Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/March 1896/Correspondence


Editor Popular Science Monthly:

SIR: Writing of Scientific Temperance and President Jordan's thoughtful article in your January issue, you say, "There is no denying that much the greater part of the crime and misery with which society is afflicted is caused by the use of alcohol in one form or another." May I be pardoned if I say that the proposition may well be denied; and may, even without much trouble or skill, be proved totally fallacious? And to prevent misunderstanding, permit me to say that I do not in this communication either advocate or condemn the use of alcoholic drinks: the question may well be left for a separate discussion.

Consider that, if much the greater part of crime and misery . . . is caused by the use of alcohol, it must follow as a corollary that, where alcohol is most used, there we shall find most crime and misery. But experience teaches that this is not true. Here in California, at least, and, I think, perhaps throughout the United States and elsewhere, the representative business and professional men, as a rule, use alcoholic beverages regularly, and in much greater quantity than can possibly be obtained by the poor—those most acquainted with misery and crime. I keep well within the bounds of truth in saying that a majority of merchants, lawyers, judges, and men of affairs, "politicians," legislators, and perhaps physicians, drink daily from two to four glasses of spirits; that many, and these not the least reputable and prosperous, drink double this quantity; and not a few, three or four times as much. Beer, in summer time especially, is drunk by great numbers of the active, efficient, well-behaved, and prosperous business and professional men, both American and German, from two to twenty and even more times a day; and these do not seem on an average to be disposed to crime, or to suffer what is called misery. Brewers, as a class of workingmen, are not more disposed to commit misdemeanors, not to say crimes, than others: and they appear to be far enough from misery; yet 1 am informed by credible people, who know whereof they affirm, that many, indeed most, of them drink daily from twenty to thirty and forty glasses of beer. I have not much personal acquaintance with Wall Street speculators and millionaires, or with their ways; but I conclude, from information and such glimpses into their lives as one occasionally catches, that few of them are abstainers from wine or the stuff called champagne, or from brandy, whisky, etc. If these as a class are criminals (and I for one do not say nay), at least theirs is not the crime, nor is such misery as they may perhaps suffer, the crime and misery of which you speak. I know personally some workingmen, reputable, even respectable, who drink at home from two to four gallons of whisky per month; of course, they are not brilliant members of society.

It is true, doubtless, that the money spent by such well-to-do people as I have mentioned does not bear so large a ratio to their incomes as does that spent by many mechanics and clerks and laborers; and therefore it does not impoverish the former as much as it does the latter. But the same is true of other expenses of "living," viz., those for dwellings, butcher meat, bread, clothing, and amusements; yet none of these things are considered to be causes of crime and misery. If it be true that the use of alcohol has any genetic connection with crime, then those who have served terms in the penitentiary, where alcohol is excluded from their diet, should after liberation be less disposed to crime than before; but experience traverses this conclusion.

The truth appears to be that, excluding from consideration people having organic proclivities crimeward, as Sir Thomas More hath it, there is no "punishment so horrible that it can keep them from stealing, which have no other craft [or opportunity] whereby to get their living"; and further, as he saith, "great and horrible punishments be appointed for thieves; whereas, much rather provision should have been made of some means whereby they might get their living, so that no man should be driven to this extreme necessity to steal; . . . for they that be thus destitute of service [opportunity to work] either starve for hunger or manfully (sic) play the thieves. For what would you have them to do? . . . what can they do but steal, . . . or else go about begging?" Evidently the author of Utopia saw no reason for blaming any particular article of diet or pleasure with the making of thieves or the causing of misery! It is a good rule, in scientific investigations, when you have discovered a sufficient cause for a particular phenomenon, there to rest your case.

George Pyburn.
Sacramento, Cal., January 21, 1896.

[Not having space for the whole of our correspondent's letter, we print only that part of it which bears more or less directly on the point in dispute.

His contention, if we rightly interpret it, seems to come to this: Since a great many people drink who are neither criminals nor criminally inclined, and who can not fairly be included in the category of the miserable, it is not true that crime and misery are to any great extent chargeable to the use of alcohol. We said nothing about the number who drink, nor did we refer to the quantity of spirits or beer which may be taken with impunity by the individual or that may be distributed and consumed by the community at large, these considerations being in our opinion quite beside the question. The fact should be sufficiently obvious that the principal evil connected with the use of alcoholic liquors lies in that excess which is commonly known as drunkenness, the marked tendency toward which is one of the most characteristic features of the drinking habit.

Concerning the aggregate of crime and distress that is plainly traceable to this form of indulgence, there is in the absence of full statistics abundant room for a wide difference of opinion, ranging from an almost total disbelief in the vicious effects of alcohol, to an equally undiscriminating claim that it is at the bottom of most human ills. For ourselves, we are not in sympathy with either extreme. But when we see the papers, particularly of our large cities, containing daily numerous accounts of crimes of violence of all grades from simple assault to murder, committed in the frenzy of intoxication, it is useless to shut our eyes to the fact that alcohol is a most potent inciter to this form of crime. Add to this its acknowledged action in the causation of disease even among moderate drinkers, its debauching influence on the lower classes, the poverty that sooner or later is sure to overtake the victims of its immoderate use, and there can be little question that it is also a most important factor in the production of human misery.—Editor.]