Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/November 1875/The Relations of Women to Crime I
|←Volume 7|| Popular Science Monthly Volume 8 November 1875 (1875)
The Relations of Women to Crime I
By Ely Van de Warker
THE first traditional crime, the fratricide of Abel, was a natural outgrowth from the conditions of society, which, compared to the present relations of civilized men, existed germ-like around him. These conditions alone gave motive and direction to the deed. To all the after-centuries of human crime this primal offense has existed as a type. Both in cause and effect it is reduced to its simplest proportions. The criminal represents the retrograde tendency of society; the savagism which exists in every community. Order and progress are preserved by an irrepressible conflict waged on the border-land, as it were, of civilization. Many of these crimes grow out of the artificial wants of society. Others are but relative and belong to particular conditions, or orders of men, and at other times and places are without meaning and void of offense. Thus society is ever eager for the warfare, and, at the time it creates the crime, prepares the weapons for its punishment.
The propensity to crime is a fixed element in human nature. Quetelet, whom I have frequently referred to in the course of these papers, has with singular sagacity and perseverance reduced the social relations of man nearly to an exact science. The dark and tortuous by-ways in life, which so many seem perforce to follow, arrange them-selves with the regularity of geometrical lines under the clear illumination of his analysis. Yet these are surface-lines only. There are profound depths of human misery and crime, over which a veil seems drawn by a merciful hand, and in which we have but a suspicion of the force of law. But, in these depths, in which the terminal fibres of human relations find soil and sustenance, can be found the origin of the ordinances under which these surface-lines are grouped. If this he so, it follows that crime must be studied as a natural phenomenon rather than as an accident. Those efforts which society has made to stamp out and confine this tendency to evil must, to an equal extent, spring from higher law; just as a breakwater is reared to protect an exposed harbor from the encroachments of storm and wave.
We have of late years come to look upon criminals as a special class of the community. We have come to complacently call them the "criminal class," just as we do the mercantile class or any other reputable order of men. This is so far true as to be capable of proof more by the exceptions than the rule. We have come to look upon crime as we do the typhus fever or the cholera, as prevailing mainly amid dirt and ignorance. I believe this to be true only so far as ignorance permits those good qualities in men to be undeveloped which require culture for their development; and the existence of such qualities has not as yet been demonstrated. It must be understood that while the word "ignorance" does not express a positive quantity, it yet expresses a positive quality which is true of the mass of people. This word with perfect fairness may be applied to the vast numbers which swell the aggregate of a census-table, without any qualification. I believe it can be shown that it is simply from excess in numbers that the ignorant classes furnish the recruits to the ranks of crime, and not from any tendency to crime dependent upon the negative quality of ignorance. A careful analysis of facts in this field induces Mr. Buckle to say that "the existence of crime, according to a fixed and uniform scheme, is a fact more clearly attested than any other in the moral history of man." Another high authority may be quoted in evidence to prove that this scheme is exempt from those laws which govern intellectual development: "It is one of the plainest facts that neither the individuals nor the ages that have been most distinguished for intellectual achievements have been most distinguished for moral excellence, and that a high intellectual and material civilization has often coexisted with much depravity."
All this seems to show us that there is a rhythm in human actions that forms a minor chord in the forever unwritten music which those who love Nature know as existing profoundly in all her works.
Since we are dealing with an element in human character which preserves a fixed value, it is evident that we may study the relation of any class in any community to these constantly-recurring phenomena, provided we can isolate this class from all others. In the study before us, this has already been done by the division of mankind into the sexes. I need draw no other line. Women stand out so clearly as a class, and, in relation to any series of acts which preserve a more or less constant periodicity, are so sharply defined from man, that they are easily contrasted with him in relation to any condition common to both.
I have already called attention to the fact that intellectual development obeys other laws than those which relate to crime. This requires to be brought out more clearly in relation to women. In this age women are receiving more chivalric attention, more material respect, than in any other known to history. In this century they are accorded the full right, and are given the aid of some of the best intellects among the other sex, to adjust those wrongs under which they have labored for ages. They are identified with every scheme of love and purity which demands good motives and a sympathy that never slumbers. It is for this reason, then, that, when we associate women with the idea of crime, it is difficult to believe that they are not influenced by other laws than those which affect men. There is nothing in a brawny hand and coarse muscle which tends to evil. The hand which executes may be white and begemmed. The mind which plans may be cultivated and refined.
In the study before us, we shall be obliged to resort to other facts than those simply contained in tabulated statements of crime. Statistics has done much in social study, and in this instance it has pointed out the existence of law in human action in the aggregate; but it has gone no deeper. We can establish by its means a probable difference in the degree to which the sexes are affected by crime; we can so group these numerical statements that they will be a mutual check upon each other, but if we are to learn any thing of the under stratum of human life, of its curves and faults, of which we see only here and there an upheaval upon the surface of society, we must study sexual and general character, we must observe the mutual relation and dependence of the sexes and classes upon each other, and give due credit to the cerebral and physical differences which go to make up the sum of sex all of which are beyond the province of figures to express. In the course of these papers, therefore, I shall resort to statistics only to the extent I have mentioned. The popular character which I have endeavored to give them also forbids the resort to statistical detail, except to the extent which is inseparable from the nature of the study.
As in hygiene so in crime, there is not one law for woman and another for man. The emotions which impel to crime are few, and to the operation of which the sexes are both exposed. But, it does not follow that these causes react in the production of crime to an equal degree. The propensity to crime, as defined by its actual commission, is four times as great in men as in women. Here at the outset we are confronted by a remarkable contrast. But, allowed to stand as here stated, it involves a vital error. A propensity to crime is its existence latent in the possibilities of the individual. Justin McCarthy, in one of his novels, in describing a character defines her virtue as purely anatomical while mentally most unchaste. Here the propensity was one thing and its physical expression another. It therefore follows that if we are to reach the degree of woman's propensity to crime it must be by other means than a simple expression of the difference in the actual perpetration of total crime. The propensity can be approximately measured by the degree of the offense. Quality and degree are in law the measures of the punishment inflicted on the offender. This is called justice, and it is indeed tempered with mercy when we compare it with the operations of law less than a century ago, when it dealt with crime simply as a quality without reference to degree. In its treatment of criminals, society took its first scientific stand-point when it measured the propensity to evil by the degree of evil actually committed. It seems safe to assume that in a certain limited range, as the degree of crime defines its penalty, so also it expresses the extent of the propensity. Another fact maybe approximately established from the same data. The causes of crime, those deeply-hidden undercurrents existing in society, the ebb and flow of which seem to register themselves in undeviating curves of human conduct, must vary in intensity to the degree of crime which is their natural outgrowth. Thus, a man who commits a criminal act with the full knowledge that his life is jeopardized thereby must surely be exposed to an influence far greater than one who, under all circumstances, would shrink from the greater crime through a sense of punishment, but would not hesitate to commit a lesser offense. If this is not so, then society has been acting upon a false theory in its repression of crime by the fear of punishment. But I believe legislation for this purpose has been based upon a correct knowledge of human nature, and that the average man with criminal tendencies is, to a certain degree, deterred from criminal conduct by a fear of punishment. There is strong confirmation of this in the condition of society existing in the border States and raining regions, in which there is a low estimate of the value of human life, not from the fact that life is individually less precious there than elsewhere, but that the tendency to this form of crime exists in greater force as a natural outcome of the conditions under which human life is there grouped. I believe it is just, therefore, to partly form an estimate of the tendency to crime by the method I have adopted, aided by a simple comparison of the prevalence of crime in general in the sexes.
The apparent great excess in the prevalence of crime among men forms one of the most interesting facts of sex in crime. At the outset we ought to reach, if possible, the cause. In this connection all ideas of the innate morality of women over men must be abandoned. Modern literature is full of a false and even morbid idea upon this subject. M. Michelet has written a romance called "Woman," and it is a fair sample of what may be termed the sentimental estimate of the. sex. But the frail creature portrayed in the florid sentences of Michelet is not the woman of France. One glance at the tables of Quetelet proves this.
We must take a practical view of woman's character. She must be regarded as one in whom the passions burn with as intense heat as in the other sex. The limits of her morality are the same as man's. She attains purity in the same manner; and she meets sexual disaster through the same means. Her worldly view is bounded by the same horizon. She upholds for herself the same standard of success or failure. Temptations run in the same channel and are resisted by the same psychical traits. The forces of heredity play the some role in her mental and bodily life. Beyond these, she belongs to a different mental type from man, the effects of which in our present knowledge, and in the relations we are now studying the sex, reach limits impossible to fix. I can see no other way of viewing the sex, and reaching any thing like approximate truth in her relations to crime.
In crimes against persons in which personal strength forms an element, there is a physical factor for the difference. The ratio of strength between the sexes is as sixteen to twenty-six, and this is found to correspond to the difference in which women and men participate in crimes against persons and property. Such a coincidence as this, constantly recurring, renders, in this broad classification of crimes in general, such an explanation probable. But, in a closer analysis of crime in particular, this physical basis loses its value as a probable cause. While we must allow that sexual difference in strength finds a reflex result in consciousness, and thus places a limit to the acts of either sex, yet in crimes against persons we find the sexes approaching to and receding from a common ratio. It is this fact which leads me to the conclusion that all argument regarding the innate excess of moral qualities in the female sex over the male, is based upon a fallacy. It is strongly confirmatory of this, that a simple numerical comparison of the prevalence of crime in the sexes leads to error, unless we credit women with the fewer temptations, the less opportunity, and those forms of sexual cerebration which find their expression in a want of belligerence which characterize women. Thus it would be obviously wrong to assert that, because twelve women to one hundred men are convicted of assassination, women represent more than eight times the morality of men in relation to this one offense. This crime is just the one to call into play all those conditions which constitute the moral atmosphere and conditions of sex. Woman's want of opportunity, the nature of her occupations, and the absence of the same degree of temptation, must all be taken into consideration in forming an opinion of the moral equivalent of women in connection with the crime. If it were possible to give to each one of these modifying conditions a numerical expression, this moral equivalent could be given a mathematical value. But this is impossible, and each possesses in itself an imaginary yet appreciable value. Again, let us group all those crimes against persons which involve the taking of human life, and observe the extent to which the sexes are engaged. For all crimes against persons, Quetelet places the ratio at sixteen to one hundred; but in the class of crimes I have selected, involving infanticide, poisoning, parricide, assassination, and murder, we find this ratio nearly doubled, being thirty to one hundred. It is evident that woman's tendency to crime must be measured by some other standard than innate morality. If we apply to these figures the theory that the degree of crime is in a measure the test of propensity, we obtain some startling results. Take the felonies named above in the aggregate, and while the marked difference of sex in the commission of total crime is evident, we see that in the perpetration of these grave offenses she exceeds her ratio of crimes against property. I think this shows the probability that those emotions or passions which serve as the incentives to crime, approach in intensity the same mental conditions in the other sex. When we consider the strong emotional nature of women, and that many of these emotions are of an organic or sexual origin, and their social relations, and the habit of dependence, which they have inherited, upon these relations, we must admit that the moral elements of crime are so strengthened as to modify materially their deficiencies of strength and want of opportunity.
Many of woman's social relations are well calculated to clear and make easy the way to crime. It is another confirmation of the fact that society prepares the crime, and the criminal executes it. Compensation is found for her in the fact that society also places obstacles in her way by removing many temptations and opportunities for offense. But, in those crimes which are the natural outgrowth of her sexual and social relations, we find woman standing upon man's own level as a criminal. Thus, in infanticide and in poisoning, both of which, from the degree of offense involved, show a strong action of the exciting cause, all sexual difference in numbers disappears, and it is evident that the tendencies to those two crimes are equivalent in the sexes.
As the preceding shadows forth the interesting fact that woman, as a criminal, is under forces of both restraint and non-restraint other than sexual differences of mind or body, compared to man, it will be necessary to refer briefly to the nature and extent of these modifying circumstances, in order to appreciate the true bearings of the question. These conditions spring mainly from her social relations. This leaves us another important class of modifying conditions which may be traced to sexual relations. Two classes can therefore be made: (A) social conditions, and (B) sexual conditions, modifying woman's relation to crime.
The first (A) which exist sufficiently near to the subject to call for analysis are: (1) occupation, (2) opportunity, and (3) marriage; and each of which must have a marked influence on sporadic cases of crime, and especially upon the creation of the criminal habit. But, much as these modifying circumstances have to do with the question before us, yet returns involving these particulars are so imperfect that we are able to get but a hint of the extent to which each acts.
(1.) Occupation, as it places woman above temptation to the minor degrees of crime, or as it brings her more closely in contact with constantly-recurring temptations, becomes an important factor. It is evident that these conditions must exist in the lives of both sexes, and have their influence on the frequency of crime and the nature of the offense. Thus in an official return quoted by Quetelet, in which the offenders are classified by occupation, the accused of the eighth class who all exercised liberal professions, or enjoyed a fortune, are those who have committed the greatest number of crimes against persons; while eighty-seven hundredths of the accused of the ninth class, composed of people without character, as beggars and prostitutes, have attacked scarcely any thing but property. When the accused are divided into two classes, one of the liberal professions, and the other composed of journeymen, laborers, and servants, this difference is rendered still more conspicuous. This is sufficient to render the broad inference probable that want or necessity induces but the minor degrees of crime against property, while the more serious phases of crime belong to the opposite conditions of society, or have their mainspring in other motives. In the Compte Général de l'Administration de la Justice, the occupation of the accused is given by sex, and under the article Domestiques we find one hundred and forty-nine men and one hundred and seventy-five women employed as personal servants, nearly all of whom were accused of the minor degrees of crimes against property. These proportions for this occupation hold about the same relations from year to year. As persons so engaged are maintained generally by their employers, want could not have existed as a motive for these offenses. Cupidity, or the desire to appear well, with the facility of its gratification, afforded by occupation, is the probable motive, and, making allowance for the slight excess of women so employed, exists in almost equal intensity in both sexes.
From what we know of the inadequate pay attending many of the employments in which women are engaged, it is safe to say that irresistible temptation is often the result. In the larger cities there are thousands of women, reaching from youth to advanced life, who are but just able to provide themselves with the necessities of life by labor extending over more than half of the hours in the day. Many of these have others dependent upon them, which must add very much to the tendency to the minor forms of crime. But the tendency to crime arising from inadequate pay is twofold. It may not be sufficient to meet necessary bodily wants, or barely sufficient, or, as is too generally the case, it is insufficient to supply those matters of personal adornment and comforts of surrounding, small as many of them are, which are so necessary to contentment. This tendency to adornment either in person or surroundings must be looked at seriously as a sexual mental trait in women. They need but to reach the rudimentary stage of education to have developed in them æsthetic tendencies, and which in many seem to exist innately. This feeling is also closely allied to that personal pride which is such a safeguard against the encroachments of vice. This pride of person is to many a struggling woman what a moral atmosphere is to others. To the one it is an instinct which keeps her from the degradation, and that conduct which leads to it; to the other it is the moral force which surrounds her and lifts her above the opportunities for evil. Viewed in this light, personal pride, as expressed in the adornment of person and home, may replace the purely moral sense to a certain extent. But pushed beyond the point at which it contributes to correct conduct, and allowed to exist solely as a sexual trait, it may become a strong incentive to crime. There is no reason to doubt but it is mainly the cause which makes crimes against property so nearly equal in the sexes among French domestics just alluded to. A mere desire for luxury would not be liable to develop in one never at any time of life exposed to its enervating influence, as the mass of working-women spring from parents who are also toilers, so that we may safely conclude that want, or a personal pride to appear better than others in the same station, is the most active cause of crime among underpaid women who have inherited no criminal taint.
The massing of large numbers of women at manufacturing centres is a circumstance from which spring many conditions which render the minor degrees of crime easy of commission. It is a singular fact that a great preponderance of numbers in one sex over the other, unrestrained by ties of family, and without the natural dependence of the different occupations and stations of life upon each other, almost invariably defines a locality in which the various forms of crime exist to excess. This has long been remarked of places in which the number of men greatly exceeds the number of women, but little attention has been called to the same condition as resulting from the preponderance in numbers of the other sex. Any one who has inquired into the causes of the social evil must have been struck by the numbers who admitted they had taken the first steps of their career in the populous manufacturing towns where an excessive number of their own sex was employed. There is this marked difference: an excess in the number of men leads to an increase of crimes against persons, while an excess of women increases crimes against property, in both cases relatively as to sex. I see no way, in our present knowledge of the subject, of explaining this, other than that a healthy tone of society demands an even balance of the different occupations and stations, and the presence of those ties of kinship which act so powerfully as restraints. Aside from these conditions I know of no facts which show that an even proportion in numbers of the sexes has a mutually conservative effect upon morals.
Generally, those in whom there is no inherited criminal taint, or no development of the criminal habit, would not seek nor create an opportunity for offense. But this can hold true only as to crimes against property, for in the other class of offenses, revenge, jealousy, avarice, and other emotions, may act suddenly as the exciting cause.
It is evident that woman's opportunities for crime are restricted by her relations to society, except, as we have already seen, certain facilities are afforded by her occupation. The moral influence of woman upon society is powerful; but it is negative rather than positive. Woman wields a sort of moral inhibitory power. Except as she may directly incite the other sex to crime, relationship to woman restrains and tones down the more salient points of the male character. Her lessened opportunity for crime results naturally from her sexual relations. Opportunity springs from the free mingling of large numbers in the heat and action of life. It is the antagonism between interests and objects, the friction, as it were, between the rapidly-moving actors, which brings out the intensity of emotion which results in the open or secret warfare of society. The vast majority of women are, to a certain extent, removed by the restraints not by any means artificial, but those which naturally result from their sexual relations, from the opportunity for crime. But I would limit even those restraints to crimes against property, rather than against persons. Although the ratio is sixteen and thirty-two to one hundred for each of these classes respectively, yet I believe it can be shown that the diminished ratio for crimes against persons depends upon other and more specific causes than her sexual attitude to society. Domesticity in this relation shows its potency as a conservator of morals; but, standing alone and unaided by mutual dependence and interest, its power is limited to placing each subject beyond the more closely besetting opportunities to which men are exposed. It is but necessary to call attention to the fact that it is from among female domestics and operatives that the ranks of prostitution are recruited, in order to show that domesticity, which is the condition of seven-eighths of the female population, must be accompanied by other relations in order to act as a more or less complete restraint to crime. I use the word here in its broadest possible sense, as defining the position of the majority of the sex. Great as the influence of the domestic relation is, it is limited by the fact that it is not permanent. It is constantly exposed to those accidents to which all human relations are liable. The passions and discordant interests find in this relation a field for their utmost activity. The sexual relation, which is founded in the passions common to us all, finds in them the elements of its strength and permanency, as well as its weakness. It is created and made lasting as life, or as brief as a summer's day, by one and the same organic emotion. Otherwise marriage, which we may assume as the type of domesticity, would not seem of itself to exist as a factor in crime. As we study marriage in relation to crime in another part of this paper, we shall perceive some very singular facts in which its bearings upon society are not so healthy as might be expected. It cannot be charged, however, to marriage, which is the most perfect of all human relations, but to its underlying weakness, the changing sexual conditions upon which it is based. It is safe in a broad grouping of crime to say that the emotions and passions define offenses against persons, while those against property are characterized by processes of mental calculation and deliberation. The last needs opportunity and temptation; the first exists everywhere. The domestic relation affords a refuge to the one, and contains within itself the element of the other. For these reasons I believe that the restraint afforded by domesticity must be mainly limited to crime against property.
In connection with this division of our subject we are brought face to face with the fact that women are as capable of crime as men. "It is not the degree of crime which keeps a woman back," says Quetelet.... "Since parricides and wounding of parents are more numerous than assassinations, which again are more frequent than murder, and wounds and blows generally, it is not simply weakness, for then the ratio for parricide and wounding of parents should be the same as for murder and wounding of strangers."
With opportunities equal to man's, with the way to crime made easy, instead of being hedged in by the limits of her occupations, woman may equal him in the tendency to crime. Infanticide, in view of the strength of woman's maternal emotions, of the acuteness of her sympathies, and the general attributes of her character, stands alone as a crime in its relations to the sex. Considering the violence done to emotions which are a part of her organic psychical life, it has no equivalent in degree in the range of crime. If we apply to it the theory that the degree of offense, to a certain extent, affords a measure of the tendency to crime in the individual, this crime would reveal in women such a tendency greatly in excess of the other sex. But we must bear in mind that this crime, more than any other, which tends to make woman appear unduly prominent as a criminal, is a natural outgrowth of social surroundings. It is a marked instance of the fact that society contains within itself, even in its normal conditions, the moral agencies that create crime. Society has raised for itself a gauge of conduct, by which the alternative may be presented to any woman, of either crime or disgrace. At the same time society has so organized itself that the chief aim of every woman has been to establish a permanent relation to some man based upon involuntary sexual emotions. So long has this been in existence, so much power has it acquired by the increment of the forces of heredity, that it has become an organic law of society. This is a factor which enters into every woman's existence; by it her sexual life is made to exceed in intensity the intellectual. Ceaseless indwelling upon what every woman is taught to regard as both a necessity and an honor has tended to give undue force to every thing that relates both mentally and physically to her sexual existence. This is the manner in which society has made the way easy for woman's sexual error. Reflecting upon this, I confess to admiration for a sex which in the face of these difficulties has ever maintained such a well-deserved reputation for purity, and shown us that mankind turns instinctively to good rather than evil. Punishment is part of the crime, with society. To women for a sexual offense it measures out a punishment relentless and life-long. They are banished and hang on the outermost skirts of the inexorable law-giver as "Scarlet Letter" ones, for whom, in all their lives, there is no further hope.
Prepared in this fashion for infanticide, can it be wondered at that the ratio for this crime is 1,320 women to 100 men? It is clearly an alternative of either social banishment and a total defeat of her selected destiny, or an attempt to conceal her error by crime. With an obliteration of one set of moral feelings there must be necessarily a weakening of the general moral character. She is therefore prepared to violate all the emotions and consciousness which have their origin in the very condition, through the undue development of which she met disaster. Infanticide appeal's to the woman's consciousness less formidable and repellent than her certain punishment by society. Her training has prepared her to place this lessened value upon the crime. Quetelet gives prominence to shame as an impelling motive to the crime. I can give it no such value. That sense of shame or modesty which exists as a phase of sexual cerebration in every mentally healthy woman, and that induces her to guard so jealously the casket after the jewel has been stolen or rather bestowed, is the part of her mental life to which the most violence has been done by her social error. What the French philosopher ought to refer to, is not the sexual quality of shame, but a sense of degradation which is common in an equal degree to both sexes. It is the sense that the good opinion of those we know, and whose esteem we value, has been forfeited. When we connect this sense of forfeiture with the fact that the interests in life which women are educated to hold most sacred, await but detection to be lost forever, I think we have found sufficient reason why this crime, which so antagonizes all womanly qualities, should exist to such a degree as to alter nearly one-half the ratio of the sexes in relation to crimes which involve human life. In analyzing the circumstances which bear upon infanticide, we are studying the darkest page of woman's criminal history. It proves that under a sufficient motive, and with every opportunity which her peculiar relation to that offense gives, she demonstrates her capacity to equal man in both the degree and number of her criminal acts. It is, however, an offense so characteristically entwined with her sexual life, and with her relations to society, that we must have a due regard for circumstances in contrasting it with any crime or series of crime in men. As already perceived, I am disposed in this inquiry to assign it but one value: her disposition to entertain the criminal idea, and under favorable opportunity to give that idea expression. In other respects the crime stands alone, and can be used only in contrasting woman against woman. There are certain abnormal states of sexual cerebration connected with this offense which will more readily present themselves when we study the crime against society—the social evil.
In considering the effect of married or celibate life upon women in relation to crime, we are beset by many difficulties in regard to data. The officials upon whom devolve the duty of collecting criminal statistics, have yet to learn that they deprive their labor of much of its scientific usefulness by their errors of omission. The information has but little value that so many male or female criminals are married or unmarried. A proper study of the subject requires that this information be given in its relation to crime as it affects persons or property, the age at which the criminal career began in the two classes respectively, and crime among the widowed or divorced. Nearly all these facts are wanting. We can, however, collect sufficient data to enable us to shadow forth the probable truth in regard to this important matter. We may safely term marriage the unit of force in our present civilization. I have briefly called attention to its innate strength and weakness, which are inseparable from human mutability. It is easy to perceive the manner in which marriage may act as a conservator of morals, and its operation as a promoter of crime is equally evident; but the extent of its operation in either direction is difficult if not impossible to measure. In the examination of the returns of crime for the years 1867, 1871, and 1873, in New York City, and which show great uniformity in the social condition of the sexes, we are met with the strange fact that the percentages of the married of both sexes correspond, being thirty-nine per centum; while for males the percentage of the unmarried is fifty-five, and for females in the same social condition it is forty-two. Regarding marriage as a conservator of morals in its affirmative rather than its negative relation, this statement places man on a level with woman; but observing further that the excess of male criminals is furnished from the unmarried, and that the single and married female criminals exist in nearly equal proportions, we can reach but one conclusion, that marriage exists as a restraining influence against crime more strongly among men than women. I think this result is opposed to the preconceived opinion of the majority, of the effect of marriage upon women. Marriage for women has ever been regarded as a preliminary condition to reform. This is the result of the sentimentalism which has entered into the solution of many social problems. Marriage is not unmixed good. Lecky says of it, that "beautiful affections which had before been latent are evoked in some particular forms of union, while other forms of union are particularly fitted to deaden the affections, and pervert the character." Woman's keenly emotional nature is well disposed to be exalted or depraved by marriage. It seems hardly possible to reach the true causes of the nearly negative results of marriage upon the morality of women by a study of the character of this sex alone. In women, rather than men, are mirrored the lights and shadows of society. Mentally she is the plastic material which takes its form from the protean phases of life around her. She is spiritually the resultant of her moral atmosphere. I believe these influences are more potent in forming her character than man's, from the nature of her dependent circumstances. With man's opportunity for objective life, he can remove himself, partly at least, from the moral surroundings; and by identifying himself both bodily and mentally with labor, which has for its object, usually, something to be attained in the future, he has loop-holes to escape from impressions received from others, which with a more subjective life would result in introspection, by which the mind is familiarized with the criminal idea.
From the same source we may gain additional facts as to the negative effect of marriage upon the morality of women. In the tables referred to, involving in the aggregate an excess of males over females of about two to one, we find the number of widowed females over males in the same social state to be nearly double. It is impossible to state specifically the nature of the crimes involved in this excess; but it probably represents, in a great measure, offenses against property. The social condition of widowhood in the average woman is not conducive of morality; and yet we have already shown that actual marriage is attended with nearly negative results. From this we may gain an idea of the extent to which women are the victims of circumstances at the beginning of their criminal career. The figures we have been analyzing represent crime in a great city. Under this condition, the excess in the number of widows represents probably cases of complete destitution. The fact that this excess of widows had no means of coping with this difficulty, except by a resort to crime against property, renders the conclusion safe that not only marriage had not developed in them a condition favorable to morality, but had actually so lowered the moral tone as to render them unfit, as a class, to contend with the difficulties of life, and exhibit the same degree of morality as the unmarried woman. Much of this result must depend upon the unavoidable social position of the married woman—one not at all calculated to test either her morality or self-reliance. The duties of maternity and domesticity inseparable from her position, do not fortify her against evil in her changed relation to society. On the contrary, with the burden of children upon her, in the time of need, she looks upon crime less as a positive than as a comparative evil. With the true woman, there is no chance for hesitation in the choice between crime in its minor forms and her maternal feelings. But the marriage relation has other influences in forming woman's character as a criminal. The intimacy of the wife with a bad husband, who, if not a criminal, at least may be capable of infusing lax moral notions in the wife, would, if she were left a widow, surely bear fruit. We need a more intimate knowledge of many facts in order to fully understand this question of widowhood in its relation to crime. It is doubtful if returns of crime from less densely populated places than New York City would furnish results at all parallel to those in relation to widows. The most plausible explanation I can give is, that these figures represent cases of absolute destitution.
There are many other relations that marriage bears to woman's career as a criminal, but which are beyond the scope of a magazine article., All that relates to infanticide, and the prevalence of the crime of the period, among the single and married, ought, I believe, in writings of a popular character, to be omitted, except possibly the grave words of warning. Upon this subject I have written all that I thought prudent several years ago, and to which I refer the reader. The well-known lines of Pope upon the effect of familiarity with vice, are certainly very true to-day. It is by a too familiar view of even the shadow of crime, that in certain minds the criminal idea may be developed. We need but abolish the mental barriers to crime to step from the criminal idea to the criminal act.
Instinctive recoil from the criminal idea without any mental reservation is the characteristic of moral health. It is upon the morally healthy minds that unfavorable social conditions may have most deplorable effect. One in whom the tendency to crime exists as a latent mental quality, requires no social conditions for its development. Whatever his or her occupation or social condition may be, this latent quality is liable to assume active existence, and shape the destiny of the individual. There is one quality that the criminal exhibits which defines him as a class, and is the only trait by the existence of which he becomes the member of a class. This is the liability, after the first outbreak, to commit repeated offenses. I find no term which expresses this so well as that of the criminal habit. Mentally and physically we are the victims of custom. Existence, like running streams, has a tendency to find for itself fixed channels. Life as it expands seems to seek points of least resistance for its outlets, and in following which it encounters less friction to retard its flow. In relation to crime, this exists as strongly as the opium or alcohol habit. The habit may find its factor in perverted moral feeling, whether hereditary or acquired, but its physical expression becomes the rule of life. Take such an instance as that of Ruloff, to whom Nature had given the crude material of a magnificent mind. In spite of the terrible potency of his criminal ideas, a longing for a nobler and higher life existed within him in sufficient force to give direction to considerable self-culture. He stole, and would kill without remorse any one who stood between him and his object, simply to gain money to enable him to follow his studies. His life took the direction of the least resistance. That which existed in the normal man as a sense of right or wrong, and offered itself as an obstacle to wrong-doing, had no place in this man's mental life. The outgoings of his life in the direction of least resistance, simply and naturally led him to crime. Cerebral and bodily activities, among the good and bad alike, follow the channels in which they encounter the least friction, either objectively or subjectively. It is thus we have the parson and the thief. By inherited traits, early training, occupation or social condition, weak points may be created in the barriers which surround the activities of life, and when maturity is reached the individual's existence is defined by ineffaceable lines. At this stage of life, efforts, made either from within or without, to give a new direction to these channels, come too late. Habit has been established which confirms the direction life has taken. These two forces united seem irresistible. I was, several years ago, brought in contact with an instance which proves this. Lena S—— was of German descent, and about fifty years old. She was of more than average intelligence, and of spare, nervous temperament. Lena was an instance of sporadic crime, in the sense that she did not belong to a criminal family. She followed the specialty of shoplifting, one that requires great coolness and cunning. Caught in the act and arrested, her history was brought out. She was married, and her husband was serving out a term of imprisonment, but with whom she had not lived for many years. She wandered from city to city, following her business; she had been repeatedly arrested, and more than once punished, and every time her whereabouts was brought to the knowledge of her family by her arrest, attempts were made to reclaim her, but in vain. Sentenced to several years of imprisonment, she quickly began to droop. She passed sleepless nights, with quick, irritable pulse, and loss of appetite. She constantly brooded, and laid more than one plot to escape, one of which was nearly successful. Out of about a year and a half of confinement, not more than a month of light labor was exacted of her. Her health became so broken that, at the earnest solicitation of her relatives, the prison authorities took the case up, and secured her a pardon on condition that she left the State, and her relatives provided for her. But the transition from prison-life to the comforts of a home, and a life of ease, offered no attractions to the unfortunate woman. I believe she remained under the care of her relative—a devoted sister—but a few months, when she resumed, out of choice, her old mode of life, and is now serving out another sentence.
This case shows how irresistibly the deliberate acts of life flow in the channel which habit and mental traits mark out for them. The barriers which society, and fear of punishment, and love, place in the way of a career like this of Lena S——, are swept away, as it were, before a flood. This is the destiny of the fatalist, and the force of habit, an expression of the theory of least resistance, and the effects of heredity of the sociologist. Let us analyze the last case further, to illustrate the theory of least resistance, as modified by occupation and social condition. It presents a seeming contradiction. She moved on in her career of crime late in life, with her moral atmosphere charged with resistance to her progress. Contrasted with this was her criminal pupilage in early life. Her husband united pauperism and crime, and if originally her moral perceptions were clear—which I doubt—she thus found the best school to obscure these, and familiarize her with the criminal idea. With these faculties blunted and weakened, which serve to hedge in the impulses to evil, she proceeded to supply her wants by the method most familiar and easy. The thief looks upon the property of others in a peculiar way, and one that constitutes the essence of the crime. He believes in a sort of ownership which is mutual, and depends upon possession. This belief may become a fixed habit of mind. Originally it may have been easier to steal than to work, later it may become more impossible to work than to steal. Then came attempts at reform, made by others, with the life of ease and comfort, but the criminal grew wretched and drooped. There was but one life before her which met the demands of her nature—that was to wander from place to place and steal. This woman answered in no sense to the legal definition of the insane; she was not irresponsible for her acts, she knew their nature and the punishment which followed detection; but she simply did that which the most of us desire to do, follow the easier and pleasanter life. It has become the fashion of late to speak of criminals of this class as insane, but this theory cannot explain their irreclaimable condition. The real state, as it appears to me, is, that thoughts and acts move in the direction of least resistance. What began in this way, may be confirmed by habit, so that life may wear for itself channels from which it is impossible that its current may be driven.
- "History of Civilization in England," vol. i., pp. 22, 23.
- "History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne," vol. i., p. 157.
- Quetelet, "A Treatise on Man," p. 70.
- "Woman," from the French of M. Michelet, by J, W. Palmer. New York, 1874.
- Quetelet, loc. cit., p. 91.
- "Rapport au Roi," 1829.
- Loc. cit., p. 85.
- Loc. cit., p. 91.
- Quetelet, loc. cit.
- Table "B" 23d and 27th, and Table "A," 29th, "Annual Reports of the Prison Association, State of New York."
- Loc. cit. vol. ii., p. 369.
- "The Detection of Criminal Abortion, and a Study of Fœticidal Drugs." James Campbell, Boston, 1872.
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