Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/December 1890/What Shall We Do with the Dago?



THE very recent murder of David C. Hennessey, chief of police of the city of New Orleans, appears to direct public attention to a class of immigrants which has recently sought the hospitable ports of the United States, and, in connection with the constant questions of prison reform and prison economics, to justify a considerable and serious public attention.

The newspaper paragraph which tells what the man to be hanged at ten o'clock had for breakfast at eight, is doubtless appetizing to thousands of honest wage-workers who can not recall sitting down in all their lives to as sumptuous a bill of fare. The libraries of standard fiction provided for incarcerated felons are well enough; though, if the incarcerated felons, when liberated, are at once to take their position as leaders in progress and increasers of the public wealth, they might better be supplanted, perhaps, with works on mechanics and the mechanical motors, steam, electricity, etc. The point in civilization to which the world has arrived renders it impossible that the inmates of prisons should be starved, frozen, or tortured into imbecility. But the question as to how tenderly they should be treated, how delicately cared for, and how comfortably their bodily wants provided for, appears not yet to have been submitted to anything like a consensus of public opinion. Such question, as a matter of fact, appears to be left at large, until selected as a sentimental one for ladies and gentlemen of sympathetic natures and leisure for philanthropies not otherwise bent; and the result is, that when anything is done it is done toward the adding of yet one more burden upon the law-abiding and uncriminal classes, to wit, the providing of increased consolations, if not luxuries, for their law-breaking and criminal brothers and sisters. When we tax the good man for the benefit of the bad man, we ought to tax him as lightly as possible. When the peaceful and useful citizen is assessed to build prisons for the house-breaker and molester of the public quiet, he doubtless should be assessed roundly enough to keep the unruly class secure from the facilities for working further mischief; and nobody will decline to go further, and say that the prison should be clean enough and well enough drained, and wholesome enough to prevent the criminals within—their active work of evil restrained—from negatively breeding infection among the honest people they no longer affirmatively and independently rob, disturb, and destroy. There ought to be no hesitation about going quite as far as this. The question is, How much further—with an honest regard for the rights of the non-law-breaker—may we proceed? A prison is not supposed to be a nice, cozy place to live in. It should not be a desirable place even to the class of people which criminals are bred from. Neither the criminal classes nor the classes from which criminals come—live and dress warmly; their shoes are not dry, their bodies are not well kept and sleek and cleanly; their tables are not regularly or sumptuously or even wholesomely spread. Poverty certainly should not be allowed to aggravate or in any way influence the penalty for crime: but it would seem as if, in the enforcement of the penalty, it can not be entirely left out of the estimates taken by our law-makers, and this for certain reasons, of which the following are a few:

There is just now seeking these shores, in extraordinary numbers, a class of laborers who live more meanly than the imagination of the general public, in well-paid and well-fed America, can conceive. Every one who has visited the northern shore of the Mediterranean, in Italy, is familiar with the class called lazzaroni. It may be actually said that this class does not live in houses at all, does not know what a house means: except for shelter against inclement weather; that it has no use for roofs at all. Water, except as it falls from the heavens, it appears to know not in any external sense; and during the long summers and mild winters a wall or an alley is quite as convenient as, and much more available a shelter than, a roof. A gang of these people, "dagoes" as they are nicknamed (a corruption of hidalgos, which, though a Spanish and not an Italian word, once came to be sneeringly applied to a foreigner of Latin Europe out of his element), employed in building an American railroad, will find it necessary, in the new climate, to be provided with quarters of some sort; will herd together as tightly as they can dispose themselves, in anything which is covered by a roof, and every office of nature will be performed together in the same tumbled quarters. I once happened to witness the following incident: A small circus, with a few lions and tigers, exhibiting in a small town, near by where a railroad was being constructed, fed, as a part of its programme, these wild beasts. The bones which the beasts gnawed were left on the ground when the circus departed between two days. And the "dagoes" collected these bones and boiled them for their soup! What terrors have jails and prisons for such human beings? What have they to lose by pilfering, assaulting, robbing, and murdering? So far as creature comforts are concerned, they live better and work about as much, have warmer clothing and better beds, in the meanest jail in the United States than they experience out of it. So far as the duration of life is concerned, they will probably live as long under a sentence of death as they do in the wretched filth they pile up around them, and in the rapid changes of our national weather. The bric-à-brac societies who have exhausted Ibsen, Browning, and the entire science of photography, and who are now devoting themselves to the comfort and well-being of malefactors, might possibly be in good part, were there any reasonable percentage of reformation in the ordinary penitentiary experience; if the enterprising burglar, after serving out his term, burglarized no more, or the cut-throat, released from a long penalty for his crime—as Mr. Gilbert would say—"loved to hear the little brook a-gurgling and to listen to the merry village chime"; but, as a matter of fact, he doesn't. But here is a practical problem quite in the line of refinement. Sooner or later, somebody in this country will be obliged to grapple with the problem of the "dago." Can he be kept out of jail? Can he be made a useful citizen by utilizing the leisure he spends in jails to educate him into some sort of comprehension of the new country in which he finds himself? The proposition that every jail and prison should be made reformatory as well as punitory in its character would require, one would be apt to say, some little looking into. The question as to whether states are bound to reform as well as punish, their wrong-doers, depends largely upon the wider question of the duties of a state to its citizens. The other considerations, as to whether a state should make its prisoners comfortable, should watch over their physical welfare, may be disposed of at once by citing the general propositions that, however models of what they ought to be in other respects, our jails ought to be somewhat more uncomfortable to the prisoner than the most comfortless hovel that the poverty of the habitual criminal provides; as, otherwise, there would never be a class of the community to whom a residence within prison walls would not be a change for the better. Jail soup may be thin, but let the man who loves not thin soup keep out of jail. And let the soup be not thicker than, at least, the thinnest obtainable outside. To reverse the old rhyme, in most cases "Stone walls should a prison make, and iron bars a cage." If flowers are to be distributed by kind-hearted ladies at Easter, let it be to the deserving who keep, rather than to the undeserving who keep not, the law of the land. Of course, these propositions are not meant to contemplate the abnormal instances of squalor and filth, which communities for their own preservation must treat with and rectify. That question is disposed of by the Boards of Health, into whose province it would seem naturally to come.

Again, as to the duties owed by states to their citizens, two things are, or ought to be, beyond question: first, that the state should attempt the greatest good to the greatest number; and, second, that it should not discriminate against the innocent in favor of the wrong-doer. If, therefore, a state or community building a jail, is unable to provide elaborately organized and classified prisons to punish its wrong-doing citizens without taxing its honest and law-abiding citizens unduly, it would not seem to be its exact duty to do so. It should not impose unbearable or irksome burdens upon its citizens who need no reformation, for the purpose of experimenting upon those to whom reformation is desirable. It is undesirable that a prison should be so constituted or managed as to make its occupants, whether reformable or not, worse than when they entered its portals; but the tendency of human nature to retrograde rather than improve, is, probably, not less constant inside than outside of penitentiaries. So far as this tendency of human nature to retrograde can be shown to be largely enough re-enforced by non-classification of prisoners to work actual harm to the state, some classification ought to be attempted.

To argue as some of us do, for example, that the public revenue should be charged with the expense of building separate institutions for boys who, at ten years of age, have begun to burglarize, and for those who have begun to steal in broad daylight; to keep up with the legal difference between the two crimes; or that a further refinement of distinction should be made between the man who has once and the one who has twice robbed; or between the one who proposes on liberation to rob, and the one who proposes on liberation not to rob again, is not only to be impracticable, but to become absurd. To a philosophic mind this leads up to the doctrine of heredity, and the question whether the criminal classes, from generation to generation, are not always distinct, to about the same proportion, from the law-abiding class. Whether the law-abiding, industrious, and honest classes should be burdened with increased taxes to try and save the freshman criminal from becoming a sophomore, and the junior from graduation into the senior class of crime, is a question much too profound to be solved from any standpoint, especially from the standpoint of the excellent gentlemen who make speeches to the philanthropical societies which speeches are referred to committees, whose reports are printed in unlimited pamphlets; still less from the standpoint of the pamphlets themselves.

So long as governments owe a duty to all classes of the commonwealth alike, and to no one over and above or as against another, they can not be governed by sentiment, be optimists or pessimists, or theorists of any sort. They must be governed by principles. In the application of those principles they must be guarded by facts; and governments, unhappily, have no other means of being informed of facts except by statistics. If figures should happen to show that one in every four hundred citizens of a given community is a law-breaker, and that this proportion had not varied perceptibly in, say, twenty-five years, would that community be justified in erecting a system of public buildings for the sake of experimenting toward a decrease of this percentage—buildings which must be paid for out of the pockets, not of the law-breakers who pay no taxes, but of the law-observers who do? Possibly the tax-payers of the community would think not.

Nothing, of course, should be allowed to antagonize the laws of humanity, or, in a large sense, the laws of charity. But to whom is charity to be shown? Which class of the community deserves the largest charity? Is it Christian to expect the honest man, who forever pays tithes of his toil, to experiment on the reformation of the man whose ancestral traditions compel or incite him to toil not, but to break in and help himself to the fruits of the honest man's toil? Let the largest charity be meted out to all. But no charity can be meted out with equity, without some regard to deserts. It must not be forgotten, even by the charitable, that if any preference is to be shown by the commonwealth, it is for those who keep rather than those who break its statutes, and for them that observe rather than for them that ignore the unwritten laws that govern human relations. Ten minutes' inspection of the haunts of crime in a city like New York, for example, ought to convince the daintiest of bric-à-brac ladies and gentlemen of the danger of a too well-appointed, a too substantially fed, and a too well-libraried prison. The slums where the cold of winter alternates only with the fetid and noxious odors of summer, would, to most of us, destroy confidence at least in that homeliest of maxims, "If you don't like your jail, keep out of it." Certainly, the more we strip the penitentiary of its penances, the more stress we throw on the single element of disgrace to keep men out of jail. But the disgrace of serving a term of imprisonment is a matter which, unfortunately, partakes quite as largely of bric-à-brac as does the sentiment of the average prison reformer. What disgrace is a year or ten years in a prison to a nomad, a man from nowhere, who has no character to lose, who goes by as many names as he pleases and changes them as often as he likes? The problem remains. We must build prisons which, somehow or other, will be less desirable abiding-places than the slums. We can not starve prisoners, or turn them on wheels, or distort them with boots or thumb-screws. We can not freeze them nor roast them, nor feed them with miasmatic diseases. But, all the same, we must eventually find some principle, somewhere, by the practice of which, while meting out to the wrong-doer the penalty he has earned, we shall protect the revenues as well as the peace and the safety of the community.

All this is familiar reasoning enough. But the problem seems to increase to formidable dimensions just now with the new class of which we have spoken. What shall we do with the "dago"? This "dago," it seems, not only herds, but fights. The knife with which he cuts his bread he also uses to lop off another "dago's" finger or ear, or to slash another's cheek. He quarrels over his meals; and his game, whatever it is, which he plays with pennies after his meal is over, is carried on knife at hand. More even than this, he sleeps in herds; and if a "dago" in his sleep rolls up against another "dago," the two whip out their knives and settle it there and then; and, except a grunt at being disturbed, perhaps, no notice is taken by the twenty or fifty other "dagoes in the apartment. He is quite as familiar with the sight of human blood as with the sight of the food he eats. His women follow him like dogs, expect no better treatment than dogs, and would not have the slightest idea how to conduct themselves without a succession of blows and kicks. Blows and kicks, indeed, are too common an experience with them for notice among "dagoes." When a woman is seriously hurt, she simply keeps out of sight somewhere till she is well enough for the kicking and striking to begin over again, and no notice whatever is taken of her absence meanwhile. The disappearance is perfectly well understood, and no questions are asked. The male "dago," when sober, instinctively retreats before his employer or boss, or any other man, and has no idea of assaulting him, or indeed of addressing him, or having any relations with him except to draw his pay. But, when infuriated with liquor, he will upon any fancied occasion use the only argument which he possesses—his knife. I say the only argument, for it is inevitable experience that he will not talk; however little or however much he may understand of what is said to him, he will pretend not to understand. He has a pretty clear idea of how much money is coming to him, and manages to convey that information to his paymaster. But it is rather dangerous for the paymaster to give him much less than the amount which, in his idea, is coming to him. He will refuse to accept it, withdraw, jabber and gesticulate, and it will be well for that paymaster to be on his guard until something representing that month's wages is accepted.

Now, when (as happens constantly in the course of the grading of a railroad by great swarms of these "dagoes") three-or four hundred or less of these human beings are quartered for a month in the vicinity of some prosperous, quiet, and orderly little inland town, where the justice of the peace and the constable are farmers in the field or keepers of the country "store" or the village shoemaker and carpenter respectively—what happens? What, indeed, mast happen? The "dago" will not resume work the day after his pay-day, which comes monthly. (Did it come weekly, he would not work at all, as will presently appear.) He takes his wages to the nearest village or community in which spirits, or what is called spirits, is sold. If it is not given him, he fights, is arrested, and locked up; if it is given him, he also fights, is arrested, and locked up. In either case he will be taken by the constable before the justice, and a little experience will convince these officials that the only safety for their community is to "fine" the "dago" what money he may happen to have in his pocket, for, until his money is gone, he will not return to his work. This programme is repeated month by month, until that section of the railroad is finished and the "dago" is moved to another, where another adjacent village must learn, by experience, how to protect itself precisely as did the last one. Local criminal laws seem, therefore, incompetent to deal with this "dago." He has apparently nothing to lose—and from any standpoint except his own, apparently something even to gain—by the most comfortless prison that American ingenuity can devise.

Although the argument from design has made great strides since the days of Dr. Paley's watch, there yet remains much in nature for science to explain by utilizing it. The constrictive force of the African python, for example, the aggravative energy of the New Jersey mosquito, or the tremulous force of the young ladies' Browning or Ibsen Club, for example, remain as yet to puzzle us; and possibly, on the whole, the argument may be stated as in that condition of compromise in which it appeared to the starving tramp who discovered a New England swamp full of whortleberries and rattlesnakes. Design had evidently placed the whortleberries there to save his life, but chance had dropped in the utterly purposeless rattlers. A somewhat corresponding mixture of good and evil appears to confront us in the very large importation lately of this curious people. It is to the eternal credit of King Victor Emanuel that he, first in history, utilized that class of his subjects which has been known from time immemorial as the lazzaroni. He put this entirely unattractive person, who till then had naught to do but accommodate himself to the weather, to work removing rock débris on the Mont Cenis Tunnel, and since he was, to that extent, a successful railroad man, the royal example has been followed over here, and, it can not be denied, with very considerable advantage. The dago class, by liberating a class of workmen of, say, one grade higher, has actually added to the country's creative wealth. But, when this lazzarone is imported into the United States and set to grading an American railway, he is found to possess characteristics which may not have interfered with his usefulness on the Mont Cenis Tunnel, but which here become exceedingly unpractical, not to say uncomfortable: and which may, as we have shown, even prove as large a problem in our criminal, as his advent was, no doubt, a happy thought in our industrial, economy.