31 May 1892
Eminent Neurologists Declare That Many Criminals Are Morally Irresponsible for Their Actions
The atrocious murders and long criminal career of the moral monstrosity Deeming, who is to be hanged tomorrow, have attracted the attention of the scientific world quite as much as they have horrified the general public. The men who study nervous diseases and trace the connection between them and abnormal conduct are making the subject of moral insanity one of the most important questions of the time. Some of them - Dr. Henry Maudsley, for instance - insist that there is such a thing as the criminal neurosis - that is, such a diseased, impaired or defective condition of the nervous tissue as results inevitably in crime, just as certain conditions of the nervous tissue result in insanity and others in epilepsy.
The New York Academy of Medicine lately passed resolutions against capital punishment on the ground that it is impossible to determine the moral responsibility of criminals during the brief time of a judicial trial.
Dr. Allan McLane Hamilton, who is one of the foremost authorities in the United States on nervous diseases and medico-legal subjects, was asked these questions, with reference to Deeming and his career:-
"Can science prove the existence of the criminal neurosis? and, if so, to what extent is the criminal afflicted with such a diseased nervous organization responsible for his crime?"
"There is, certainly," replied Dr. Hamilton, "a strongly marked criminal type, recognizable by physical peculiarities, in which moral responsibility is greatly lessened, and in extreme cases of lunacy. I do not think, however, that 'criminal neurosis' is quite the proper term to apply in such cases, although it has been used by some writers on this subject. It cannot be said positively that such moral degeneracy is the result of functional disturbance in the nerve element. The subject is a very broad one, of the greatest importance to society, and is receiving the attention of some of the foremost investigators of nervous diseases and in their social relations - such as Lambroso in Italy, Havelock Ellis and others.
"The criminal type is marked by peculiarities in the shape of the head, which is apt to be narrow and angular; by large and prominent ears, an expression of low cunning and the asymmetrical head and face. There are among such people all degrees of moral responsibility. I do not believe myself in moral insanity that is not accompanied by some degree of mental disease or defect. True, there have been great criminals who have possessed keen intellects, but their mental qualities have always been more or less peculiar and developed mainly in the lines of cunning and scheming - the development that would naturally result from the constant use of their faculties in criminal ways.
"Persons marked by this moral degeneracy are apt to be the result of intermarriage among criminals and drunkards, which, continued through generations, is simply a cultivation of the criminal type. The record of the Jukes family shows what it leads to. But moral insanity, when it breaks out in a family not previously marked by criminal tendencies, may be the result of some injury to the brain, caused by disease, a blow on the head or a sever mental shock.
"I have not made a close study of Deeming's case, but, judging by the newspaper reports, he seems to belong to the extreme criminal type. Just what is his degree of moral responsibility could not be determined without more accurate knowledge of the man and his history. His crimes do not seem to be the result of morbid sexual impulses, which are often the cause of such murders - as was probably the case with Jack the Ripper. If that man is ever caught he will be found, I believe, to be a man of keen intelligence. Deeming, on the other hand, appears to possess inferior mental qualities, somewhat of the sneaking order. His sexual vanity, shown by his boasting in court that he could have his pick of the women in the audience for a wife, was not an evidence of morbid sexual impulses. It is one of the characteristics of the criminal type.
"But before it would be possible to say anything very definite about the degree of the man's moral insanity, and therefore of his moral responsibility also, it would be necessary to know what his antecedents were, his inheritance of criminal tendencies, the life he has lived and the crimes he has committed heretofore, and his present state of mind and feeling. His case is a very interesting one, and one which will probably throw some light on the question of moral insanity if his history can be made plain.
"The question of what is to be done with persons who show moral degeneracy of such a degree that they are nearly if not quite morally irresponsible is one of the puzzling problems of sociology. The least that can be said upon it is that society has the right to protect itself from mad dogs. I do not believe that any good is accomplished by sending habitual criminals to any sort of prison for short periods. Whether they are thieves, alcoholics, vagabonds or subject to vicious impulses, they are criminals by nature, and their criminal tendencies will be strengthened by their prison associations. When they come out, society has more to fear from them than it had before. All that their imprisonment has accomplished had been to buy a brief immunity, followed afterward by greater danger.
"In my opinion the best way to deal with the question is to approach it on the side of prevention. The sate should have the right to forbid the marriage of those persons whose physical natures or mental characteristics are such as breed criminals. It should forbid the marriage of habitual criminals, of persons of insane heritage and of consumptives. Further than that, habitual criminals should be prevented from having children altogether.
"Of course it would be impossible for the State to make use of such measures now, and it will probably be a long time before men will see that they are necessary. For if moral degeneracy gets well started in a family its progress cannot be stopped in any other way than by stopping the breeding of the family.
"To a certain extent Nature does that herself, for the tendency of all monstrosities, moral as well as physical, is toward sterility. Nature does her best toward ridding herself of such foulness, but her process is slow, and it is hindered by the frequent introduction of fresh blood. People of criminal families intermarry with those of clean ancestry, and the criminal stock gets a new lease of life from the strong and healthful addition. No, nature needs a great deal of help in the weeding out process if society is to get from it any appreciable benefit.
"The cultivation of the criminal type through the intermarriage and breeding of criminals is shown, to certain extent, by the change in the character of crime during the last century. Many crimes, such as highway robbery, demanding personal courage, are not nearly so frequent, while there has been a great increase in sneak thieving, and all manner of crimes characterized by cunning and not requiring much personal risk.
"But this whole question is much complicated by the strange contradictions to be found in the moral natures, even of men of marked criminal types. I once had a unique experience with a number of criminals. I met them in such a way that I was able to study thoroughly their mental and moral natures. Although in one direction they might be entirely bereft of moral sense, in another I would find it well developed. Nearly all of them possessed personal courage in a high degree. In nearly all of them I found considerable honor, of a certain kind. It was not only the honor that is found among thieves, but a certain sense of moral obligation toward others. There were among them thieves, burglars and swindlers of several varieties, but not one of them ever attempted to defraud me in the least - which is more than I can say of some who are not recognized as belonging to the criminal classes. One of them was a noted bank burglar, a man deep in criminal knowledge and experience of that sort. And yet he was an individual of much intelligence, of many admirable qualities, and, if you could forget his criminal career, of as engaging a personality as any man I ever met."
Dr. Graeme M. Hammond, professor of nervous and mental diseases in the Post Graduate medical College, has already, although a young man, taken a prominent place among authorities on these subjects. When the questions that had been put to Dr. Hamilton were repeated to him he replied:-
"The brains of criminals show a conformation different from what is found in normal brains. The convolutions of the gray matter are different. The fissures between the convolutions are shallow, and frequently do not follow the directions which they take in normal brains.
"Dr. Burt Wilder, of Cornell, has made a very thorough study of the criminal brain, and I do not doubt that of Deeming's brain and the brains of several healthy and normal people were put before him he could pick out the brain of the criminal at once.
"The man who possesses the criminal brain formation is made a criminal by his physical organization," he says. "Just as the artist and the musician get their power of artistic creation from some brain conformation that was born in them, so the criminal gets his life tendency in the same way. He is born a criminal, and he does criminal things because he can't help it.
"But he ought to be killed just the same.
"Society has the right to protect itself from such creatures. It kills the mad dog that is irresponsible, but dangerous, for the sake of self protection. It is rather hard on the dog, but the good of the community demands its death, and so it is killed. And it is just the same with the criminal. His life will benefit no one, not even himself, and his death is a distinct advantage. If you or I or any individual were alone with some desperate criminal who threatened us with serious injury or death we would not hesitate to kill him in self defence. The rightfulness, both legal and moral, of such an action, is everywhere recognized. And the right remains just the same, whether it is an individual or all society that is concerned.
"The man with the criminal brain is a hopeless case. As far as science knows now nothing can be done for him that will change the conformation of his brain, and as long as that remains as it is he will be a criminal.
"All of us, even the best of us, are born with criminal tendencies. All children are by nature thieves and liars. Some of them are incapable of learning the difference between right and wrong, of distinguishing between that which will be good for them and for society and that which will result only in evil and injury. They are destitute of conscience, and conscience cannot be trained into them. They become criminals, and the others, who learn to subdue their evil tendencies, become upright and honest citizens.
"The influence of heredity is probably the most important factor in the making of criminals. From a criminal stock not much else but criminals can be expected to spring. And that this is so has been proven time and again by the family history of criminals. But there are other factors that can be counted upon just as surely, though they operate with less frequency. Habitual drunkenness on the part of the parents is pretty sure to result in mental or moral degeneracy."