Popular Science Monthly/Volume 5/June 1874/Editor's Table

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 5 June 1874  (1874) 
Editor's Table


HOW shall this nation behave itself when it comes to be a hundred years old? Something extraordinary must he done to signalize that event. For we are a great people, spread over a great continent, on which are great lakes and rivers, and prairies, and coal-fields, and copper-mines; and we have had a great war, and got a great debt and a great common-school system, and how shall we pose in a manner befitting all this greatness when the nation has come to be as old as a very old man? To be sure, a large proportion of this greatness affords no very obvious ground of self-exaltation. The vast continent, with its mighty resources, we certainly did not make, and have got possession of it by means that are not greatly creditable, while neither a great civil war nor a great debt growing out of it is a thing to be much boasted of in this age of the world. Nevertheless, our people do not care to discriminate very nicely in this way; they have got a "big thing" in hand, and manifestly a great destiny before them; and by much contemplation of these things they have engendered a self-consciousness of greatness, which it is calculated will reach the exploding point by the Fourth of July, 1876. What manner of demonstration will befit that occasion is now the perplexing question.

The special event to be commemorated is undoubtedly political. The act of severance by which we established our national independence was a political transaction. We refused any longer to accept a foreign rule, and decided to shape our own government and do our own governing. We worked out a measure of political reform by laying down the simple principle that the people living here are better judges of what they want than people on the other side of the world. It was a step of rational advance in the management of public affairs, and was significant not so much for any vast or absolute good immediately attained, as for opening the way for other and better things in the future. We abandoned monarchy and a state Church, toggled up an arrangement called the Constitution, and entered upon the experiment of shaping civil institutions in accordance with reason. After a hundred years of trial, we find ourselves called upon to make report of the net results of our experiment. What and how much have we done to make humanity our debtors? How have we used our opportunities? How much has been gained toward the progress and welfare of man by our experience? The Centennial Celebration should be the suitable occasion to return answers to these questions.

Obviously it will not do merely to carry out John Adams's old programme of bell-ringing, powder-wasting, and hosannas to liberty, by raising the Fourth of July, 1876, to the tenth power of uproar and rhetorical bombast. And, although the event to be commemorated is political, nothing could be more absurd than to go into a paroxysm of political jubilation. If politics alone is to be taken into account, there will be precious little to celebrate, for it is matter of world-wide notoriety that the course of the nation has been downward in this respect from the start. British rule had given us better men in 1776 than a century of republican experience can turn out in 1876. In purity, honor, self-sacrifice, and the triumph of patriotic principle over selfish ambition, the politicians of to-day will bear no comparison with those who founded the government a hundred years ago. If we are to be judged solely by the political fruits of our political system, it would be most appropriate to devote the Centennial to fasting and humiliation, with the accompaniments of sackcloth and ashes.

But, if technical politics has degenerated and fallen in esteem, there has been a noble progress in other directions and in other things, involving the thought and life of the people, which may well be commemorated on our centennial birth-year.

The act of severance which made us an independent people, as we have said, was a measure of government reform in the direction of less government, or a restriction of its powers and offices. There was an increase of self government at the expense of state control, under the theory put forth by the author of the Declaration of Independence, that "the world is governed too much." By declaring at the outset, that the source of power is not in the divine right of hereditary rulers, but among the people themselves; that religion is not a fit matter for the state to deal with, but must be left to individuals; and by organizing a political system, in which the management of their own interest was thrown back upon the people by local and municipal regulations, while the powers of the General Government were strictly limited and defined by a written constitution, a new order of things was theoretically assumed and partially adopted, which, if carried out, could not fail greatly to narrow the sphere of legislation and reduce the pretensions of politics. The preamble to the Constitution, which declares the reasons why our government was established and the principles which should animate and pervade all our legislation and administration, though couched in general terms, if fairly construed and thoroughly executed, would work the most profound and beneficent reform that could be conceived in the conduct of civil affairs. It would strike away half the machinery of political regulation, and raise the other half to a double efficiency and power. The founders of our government declared that it was ordained to "establish justice," and if the state were confined to that great duty, and the whole moral power of the community were concentrated upon the attainment of that result, the thousand other things with which government now meddles might safely be let alone. The practical working of our political system, it must be confessed, has fatally contravened the intentions of its founders; and, in the attempt to attain a multitude of illegitimate ends, justice, instead of being established, is sacrificed. Nevertheless, by all the implications of the theory upon which we started, politics was to be increasingly circumscribed, and the community left more and more to self-regulation, self-development, and the course of private enterprise. And, happily, political meddling and interference have not been able to defeat this powerful tendency of things. There has been a progress of intelligence, a liberalization of ideas, a promotion of welfare and an improvement of the social condition, which are to be credited, not to politics, but to the laws of human nature and the spontaneous agencies of social life. It is our accomplishment in these directions that we think may be most fitly marked and commemorated in the approaching Centennial.

One of the grandest achievements of the past century is the victory that has been gained over the old spirit of national narrowness and jealousy by which all foreigners were regarded as enemies. Increased inter-communication through the extraordinary modern facilities of travel, and a more familiar acquaintance with the internal life of other countries, have dissipated much of the hostile feeling which was formerly fostered as one of the first duties of patriotism. Commerce has aided to break down international prejudices, and the interchanges of thought and a common interest in the discoveries of science and the inventions of art, by which human condition is ameliorated, are still further favorable to the sentiment of unity among the family of civilized nations. International bigotry is of course very far from being extirpated, and is still available to the demagogue, but it has been greatly diminished. Man is certainly becoming more by virtue of his manhood, and less by virtue of his nationality. It may safely be affirmed that, if the feelings of different peoples could be consulted, and if it were not for the machinations of politicians, international wars would in future be impossible. It may be long before this feeling of sympathetic regard and the duty of justice toward strangers will become sufficiently strong to rule the policy of governments; but that it is increasing in influence is a pronounced and hopeful tendency of modern times, and it should be recognized and strengthened in all possible ways and on all practicable occasions. For these reasons it seems in the highest degree proper that the celebration of our hundredth anniversary should have an international character. To shut ourselves up in surly exclusiveness on our centennial birth-year, and endeavor to revive the illiberal moods and disagreeable memories of a century ago, would be to violate the spirit of the occasion, and, as the phrase is, to "go back" on the best work of humanity for the last hundred years.

Another great result of civilization during the past century, and in which this country has had a conspicuous share, is the development of the arts, the multiplication of inventions, the progress of industry, the extension of science, and that conquest of material Nature which gives new advantages to all ranks of society. In this race of constructive and pacific improvement we are the competitors of other nations, while each type of people makes contributions in accordance with its own genius and circumstances. In the multiplicity and ingenuity of our devices, and in their adaptation to the practical wants of mankind, this country need not be ashamed of its position. It has been long perceived that great mutual advantage would result to different nations, and an immense total gain to civilization, by bringing into close comparison the best that each community has to offer in the way of artistic and industrial productions. England, France, and Austria, have instituted international exhibitions, and invited the coöperation of the world to make them in the highest degree instructive. Why should the United States not join in this generous rivalry, and make an International Exposition the chief feature of its Centennial Celebration? A project of this kind has been ably devised and thoroughly matured; it is to be hoped that a people so full of great things will not break down in its execution under such memorable circumstances, and especially after the enterprise has gone so far as to implicate the national honor.



And, as centennials are now in order, we are happy to see that there is beginning to be a stir in behalf of a Scientific Centennial Celebration for the present year. Dr. H. Carrington Bolton, of the School of Mines in Columbia College, has written a letter to the American Chemist, stating that the year 1774 was so memorable for the number and importance of its chemical discoveries, that it may with good reason be regarded as the birth-year of the science. It was in that year, he states, that the Swedish chemist Scheele first isolated chlorine and threw important light upon baryta and manganese. Lavoisier's experiments upon tin, which led to subsequent discoveries of immense importance, were made also in that year. Dr. Bolton says: "Wiegleb proved alkalies to be true, natural constituents of plants. Cadet described an improved method of preparing sulphuric ether. Bergman showed the presence of carbonic acid in lead white. On the 27th of September in this year Comus reduced the 'calces' of the six metals, by means of the electric spark, before an astonished and delighted audience of savants. On the 1st of August, 1774, Priestley discovered oxygen, the immediate results of which were the overthrow of the time-honored phlogistic theory and the foundation of chemistry on its present basis. It surely requires no lengthy argument to prove that the year 1774 may well be considered as the starting-point of modern chemistry."

In commemoration of these discoveries, Dr. Bolton suggests that "some public recognition of this fact should be made this coming summer. Would it not be an agreeable event if American chemists should meet on the 1st day of August, 1874, at some pleasant watering-place, to discuss chemical questions, especially the wonderfully rapid progress of chemical science in the past hundred years?"

We think this suggestion excellent, and hope it will be carried out. Fortunately the date is favorable, as it occurs in the season of general vacation. We suggested some time ago that such a centennial as this ought to be celebrated; and, as the great discoverer of oxygen was exiled to this country by foreign intolerance, and died here, we proposed to erect a statue to him in the Central Park. But monuments to scientific men are not yet much in favor. They erected one to Dr. Jenner, the discoverer of vaccination, in Trafalgar Square, London; but the place was wanted for a military hero, and so the Jenner statue was carted away to an obscure place in Kensington, and planted down by the public water-filters. He, whose discovery had saved more lives annually than the collective armies of Europe could destroy, if all put at their business, had to give place to one who had signalized himself in a small way, in the work of destroying his kind. Let the chemists meet and celebrate the birth and growth of their science; perhaps in another hundred years the turn of the discoverers will come.



Whatever may be said about the futility of "theories" and the importance of "facts," it is certain that we can no more escape the use of the former than the recognition of the latter. Facts are nothing until they are brought together, compared, interpreted, and some view of them arrived at—and that is a theory. From the most trivial events in daily life to the grave and critical decisions of deliberative bodies, from the question of taking along an umbrella to that of the financial policy of the nation, or a declaration of war, action follows theory as the all-essential thing in the determination of results.

A tragedy has just been enacted in Boston, which affords an impressive illustration both of the importance of theories and the terrible evils that flow from the adoption of wrong theories. A year and a half ago a lad named Jesse Pomeroy was convicted of the atrocious crime of luring young children into by-places and gashing and mutilating them in the most cruel manner. He carried on this savage practice for months, operating upon no less than seven children, and was then taken up by the authorities. How to estimate his conduct, and what to do with him, was then the question. The nature of the acts that he had perpetrated, by their wanton and persistent cruelty, marked him out as not only an exception to the class of youthful offenders, but as an inhuman monster, wanting in moral sense and destitute of the common attributes of humanity. His conduct showed that he was abnormally and insanely constituted. That he was a deficient human being was just as evident as a matter of fact as if he had been born blind, deaf, or without arms. But the authorities proceeded upon another theory—they assumed that he was like other bad boys, and could be reformed, and so they sent him to the State Reform School, After remaining there a year and five months he was released "on probation"—five years before the time at which he would have been entitled to a legal discharge.

On the 22d instant "the body of a boy, four years of age, was found by the water-side in South Boston, bleeding from a multitude of wounds. There were eighteen stabs in the region of the heart. The hands were cut, as if in the little fellow's attempt to ward off the blows of the murderer. The throat was slit, and one eye was nearly cut from its socket. Footmarks in the mud seemed to prove that the child had been led to the spot by some older companion, who must have lifted him down from the wharf, where the prints first appeared; and the condition of the body showed that the murder had been committed but a very little while before its discovery—that is to say, in broad day." Jesse Pomeroy was suspected of the deed, arrested, and confessed that he perpetrated it.

This case, shocking as it is, is by no means rare in its quality. The instances are numerous of individuals who have displayed a propensity for the apparently wanton infliction of pain and destruction of life. The life-destroying impulse may take the direction of suicide, or be turned against others, and frequently manifests itself as an ungovernable propensity to kill infants and young children; and examples are not wanting in which persons are conscious of this terrible tendency in themselves, and, while still able to resist it, invoke restraint from others as their only protection. There is such a thing as insanity—a diseased condition of mind in which reason and self-control are destroyed and responsibility ceases. There cannot be a doubt that Jesse Pomeroy belongs to this class, and his first perpetrations of cruelty should have been held to establish this as absolutely as if his intellect had been shattered and he had been a raving maniac. If the theory at first acted upon, that he was soundly constituted, responsible, and capable of reform, be carried out, of course nothing remains but to strangle him in due form—and that is the short method which society generally prefers, and which, while it appeases public indignation, disposes of the case, and is supposed to end all difficulty. But it is beginning to be seen that these summary procedures do not put things to rest. With every new instance of this kind we are again confronted with the-perplexing problem of how far the defective-minded and badly-constituted are amenable to penalties that are prescribed to the mass of the community who are recognized as sane and responsible.

As we have said, insanity is a fact of human nature—troublesome to define, difficult to limit, and often hard to establish, but which must be met and dealt with as a stern reality. Obscure in its manifestations, profound and remote in its causes as it often is, we are liable to encounter it at any time, while it is so serious a thing that prompt and decisive public action is compelled to be taken upon it. Its questions arise continually in our courts, and have to be passed upon by juries of citizens, upon whose theories of the subject depend the issues of life and death. And besides these intrinsic difficulties in arriving at correct judgments regarding alleged cases of insanity, there are extrinsic difficulties more formidable still, for no subject is more overlaid with public prejudice than this. While such things as law, justice, civilization, and Christianity, have asserted their supremacy for thousands of years, it is only within recent times—so recent as to be still within the memory of men that the system of atrocious barbarity by which the insane had been always and everywhere treated has been brought to a termination. But, while humaner feeling and increasing enlightenment have gained the victory, it would be idle to deny that much of the ignorance, prejudice, and superstition, which gave rise to the old order of things still continues. There still survive the instinctive distrust, antipathy, and repugnance, toward the victims of mental disorder, as though their calamity were a disgrace and reproach to the nature of humanity. With such lingering errors in the popular mind, combined with a lack of the information which science has furnished, it is not surprising that we should often witness outbreaks of public passion so vehement as to affect the administration of justice. The case of James Freeman is still fresh in the memory of this generation. He had murdered a whole family under circumstances of atrocity that ought at once to have raised the suspicion that he was not a sane man; and, when brought to trial in Syracuse, his appearance attested him to be a half-demented brute. That the State was saved from the disgrace of executing him as a responsible criminal was due not to the intelligence or humanity of the people of Central New York, but to the noble intrepidity of an eminent lawyer, who, with no hope of reward, faced a storm of public indignation by voluntarily undertaking his defense. The evidence of public prejudice in relation to this sub-just is still further seen in the general impatience that is evinced when the plea of insanity is urged in capital trials. No doubt this plea has come to be a resource of lawyers, and is made the most of without regard to justice, in the defense of criminals; but the license of lawyers is a settled policy in the procedure of courts, and it is to be expected that they will strain and abuse every plea that can be made available. Moreover, as we have repeatedly said, insanity is a fact, and from its nature a cause of crimes the most inhuman; and while, in cases of suicide, mental derangement is alleged by coroners' juries as almost a stereotyped cause, it is not only proper but imperative to inquire if it may not also be a cause in cases of homicide. This plea is not to be ruled out or escaped as illegitimate; and the only rational course is to prepare to meet it and deal with it intelligently.

Technically, this subject belongs to physicians, as it is to their profession that we are indebted for our knowledge of it; and they are also the parties to whose intelligence and experience society must appeal in all obscure and doubtful cases. But the subject belongs, also, to the general public, in a far more important sense, for citizens not only have to share in legal proceedings in which insanity is involved, but they have to deal with it in its early stages and its private management. Nor is this all. As the past study of mental derangements, from the scientific point of view assumed by the medical man, has contributed largely to the extension of our knowledge of human nature, so there is no better method now of getting at that knowledge than by considering the aberrant and disordered manifestations of the human mind. It is quickly found that mankind are not to be sharply divided into two groups, the sane and the insane—the responsible and the irresponsible—but that these states pass into each other by degrees, so that men are to be judged, as it were, by their position upon a scale of organization, character, and opportunities. Dr. Henry Maudsley, a philosophic student of this subject, and a distinguished authority in the alienist branch of medical practice, has just prepared a valuable popular work[1] upon this question, which contains just the information that needs to be widely disseminated. The book is a compact presentation of those facts and principles which require to be taken into account in estimating human responsibility—not legal responsibility merely, but responsibility for conduct in the family, the school, and all phases of social relation in which obligation enters as an element. The work is new in plan and was written to supply a widely-felt want which has not hitherto been met. It may be strongly recommended to general readers, and, as the important truths it contains are not enforced in the prevailing system of education, it should be especially read by young men as a preparation for the duties and responsibilities of citizenship.

If any suppose that the questions considered in the previous article are not practical and pressing, we offer them an additional fact. Since it was in type,-the State of New York has undoubtedly hanged an irresponsible maniac. Joseph Waltz was executed at Catskill, May 1st, for a murder so wanton and causeless as to raise a strong presumption of mental derangement, which was also confirmed by other circumstances. His keeper in the jail proceeded upon the same theory as that of the Boston authorities in the case of Pomeroy, and assumed that he was sane. He had been frequently cautioned against exposing himself to the murderer, but always answered, "Joe won't hurt me;" yet the day before his execution he broke his keeper's skull with an iron bar. The existence of homicidal mania is a well-recognized fact, and there was the strongest presumption that this was an instance of it. But, although the second attempt to kill tended to confirm the evidence of the first that—Waltz was of unsound mind—the Catskill people, it is said, turned out by thousands with the view of breaking jail and lynching him, so that the military had to be called on to prevent the crime of public murder. The only party who could have legally interfered to stay the execution until a more thorough inquest into the case might be had, was the Governor at Albany, elected by the help of the aforesaid mob, and, of course, "accountable to the people," and he did not choose to interfere.

Waltz's brain was examined by the physicians after his death, and reported free from disease. It was unusually large, weighing fifty-four ounces, which is five ounces above the average. "The membranes and gray matter were found in a healthy state, and the convolutions were perfect. An incision disclosed no softening, and a critical examination failed to discover any organic malformation or disease." And it was therefore the opinion of the examiners that there was nothing in the organ to indicate insanity. Of this it may be said: 1. That a hurried examination, under such circumstances, of so delicate and complex an organ, and where the indications of morbidity are often most obscure, is not in the highest degree trustworthy; 2. That insanity may exist where dissection cannot detect the evidence of it in the cerebral tissues, as where it is due to a morbid condition of the blood; 3. If profound disease had been discovered in the organ, it would not have been held to prove insanity, and we should have been reminded of those cases in which extensive brain-disease has coexisted with entire sanity. We should have been further assured that the proof of insanity is not in the disclosures of the scalpel, but in the manifestations of conduct. The state of public feeling and intelligence is well indicated by the tone of some of the newspapers, which insist that maniacal murderers may just as well be hanged and got out of the way as other murderers. One of them says: "Had Waltz been a resident of this city he would not have been hanged, probably, but would have escaped on the plea of insanity. Fortunately, however, he is hanged and well out of the way; and we doubt not that society, in the light of such facts as his crime presents, will eventually come to the view that it must hang all murderers, sane or insane." In such a case, as another morning paper remarks, "if the maniac is hanged, it is highly desirable that he should be hanged as a maniac, so that the community and the asylums may know how they stand in relation to each other." An excellent suggestion, which might be carried out by doing this branch of the business in the State asylums for the benefit of the lunatics.



There has been much inquiry in this country for a good portrait of Herbert Spencer, and preparations have been, for some time, in progress to furnish it. Mr. Spencer was requested to sit for an oil-painting, and to select his artist for the work. He chose Mr. W. H. Burgess, of London, one of the greatest masters of expression in our time, and the work produced is regarded by Mr. Spencer, and by those who know him, as a remarkable success in portraiture. The portrait, which is now on exhibition at the Academy, has been, for several months, in the hands of H. B. Hall, jr., for the production of a large steel engraving suitable for framing. The print is an excellent likeness and an elegant work of art, and it will be the picture by which Mr. Spencer will be known to the future. A limited number of artist's proofs have been taken on fine India paper, price ten dollars, and those who wish to possess themselves of one of these impressions may do so by applying to the editor of The Popular Science Monthly.


  1. "Responsibility in Mental Disease," by Henry Maudsley, M. D. (No. 9 of the "International Scientific Series"). 818 pages. Price, $1.50. D. Appleton & Co.