Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/June 1893/Editor's Table

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EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
SOCIAL PROBLEMS.

WE have read with considerable interest a book by Mr. Henry M. Boies, elsewhere noticed in this number, having for its title Prisoners and Paupers. We have read it not only with interest but with sympathy, for Mr. Boies is much in earnest, and his aim is the noble one of serving the community by checking the evils of criminality, pauperism, and mental and physical degeneration, which in these latter years have been assuming so threatening proportions. With much that the author says we entirely agree, and many of his suggestions seem to be of a very practical and useful kind. Here and there is perhaps a touch of undue national vaingloriousness which does not harmonize very well with the fact that the book is in the main a revelation of the weaknesses of American society. Here and there, too, the author seems to contradict himself, as where, on page 95, he speaks of the upward tendencies in this country being more powerful than the downward ones, and afterward (page 258) says that, while "we are listening to the delusive enchantments of physical prosperity and national growth, millions of remorseless teredos from the lower depths are honeycombing the hull of our ship of state"; and again (page 259) that "the condition politically is desperate, but not hopeless"; and again (page 278) that "signs of a general degeneracy are attracting public attention." The important thing, however, is that, in the statements and observations he makes, Mr. Boies gives us plenty to think about, and makes it very plain that something more than thinking is called for—that prompt, strenuous, and intelligent action is an urgent necessity of the moment.

It all amounts to this, that, while the men of this generation are eating and drinking and taking their ease, marrying and giving in marriage, running political machines, and blowing hot or cold, as the case may be, upon the stock market; while luxury is on the increase, and practical Science is recording her most magnificent triumphs, the foundations of society are being sapped by the incessant growth of unsound social elements. In early ages mankind, in only less degree than the lower animal tribes, had the benefit of the rude but effective surgery of Nature to keep them up to a certain level of physical efficiency; and in a later period the extreme severity of the laws had the effect of removing from the community large numbers of those who were least adapted for citizenship. As a result of these processes the civilization of to-day, with its more humane and philanthropic spirit, became possible; but it is now beginning to be found out that philanthropy, as heretofore practiced, is no match, so far as the physical purification of society is concerned, for the methods of Nature, as described by Malthus and Darwin, or even for the penal discipline of our forefathers. Mr. Boies fully accepts this view of the matter, as the following extract from his book will show:

"The civilized man is the product of the survival through all the ages of the strongest, most stalwart, and capable savages. In the progress of his civilization the development of the sentiment of human brotherhood and the principles of Christianity has caused an interference with the natural law provided for the extinction of the unfit by impelling the strong to maintain and care for the weak and defective. At the same time, advances in the sciences of hygiene, medicine, and surgery enable many of the unfit to survive the tests of hood and disease which, in a state of nature, would be fatal. It is necessary, when humanity thus restrains the operation of the laws of Nature, that it should supply a correlative supplement to prevent disastrous consequences. If civilization and philanthropy can not permit Nature to accomplish its inexorable decrees in its own way, they must provide some other way, or finally be overwhelmed."

The practical question may therefore be very simply stated: Can a sufficient amount of public attention be concentrated on the evils that threaten us, through the disproportionate multiplication of criminals, paupers, and physically defective persons, to cause effective measures to be taken to combat those evils, and, as far as possible, extirpate their cause or causes? Mr. Boies shows clearly enough the measures to be taken, and, on the whole, we must say that we find very little to dissent from in his suggestions. He pours just denunciation on our present method of turning criminals loose upon the community after a certain term of imprisonment without the slightest guarantee, moral or other, for their future good behavior. He calls attention for the thousandth time to the evils wrought by our unwholesome methods of Jail administration. "It is the unanimous testimony," he says, "of every one who is conversant with the management of county jails that they are nothing more or less than breeders of criminals, where they are, as is generally the case, committed to the superintendence of political sheriffs." Of the jails of the State of Pennsylvania—and here the author professes to speak from personal knowledge—he says: "These jails permit a promiscuous and unrestrained commingling of the most depraved and vilest professional convicts with children, accused persons, and detained witnesses, without let or hindrance. In many cases even sexes are not separated." Upon a recent visit to the jail of Sunbury, Northumberland County, the author found, among fifty-four inmates of all classes, "two bright, nice-looking boys, one thirteen and the other fourteen years old, who had been incarcerated already two months and would have to remain two months longer before trial. They were accused of stealing four bottles of ginger beer!" Along with them was a depraved and vicious-looking boy charged with attempted rape. There are, we are told, in the United States, seventeen hundred and fifty-eight county jails and only forty-four juvenile reformatories. Great Britain, on the other hand, supports over four hundred reformatories and industrial schools, and has in consequence been able to close fifty-six out of one hundred and thirteen prisons and jails within ten years. In this country during the same period there has been a constantly increasing expenditure for prisons and jails, as might be supposed from the fact stated by the author at the outset, that our criminal population has increased in almost double ratio to the general population.

The most important suggestion made by the author is, that incorrigible criminals and all the hopelessly defective members of the community who are thrown upon the public care should be segregated under conditions that shall absolutely prevent them from propagating their kind. He proposes, indeed, that the problem shall be simplified by calling in the aid of surgery "to remove or sterilize the organs of reproduction," an operation, he adds, which if "bestowed upon the abnormal inmates of our prisons, reformatories, jails, asylums, and public institutions, would entirely eradicate those unspeakable evil practices which are so terribly prevalent, debasing, destructive, and uncontrollable in them." The proposed application of this remedy will be considered by most too sweeping; but as regards incorrigible criminals, particularly those whose crimes take the form of violence and lust, it will not be long, we believe, before public opinion will sanction its employment in their case.

The conclusion of the matter for the present is, that society is taking far too little interest in the questions which Mr. Boies so ably and earnestly discusses. It must be aroused from its easy-going indifference, or our boasted civilization will not be worth many generations' purchase. Philanthropy has taken the job of keeping up the standard of the human race out of the hands of natural selection; and it now devolves upon it to show that, aided by science, it is equal to its self-imposed task, and can indeed accomplish results that never could have been accomplished by the operation of unconscious laws.