Points of friction/The Beloved Sinner


The Beloved Sinner


ALL the world does not love a lover. It is a cultivated taste, alien to the natural man, and unknown to childhood. But all the world does love a sinner, either because he is convertible to a saint, or because a taste for law-breaking is an inheritance from our first parents, who broke the one and only law imposed upon them. The little children whom Fra Lippo Lippi sees standing in a "row of admiration" around the murderer on the altar step express their innocent interest in crime. Bayard, "sans peur et sans reproche," has never stirred the heart of youth as has Robin Hood, that bold outlaw who "beat and bound" unpopular sheriffs, and "readjusted the distribution of property,"—delightful phrase, as old as the world, and as fresh as to-morrow morning. The terrible and undeserved epithet, "blameless," has robbed great Arthur of his just meed of homage. The "Master Thief" enjoyed, and still enjoys, unmerited popularity.

I sometimes wonder what a man conscious of talent, like the Master Thief, would have thought if the simple criminologists of his day—who knew no subtler remedy than hanging—had confronted him with clinics, and laboratories, and pamphlets on the "disease of crime." I sometimes wonder how his able descendants, like the humorous rogues who stole the gold cup at Ascot; or the wag who slipped the stolen purses (emptied of their contents) into the pocket of the Bishop of Lincoln; or the redoubtable Raymond—alias Wirth—who stole a shipping of Kimberley diamonds and a Gainsborough portrait, feel about their pathological needs. "The criminal is a sick man, the prison is his hospital, and the judge who sentenced him is his physician," said Dr. Vaughan, dean of the Medical School in the University of Michigan. "Does a hunting man give up riding to hounds because he has had a fall?" asked a stalwart "invalid," serving a sentence for burglary, of the chaplain who had urged upon him the security of an honest life.

It is always animating to hear the convict's point of view. In fact, everything appertaining to criminology interests us as deeply as everything appertaining to pauperism bores and repels us. Some years ago the "Nineteenth Century" offered its pages as a debating-ground for this absorbing theme. Arguments were presented by Sir Alfred Wills, a judge of twenty-one years' standing, Sir Robert Anderson, author of "Criminals and Crime," and Mr. H. J. B. Montgomery, an ex-convict and a fluent writer, albeit somewhat supercilious as befitted his estate. He took the bold and popular stand that society has created the criminal class, that its members detest the crimes they commit with such apparent zest, and that they should be "tended and cheered" instead of subjected to the "extreme stupidity" of prison life. Indeterminate sentences which carry with them an element of hope, and which should be an incentive to reform because they imply its possibility, he condemned without reserve as putting a premium on hypocrisy. But the point which of all others aroused his just resentment was the demand made by the two jurists for restitution.

This is the crux of a situation which in the moral law is simplicity itself; but which the evasiveness of the civil law has unduly complicated, and which the random humanitarianism of our day has buried out of sight. Every crime is an offence against the State. It is also in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred an offence against a fellow-creature, which fellow-creature is called a victim, and interests nobody. Sir Alfred Wills and Sir Robert Anderson both held that thieves, big thieves especially, should be compelled to say what disposition had been made of stolen property, and that they should be imprisoned for life if they refused. Anderson was firm in his insistence that the act of thieving alienates such property actually, but not legally or morally, from its owner, and that serving a sentence for robbery does not clear the robber's title to the goods. He also pointed out that the most heartless thefts are committed daily at the expense of people in decent but narrow circumstances, because such people are compelled to leave their homes unprotected. He instanced the case of one woman robbed of her scanty savings, and of another who lost her dead soldier husband's medals, and the few poor cherished trinkets he had given her.

In the matter of restitution, Mr. Montgomery stood fairly and squarely for the felon's rights. "The law," he said, "has nothing to do, and ought to have nothing to do, with the disposal of the booty"; and he was happy in the conviction that it would never go so far as to deprive the thief of the reward of his labour, of the money stolen by the sweat of his brow. As for staying in jail until such restitution was made, that was as ridiculous as the suggestion sometimes offered that the convict's wages should be paid over to the man he has robbed. Nobody cares about a man who has been robbed. The interest felt in the criminal extends itself occasionally to the criminal's family, but never to the family he has wronged. In the United States where robbery is the order of the day, there is n't sympathy enough to go 'round among the many who play a losing game. Chicago alone boasts a record of one hundred and seventy-five hold-ups in two nights, an amazing tribute to industry and zeal. Many of the victims were stripped of their coats as well as of their valuables, there being plenty of time, and no need on the thieves' part for hurry or disorder. The Chicago Crimes Commission put the case with commendable brevity when it said, "Crime is a business here."

An interesting circumstance recorded in Anderson's volume is the reluctance of professional burglars to ply their craft on very cold and stormy nights. It would seem as though bad weather might be trusted to stand their friend; but the burglar, a luxury-loving person, dislikes being drenched or frozen as much as does his honest neighbour. Happily for his comfort and for his health, a high-speed motor now enables him to work on sunny days at noon. It is pleasant to reflect that the experts who robbed three Philadelphia jewellers at an hour when the shops were full of customers, and the streets were full of pedestrians, ran no risk from exposure. They may have been sick men from the psychologist's point of view, but they were as safe from bronchitis as they were from the Philadelphia police.

It is an age of specialism, and the criminal, like the scientist, has specialized. Stealing Liberty Bonds is a field full of promise for youth. Apparently nothing can shake the confidence of brokers in the messengers who disappear with one lot of bonds, only to be released on a suspended sentence, and speedily entrusted with a second. The term "juvenile delinquency" has been stretched to cover every offence from murder to missing school. A fourteen-year-old girl who poisoned a fourteen-month-old baby in Brooklyn, in the summer of 1919, and who was tried in the Children's Court, was found guilty of juvenile delinquency, and committed to a home for delinquent girls. It is hard to say what else could have been done with a murderess of such tender years; but the New York authorities should see to it that Solomon Kramer is the last baby whom Frances Sulinski kills. She poisoned this one with the single purpose of implicating in the crime a woman of seventy with whom she had quarrelled. The poor infant lingered in pain twenty-four hours before released by death. It is not easy to throw a kindly light upon the deed; and while a baby's life is of small value to the State ("as well be drowned as grow up a tinker," said Sir Walter Scott), civilization means that it has a right to protection. The law exists, not for the punishment of the offender, and not for his reformation, but that the public may be safe from his hands.

A robust sense of humour might help to straighten out the tangles which have deranged the simple processes of jurisdiction. When the court rendered a decision freeing the prison authorities of Tacoma from all responsibility in the event of a hunger strike, a light dawned on that stricken town. The I.W.W., who had refused to eat because they objected to being detained in the county, instead of in the city, jail, were accorded liberty to follow their desires. A threat which for years had sufficed to throw British and American prisons into consternation was suddenly found to be harmless to all but the threateners. What really agitated the citizens of Tacoma just then was, not so much whether demagogues would consent to eat the food provided for them, as whether honest men could afford food to eat.

A comic opera might be staged with Ellis Island as a mise en scène. The seventy-three "reds," detained on that asylum as undesirables, who sent an "ultimatum," modelled on the Berlin pattern, to the Congressional Committee, would have charmed Gilbert and inspired Sullivan. The solemnity with which they notified the indifferent Congressmen that at half-past eight o'clock, Tuesday morning, November 25th, 1919, they would declare a hunger strike, the consequences of which "shall fall upon the head of the administration of the island," was surpassed by the calmness with which they gave warning that they would no longer attend the hearings of the committee. Like the heroine of Mr. Davidson's ballad, who told the Devil she would not stay in hell, these gentlemen registered themselves as outside the pale of coercion. They seemed to think that by refusing to eat, they could bend the law to their will, and that by refusing to have their cases heard, they could stop the slow process of deportation.

It is painful to record this lack of healthy humour on the part of political offenders. Ordinary criminals are as a rule neat hands at a joke, a practical joke especially, and convicts respond alacritously to all intelligent efforts to amuse them. Comedians, who from time to time have offered their services to relieve the sad monotony of prison life, have found their audiences alert and responsive. Not a joke is lost, not a song or a skit but wins its way to favour. It is this engaging receptiveness which has made our captive thieves and cut-throats so dear to the public heart. They dilate with correct emotions when they hear good music; and, in the dearth of other diversions, they can produce very creditable entertainments of their own. The great Sing Sing pageant in honour of Warden Osborne was full of fun and fancy. It would have done credit to the dramatic talent of any college in the land. No wonder that we detect a certain ostentation in the claims made by honest men to familiarity with rogues. The Honourable T. P. O'Connor published a few years ago a series of papers with the arrogant title, "Criminals I Have Known." Could he have attracted readers by boasting the acquaintanceship of any other class of fellow-creatures?

The sourness incidental to a grievance deprives the political offender of this winning vivacity. He is lamentably high-flown in his language, and he has no sense of the ridiculous. The Sinn Feiners who wrecked the office of a Dublin newspaper because it had alluded to one of the men who tried to kill Lord French as a "would-be assassin," should expend some of the money received from the United States (in return for stoning our sailors in Cork and Queenstown) in the purchase of a dictionary. "Assassin" is as good a word as "murderer" any day of the week, and a "would-be assassin" is no other than a "would-be murderer." The Sinn Feiners explained in a letter to the editor that the calumniated man was really a "high-souled youth," but this goes without the saying. All political offenders are high-souled youths. It is their sub-title, eligible in oratory and obituary notices, but not in the simple language of the press.

Mr. W. C. Brownell alludes casually to the social sentiment which instinctively prefers the criminal to the police; but he declines to analyze its rationale. Perhaps, as I have already hinted, we may inherit it from our father, Adam, who could have felt no great kindness for Saint Michael, the first upholder of the given law. Justice is an unaccommodating, unappealing virtue. Deep in our hearts is a distaste for its rulings, and a distrust of the fallible creatures who administer it. Mr. Howells, writing ten years ago in the "North American," condemned without reserve the authority which, however assailable, is our only bulwark against anarchy. "The State," he said, "is a collective despot, mostly inexorable, always irresponsible, and entirely inaccessible to the personal appeals which have sometimes moved the obsolete tyrant to pity. In its selfishness and meanness it is largely the legislated and organized ideal of the lowest and stupidest of its citizens, whose daily life is nearest the level of barbarism."

I am not without hope that the events of the past ten years modified Mr. Howells's point of view. If the German State revealed itself as something perilously close to barbarism, the Allied States presented a superb concentration of their peoples' unfaltering purpose. That the world was saved from degradation too deep to be measured was due to individual heroism, animated, upheld, and focused by the State. Though temperamentally conservative, I feel no shadow of regret for the "obsolete" and very picturesque tyrant who softened or hardened by caprice. I would rather trust our stupid and venal authorities, because, while each member of a legislative body is kind to his own deficiencies, he is hard on his neighbour's. Collective criticism is a fair antidote for collective despotism, and robs it of its terrors.

If we were less incorrigibly sentimental, we should be more nobly kind. Sentimentalism is, and has always been, virgin of standards. It is, and it has always been, insensible to facts. The moralists who, in the first years of the war, protested against American munitions because they were fresh-made for purposes of destruction, would have flung the victory into Germany's hands because her vast stores of munitions had been prepared in times of peace. When the news of the Belgian campaign sickened the heart of humanity, more than one voice was raised to say that England had, by her treatment of militant suffragists (a treatment so feeble, so wavering, so irascible, and so soft-hearted that it would not have crushed a rebellious snail), forfeited her right to protest against the dishonouring of Belgian women. The moral confusion which follows mental confusion with a sure and steady step is equally dangerous and distasteful. It denies our integrity, and it makes a mock of our understanding.

An irritated Englishman, who must have come into close quarters with British pacifists,—the least lovely of their species,—has protested in "Blackwood's Magazine" that the one thing dearer than the criminal to the heart of the humanitarian is the enemy of his country, whose offences he condones, and whose punishment he sincerely pities. Thus it happened that British women joined American women in protesting against the return of the cattle stolen during the last months of the war from northern France. They said—what was undoubtedly true—that German children needed the milk. French children also needed the milk (witness the death-rates from tuberculosis in and about Lille), but this concerned them less. The herds belonged to France, and their sympathy went out to the raiders rather than to the raided.

In fact all pacifists seem disposed to look benignly upon the "noble old piracy game." The Honourable Bertrand Russell, whose annoyance at England's going to war deepened into resentment at her winning it (a consummation which, to speak truth, he did his best to avert), expressed regret that the sufferings of Belgium should have been mistakenly attributed to Germany. Not Berlin, he said, but war must be held to blame; and if war were a natural phenomenon, like an earth quake or a thunderstorm, he would have been right. The original Attila was not displeased to be called the "Scourge of God," and pious Christians of the fifth century acquiesced in this shifting of liability. They said, and they probably believed, that Heaven had chosen a barbarian to punish them for their sins. To-day we are less at home in Zion, and more insistent upon international law. The sternest duty of civilization is the assigning of responsibility for private and for public crimes as the rules of evidence direct.

In the Christmas issue of the "Atlantic Monthly," 1919, another Englishman of letters, Mr. Clutton-Brock, preached a sermon to Americans (we get a deal of instruction from our neighbours), the burden of which was the paramount duty of forgiveness. Naturally he illustrated his theme with an appeal for Germany, because there is so much to be forgiven her. That he made no distinction between the injuries which a citizen of Lille or Louvain, and the injuries which a reader of the "Atlantic Monthly" has to forgive, was eminently right, forgiveness being due for the greatest as well as for the least of offences. The Frenchman or the Belgian who forgives "from his heart" reaches a higher standard than we do; but the ethics of Christianity bind him to that standard. It is his supreme spiritual test.

What was less endearing in Mr. Clutton-Brock's sermon was the playful manner in which he made light of wrongs which, to say the least, were not matters for sport. We were called on to pardon, "not as an act of virtue, but in good-humour, because we are all absurd, and all need forgiveness.… We all fail, and we have no right to say that another man's, or another nation's, failure is worse than our own.… We must govern our behaviour to each other by the axiom that no man is to be judged by his past."

These sentences aptly illustrate my contention that the sentimentalist is as unconcerned with standards as with facts. "Absurd" is not the word to apply to Germany's campaign in France and Flanders. A man whose home has been burned and whose wife has been butchered cannot be expected to regard the incident as an absurdity, or to recall it with good-humour. The sight of a child bayoneted on the roadside (five wounds in one poor little body picked up near Namur) arouses something deep and terrible in the human heart. To say that one man's failure is no worse than another man's failure, that one nation's failure is no worse than another nation's failure, is to deny any vital distinction between degrees of right and wrong. It is to place the German Kaiser by the side of Belgium's King, and George Washington by the side of George the Third.

And by what shall men be judged, if not by their past? What other evidence can we seek? What other test can we apply? A man who has run away with his neighbour's wife may not care to repeat the offence; he may be cured forever of this particular form of covetousness; but he is not welcomed in sedately conducted households. A defaulter may be converted to the belief that honesty is the best policy; but few there are who will entrust him with funds, and fewer still who will receive him as a gentleman. If such behaviour is, as Mr. Clutton-Brock authoritatively asserts, opposed to "a Christian technique," it defines the value of facts, and it holds upright the standard of honour.

The well-meaning ladies and gentlemen who flood society with appeals to "open the prison door," and let our good-will shine as a star upon political prisoners, seem curiously indifferent as to what the liberated ones will do with their liberty. There are few of us so base as to desire to deprive our fellow-creatures of sunlight and the open road. There are not many of us so unpractical as to want to keep them a burden upon the State, if we have any assurance that they will not be a menace to the State when released. Sufficiency, security, and freedom have been defined as the prerogatives of civilized man. The cry of the revolutionist for freedom is met by the call of sober citizens for security. Sympathy for the lawless (the beloved sinner) is not warranted in denying equity to the law-abiding, who have a right to protection from the Republic which they voluntarily serve and obey.