Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/February 1896/Stamping Out of Crime



IT is only a short time since civilized nations abolished slavery, and already we look back with wonder at our own and other countries, and are barely able to realize that the world could have borne such an unspeakable institution—that it could have steadily progressed while weighted with the breaking load of such a burden. Nevertheless, for thousands of years, and even at times of exquisite culture, men thought that slavery was inevitable, or even necessary, or at any rate that it could never be done away with. Now there is an equal steadfastness of opinion in the opposite direction. We regard with horror the social condition which justified bondage; we are astounded that we could have lived in such an atmosphere.

There are other similar examples in the history of civilization. Until the present century drunkenness was almost universal, and the gentleman who did not drink himself under the table was thought at best to be a poor sort of man. Our present attitude in the matter is just as great a revolution as our change in regard to slavery. Likewise is there an equally great difference so far as the interests of society are concerned. Again, until the middle of this century there was a constant succession of wars among the principal nations; but within a few years conditions have so changed that the man who dared to precipitate a war would be utterly overwhelmed with universal abhorrence.

If we look into the future, we may see as great a change, which is beginning to assert itself in regard to the necessity of crime. Indeed, the above analogies are well carried out, from the fact that so many people at present think crime is inevitable—that because society has always sweated under this burden it follows that the burden must ever be carried. On the contrary, because society has always been oppressed with crime there is good reason to suppose that changed conditions must alter the present facts, and that we may look for a season when crime as a constant and unvarying social element will have ceased to exist; when it will show itself in minor and individual cases, as drunkenness is beginning to do, as plagues and epidemics are beginning to do.

One of the best indications for hope is the growing effort to study crime accurately; not merely to regard it as an excuse for confining lawbreakers in self-infecting herds, where they may undisturbed pollute one another, but, on the other hand, to seek for the causes of crime, to ascertain all its concomitant conditions, to recognize and classify the criminal in sociological, psychological ways—in the ways of anatomy and physiology. The recent congresses for this object in Paris, Rome, and Brussels have opened a new world of information, have shown how misty have been our ideas on the subject, how primitive our methods have been and are, and what little hope for the future lies in a continuance of them.

This much, at least, we have learned: that the criminal forms a class by himself, no matter whether he is born so or grows into vice; that not only in his acts but likewise in mind and body does he vary from the healthy normal. For his tendency, as that of all organic life, is to reproduce his kind. This fact should be regarded as a rule that is as widely applicable and as unvarying as any law of biology. It can not be otherwise, for every child is a summing up and a manifestation of the traits of his ancestors. And so, in spite of our present efforts, each confirmed lawbreaker becomes an ever-fruitful fountain for wrong—a moral plague spot—the limits to whose contagion are bounded only by the amount of material that can be contaminated. The most superficial glance will show how true this is, for if it were otherwise one would rightly suppose that the vast efforts for social amelioration throughout society must surely result in an increase of the better and a decrease of the worse elements. But as a matter of fact this is not the case. We spend tremendous amounts of time and money and effort in the attempt to eliminate the need of crime; we strive to the last extent to do away with destitution, unsanitary conditions, ignorance, and depressing moral influences, and undoubtedly these efforts have accomplished much good. But in spite of all this, in spite of aid societies for discharged convicts, in spite of educational possibilities that are as free as air, in spite of college settlements, protecting associations for children, reformatories, and lavish charities of all kinds—in a word, in spite of vastly improved social surroundings—the criminal remains as he has always been. Crime does not lessen, but on the contrary increases with the growth of our cities, or even increases beyond the proportion which we should naturally ascribe to it.

The strange thing about all this is that the development in crime does not necessarily depend for its beginning and growth upon the elements which are popularly held responsible. Many people believe that with the wider diffusion of knowledge wrongdoing must necessarily shrink away—that mental enlightenment and moral darkness are incompatible. But this is merely a supposition, for the most part based on our admiration for education. And, as a matter of fact, concrete examples constantly remind us that the educated person, if wrongly minded, does not as the result of his mental training become a law-abiding citizen, but rather becomes a dangerous and capable criminal. Moreover, this is true not only of individuals, but also of masses as well. We have to prove it the statistics of Dr. Ogle, in regard to the English population at a time of a steady increase of crime: "Eighty-five per cent of the population were able to read and write in the years 1881-'84, and as this represents an increase of ten per cent, since the passing of the Elementary Education Act, it is probably not far from the mark to say that at the present time almost ninety per cent of the English population can read and write. In other words, only ten per cent of the population is wholly ignorant." In spite of this general diffusion of knowledge, in spite of compulsory education in the most critical and formative years of childhood, there was no decrease, but on the contrary an increase of crime.

Again, it has been conclusively proved that destitution, that specter which frightens the hearts of men, which covers and obscures with its sodden wings every wrongdoing in human life, is not in any way the real cause of crime; it is true that often it is the excuse. But it is only the excuse, and even in that capacity it serves for the want of something better. However, relying upon this excuse, one would naturally think that men with the greatest burdens would be the most liable to lawbreaking, and that times of profound destitution would be those most deeply marked with crime. As a matter of fact, both of these suppositions are false, so that we find criminals, as a rule, to be those persons having almost no responsible burdens, and, strangest of all, the times of prosperity show the greatest flourishing of crime. Therefore, Morrison, a reliable writer, says: "It is a melancholy fact that the moment wages begin to rise, the statistics of crime almost immediately follow suit, and at no period are there more offenses of all kinds against the person than when prosperity is at its height." Again: "It is found that the stress of economic conditions has very little to do with making these unhappy beings what they are; on the contrary, it is in periods of prosperity that they sink to the lowest depths."

In like manner it can be fully and plainly proved that the other fortuitous and external conditions which are usually blamed for the wrongdoing in the world are either quite innocent or merely accidental. Thus, climate is said by some to be a guilty factor; but we all know how easy it is to show that there is no part of the world untainted. Seasons are responsible, say others. Here, again, a strange fact confronts us: for it is in the pleasantest seasons of the year, when people have least in Nature to contend with, when they are most abroad and mingling together, that crime is commonest. Some well-intentioned men say that certain foods, especially "strong" and animal foods, so inflame the tendency to viciousness that evil instincts flare up, and as a result we have the criminal. It is quite unnecessary to spend time in exposing this fallacy in physiology; we need only refer to the Italians, whose food is very largely vegetable, and whose percentage of crime is among the greatest. The native inhabitants in India are another case in point; for their diet is likewise almost entirely a vegetable one, and yet, if it were not for the interference of the carnivorous English, they would even now be addicted to the almost universal practice of infanticide. So also is it that social rank, while setting metes and bounds in every other direction, fades away in the domain of evil. The criminal may be high or low, he still is the criminal; and, reasoned about broadly, there are as many offenses among the socially exalted as the socially debased.

Thus from every side we are driven away from the fortuitous, the occasional, the accidental as the controlling cause. We are forced, as a necessary resort, to something more reasonable, more stable, something which we can work on and understand. And as soon as we look on the matter with such eyes, it becomes plainer, more tangible, holding out hopes for amelioration if not entire cure.

In a problem like this, which has so many ramifications, we should seek for constant factors of divergence from the normal; or, better still, let us decide what is the healthiest development, so that we may be better able to understand the abnormal, the deficient in human character. "The perfection of man," says M. de Laveleye, "consists in the full development of all his forces, physical as well as intellectual, and of all his sentiments; in the feeling of affection for the family and humanity; in a feeling for the beautiful in Nature and art." Now we have something really definite. We have a clear idea of what is essential to the highest growth of human worth, and immediately we recognize that in the criminal we have a being more or less utterly removed from this standard, and thus representing what is abnormal, twisted, or diseased. What is more, this divergence is a constant one, which reproduces itself over and over again in successive generations of wrongdoers. It is rarely necessary for a man to commit crime at the present time, even though he be laboring under adverse circumstances; and it is never necessary for him to continue such a career. Therefore, when he does, it is a matter of choice or of temperament. Very often the amount of ingenuity and talent exhibited would be sufficient, if rightly applied, to bring him comfort if not greater rewards in the regular lines of effort.

The majority of us exhibit a strange lack of logic in thinking about hereditary transmissions. We recognize the necessity of breeding and the duty of selection in regard to animals; we are perfectly willing to follow well-known ideas on the need of weeding out undesirable traits in cattle; moreover, the world has for a time shown its belief in the existence of hereditary genius, otherwise Galton's painstaking work on the subject could never have reached its present popularity, nor should we now possess our admiration for "good blood." But when we speak of the more unfavorable traits and the deadly certainty of their reproduction in descendants, our lips falter, we quickly hide the unpleasant sight with a capacious covering of charitable forbearance. We constantly meet with startling examples of transmitted crime, such as the famous or infamous Cook gang and Jukes family; every day in the more unfortunate phases of metropolitan life we see children following in the wake of parents and grandparents in the wide sea of vice; even do we see the same manner of crime reproduced in straight family lines, and yet we dare not look the plain truth full in the face; under the mask of a specious system of correction we hide our fear of facts and our incapacity to act for the criminal individual as well as the noncriminal public.

It is time for us to see that punishment will not abolish crime, any more than a whipping will change a lunatic into a sane man. Until the citizens of a community are really healthy in mind, body, and soul, crime will and must continue in its concomitant ratio. For crime is merely the expression of the action of ordinary social conditions upon distorted and diseased organisms. The symptoms of this pathological state when occurring singly may, as in the common sicknesses, mean but little. But when they come together in recognized groups they point to definite degrees of degeneration. For this reason anthropologists have been trying to classify criminals, to put in their proper places symptoms of weakened will and industry, overweening egoism, a failing respect for consequences, deficient domesticity, insensibility to the higher impulses, as well as the merely physical traits of facial and cranial asymmetry, misshapen heads, epilepsy, idiocy, and the tendency to disfigurement, as in tattooing. It is on the permanency of such traits that Bertillon's system of measurement is founded, as well as Galton's theory of finger markings. The main idea which these facts should impress upon us is the absolute stability of these peculiarities and the inevitable surety of the results which flow from them. The criminal is not necessarily without good impulses; on the contrary, he may have them more or less constantly, but he is unable to act them out. Where the will is thinned out almost to the vanishing point, or where the faculty of concentration has been progressively weakened, it is practically impossible to make up for them, and the unhappy offender is quite at the mercy of circumstances which bring him time and again before the criminal courts. In this connection it is interesting to read from Sir John Strachey's quotation of an official report from India: "When a man tells you that he is a Bodhak, or a Kanjar, or a Sonoria, he tells you what few Europeans ever thoroughly realize—that he, an offender against the law, has been so from the beginning and will be so to the end; that reform is impossible, for it is his trade, his caste—I may almost say his religion—to commit crime"

The belief in the inevitable steadfastness of these personal and family traits will finally clear our moral atmosphere, for we shall and must see that the safety of society lies in right methods of development based upon normal marriages and normal breeding. As population increases and the complexities of life increase, the burdens put upon us become heavier in proportion. We need more mental and moral backbone than we have; we are becoming progressively unable to stand the strain, it has become absolutely necessary to raise men to a higher level. For our present standard in character even more than in brains is a pitiably low one. Just as it is practicable to improve a breed of animals, so is it possible to increase our own worth. It is in this belief that Francis Galton said: "I argue that, as a new race can be obtained in animals and plants, and can be raised to so great a degree of purity that it will maintain itself, with moderate care in preventing the more faulty members from breeding, so a race of gifted men might be obtained, under exactly similar circumstances."

Here we have the gist of the matter. There is a consensus of opinion in the competent that crime is not fortuitous; likewise that there is one sure method for betterment: "in preventing the more faulty members from breeding."

Scientists have known this for a long time; but the mere fact that the opinion was a scientific one kept it from the active appreciation of the many people who go to make up the intelligent class. Now it is time for us to understand the full bearing of the matter, as we certainly must do if we follow to their logical conclusion the teachings of great minds like Darwin and Wallace, like Wilson, Prof. Oscar Schmidt, Dr. Maudsley, and Jonathan Hutchinson; if we would rightly follow the meaning of the brilliant Weismann when he says that heredity is "that property of an organism by which its peculiar nature is transmitted to its descendants. And not only are the characteristics of the species transmitted to the following generation, but even the individual peculiarities." Besides all this, we have the evidence of men of authority, specialists in criminal anthropology, whose conclusions point in exactly the same direction, men like Cesare Lombroso, Ottolenghi, Rossi, Zucarelli, Virgilio Morselli, Marro; to these let us add the names of the eminent Lacassagne, of Kocher, Raux, Bournet. And even then we shall have only a part. The teaching of science all over the world echoes again and again the words of Gal ton, that the way to better a race lies "in preventing the more faulty members from breeding."

The proper method has been, used often enough, but crudely, by such rulers as Ezzelino da Romano, Henry I, and many others.

We need this reform more than any other that has been proposed in our present time. We should look forward to it as we do to the noblest and best aspirations which crown our lives with light, yea, as we look with uplifted eyes for the hope of our best salvation in this world. The earth is reeking with the sweat of evil, injustice, and moral sickness; the means for relief are easily within our reach; they will bring injustice to no one, they will put a stop to millions of wrongs, they will guarantee to our posterity the possibility of a higher career in every way, without the burdensome disadvantages which crowd us to low planes of life. There is no room with us for the confirmed criminal; there is less room for his offspring, for they pollute the place whereon they stand.