Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/March 1873/On the Causes of Crime

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HE name of this Association fails to give a full idea of its scope and aims. In terms they seem to be limited to that class of men who have brought themselves under the penalties of the law; but the moment we begin to study the character of criminals and the causes of crime we find that we are forced back to a scrutiny of our social system and of the weakness as well as the wickedness of our fellow-men. It is because the subjects of pauperism and crime thus lead to an analysis of human nature and to the consideration of social aspects that they have been made the matters of profound thought by able publicists and large-minded statesmen. At first thought it seems that the condition of a small body of men who have offended local laws should be left to the thoughtful control of local authorities, but it is soon found that the considerations involved are as broad as the spread of the human race. For these reasons leading men of different nations were drawn together at the late International Convention at London, and for these reasons this Association was formed. Crime knows no geographical limits, no boundaries of states. It is its nature to war with the welfare of the human family. It must be opposed by the united wisdom and virtue of all nationalities and of all forms of civilization. While local laws must frame penal codes, and local societies do the work of lifting up fallen men, still much is gained by a wide-spread sympathy and coöperation. There are many things which are beyond the reach of state action, in a moral point of view—things which do not come under the cognizance of laws, but which deeply affect the welfare of the whole country. At the first view our efforts seem to be limited to the justice which punishes crime, and to the charity which tries to reform the criminal, but we are soon led into a wider field of duty. We are apt to look upon the inmates of prisons as exceptional men, unlike the mass of our people. We feel that they are thorns in the side of the body politic which should be drawn out and put where they will do no more harm. We regard them as men who run counter to the currents of society, thus making disorder and mischief. These are errors. In truth they are men who run with the currents of society and who outrun them. They are men who in a great degree are moved and directed by the impulses around them. Their characters are formed by the civilization in which they move. They are in many respects the representative men of a country. It is a hard thing to draw an indictment against a criminal which is not in some respects an indictment of the community in which he has lived. An intelligent stranger who should visit the prisons of foreign countries, who should hear the histories of their inmates, would get a better idea of the inner workings of their civilization than could be gained by intercourse with a like number of their citizens moving in more conventional circles of society. As a rule, wrong-doing is the growth of influences pervading the social system, as pestilences are bred by malaria. Our study into this subject soon teaches us that prisons are moral hospitals where moral diseases are not only cared for, but science learns the moral laws of life—where it learns what endangers the general welfare of the community, what insidious, pestilential vapors permeate society, carrying moral disease and death into its homes. Prisoners are men like ourselves, and if we would learn the dangers which lurk in our pathways we must learn how they stumbled and fell. I do not doubt that some men are more prone to vice than others, but, after listening to thousands of prayers for pardon, I can hardly recall a case where I do not feel that I might have fallen as my fellow-men have done if I had been subject to the same demoralizing influences, and pressed by the same temptations. I repeat here what I have said on other occasions—that, after a long experience with men in all conditions of life, after having felt, as most men, the harsh injustice springing from the strife and passion of the world, I have learned to think more kindly of the hearts of men, and to think less of their heads. If we find that crimes are in a large degree the hot-bed growth of social influences; if the weakness of human nature is always open to their attacks; if they may at any time enter into our homes and strike at our family—then we must at least guard against them as we do the pestilence. To protect the public health and to learn the laws of life, we build and sustain with liberal hand hospitals where the sick and wounded can be cured. The moral hospital should be regarded with an equal interest. In each of them we should seek to cure the inmates. In each of them we should seek to find out the secret cause of disease. With regard to both we should in a large-minded way feel that the laws of moral and physical life are a thousand times more important to the multitudes of the world at large than they are to the few inmates that languish in their gloomy walls. The public hold in high honor the man of science who treads the walks of the hospital to find out the facts which will enable him to ward off sickness and death from others. This Association appeals to the public for the same sympathy and support for those who labor to lift up their unhappy brethren from moral degradation, and at the same time to do the greater work of tracing out the springs and sources of crime, and of warning the public of its share of guilt in sowing the seeds of immorality by its tastes, maxims, and usages. We love to think that the inmates of cells are unlike ourselves. We should like to disown our common humanity with the downcast and depraved. We are apt to thank God we are not like other men; but, with closer study and deeper thought, we find they are ourselves under different circumstances, and the circumstances that made them what they are abound in our civilization, and may at any time make others fall who do not dream of danger. It is a mistake when we hold that criminals are merely perverse men, who are at war with social influences. On the other hand, they are the outgrowth of these influences. Crimes always take the hues and aspect of the country in which they are committed. They show not only guilty men but a guilty people. The world holds those nations to be debased where crime abounds. It does not merely say that the laws are defective and the judges corrupt, but charges the guilt home to the whole society. This is just, for most of the crimes which disgrace us could not be done if there were not an indifference to their causes on the part of the community. As certain plagues which sweep men into their graves cannot rage without foul air, so many crimes cannot prevail without wide-spread moral malaria. It is the greed for gold, the love of luxury in the American people, which have caused the legislative frauds, the municipal corruptions, the violations of trust which excite alarm in our land. It is the admiration of wealth, no matter how gained, which incites and emboldens the desperate speculator in commercial centres to sport with the sacred interests of labor, to unsettle the business of honest industry, by playing tricks with the standards of value. Those who use the stocks of great corporations as machines for gambling schemes are more deliberately and artfully dishonest than the more humble swindler who throws his loaded dice. Many of the transactions of our capitalists are more hurtful to the welfare of our people than the acts of thieves and robbers. In the better days of American simplicity, honesty, and patriotism, these things could not have been done. No one would then dare to face a people indignant at such rapacious greed. Such influences have led to frauds, defalcations, breaches of trust. They have filled our prisons and overwhelmed many households with shame and sorrow. Yet the authors of such things are honored for their wealth, and we ask with eagerness how rich do they get, and not how do they get riches. To make the public feel that criminals are men of like passions with ourselves, and that crime is an infectious as well as a malignant disease, that its sources are not so much personal inclination as general demoralization, are the great first steps toward reform. When we feel the disease may enter our own houses and seize upon the mental and moral weakness of those we love, we are ready to study its causes and its workings. We shall then uphold and honor those men of humanity and true statesmanship who study out the cause of moral stains as we honor and support those men of science who search out in sick-rooms and hospitals the cause, and cure the complaint, which kills the body. He who masters the diagnosis of crime gains a key to the mysteries of our nature and to the secret sources of demoralization which opens to him a knowledge of the great principles of public and private reform—the true methods of a good administration of the laws. Pauperism and crime have been the subjects of earnest thought by the best and wisest men of the world, not only on account of their direct interest, but also on account of their relationship to all other matters of good government. Neither of them can be driven out of existence. They will always be problems to vex statesmanship, but they must always be battled with. In the social edifice they are like fires ever kindling in its different parts, which are to be kept under by watchfulness and care. If neglected, they burst out into the flames of anarchy and revolution, and sweep away forms of government. These subjects must be studied directly, and in their moral aspects. There is a pervading idea in our country, that the spread of knowledge will check crime. No one values learning more than I do; but it is no specific for immorality and vice. Without moral and religious training, it frequently becomes an aid to crime. Science, mechanical skill, a knowledge of business-affairs—even the refinements and accomplishments of life—are used by offenders against law. Knowledge fights on both sides in the battle between right and wrong. At this age it lays siege to banks. It forces open vaults stronger than old castles. It forges and counterfeits. The most dangerous criminal is the educated, intellectual violator of the law, for he has all the resources of art at his command — the forces of mechanics, the subtlety of chemistry, the knowledge of men's ways and passions. Learning by itself only changes the aspect of immorality. Virtue is frequently found with the simple and uneducated, and vice with the educated. Surrounded by glittering objects within their reach, our servant-girls resist more temptations than any other class in society. We must look beyond the accidents of knowledge or ignorance if we wish to learn the springs of action. To check vice, there must be high moral standards in the public mind. The American mind must move upon a higher plane. To reform convicts, their hopes must be aroused and their better instincts worked upon. I never yet found a man so untamable that there was not something of good upon which to build a hope. I never yet found a man so good that he need not fear a fall. Through the warp and woof of the worst man's character there run some threads of gold. In the best there are base materials. It is this web of entwined good and evil in men's character which marks the problems and perplexities of the Legislature and judge, while there is no honest dealing with this subject unless the American people are charged with their share of guilt; and, while Christian charity leads us to take the kindest view we can of every man, it does not follow that crime should be dealt with in a feeble way. Let the laws be swift, stem, and certain in their action. What they say let them do, for certainty more than severity carries a dread of punishment. Let the way of bringing offenders to justice be direct, clear, and untrammelled. The technicalities of pleading, proof, and proceedings, in many of our States, are painfully absurd. To the minds of most men a criminal trial is a mysterious jumble. The public have no confidence that the worst criminal will be punished. The worst criminal cherishes at all times a hope of escape. In every part of our country there is a vague idea that certain men of legal skill can extricate offenders without regard to the merits of their case. This is a fruitful cause of crime. There is not in the minds of the American people a clear, distinct conception of our penal laws, their actions, and their results. Not less hurtful to justice are those fluctuations of the public mind, which shakes off spasmodically its customary indifference and fiercely demands a conviction of those who happen at such times to be charged with crime, and thus make popular clamor take the place of judicial calmness and impartiality. No one feels that there is in this country a clear, strong, even flow of administration of criminal law. The mood of the popular mind has too much to do with judicial proceedings. The evils connected with the administration of justice in our land are due in a good degree to the swift changes in the material condition of our country. An increase of our numbers of more than 1,000,000 each year, of more than 2,500 each day, of more than 100 each hour, explains many of the causes of our overburdened system of penal laws. Framed for a different state of society, our perplexities are increased by the fact that more than one-quarter of this daily addition to our population is made up of those who come from other countries strangers to our customs and laws, and in many instances ignorant of our language. History gives no account of such a vast increase of the numbers of any country by constant peaceful action. Conquest rarely makes as many prisoners of war as we make captives to the peaceful advantages of our continent. They bring us wealth and power. They also bring us many problems to solve. British laws deal with British subjects. French courts decide upon the guilt or innocence of Frenchmen. Germany keeps by its usages and customs the ideas of right; and wrong in the minds of the Teutonic race. But we in America have to deal with and act upon all nationalities, all phases of civilization. While these facts palliate the defects of our penal laws and their administration, they certainly make more clear and urgent the duty that we keep pace with the swift changes going on around us. More than this, it enables us to take the lead in the great work of reform as we deal with more plastic materials than are found in the fixed conditions of older nations. Here, too, we have a broader field filled with men of varied phases and aspects of different civilization, in which we can study the wants and the weaknesses, the virtues and the vices, of the human race. For a series of years nearly 300,000 immigrants are annually landed at the harbor of New York. Disorder and crime are always active along the line of march of great armies. I believe there is no instance in history of a movement of the human race so vast and long continued. I am glad to state a fact which in some degree palliates the disgrace which attaches to the administration of justice and the conduct of public affairs in that great city, but I should fall short of telling the truth if I did not also say that the discredit of that great city mainly springs from the sad fact that its men of wealth as a body lack that genuine self-respect which leads to a faithful, high-minded performance of the duties each citizen owes to the public. Is there any other basis upon which we can found this great work of patriotism and philanthropy than the one contemplated by this Association? It may at first view seem to be limited to a small class, but it opens up into a broad field of unpartisan, unsectarian labor. The objects we have in view, although they make our prisons their starting-point, are so wide in their bearing that they brought together at the London International Association, in the interests of our common humanity, men of the best minds of most countries of Europe and America. These, in spite of the differences of religion, language, and form of civilization, could act in accord in devising measures to lift up the fallen and to spread the principles of morality and justice among the peoples of the world. It is found that true statesmanship, like true religion, begins with visiting the prisoners and helping the poor. It is certain that in our own country Edward Livingston, the public man who ranks high in European regard for intellectual ability, gained his position by his great work on the penal laws of Louisiana. When it was the fashion in the scientific world to hold that men and animals were dwarfed on this continent, this work was brought forward by our friends in Europe as a proof that statesmanship was full-grown here. It is a remarkable fact that an able foreign writer selected the Louisiana code and the proclamation of General Jackson against the doctrine of secession as the two ablest productions of the American mind, not knowing that they both came from the same pen. An exposition of Mr. Livingston's system has lately been published in France by M. Charles Lucas, a member of the Institute, and formerly president of the Council of Inspectors of the Penal Institutions of that country. M. Lucas is a distinguished writer and leader in the work of criminal reform. He belongs to that body of large-minded, philanthropic men, who seek to benefit humanity by wise systems of legislation. A certain breadth and reach of mind seem to mark those men who have entered upon the study of penal laws and the reformation of criminals. While there is much to condemn in our system of laws and in their administration, there is much to admire in the practical workings of many of our prisons. In some respects we are in advance of other people. Much has been done in many of our States to improve the condition of our criminals, and much more to rescue the young from vice and destruction. I should be glad to speak of the instances of ability and self-devotion shown by men who have charge of public or private charities established for the reformation of offenders. They would lend a weight to my argument which my reasoning cannot give, but I must leave these things to be brought out by the discussions of this congress. I only seek to show the ends at which it aims; I only seek to make for it the sympathy and support of the public in its efforts to combine and organize the forces of those who, in different parts of our country, are working in this field of philanthropic and patriotic labor. Crime has its origin in the passions which live in every breast, and the weakness which marks every character in its nature. It concerns each of us, as clearly as the common liability to fall prematurely before disease and death. No man can know human nature, no man can be a great teacher to his fellow-men, no man can frame laws wisely and well, who has not studied character in convict-life. There he can best see the lights and shadows of our natures, see in the strongest contrasts what is good and what is bad. The prisons, to which all vice tends, are the points from which the reform can be best urged which seeks to find out where vice begins. Starting from the sad ends of crime and running back along the tracks, it is seen that in a large degree they are engendered by public tastes, habits, and demoralizations. It is in our prisons we can best learn the corrupting influences about us which lead the weak as well as the wicked astray, ay, and sometimes make the strong man fall into disgrace and misery. In these moral hospitals the thoughtful man, the philanthropist, and the statesman, will look for the causes of social danger and demoralization. When we begin at the prison and work up, we find opening before us all the sources of crime, all the problems of social order and disorder, all the great questions with which statesmanship, in dealing with the interests and welfare of a people, must cope when it seeks to lift up high standards of virtue and patriotism. In the most highly-civilized countries the subjects of pauperism and crime secure the most attention and thought. They turn men's minds from selfish to unselfish fields of labor. Those who enter those fields will find in them marks of toil and care by the best human intellects. The grandest minds have worked at their intricate problems. The ambition of the first Napoleon sought to gain immortality in his code of laws as well as in victories on the fields of battle. Much has been done in many of our States to improve prison discipline. Something has been done toward reforming prisoners, but the largest view of the subject, which looks to the moral health of society, and the baleful influences at work in its organization, have not received the attention they deserve. When prisons are visited by men of mind, when prisoners are looked upon with kindly eyes by those who can study their characters and learn from them the virtues, vice, and wickedness which mark our race; when, tracing back the courses of their lives, they shall find the secret sources of their errors and their crimes—then we shall have not only our laws justly enforced and reformed, wrong-doers punished, but, more and better than these, we shall gain a public virtue and intelligence which will secure the safety and happiness of our homes and the glory and stability of the republic. Then wealth gained by unworthy means will no longer be respected. No one can recall the events of the past few years, particularly those of the great commercial centres, without feeling there is an ebb-tide in American morals. Not a little of the glitter of our social and business life is a shining putrescence. Fungus men have shot up into financial prominence to whom a pervading deadening moral malaria is the very breath of life. They could not exist without this any more than certain poisonous plants can flourish without decaying vegetation. While I have tried to present in clear terms the claims of this Association upon the public sympathy and support, it must be understood that we claim for it only the merit of being a useful auxiliary to moral and religious teachings. If those who take part in its work should fall short of its broader and higher objects of a national character, they will at least get this great gain: they will learn to think more humbly of themselves, more kindly of their fellow-men, and to see more clearly the beauties of Christian charity.

  1. Address before the National Prison Association at Baltimore.