The Insanity of Cain, the First Murderer: A Satire 1873 (Article in Scribner's Monthly 1873)
A Legal Defense.
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Whatever is startling in the fact of questioning Cain’s sanity only goes to prove the simple justice of the doubt. For more than five thousand years humankind has been content to look upon the First Born as a murderer. Each new generation, convicting him as it were without hearing of judge or jury, has felt far more concern that the conviction should be understood as a so-called religious fact than that their remote and defenceless fellow-creature should have the benefit of human justice. One-tenth of the zeal and candour with which our own Froude has endeavoured to make a saint of England’s chronic widower might have sufficed to lift a world's weight of obloquy from the shoulders of Cain. But, until to-day, no philosopher has chosen to assume the difficult and delicate task. No jurisprudent has dared to investigate a charge that has been a sort of moral stronghold for ages. So grand a thing is it to be able to point away, far back, deeper and deeper into antiquity, to the very First Families, and say, Behold the fountain-head of our murder record!
Doggerel has much to answer for. It has driven many a monstrous wrong into the heart of its century. It has done its worst with Cain, but not the worst.
C__________ is for Cain,
Who his brother had slain,
though winning in cadence, lacks spirit as a charge. It is too non-committal. The feeble soul that contrived it was fit only for jury-duty. It wants the snap of preconceived opinion. But Cain, The First Murderer, is grand, unique, statistical. Hence its vitality and power. Generation after generation, taught to loathe his very name, has accepted the statement on general principles. There had to be a first murderer - and why not Cain? Again - why not Abel for the murderee?
There was no miasma in that sweet, fresh time; no scope for contagious diseases; there were no pastry-shops, no distilleries, no patent medicines, no blisters, no lancets and no doctors. Consequently, there was no way for a man to die unless somebody killed him. Cain did this thing for Abel. That we do not dispute; nor that he did it gratis and unsolicited. But was he a murderer? Setting aside the possibility that Abel’s time had not come, are we to judge Cain by the face of his deed? May there not have been palliating conditions, temperamental causes? In a word, was he sane?
For centuries, ages, the world has overlooked the tremendous considerations involved in this question, placidly branding an unfortunate man with deepest ignominy and taking it for granted that his deed was deliberate,—-—the act of a self-poised, calculating and guilty mind. Let us see.
In the first place, Cain, for a time, was the only child on earth! That in itself was enough to disturb the strongest juvenile organism. All the petting, nursing, trotting, coddling, and watching of the whole civilized world falling upon one pair of baby shoulders! Naturally the little fellow soon considered himself a person of consequence — all-absorbing consequence, in fact. Then came Abel, disturbing and upsetting his dearest convictions. Another self! A new somebody! A kicking counterfeit, held fondly in his mother's arms, riding to Banbury Cross on his father’s foot!
A Brother? What did it mean? There were no books to tell him; and if there had been, the poor child never knew a letter. There were no philosophers or metaphysicians in those days to explain the phenomenon. The earliest Beecher was not born; Darwin was still a lingering atom in some undreamed of, unorganized pseudo-protoplasm of a monkey. The child had no friends, not even a school-fellow. Adam’s time was taken up with what modern conundrumists have called his express company; Eve had the baby to mind, and Cain was left alone to brood over the unfathomable. Think of the influence thus brought to bear upon the delicate, sensitive brain of that very select child. A mature intellect would have given way under a far less strain.
But Cain survived it. He became reconciled, we will say, to the little Abel. They played and shouted together as children do in our day, racing the fields at will, growing to be strong, brave little animals, fierce, impulsive, and aggressive — especially Cain. But how did they fare esthetically — no academies, no Sunday schools, no gymnasiums, nothing to direct and balance their young minds?
Their parents were plain people, caring little for society, we imagine, and anything but dressy in their tastes. There were no lectures in those days, remember; no concerts, no Young Men’s Christian Associations to make life one long festivity — everything was at a dead level. Probably the only excitements Adam and Eve had were thrashing the children and making them “behave." Whatever sensation Adam may have made among the beasts of the field, the only public movement possible to his active minded wife was to notify all mankind (i.e., little Cain and Abel) to look out, for Adam was coming! Naturally, Abel, being the baby, the last and therefore the best and dearest, was spared these thrashings and public excitements to a great extent; and so the burden of social responsibility fell upon poor little Cain. Who shall blame him, or wonder at the act, if now and then he indulged in a sly kick at Abel — Abel, the good boy of the family, the “rest of the world,” who would not on any account be as naughty and noisy as brother Cain?
Yet who of us can say that any such kick was administered? At that early stage of his existence, the controlling mind of Cain had not yet given way.
It is no light matter to be the first man in a world like this; and Cain certainly was preparing to hold that position. Adam, his father, was created for a purpose. Like Minerva, he sprang into life full grown; therefore, though we may safely consider him as the first human creature, he certainly was not the first man. For how can one be a man who never was a child?
Here we have another argument in favour of Cain. Besides having no bad boys to pattern after, he was under the constant direction of his parents, who certainly, if only from an instinct of self-preservation, would have trained him never to be passionate or cruel, when in his right mind. To be sure they laboured under a peculiar disadvantage. Herbert Spencer himself, coming into the world booted and spurred, with no childhood to look back upon, might have been at a loss how to manage the first boy. We must never forget that there was a time when instinct and reflex action had the start of the doctrine of precedent and law of consequences; when the original “I told you so!” had yet to be uttered. Even the warning example of Cain was denied to the moral advancing of this first boy.
Still the situation had its advantages. There were no fond uncles and aunts, no doting grand-parents to spoil the child and confound the best endeavours of Adam and Eve. Fortunately for the boy, poor Richard’s Almanac was yet unwritten; George Washington’s little hatchet was never brandished before his infant mind; and Casabianca had not yet struck his attitude on the burning deck. So young Cain was spared a host of discouraging influences. In short, there is every reason to believe that, in spite of depressing conditions and surroundings, he grew up to be at least a better man than his father, who never had any bringing up at all. That he did not kill Abel in his boyhood is proof enough of this. There was discipline somewhere.
And in the name of developed science and Christian charity why not, in considering subsequent events, make due allowance for whatever phrenological excesses the cranium of young Cain may have possessed? An intelligent father of to-day, figuratively speaking, can take his child's head by the fore—lock. He can detect what is within it, and counteract proclivities. If an ominous bump rise near his baby’s ear, he is ready to check combativeness with “Mary had a little lamb," "Children, you should never let," and other tender ditties. In a word, he may take observations from the little mounds of character on his child’s head, and so, if he be wise, direct the young life into safe and pleasant places. But, Adam knew nothing of phrenology, or have we great reason to believe that, if he had known of it, he would have discreetly followed its indications. Children are not always cherubs. We all know how the dearest of our little ones sometimes become so “aggravating" as to upset our highest philosophies. Was Adam more than human? Say, rather, he was the fountain-head and source of human passion.
Again, both children were the victims of an abiding privation. They had the natural propensities of childhood. They had teeth, stomach, appetite,— all the conditions, we will say, of cholera infantum, except the one thing for which they secretly yearned —- green apples! These of course were not to be had in that house. They were not even allowed to be mentioned in the family. Not once in all their lonely childhood were those children comforted with apples. Think of the possibilities of inherited appetite, and then conceive of the effect of these years of unnatural privation!
Again, who shall question that at times the deepest and most mysterious gloom pervaded that household? Even if Adam and Eve did not confide in their children, their eldest boy must have suspected that something was wrong. What was it? — the terrible something to be read, and yet not read, in the averted faces of that doomed pair? They evidently had seen better days. Where? Why? How? What had become of some vague inheritance that Cain felt was his by right? Morning, noon, and night, misty and terrible suspicions haunted his young mind. Night and noon and morning, the mystery revolved and revolved within him. Was this conducive to sanity?
Conceive of the effect of the animals seen in the childrens' daily walks! There were no well-ordered menagerie specimens then, with Barnum or Van Amburgh in the background as a foil against terror. Savage beasts glared and growled and roared at every turn. Whatever geologists may say to the contrary, we must insist that the antediluvian animals did not necessarily antedate Adam. Taking the mildest possible view of the case, the plesiosaurus, pterodactyl, mastodon and megatherium, in their native state, could not have been soothing objects of contemplation to the infant mind.
Well, the boys grew up. But how bleak their young manhood! No patent-leather boots, no swallow-tails, no standing-collars, no billiards, no girls to woo, no fellows to flout! Nothing to do when the farm-work was over and the sheep in for the night, but to look into each other's untrimmed faces with a mute “Confounded dull!" more terrible than raving.
Fathers of to-day, would your own children pass unscathed through such an existence as this? Your little Abels might stand it, but how about your little Cains? Would they not “put a head” on some
body? Would they not become, if not stark, staring mad, at least non compos mentis? Gentlemen of the jury, these considerations are not to be lightly passed by.
In judging of Cain, look at the situation. On the one hand, a terrible family mystery, no schools, no churches, no lectures, no society, no amusements, no apples! On the other hand, the whole burden of humanity borne for the first time; paternal discipline; undue phrenological developments: monotonous employment; antediluvian monsters; antediluvian parents, and an antediluvian good brother in whose mouth butter would have remained intact for ages.
Undoubtedly that brother had an exasperating smile. He was happy because he was virtuous. He had a way of forgiving and forgetting that for a time would deprive the offender of reason itself; above all, he had a cool, collected manner of his own, added to a chronic desire to be an angel. His offerings always fulfilled the conditions. His fires needed only to be lighted, and the smoke was sure to ascend with a satisfied, confident curl far into the sky.
Cain’s, on the contrary, refused to burn. We can see it all. The smoke struggled and flopped. It crept along the ground, and, clinging to his feet, wound about him like a serpent. It grew black and angry, shot side-ways into his eyes, blinding and strangling him—
And there stood Abel beside his pile, radiant, satisfied, wanting to be an angel!
It was but the work of a moment. The pent-up, disorganizing influences of a life-time found vent in one wild moment of emotional insanity. Abel was no more!
Why dwell upon the tragedy? The world is familiar with its sickening details. We shall not repeat them here, nor shall we question the justice of the punishment that came to Cain,—~the remorse, the desolation, the sense of being a fugitive and a vagabond on the face of the earth. He had killed his brother, and the penalty must be paid. Sane or insane, a terrible retribution must have overtaken him. But how about his guilt? Would it have been the same in either case? Are hereditary organism, temperamental excitability, emotional frenzy not to be considered? No, a thousand times No! What “competent juror” would acquiesce in such a proposition?
Friends, the time has come when this case must be taken up. Its mighty issues can no longer be set aside. If Cain was not sane at the moment of the killing, the stain of murder must be wiped from his brow now and for ever. This tardy justice may at least be done him. Our children and our children’s children must be taught to speak of Cain the manslaughterer ; Cain the mentally-excitable ; Cain the peculiarly-circumstanced. But Cain the murderer? Never!
A man’s own testimony shall not convict or acquit him. But are we not to take into account, as indicative of his state of mind, actions and declarations coincident with the commission of the crime alleged against him? If at or about the time of the fatal deed, there was positive evidence of incoherence — what then? Witness the last recorded words of Cain:
EVERY ONE THAT FINDETH ME SHALL SLAY ME!
Is this the utterance of a sane mind? Every one that findeth me shall slay me? Gentlemen! Cain at this point was not only crazy — he was the craziest man that ever existed. No ordinary lunatic, however preposterous his terrors, expects to be killed more than once. But to this poor creature retribution suddenly assumed a hydra-headed form. His distracted brain, unconscious that Adam was the only other man in the world, instantly created an immense population. He saw himself falling again and again by the strokes of successive assassins, even as Abel had fallen under his hand. His first dazed glimpse of death expanded and intensified into a horror never since conceived by mind of man. His happiness overthrown; his reason a wreck: a prey to fears that stretched before him forever, with no possible hope of final destruction,—the only consolation is that he could not foreknow the merciless verdict of posterity. He did not recognize in himself The First Murderer. Rather than dream of such ignominy as this, was it not better that he should cry out in his ravings: Every one that findeth me shall slay me?
We leave the question to the intelligence and the justice of this faithful and enlightened century.
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