by burglars of three millions in money and securities.

The bank is situated on the corner of Broadway and Bleecker Street, New York, with large plate-glass windows, so that from two sides any one passing by may look in and see what takes place at any hour of the day or night. The detectives, with one voice, said of this exploit that it was the neatest “job” since the Northampton bank robbery; but the detectives were sadly at fault in their comparison. Why should “Johnny Hope,” who “put up the job,” withhold his covetous hand from the “big money” he was about to swoop away, and prefer to be deterred by ruefully contemplating the possibly cold and solitary cell awaiting him in Sing Sing? Did he not know that the janitor who held the combination to the lock was a coward? Was he not aware that the assistant private watchman was “piping” for him six months after the directors of the bank had evidence of this man’s unfitness by finding their safe bored through, and the lock so injured that they had to break open their own vault, by the aid of a locksmith?1 Had he not “sugared”2 a member of the police force to carry off the “swag” under the safeguard of his blue coat and buttons, in the small hours of a Sunday morning? Was not this same officer thrice transferred to a new precinct because his superior officers had reported him “stale”? Was it not known that no time lock prevented the opening of the safe door till the hour for which the lock was set had arrived, and that no burglar alarm connected the safe or the premises with the district telegraph or the police headquarters, only two blocks off? The most ordinary means of frustrating the crime were flagrantly neglected both by the managers of the bank and the police authorities, and Johnny Hope was not nearly so bold a burglar as the detectives thought him to be. If any one of the precautions here mentioned had existed, the robbery would have been avoided. Had the managers not given the combination to their janitor; had they discharged the watchman when their safe was forced the first time; had they provided a time lock to prevent the combination from being of any use, and connected the safe with the district telegraph company; or had the police commissioners “broken” the officer when he was found consorting with thieves, the Manhattan bank would not have afforded a sensation on that memorable Monday morning. So obvious is the method of frustration that it has been used from the earliest days. It stands to reason that if a needy thief finds himself thwarted every time he attempts to steal, his impulse for appropriation must of necessity come to an end, however strong may be his inclinations to plunder. It is the end, and not the means, which stimulates, and it seems sufficiently obvious that the simple defeat of the end would “perform the office of punishment.”

Indeed, there is not a little irony in the position of the law as it practically addresses the malefactors. It seems to say: “If you steal that coat we will try to catch you, and when we have caught you we will punish you if we can.” The police officer was caught, but when the high court tried him it failed to convict. When he was set at large, gathering assurance from impunity, he sued the Police Commissioners for arrears of salary, amounting to some six hundred dollars, which had accumulated while he lay in jail. How much the “cracksmen” cared for the fulminations of the law threatening punishment is seen in the fact that they actually hired a lobbyist who “worked” at Washington to prevent Congress from passing an act empowering the Secretary of the Treasury to issue duplicates of the government bonds they had “lifted.” Setting aside the conventional legal platitudes as to what constitutes crime, and assuming the position which a study of the laws of crime entitles us to take (that it is often the concurrent result of at least two agents, the criminal who has been tempted and the victim who has furnished the opportunity), would not Macaulay’s New Zealander, sitting on the ruins of London Bridge, have the right to ask in such cases, as one might very properly ask in the case of the Manhattan Savings Institution, Who are the offenders, — the burglars who did the deed, or the managers of the bank and the police whose laches allowed it to be done? Would the New Zealander be wrong in his logic if he thought it reasonable for Johnny Hope to plead in extenuation that the directors were his latent accomplices? “Gentlemen of the jury,” he might say, “the forcing of a safe is no more to me than is the bursting of an ash-barrel to an ordinary man. Did I not know that my father had almost succeeded in ‘cracking that crib’ six months before I tried my hand at it? I knew the directors had done nothing to secure the concern against a second attempt, and if you let them off on this ‘deal’ they will set out their pot of money right on the sidewalk, a third time, in the way of my son, so that he will be tempted to do what I have done, and what my; father did before me. You do nothing to them, why to me?” The guffaw of the public and the stereotyped reply which is supposed to be unanswerable may be anticipated: “If the malefactors are to set up the plea of instigation to crime as an offset to an indictment, you could never convict another rascal.” Well, perhaps as an experiment this would not be the most unfortunate thing that could happen to society; for then we should be at once confronted with the real point at issue, — the necessity of adopting preventive instead of enforcing questionable punitive measures. In this connection, the action of Judge Gildersleeve cannot be too highly praised. With the strong common sense of our New Zealander, he discharged the lad convicted of larceny, and publicly censured the lady who brought the complaint, because she made herself the wanton instigator to the offense by carrying valuable property where it was absolutely unprotected, in an open pocket, which the fashion of the day affixed behind the sack. May the coming judge take such a view in future Manhattan robberies! Indeed, it is time to raise the point whether the loss incurred by such crimes is not itself one of the most fitting punishments for those who act in opposition to the laws of crime, just as the burning of your hand, when you thrust it into the fire, is the natural and appropriate rebuke for violating the physical laws of heat. The popular obstinacy of faith in the efficacy of punishment contributes largely to the neglect of the means of prevention, and it seems necessary to force the public to make individual efforts at self-defense, instead of deceiving them with expectation of protection by the police, or the law, which cannot be realized. It is as if the inventive genius of the race were incapable of devising mechanical or social remedies equal to the emergency, the remedies remaining undiscovered or unapplied because the government monopoly in the management of the crime question blights the efforts of private enterprise. Mosier, who is reputed to have stolen Charley Ross, met his death at Bay Ridge, New York, while attempting a burglary on a vacant house, the owner of which had connected it by an alarm telegraph to his brother’s occupied premises. This automatic detective brought the brother and his son to the scene at the critical moment, who at once put a stop to the felony. If this mechanical precaution were generally adopted, especially in the rural and suburban districts, one would hear less of masked burglars and their dreadful doings. The entrance into one house would arouse a score of neighbors to the rescue, and enable a small force of mounted police to act over a large area with great efficiency. The telegraph, the telephone, the photograph, and a good system of registration of criminals could be made to play so important a part in the frustration of crime as visibly to diminish their number. If the police force were made acquainted with all the professional thieves of the city, and the notorious criminals of the principal cities of the Union, and if the appearance of such characters traveling late at night or under suspicious circumstances were enough to insure arrest and detention till morning, the necessity for punishment would be forestalled. But, unfortunately, in many cities a thorough knowledge of the criminal class is the professional prerogative of the detective force, and jealously held by them. On the other hand, the general prevalence of political patronage in this department so emasculates it that it cannot be relied upon for good service. The bad experience in retaining Nugent in the case of the Manhattan bank had no appreciable effect on the discipline of the force; for eighteen months after the bank robbery, when a captain failed to detect crime in one precinct, the Police Commissioners appeared to have no better expedient to correct his inefficiency than to transfer his incapacity to another precinct. “Commissioner Wheeler offered a resolution transferring Captain Michael J. Murphy from the charge of the twenty-first to that of the thirty-first precinct in New York city, and Captain Thomas M. Ryan from the command of the thirty-first to that of the twenty-first precinct. Commissioner Voorhis asked the reason for this proposed change, and was informed that a change was desirable from the fact that during the past six or seven months numerous small burglaries and petty robberies had occurred in the twenty-first precinct, and in very few instances had the police in that precinct arrested the thieves or recovered the property stolen. This was attributed to a want of energy or a lack of knowledge of his duties on the part of Captain Murphy, and it was believed that a change in the commanding officer would result in an improvement in the management of police business in the precinct.”

It has been forgotten that our modern police systems originated exclusively in a voluntary organization, without the sanction or the aid of government, and it is folly to expect security if the functions of superseding, instead of the duty of supplementing, the private care of property are delegated to irresponsible men.

Fortunately, living examples, with proper modification, suggest modes of private vigilance in this direction. There are Mr. Bergh’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, with the power to arrest and prosecute those who ill-treat animals and children. There are Dr. Crosby’s Society for the Prevention of Crime, and Mr. Comstock’s Society for the Prevention of Vice. That there may have been some misdirected zeal, or improper methods employed, or that some of the essential conditions of civil liberty have been violated in one or even all of these societies, does not detract from the leading object of their establishment. The germ of a true police can be found in each; the ostensible object of each is in some respect proper; and it only remains for experience and practice to eliminate the objectionable elements, and leave the useful working machinery to be used in other directions.

Another colossal fraud, the result of the negligence of the stockholders, depositors, and directors of a bank, has recently been exposed. The leading feature of this last sensation is that, like the Trojan horse of old, it carries a number of minor frauds within it. The cashier seems to have been compelled to conceal the defalcation of one of his superiors and one of his subordinates as contingencies in covering up his own robberies, which, amounting in all to three million dollars, had in the interval of nine years become known either partially or wholly by several persons, who kept their knowledge to themselves. In this case, as in many of its kind, the trouble originated in stock-gambling operations. An axiom in banking is that no bank should enter into stock, produce, or other speculation; and so important is the observance of this rule that the public welfare requires that none of the officers or clerks of a monetary institution shall make private ventures even with their own money. A case pointing to the remedy has recently occurred in the mercantile house of Ralli Brothers, which illustrates how they have guarded their commercial integrity against the seductions of speculation. The parent house was established a century ago in London, with branches in every quarter of the world. The managers of the branch houses, whether they furnish capital or not, are made partners, participating in the profits of the house they control; but it is the invariable rule of the central firm “to require all its partners to sign a paper declaring their positions forfeited the moment they speculate in one bale of cotton, one pound of hemp, jute, or flaxseed, one railroad share, one share of any kind dealt in on any stock exchange, in any country,” etc.

It is perceived that the heads of a branch house practically enter into a contract that they will avoid the temptations of speculation. Last year it seems that the joint managers of the New York branch violated this stipulation by speculations in cotton, which fact, coming to the knowledge of the parent house, resulted in the following official note, addressed to them and the customers of the firm: —

LONDON, February 10, 1880.

DEAR SIR, — We beg to inform you that P. A. F., A. G. V., and A. A. F. from this date retire from our employment and have ceased to hold our procuration. Our present attorneys are P. Y. Fachir and T. P. Ralli, who will sign by procuration, either jointly or alone, etc.


To this rule is no doubt due the fact that the firm has continued for three generations. What an admirable example of Jeremy Bentham’s proposition, that “the non-collection of reward performs the office of punishment,” that a mercantile firm can prevent the misdoings of its members before crime like the Newark scandal has been committed, by a simple cancellation of partnership on the violation of the provisions of the contract!

Why should not all the officers and clerks in fiduciary institutions be compelled to enter into contracts similar to that required by the Ralli Brothers? If this precaution were supplemented by the formation of a protective society, composed of stockholders and bondsmen, with the power to order at any moment an examination of the condition of the institution in which they were interested, the uncertainty of the time for investigation would be an additional safe-guard against peculation and speculation such as the public has lately witnessed. Such precautions would relieve the comptroller of the currency from the necessity of devoting a portion of his report to explaining how impossible it is for his bank experts to detect the frauds of cashiers, and thus excuse them for not carrying out the law. But perhaps there is utility in having a public document filed in the archives of the State, which brands the law as a useless device to check crime; it is another note to warn us that delegated power is not equal to self-protection.

So far, only a few of the more prominent checks to wrong-doing, and which relate to the environment of criminals, have been glanced at; it now remains to consider what shall be done to modify the character of offenders. As a preliminary, it is here in place to estimate the force of mere prevention in this transformation, if it be true that practice makes perfect, and if it be also true that the habits of parents are entailable, then the failure to gain a living by crime will discourage its repetition, and gradually weaken the impulse to resort to it. A corollary to this is that a new way of living must be substituted for that which has been lost. There are two alternatives, pauperism and the career of labor. Pauperism will not be accepted by the mass of criminals, who, adopting habits of industry, will in time develop those sentiments and elements of conduct which make law-abiding citizens. In this way, while the predatory instincts will decay by disuse, the civilized attributes will be strengthened. From this point of view one can realize how truly prevention becomes transmuted into moral coercion.

It can hardly be objected, at this day, when one remembers that in the earlier stages of civilization, before law and police were created, peaceable tribes and citizens could find protection for their property only behind natural fastnesses, or within castles and walled cities, frustration being the only safeguard against robbers, that the same kind of defense is a weak weapon in fighting down misdoing.

It will be urged, and with truth, that it is impossible to bring frustration to such perfection that the want of success in the criminal career will extinguish the criminal class. It is therefore necessary to consider what auxiliary influences can be brought to bear to this end. The common origin of all men is from the primeval savage, who remains savage so long as he fails to accumulate property, but with the increase of property lays the foundation of commercial exchange as a substitute for rapine. It has been seen that in our own day the national vicissitudes growing out of political revolutions—scarcity of food, and commercial and industrial stagnation—always bring in their train conditions analogous to those of savage life, and that these develop, in the various forms of crime, savage attributes latent in the community. Now these national vicissitudes do not control simply the criminal and quasi-criminal; they affect all classes of society. The sudden loss of wealth and the consequent change of social position breaks down the character of many men and women of good repute, who are as weak to withstand the shock as the veriest criminal, and are exposed to the same dangers. While a man may be stronger than some accidents, no man is stronger than all the circumstances that may environ him.

The check of crime, therefore, must be one that extends beyond the training of the habitual criminal. It must be coextensive with society, and must provide something like a common training of the faculties, moral, physical, and industrial, which will prepare each individual to meet such contingencies as may occur in the life of any person, and ought to be provided for beforehand. This preparation consists in the industrial training of all classes of society, male and female; but under this term much more is meant than the mere instruction in any particular trade, though even that would be much. It includes all the concomitants of moral character which accompany an industrious life. An examination discloses the fact that a surprisingly small proportion of the population of the most civilized countries are skillful mechanics, or persons fertile in invention. It is not merely that the laboring and professional population are untrained as artisans, but that the very refinements of modern manufacture tend, by the minute subdivision of labor, to restrict a man’s dexterity to sonic special manipulation, entirely useless in any other trade, and often in another branch of the same trade. When it is remembered that one of the principal elements which affect the rate of wages is found in the aptitude of the laborer, it can be readily seen that a want of aptitude in adapting himself to any important change of industrial or national conditions may reduce the most skillful artisan to the lowest level of inefficiency. In other words, having ceased to be of any service, he fails to receive remuneration, and finds himself a prey to overmastering circumstances. He no longer rises superior to misfortune, but succumbs to it.

Those who comprehend the more obscure processes of moral growth, how it begins with the education of the senses, through acts which, by repetition and variation, organize in the mind definite and permanent abstract conceptions of right and wrong, are prepared to admit that the kindergarten system for infants and youth furnishes the best model for practical training. Its claim, above all other methods, is that it concurrently trains the bands, so as to establish the impulse to industry, and enlists the mind to accomplish a predetermined task, while the result is always in accordance with the moral requirements of society. There are here combined three essential elements for success in life: the impulse to industry, the dexterity of the senses and their organs, and the power of applying this dexterity in such various directions as the exigencies of gaining a livelihood may require. The kindergarten is not only a miniature workshop; it is also a little society, where each child is induced to act towards his playfellow after the manner in which he will be called upon to act as an upright man when he reaches maturity. It is not simply that the kindergarten will make skilled mechanics, and train children to the practice of the social virtues, which recommends its use; it is also the best means of keeping in check the most dangerous vices. The part which lust plays in producing crime has been purposely omitted, but it is here in place to say that the aphorism of the French detective, that “there is a woman at the bottom of every crime,” is true in so large a number of instances as to make it acceptable; and it may be added that she is also a dangerous woman. Now the best possible safeguard against being dominated by a passional nature is education to the habits of industry. It not merely diverts the thoughts away from vain imaginings, but in addition it occupies the time given to their indulgence, and moderates their transports. We have no space to enlarge on the advantages of the kindergarten, and must content ourselves with urging that its claim to preëminence in connection with the subject which we are treating is that it brings out by practice all the essential elements which go to organize civilization.

If in insisting on the universal education of the senses and emotions of the people, whether low born or of high degree, the charge of escaping the real issue through vague generalizations may be made, what shall be the practical methods employed in transforming the character of the criminal class? Strange as it may seem, the employment of our already established reformatory and charitable institutions, where the kindergarten education could easily be established arbitrarily, is not here urged. In fact, these institutions can never play a very important part in modifying individual character, much less in forming the national character; and the reasons for this opinion are easily given. Society is like water; it never rises above its own level. If you lift water in a pail to the top of a church steeple, and liberate it on the apex, the pail will speedily upset, while the water flows to the base; so, if you train a child in an institution where its wants are provided for by an almoner, its morals are cosseted by a goody instructor, its work given out by a task-master, and its social life regulated and confined by an exclusive association with children, you must not be surprised if, on being liberated, the child will be tided over to the dead level of temptation, and sink into the ditches of debauchery and wrong-doing. The test, and the only test, of sound moral character is that it possesses coherence under liberty, and has learned those numerous arts of adaptation to ever-varying circumstances which make it a working quality, constant, rational, and automatic. To produce this result, there is need of a new experiment; not a revolution, not a reform, not a philanthropic venture to redeem the fallen, but a sober business enterprise, entered into as you would undertake the building of a railway in the wilderness, which is in time destined to make the wilderness fruitful by settling it with a hard-working and frugal population.

It must be a fresh dispensation of the experience of the race, so that the process of civilization, which has been working for centuries to produce modern society, may be employed as an art to transmute the still refractory elements of the community, of whom the criminal forms an important type, into fresh forces. Our New Zealander, as he ponders on the decay of a past grandeur, prefigures to himself a man who has studied the underlying facts of history, and traced the laws which conduce to national growth and preserve national maturity. There stands before his mind’s eye one who comprehends that every refined moral attribute has a corresponding physical basis, on which it rests, and that this physical basis is the essential start for the reformation of offenders; a man who can penetrate the motives of those who surround him, so that he may know how to handle those he trains and how to select those who are to second him; a man with a love for children, which makes his task more a delight than an ambition; a man fertile in expedient, so that no case long eludes his grasp; a man able to take his pupil at the point where the scholar’s natural interest or curiosity furnishes a hold upon the attention, and from this point capable of leading him to the practice of social and personal virtues, without patronizing and without dictation; above all, a man who knows the great art how to teach what to forget as well as to impart what was unknown. Well, our New Zealander, in this man, has drawn the portrait of the modern law-giver. But such a man is powerless without the material agencies which enable him to realize his aspirations.

This new enterprise must, if needful, receive the support of ten millions of dollars to redeem the waste products of society, just as in the case of a mill or a chemical laboratory there would be invested a similar sum to utilize the refuse of their looms or their crucibles. Millions are spent in efforts at futile punishment and in ill-directed efforts to reform the erring; there is no reason why part of such ill-spent money should not be diverted to a new experiment. What could such a man not do, it might be asked, with sufficient material backing, to help the solution of the crime question? But how would he go to work?

He settles in a county, and carefully reviews the dangerous class within a certain section, and studies out the environment which the society of that section furnishes for the continuance of crime. He selects a family where the children branch out into numerous families of their own. As he knows this is not a work of a year or two, but one covering generations, he will choose the branch family to whose head the others look up as to a leader; he knows that no untutored man will imitate one whom he thinks his inferior, and will largely depend for his success in the community of thieves upon their imitating the one whom he has induced to begin a change in his mode of living. He will avoid a family where incurable disease is gradually working the extinction of the stock, but will select a vigorous stock, where the vitality is misdirected, and may he turned into new channels of activity. While he can rely upon the parents of the reputable class to lead their children in upright ways, with the criminal the process must be reversed. In cultivating the sentiment of domesticity he must affect the parents through the children, and remember that if he enables these latter to conquer social success they will find the means of drawing their parents within the charmed circle of their betterment. From the one over whom he has gained ascendency he will reach the brother; from the brother the youngest child, and through it the mother. Knowing that the possession of property which has been acquired by industry is the best mode of inspiring respect for property, he will contrive to make his wards owners of estate, and lead them to administer it and to increase its value and income. When he has established a mastery over one family he will gradually draw in the cousins or the intimate associates, and extend the circle of his ascendency until he has created a little community, which he can use as an environment to expand his dominion over other families. All the details of such a vast undertaking cannot here be developed: it can only be pointed out in a general, way that the new method must lay hold of those who, in the next generation, will be the criminals, if left, unaided, to the wretched surroundings of a debauched home; that success imperatively demands that the youth shall learn self-restraint and self-respect under liberty; and that in the process of breaking down hereditary crime an environment conforming to that of reputable society must be formed to stimulate and sustain the neophytes in civilization. The process will at first be very slow; still it will be cumulative; and as it grows in importance it will increase in power till it becomes a weapon, much as the invention of machinery has given man a mastery to subdue the elements.

The new experiment here proposed differs from the conventional systems of reform which have hitherto been tried, in that the latter deal with the individual segregated from his home and neighborhood, so that every case becomes a new and doubtful experiment in social transplanting, while the new effort follows a triple development: along the lineage of the family, so that the work is consecutive and constructive; within the community, which will unawares become moulded by the innovations devised by the method in dealing with the criminals and so reconstitute the general social environment as to give permanence to the changes; and in its own experience, which while it widens will include aims and achievements beyond the immediate purposes of the first establishment of its work.

It is idle to cavil at the scheme as utopian; the introduction of Christianity among the barbarians was a task not less gigantic.

This is part three of a three-part series. Read part one here and part two here.

  1. It was Johnny Hope’s father who made the first attempt on the bank.
  2. Bribed.