Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Crime and Religion, by Havelock Ellis 1890

Crime and Religion, by Havelock Ellis 1890

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In all countries religion, or superstition, is closely related with crime. The Sansya dacoits, in the Highlands of Central India, would spill a little liquor on the ground before starting on an expedition, in order to propitiate Devi. “If any one sneezed, or any other very bad omen was observed, the start was postponed. If they heard a jackal, or the bray of the village donkey, their hearts were cheered; but a funeral or a snake turned them back. They were also very superstitious about their oil. The vessel was not allowed to touch the ground until the oil had been poured upon the torch, and then it was dashed on the earth; and from that moment until the job was finished no water touched their lips.”

Among 200 Italian murderers Ferri did not find one who was irreligious. “A Russian peasant,” remarks Mr. Kennan, “may be a highway robber or a murderer, but he continues nevertheless to cross himself and say his prayers.” Dostoieffsky also notes the religious ardour with which the convicts gave candles and gifts to the church. All those who live by unlawful methods, said Casanova, confide in the help of God. Naples is the most criminal city in Europe for crimes against the person; the number of murderers there is about 16 in 100,000, while in Italy generally it is 8.12; and in Ireland (the least criminal land in Europe) it is about 5. Naples is also the most religious city in Europe. “No other city,” observes Garofalo, “can boast of such frequent processions; no other, perhaps, is so zealous an observer of the practices of the church. But unfortunately—as an illustrious historian [Sismondi], speaking of the Italians of his day, wrote—‘the murderer, still stained with the blood he has just shed, devoutly fasts, even while he is meditating a fresh assassination; the prostitute places the image of the Virgin near her bed, and recites her rosary devoutly before it; the priest, convicted of perjury, is never inadvertently guilty of drinking a glass of water before mass.’ Those words of Sismondi’s,” Garofalo adds, “are as true to-day as when they were written.” Of Marro’s 500 criminals, 46 per cent. were regular frequenters of church, 25 per cent. went irregularly. Among sexual offenders the proportion of frequenters rose to 61 per cent. A man of sixty, known to Marro, imprisoned for rape on a child of eight, was much scandalised at the irreligious talk of some of his companions. “I do not imitate them,” he said; “morning and evening I say my prayers.”

Among women, the governor of Saint Lazare remarked to M. Joly, it is especially the criminals by passion who are superstitious, thieves very slightly so; they are practical women.

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It must not be supposed that there is insincerity or hypocrisy in the religion of criminals. For the man of low culture the divine powers lend themselves easily to the succour of the individual, and it is always as well to propitiate them. German murderers believe they can do this crudely, according to Casper, by leaving their excrement at the spot of the crime. A rather higher grade of intelligence will effect the same end by prayer. A wife who was poisoning her husband wrote to her accomplice:—“He is not well ... if God wished it. Oh, if God would have pity on us, how I would bless Him! When he complains [of the effects of the poison] I thank God in my heart.” And he answers, “I will pray to Heaven to aid us.” And she again, “He was ill yesterday. I thought that God was beginning His work. I have wept so much that it is not possible God should not have pity on my tears.” Lombroso found 248 tattooed prisoners out of 2480 bearing religious symbols, while the slang of criminals witnesses to a faith in God, in the immortality of the soul, and in the church. When a woman who had strangled and dismembered a child, in order to spite its relations, heard her sentence of death pronounced, she turned to her advocates and said, “Death is nothing. It is the salvation of the soul that is everything. When that is safe, the rest is of no account.”

It is clear how easily religious beliefs and religious observances, especially in Catholic countries, lend themselves to the practices of the ignorant criminal, and it very rarely happens that the criminal condemned to death fails to avail himself of the ministrations of the chaplain (only once in more than thirty years at La Roquette), and frequently to respond to them with gratifying eagerness. In religion his primitive emotional nature, with its instability and love of sentiment, easily finds what it needs. A French chaplain of experience and intelligence told M. Joly that he had “more satisfaction” with his prisoners than with people of the world. The Rev. E. Payson Hammond, who has conducted many missions to prisoners, finds very great aptitude for conversion among them. Of the convicts of the State Prison of Jefferson City, in the United States, for instance, he remarks:—“Many hearts were melted to tears, and I believe that a very large number were converted.” “Convicts at their last hour,” wrote Lauvergne, “nine times out of ten die religiously. Whatever the enormity of their crimes, they all leave durable recollections in the heart of the priest who assists them. He sees them long afterwards in his dreams, beautiful and happy.”

When the criminal is not superstitiously devout, he is usually stupidly or brutally indifferent. Maxime du Camp, during a visit to the prison of Mazas, at service time on Sunday, had the curiosity to look into thirty-three cellules, to observe the effect of the ceremony: three were reading the mass; one stood up, with covered head, looking at the altar; one was on his knees; one displayed a prayer-book, but was reading a pamphlet; one wept with head buried in his arms; twenty-six sat at their tables, working or reading.

It seems extremely rare to find intelligently irreligious men in prison. The sublime criminals whom we meet with in Elizabethan dramas, arguing haughtily concerning Divine things and performing unheard-of atrocities, are not found in our prisons. Free-thinkers are rarely found. A trifle will induce the prisoner to inscribe himself as Protestant, instead of Catholic, or vice versâ, or to change from one side to the other; but out of 28,351 admissions to three large metropolitan prisons, remarks the Rev. J. W. Horsley, only fifty-seven described themselves as atheists, and this number, he adds, must be further reduced as containing some Chinese and Muslims. It should be noted that a profession of atheism would deprive the prisoner of no advantage or privilege open to the others. Mr. Horsley once resolved to keep notes of the first twelve consecutive cases of those who on entrance described themselves either positively as atheists or negatively as of no religion. The results were interesting: 1 was a thief, a rather ignorant person, whose chief reason for being an infidel was that his parents had “crammed religion down his throat.” 2 an ex-soldier, a heavy drinker, and when asked why he had described himself as an atheist, “he said he only called himself mad;” he was actually insane. 3 a burglar, who said he meant that he never attended church because he had seen so much hypocrisy among professing Christians; in a few days he gave up the designation of atheist. 4 was a swindler, a great liar, and probably insane. 5 was a lad of nineteen, of very little intellect, who had deserted from the army; his father had been “a follower of Bradlaugh.” 6 a German Jew, who frequented Christian churches, but not having been baptised, simply did not know how to describe himself. 7 an intemperate schoolmaster, charged with deserting his family; he meant that he had ceased to attend religious worship because he was conscious that his religion was merely formal; his “atheism” was simply a form of penitent self-abnegation. 8 a conceited lad of seventeen who had assaulted his guardian, and had adopted atheism to justify his spirit of revenge. 9 a young man who had robbed his employer; he was brought up under religious influences, but having attracted attention by objecting to revealed religions, became a Secularist lecturer. 10 a prostitute and dipsomaniac with 150 convictions; always called herself an atheist when she was in a bad temper or drunk. 11 a young baker who had taken poison; called himself an atheist under influence of laudanum; goes regularly to a Congregational Chapel. 12 a girl of fifteen; she meant that she rarely, if ever, attended any place of worship. So that only in two or three, or at most four cases out of the twelve, was there profession of atheism in any legitimate sense of the word.

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