Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Why Murderers are Pleasant People 1910


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IT is a common superstition, revived at every famous trial, that the murderer in aspect and character should conform accurately with a conventional form of savagery, observes The British Medical Journal, in the course of a study of the psychology of murder. The public, it says, which takes an increasing interest in the melodrama of life and death, is disappointed at each tragedy because the criminal does not bear upon his forehead the brand of Cain. Yet a little knowledge, adds our London authority, a more vivid memory of the past, might convince the least imaginative that the murderer in his hours of ease is most often a kindly, amiable and sympathetic gentleman, as long as his will, at once violent and infirm, be not thwarted.

Evidence afforded by the record of murder trials is uniform, our contemporary thinks, and irresistible on this point. Turn to whatever period you will, there is the same tale to tell. The motive and the impulse never vary. Men kill for greed, for hate, or for the desire to be rid of what seems at the moment an encumbrance. Their character and temperament seem wholly detached from the crime which brings them to the penalty of death. "Amiable," "kind-hearted," "good-tempered," "one of the nicest men I ever knew"—these are some of the tributes paid to Crippen, for example, by his friends, and they may be matched over and over again in the annals of murder.

"The murderer, then, exhibits no signs by which we may know him. And it would be remarkable if he did. No man is always on parade. We go through life wearing masks, which conceal our real features even from our intimates. If it were not so there would be no more murderers. In the palace of truth there is no place for crime. A murderer whom we could recognize at sight would have no chance of doing his deeds of blood. But there is another and a more subtle reason for the fact that the ruffian so easily escapes notice. Very few men are bad all through. If we put aside the human tiger, we shall find that the murderer is often as much surprised as his fellows at his own enormity. He is suddenly urged by fear or rage to the commission of a crime of which he believed himself incapable. Maybe he has never measured the weakness of his will. Maybe he is constitutionally unable to understand the relation of cause and effect. The result is that his 'kindness' and his 'humanity' vanish in an instant, and he proves by a pitiful lack of self-control that he is no longer fit for the society of men, that the gallows are his just and only goal.

"There is one other quality in which murderers are never deficient—the quality of coolness. Faced by the ministers of justice, they one and all prove a serenity of mind, a courage of demeanor, which too often persuade the foolish of their innocence. There could scarcely be a better proof of guilt than this nonchalance. The murderer has nothing to lose, he has everything to gain, by a resolute bearing. He knows better than anybody else in the world the strength and weakness of his own case. So often has he rehearsed his story that it comes to his tongue without bungling or hesitation. How different is the plight of the innocent man unjustly accused! Overwhelmed with embarrassment and surprise, he falters in his speech. The flush of rage which mounts to his cheek is taken by his enemies as a confession of guilt, and if he were judged by appearances alone it would go hard with him. Justice, then, must dismiss from her purview all generalizations concerning character and demeanor. It is hers to establish guilt or innocence by the stern consideration of facts, and so long as she is intent upon this supreme duty we may retain a placid confidence that the wrongdoer shall not escape his proper punishment."

Novelists seem to possess a far truer conception of the murderer on the psychological side than does the general reader, says the London Lancet, in the course of some editorial comment upon this theme. The murderers encountered in works of fiction are vouched for by this organ of the medical profession as far more life-like than the devourers of novels are disposed to believe. The technique of murder, however, is not so easily grasped. Novelists seem to be unaware of the mode of procedure of the average murderer. This is especially true when the crime is committed with the aid of poison. But the murders themselves and especially the murderers are in novels wonderfully true to psychology. As evidence of this the London Lancet cites Mrs. Belloc Lowndes's "Where No Man Pursueth." The protagonist in this record of cold-blooded crime is a doctor who commits bigamy, the ulterior object of which felony is to poison the victim of his sham marriage, his real wife consenting in the scheme and collaborating in the attempted murder.

"Curiously enough, some fifty years ago one Dr. Smethurst planned much such a crime, and succeeded in murdering the unfortunate woman who thought she was his wife, his real wife, perhaps, abetting; but so far from escaping pursuit the law laid him by the heels at once, and a jury convicted him of a cold-blooded assassination. Smethurst was not hanged, his escape forming a most interesting chapter in forensic medicine, but his experience, at a time when the safeguards against poisoning were much weaker than now, is good ground for the belief that crimes of his sort rarely escape punishment, and cannot be regarded as every-day occurrences. Mrs. Belloc Lowndes has not found in Smethurst's crime the motif for her novel; this we happen to know, while in no single detail does her story resemble the tragedy of Miss Bankes's death, but by an interesting coincidence her imagination has hit upon the very complication of bigamy and collusion between the murderer and his true wife which formed the most extraordinary feature in the drama of real life. We recommend 'Where No Man Pursueth' to our readers because it is a thoroughly interesting book, and also because the insight into the troubles of the medical life is remarkable. The sketches of the two young doctors, George Glyn, the sound man in whom experience has begotten diffidence, and Peter Whitby, the cocksure and impressionable man, are excellently drawn types of practitioner, and the hideous responsibility which a medical man must take upon himself when he decides to act as though one of his patients were being secretly poisoned is vividly realized. The villain, Dr. Burdmore, we should not have been able to believe in had it not been for the fact that Dr. Edward Pritchard of infamous memory was just such another."

Mankind has therefore no excuse for misunderstanding the psychology of the pleasant and agreeable murderer, concludes the London Lancet. He is as likely as not to be a gentleman and a scholar as well as a physician of renown, as was seen in the latest celebrated case. Perhaps, too, it is of no great importance whether or not the technique of murder be badly improvised by the novelist:

"Nobody really minds whether a particular villain commits his crime with arsenic or strychnine, or whether the evidence massed against him by the sleuth-hounds of the law is in accordance with the medico-forensic facts. The essential thing is that the crime should be done so that there may be a situation to develop, and that the villain should be identified and traced down. The interest in works of this sort lies in the horror of the action, in the subtlety of the murderer, and in the acumen of the detective, and not a whit in the dosage of the poison; and the story would have the same moral whether the toxicology were right or wrong. The general public feels that the chemistry can only be appreciated by those having expert knowledge, while those possessed of such knowledge are not likely to allow it to be unsettled by any inaccuracies on the part of a novelist. For practical purposes the untrue is here as good as the true."

But the lay mind must be disabused of its prejudice in favor of murderers concerning whom it is testified that they are the most amiable and delightful of men. "To the psychologist that is the most damning evidence that can be offered against a prisoner in the dock accused of murder."

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