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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 15/September 1879/Spontaneous and Imitative Crime

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 15‎ | September 1879

SPONTANEOUS AND IMITATIVE CRIME.
By E. VALE BLAKE.

IT is not to be expected that law-makers or the administrators of legal justice should discriminate between spontaneous and imitative crime; but to the patient thinker, the medical scientist, and the practical philanthropist it is evident that the grades and distinctions of actual criminality are almost as various as the individual criminals. Even the word crime is very indefinite, and by no means always indicates the true character of an act usually so designated. Acts innocent in themselves—such, for instance, as buying goods in a foreign market and bringing them for use to this—may be made a legal crime by statute law, while other acts which are monstrous violations of natural human rights may be and are ignored by the code, and are perpetrated with impunity in the highest grades of civilized society. So, also, really criminal acts may be committed, and yet crime be absent, for the essence of crime in the individual (excluding for the present the rights of society) lies in the intention, and this element, through physiological and moral reasons, may be void. Indeed, could we apply a mental and moral vivisection to the cases of individual criminals, we should probably find unexpected variations as to the causes and influences tending to its development; but practically we may summarize the whole mass of law-breakers under either one or the other division which the title of our article indicates: and, if by some subtile alchemy we could perceive the main dividing line separating the criminal classes into those who act from the spontaneous impulses of their nature and those who are led into crime mainly by the influence of their peculiar νόμος, or social environment, we should be in a fair way to learn how crime might be diminished, and the so-called "dangerous classes" prevented from spreading its infection.

By spontaneous criminals we mean those who act from well-defined motives, from avarice, revenge, the gratification of pride, vanity, or the grosser passions—also those who from congenital defects of organization have strong natural tendencies toward the commission of crime—sporadic criminals against whom it is scarcely possible for society to protect itself, unless, like the ancient Spartans, it is prepared to undertake the entire education of the future citizen, morally, intellectually, and physically, including the ante-natal period. Some recent investigations and social experiments have proved that, numerous as these are, they are a small minority as compared with those of the imitative and therefore curable class.

Alibert, the ingenious author of the "Système Sensible," regarded the instinct of imitation as the primordial law of nature, which has ruled, taught, and bound together the successive generations of the human race in a more potent manner than any other single faculty: and our every-day observation and experience tend to confirm the sagacity of this remark; and in the matter of crime it is certainly one of the permanent sources of its development and increase. There is one patent fact recognized by the average mind of the community, that the record and publication of any extraordinary crime is very certain to be followed by one or more examples of the same description. This certainly hints at some psychical influence worthy of examination, though it is generally dismissed with an expression as to its being a "singular fatality"—such as appears to follow certain kinds of accidents by flood or field, by land or sea.

The forms and phases of imitation are extremely varied—being sometimes the outcome of the conscious will, but not infrequently it is the result of an automatic sympathy with which the will has nothing to do. In many cases imitation is simply the active form of nervous sympathy and approaches the condition of mania. This instinct or faculty, like all other human attributes, may be well or ill applied, but the essential fact remains ever true that the instinct itself is irrepressible, and will exercise itself in some form: and, often as it is misused, the world could not afford to dispense with it. The race would make small progress if every man had to begin de novo, instead of imitating the previous acquirements of bis ancestors. We may even admit, with the French philosopher, that without the perpetual use of the imitative faculty there could be no distinctive nationalities; for, is it not by successive generations imitating their parents that national customs, usages, and languages are formed, and communities consolidated so as to afford each other mutual support? And the important fact should not be lost sight of that the faculty of imitation is one of the earliest developed, and has acquired strength and vigor long before the reflective faculties or the judgment is prepared to sit in council upon these immature tendencies; particularly should this be remembered in connection with all efforts in behalf of the weaker members of our human brotherhood—whether the young, as such, or the incipient criminal, in which this faculty often plays so considerable a part; adding complications to the history and the frequent mysteries of crime. What is that which we call "esprit de corps," the "spirit of the age," and other similar intangible somethings, which we know exist, but which it is difficult to embody in anything more material than a phrase? What these expressions indicate simply is, that certain numbers, greater or smaller, are prepared to imitate each other, whether it be in a crusade to the Holy Sepulchre, a Flagellant procession, or a modern strike of Crispins or engineers.

Imitative crimes are often motiveless in the ordinary meaning of the word, while numerically they really exceed all others; and it is somewhat curious that this feature of criminality has been so slightly noticed by statisticians and others concerned in the eradication of crime. Other causes of crime are certainly more obvious, for they lie upon the surface—ignorance, poverty, intemperance, the desire to live beyond one's legitimate means, unrestrained passions of all kinds: these are of course the leaders and pioneers of the great criminal army; but the rank and file are mainly made up of imitators, who do as they see others do with whom they associate. Take as an illustration the "great strike" of the railway employees some two years since, in the States of Pennsylvania and New York and elsewhere, and separate if you can the number of individuals who acted from conviction and deliberate intention—with what we might call a reason—however misguided, and the number who burned, hacked, and hewed simply because others were devastating and destroying. Could all of the mere imitators have been eliminated from those mobs it would scarcely have required military force to have dealt with the remainder, the few active, intelligent leaders of that violent mode of argument.

It will probably be admitted, in most cases of mob violence, that the mass of intimidators are ignorant, unreasoning followers, who, if they think at all, only reflect to the extent of supposing that the presence of numbers will suffice to conceal their individual share of the crime; but possibly some of our readers may not be so ready to admit that the faculty of imitation works quite as potentially in secret, where to aid it come various suggestive faculties, such as emulation, vanity, imagination, contrivance, secretiveness, hope, despair, and various other emotions. The concealed imitator broods unobserved of his fellows, and acts only when he deems himself safe from interruption.

The history of the world is full of crimes and follies committed under the influence of the imitative instinct. In many cases so devoid of thought are the actors in these scenes as scarcely to bring them under the judgment of responsible human beings. It is in fact no easy task to draw with any degree of accuracy the dividing line between folly and crime, especially when the exalted sentiments of patriotism or the fanaticism induced by the misapplication of religious dogma, or fervent appeals to the emotions, are the basis of certain wild proceedings; engaged in by assemblies of the intensely nervous, led by knaves or the self-deceived victims of their own illusions. Under what category, for instance, should we place the "biting nuns" who appeared in rapid succession in the convents of Germany, Holland, and Rome? This extended mania arose simply from the spontaneous act of one nun attempting to bite a companion—immediately the whole sisterhood fell to biting each other. The news of this extraordinary occurrence was told from place to place, and "biting nuns" became a terror and a nuisance, over large portions of Europe in the fifteenth century; this mania proved irrepressible until exhaustion and reaction set in, terminating its abnormal absurdities.[1] In France another foolish epidemic of imitation seized upon many of the conventual houses. A nun one day commenced to imitate the mewing of a cat, and incontinently the other Sisters present fell to mewing. Finally the nuns took to mewing in concert for hours at a time; persuasions and commands for once failed to produce obedience. The mewing nuisance continued unabated, until the whole sisterhood were threatened with the entrance of the military, who it was announced were "coming to whip them with iron rods." The fear of these rough chastisers finally effected a cure.

That such scenes should happen, through nervous sympathy, in secluded assemblages of women, is not so very remarkable, at least is not inexplicable on nervo-physiological grounds; but we find even more disastrous examples among men, even those habitually living in the open air, within the ordinary conditions of life, and accustomed to muscular labor, which is a great tamer of the nerves. One of the most extraordinary scenes ever witnessed in wonder-producing Europe was enacted in Aix-la-Chapelle and other cities, commencing in 1374, when an assemblage of persons appeared in the famous Westphalian city, who had "danced their way through Germany." At one period the column was estimated to consist of 30,000 persons. In Metz alone there were 1,100. These people, men, women, and children, animated by an imitative delusion, apparently without any power of self-control, danced and leaped for hours at a time in the public streets of cities and on the highways of the countries through which they passed. Nothing could stop them, and they only ceased when exhausted muscles could do no more, when they fell to the ground, suffering more or less from this violent and spasmodic action. The first bands which appeared were, it is charitable to suppose, composed of sporadic cases of victims of that terrible nervous disease known in our day as St. Vitus's dance, and other nervous afflictions such as epilepsy, whom accident or sympathy had brought into companionship; but as these, at first few in number, proceeded from place to place, they were joined by others who, up to that time, had betrayed no symptoms of ill health or. insanity, but who, attracted by the unusual sight, first followed and wondered, ending by joining the leaping, dancing crowd, to the amazement of their friends with robuster nerves, who were able to resist the fascination.

These peripatetic assemblages moved in a direct line, and could only be stopped by putting obstructions in their way which were too high to be leaped over. From the violence of their exercise some were permanently injured, though many of them had been strong, athletic mechanics and peasants who had left their workshops and fields; while others continued with them for a short period, and then returned to their usual occupations as if nothing special had happened.

In Italy the dancing mania originated in the spasmodic action of a person who believed himself to have been bitten by a tarantula, or venomous spider, and his singular dancing movements being seen and extensively reported, every one who found a little speck or injury upon his body began to imagine that he also had been bitten, and consequently to imitate the actions of the original nervous victim. The army of imitators daily increased, and their apparent malady could only be relieved by music, mostly of a lively kind, which aided them to "dance out the attack"; it was for this purpose that the gay music now known as the Tarentella was invented, which has finally become a form of national music in Italy. Toward the waning of this mania, many of the poorer class, especially women, would seize upon the opportunity, whenever this music was heard in the streets, of joining the throng of dancers, so that the season for the appearance of the players—early summer—came at last to be called the "Women's Little Carnival."

A still more curious and offensive form of imitative mania, combined with imposture, was that of the various armies of Flagellants who marched through Germany and other parts of Europe; in this case the singular movement was led by designing persons who desired to undermine the power of the priesthood and to turn their dethronement to their own profit; but the mass of followers had no idea of the aim and object of the movement, viewing it, so far as they had any reason, as an act of acceptable penance: the great majority, as usual, uniting with the body simply through the irrepressible instinct of imitation—to do as others were doing, just as we have seen young people following one another up to the altar to be prayed for during a so called revival of religion—not one in a score of whom would have ventured to be the first. Even the recent mania of suddenly "lifting" church debts by the high-pressure method of inciting the instinct of imitation and emulation in the mode of subscribing, was very sagaciously based upon this well-recognized principle that the foolish many will always try to do what the leaders of society initiate, often with as little reason as a herd of quadrupeds. The "walking" mania is a still later example of the irresistible fascination of doing what others are doing.

But it is not always in masses that the powerful instinct of imitation shows itself. In nothing is it more common than in the form which suicides adopt—and suicide is naturally enacted à la solitaire. At one period in France the fashionable mode of exit was by the inhalation of charcoal-fumes, at another by a leap into the Seine. In London a certain monument had to be closed to visitors to prevent would be suicides from following the example of an original who had thrown himself from the top. A public promenade in Berne, above the Aar, is also much affected by suicides in that vicinity. In this matter of suicide a remarkable example is given of the power influencing to direct imitation, by Dr. Carpenter in his "Mental Physiology." This case was quite devoid of excitement or of any emotional character. He says that Dr. Oppenheim, of Hamburg, having received for dissection the body of a man who had committed suicide by cutting his throat, but who had performed the deed in such an inartistic manner that his death did not take place until after an interval of great suffering, jokingly remarked to his attendant: "If you have any fancy to cut your throat, don't do it in such a bungling way as this—a little more to the left here, and you will cut the carotid artery." The individual to whom this dangerous advice was addressed was a sober, steady man, with a family and a comfortable subsistence; he had never manifested the slightest tendency to suicide, and had no motive to commit it; yet, strange to say, the sight of the corpse and the observation made by Dr. Oppenheim, suggested to his mind the desire to imitate the deed, and this took such firm hold of him that he carried it into execution, fortunately, however, without duly profiting by the anatomical instruction he had received, for he failed to cut the carotid artery, and recovered. Here, plainly, the ideational form of imitation took possession of the man's mind, and forced him to the act. Subsequently to the remark of the Doctor, he had evidently brooded over the matter till the desire to imitate the suicide became irresistible. Had Dr. Oppenheim anticipated any result from a casual remark, he would probably have said: "Don't think about this body after you leave here; occupy your mind with some other subject—if possible, a pleasant one."

A curious case of suicidal mania occurred a few years since, under the writer's own observation, in Essex County, New Jersey, where a young man of feeble intellect, but exceedingly susceptible to praise and sympathetic emotions, committed suicide, with the evident intent of drawing out the pity and sympathy of his friends. He had attended one or more funerals where eulogies of the deceased, flowers, and other tokens of kind feeling abounded, and he desired to be in the place of the corpse, and to know that such a scene would be imitated in his case—his limited reasoning powers not suggesting that he would then be insensible to the friendly manifestations. The imitative instinct was too strong for the reflective faculties and determined the fatal act.

Another case in point is that of an eminent physician who, in relating his own experience while suffering under an attack of fever attended with delirium, states that, being obliged to call in a colleague for treatment, he heard his friend caution the nurse to "keep the windows closed, as one of his fever-patients had attempted to jump out." No sooner had the sick man heard this than he set his mind to circumvent his attendant and jump out of the window, though, until he had heard the cautioning remarks, such a desire had not occurred to him. His intention was happily frustrated, and, as soon as he recovered, he resumed his hospital practice. Strangely forgetting the presence of the patients, he related to some of the other physicians present his experience, and was only made aware of his imprudence when told that, after he had left, several of the sick had risen from their beds and attempted to jump out of the windows.

Without endorsing the apothegm of the able author of the "Intellectual Development of Europe," that "the equilibrium and movements of humanity are altogether physiological phenomena, and that the succession of events are the inevitable results of a law depending on, or the consequences of physical conditions," we are persuaded that a large proportion of crime is to be attributed to the responsive nature of the physical organization. Among unsophisticated persons, untrammeled by etiquette, there are many who can not hear a march played without attempting to keep step with the music, or a waltz without an instinctive desire to dance. There is, indeed, a certain amount of rhythmical response in most of us to the time measurements of harmony—particularly, when lively airs are played; but as some more than others are easily affected by moral and physical harmonies, may there not be other souls, or vitalized bodies, which spontaneously respond to the moral and physical discords—people who may be said to be out of tune with the organized harmonies of society, and whose natural impulse is to put these into modes of activity?

Plato recognized these differences in the impulses of persons differently constituted and educated; he says in vol. iv. of his "Laws," "I do not expect or imagine that any well-brought-up citizen will ever take the infection [of crime], but their servants or those of strangers may." Speaking of those who might be tempted to crime, he perceives very clearly the power of association over the imitative instinct of human beings, especially of those who dwell together, and he thus advises. "When any such ill thought [as that of committing a crime] comes into your mind, go at once to the society of those who are called good among you. Fly from the wicked; fly, and turn not back, and, if thy disorder is lightened by these remedies, well and good; but if not, then acknowledge death to be nobler than life, and depart hence."

Without going so far as the noble Greek, and recommending suicide to those cursed with evil instincts, we concede that the first part of his advice is as sound to-day as it was two thousand years ago. The power of a dominant idea is almost irresistible in some natures; and, therefore, it should be the aim of every philanthropist, whose efforts are directed to the reduction of crime, to seek the introduction of good and noble thoughts particularly among the young of the tempted classes; for all normal or abnormal action is derived from the thoughts, and as the thoughts are, so will the life be. In those particular localities where crime seeks to shelter and hide itself among numbers, the suggestions to wrong-doing are ever present, and the young, who as yet have the criminal instinct only latent, but who still must be regarded from the circumstances as incipient criminals, are the objects which offer the best promises of success in any effort for the reduction of crime. There is also this promising feature in reformatory efforts, that the moral emotions, once thoroughly awakened, do not satiate and deaden by exercise, like many pleasurable vices; they are not in their nature exhaustive, but strengthen by habit and prove more satisfying by use and perseverance, till they become almost automatic, when the individual may be considered practically safe.

It is well understood by natural scientists that in the noblest forms of animal life—such, for instance, as the thoroughbred horse—the likeness of parent and offspring is much more strongly marked than in lower forms of life. If we carry our investigations low enough—down to the border-land between the animal and vegetable kingdoms, such as some forms of marine life, hydro-zoöphytes, salpa, and medusæ we discover a curious law of unlikeness or alternation of forms, in which the immediate offspring are totally unlike their progenitors, but possess a resemblance to their ancestors one degree further removed, and this alternation goes on with an invariable tendency in the third generation to revert to the form of the first instead of assuming that of the second. This polymorphic tendency of low types of life is also illustrated in the vegetable world, for, while the higher classes retain, under all conditions, their normal form, whether planted in favorable or unfavorable soil (the oak is still an oak, the rose a rose), the germs of the simpler fungi develop surprising variations of form if placed on different kinds of decomposing matter; so far have these changes proceeded as to cause investigators to mistake them, not only for different species, but for different genera. It thus appears to be a law of nature that the nobler the production the more type-giving power it possesses, while the weaker and simpler are dominated by circumstances, and, if weak and low enough, do not necessarily impress their own image on their successors. May not this law apply to some extent to the human race? The nobler specimens of humanity will, we know, maintain their manhood and moral integrity under the most adverse circumstances, but, if we get down low enough in the human scale, shall we not find the fungi of the race, the weakest of our brothers, who have not moral stamina enough to hold their own elected way, but ever show themselves the creatures of circumstances, and are developed into just such moral or immoral characters as their environments suggest? These are the people whose course is always "in the direction of the least resistance," who, if they are placed under good influences, will lead at least quiet and orderly lives, but who are equally plastic to evil, and who will inevitably bloom into criminality if surrounded by lawless associates.

From two persons who have had extensive acquaintance with criminals, as also with those living in ignorance and poverty, which too often prove the approximate cause of crime, we are able to draw conclusive reasons for believing that the instinct of imitation may be used with astonishing effect, if rightly directed over those whose habits have not become irretrievably fixed. The author of "The Juke Family," on the one hand, and the author of "The Dangerous Classes," on the other, have done much to prove this hypothesis. Mr. Dugdale selected for his elaborate analysis the history of an extensive family, some of whom are yet living, whom he calls the Jukes; these he follows through town registers, almshouses, court-records, hospitals, prisons, etc., for six generations, from 1720 to 1872. For greater certainty in tracing the hereditary influence, he follows the female line of descent with the most definite results; his minute research, as to the character and fate of these persons, proves that where any member of the family was removed from the influence and example of crime, either by adoption into or marriage with honest and respectable families, the criminal tendencies disappeared, and the individuals reverted to a reputable life. Thus the imitative faculty was found, even in these cases where vicious blood was a recognized inheritance, to be as active in the imitation of good as of evil ways of living.

Particularly was this the case with those members of this criminal family who escaped from the vicious environment before the age of eighteen—these all took to honest ways, imitating the honest people with whom they lived; notably one who at the age of fifteen married a faithful and industrious German—this branch of the female line never produced a criminal, which was a remarkable exception with the Jukes. Another point bearing on the argument of the propelling influence of imitation is the discovery of the fact that where relatives of the poor have received shelter in almshouses, the children of these more readily resort to them in emergencies than do others in more pressing need, who have had no such record in their families. In fact, pauperism of the chronic kind is more difficult to cure than a tendency to criminality—for the first indicates weakness, the latter vitality.

As a general rule it may be assumed that before maturity the life of every individual is in the main imitative; later, experience and social compulsion reach the reason and teach all persons of average brain-power and moral culture that conformity to the laws of society is in the end more profitable than crime. The exceptions to this rule will be certain to exhibit some form of abnormal development. But the important practical truth is manifest, that while there is growth in the substance-matter of the brain, and this organ is acquiring functional habits which are eventually to become automatic mental phenomena, it is of immense importance that every means should then be adopted to eradicate hereditary tendencies to abnormal action of that organ, for while there is growth there may be change of direction, while every year after maturity lessens the chances of this. It may likewise be understood that to a permanent cure of hereditary tendency to crime separation from contaminating example is essential, and this separation must be permanent. Criminals who have acquired habits of industry and self-control during the discipline of a term of imprisonment might reasonably be expected to retain them if placed on their release in conditions which insured paying work and a pure moral atmosphere; but they will inevitably relapse if thrown back into their old circle, where crime and its contrivance are the main business of life. Therefore all discharged convicts, more especially those of the chronic sort, ought to be encouraged, and if necessary aided, to seek a new residence, and by all means persuaded to avoid their old haunts.

That the hereditary taint may be overcome by subsequent training and a lengthened discipline of a judicious kind is proved by the fact that the convicts sent out to Botany Bay by the British Government in general reformed, through the new hopes inspired by new circumstances in a new land, away from their old haunts and habitudes, and their children have reverted to honest and respectable lives. Medical science also shows that the instinctive or ante-natal qualities may be outweighed by the cultivation of the post-natal or reasoning.

It is shown by prison registers and statistics that sporadic crime among the educated, and those of honest parentage—that is, in families which have no examples of criminal courses in their direct ancestry—amounts to but two per cent.; an overwhelming argument in favor of preventive measures and their value above corrective penalties.

That crime usually coexists with ignorance and an ill-balanced brain is shown in the fact that in the large majority of criminals the faculty of arithmetical calculation is almost wholly lacking. Extensive experimental investigations have shown that the average prisoner can not answer the questions, "How much do you make?" "What pay or income would keep you honest?" The reflective qualities are more or less lacking or enfeebled in all descendants from neurotic stock.

Of all the means best adapted for the propagation of crime is that of herding criminals together, especially in juvenile asylums. Several witnesses from the House of Refuge in New York testified that they had there learned from more expert criminals tricks in stealing, picking locks, and in the concealment of stolen goods, which they had never learned outside.

The labors of many philanthropists for the last quarter of a century have shown conclusively that, if the young are seasonably removed from unfavorable environment, but a very small percentage deliberately return to vicious courses; but that they willingly learn to imitate the industrious and honest habits of their guardians and neighbors, exemplifying the logic of reason, that "an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure."

Observing the analogies of nature might teach the social scientist as well as the philanthropist that the measures taken to produce excellence in the animal and vegetable kingdoms are equally applicable to human beings. And what is the course of an arboriculturist or horticulturist if a plant shows abnormal qualities and a tendency to disease? If the owner desires to restore it to a healthy condition, would he allow it to remain among the aborted or monstrous members of its kind? Would he not rather remove it from the soil where its development had proved so unfortunate, to better-selected ground, and to the vicinity of normal healthy plants? So with stock: no breeder of horses or cattle would hope to cure a distemper among his animals if he allowed the diseased to herd together, mutually infecting each other. No, the worst cases he would speedily remove and isolate, and all in succession who showed symptoms likely to result disastrously to themselves or others. The sick would be put into clean quarters, and a more careful system of air and diet provided. Can we expect to cure abnormally developed human beings with less trouble?

The conclusion to be drawn from these considerations of the different phases of crime suggests at least this practical idea: that, in all stages of education, the proper direction of the will, the due control of the emotions, and the subjection of nervous impulses to the cool judgment of the reason, are far more important than the mere acquisition of this or that branch of so-called knowledge. A large majority of crimes, particularly crimes of violence, occur because the perpetrators have never been taught or compelled to control their feelings; probably nine tenths of all the crimes, follies, and disasters of which human beings are victims, might be prevented if the youth of the country were habitually instructed in the danger of allowing themselves to be controlled by impulse and feeling—if they could be taught that their nerves and muscles, as well as their desires, should be always under the direction of the intellect or will: and, if this sort of education could supplant that which is usually given to girls and young ladies, might we not hope to see a diminution of that weakly, nervous, hysterical class, which we are almost tempted to rank as criminal, since their very existence is a bane to every family in which they exist? To diminish crimes' of all sorts, let the teaching of self-control, the subordination of the emotions to the will, a knowledge of the nervous system, and a worthy, definite object in life, become a part of the education of every youth, male and female. Many crimes which are penally punished are the outcome of semi-insane persons, whose really abnormal condition is not recognized by court or jury, while others are excused as insane when their culminating crime is but the outcome of habitual indulgence of violent temper. Of all the insane, but the smallest fractional part are the result of excessive intellectual effort; a somewhat larger number arise from structural disease; but the great majority of the insane who have committed or attempted to commit crimes have lost control of their reason because they habitually allowed passion, not reason, to control them. Therefore, we repeat, the greatest possible preventive of crime is to raise a race who shall know how to control their emotional natures through an enlightened will and the habitual exercise of a moral judgment.

 

  1. See Zimmermann "On Solitude," vol. ii., for this and account of "mewing nuns."