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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 54.djvu/235

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SUPERSTITION AND CRIME.

is settled by a people of Finnish origin, the majority of whom have been baptized and call themselves orthodox Christians, while the remainder are still nominally as well as really heathen. When they take an oath it is administered by a pope or priest, and a Russian jurist, J. W. Mjeshtshaninov, describes the method employed by them to forswear themselves with safety. When called upon to take an oath, the witness raises the right hand with the index finger extended; he then lays the left hand in the palm of the right hand with the index finger pointing downward, and by a crisscross combination of the other fingers, which probably works as a charm, the whole body is converted into a conductor, so that the oath entering through the index finger of the right hand passes through the index finger of the left hand into the earth like an electric current. The witness thus feels himself discharged of the binding influence of the oath, and may give false testimony without laying perjury upon his soul.

The superstitions which encourage ignorant people to commit crime are handed down from generation to generation, and have in most cases a purely local character. In other words, the charms and sorceries and other magical arts employed to produce the same results differ in different places, and unless the judges are familiar with these various forms of superstition they will be unable to understand the exact nature of the offenses with which they have to deal, and their efforts to detect and punish violations of the law will be greatly hampered and sometimes completely thwarted.

The subject here discussed has not only a speculative interest for ethnographers and students of folklore, but also, as already indicated, a practical importance for criminal lawyers and courts of justice in the Old World and even in the United States. The tide of immigration that has recently set in from the east and south of Europe has brought to our shores an immense number of persons strongly infected with the delusions which we have attempted to describe. Acts which would seem at first sight to have their origin in impulses of cruelty and brutality are found on closer investigation to be due to crass ignorance and credulity, and, although the ultimate motives are usually utterly selfish, there are rare instances in which the perpetrators of such deeds are thoroughly disinterested and altruistic, and do the most revolting things, not from greed of gain, but solely for the public good. In cases of this kind the most effective preventive of wrongdoing is not judicial punishment but intellectual enlightenment.