JUSTICE WILLES ON CHILD-MURDER.
I T is painful to see how helplessly society writhes under the sense of its own powerlessness to deal with this crime of child-murder. Everybody acknowledges its increase, every- body denounces it, and then everybody waits for somebody else to offer a suggestion which when offered is instantly proved to be ineffectual. As a rule the national mind, when- ever it becomes aware of a new set of facts, the outbreak of a new moral disease, or the unusual prevalence of an old crime, makes itself up to some rough but tolerably effective plan, and then insists with a vehemence which will hear no argument upon Parliament trying that. This was the case with the outburst of crime committed by ticket-of-leave men, with the epidemic of burglary which broke out three years ago, and with the garotting so prevalent in the winter of 1863. In the one case opinion demanded restrictions on convicts while at large, in the other heavier sentences, and in the third flogging, and in every instance its device, how- ever open to criticism on other grounds, produced in a greater or less degree the desired effect. But in this matter of child- murder opinion seems to be simply bewildered, to have but one definite idea—that the facts alleged and the objections to any remedy are alike unanswerable. Among the respectable classes there is, we believe, a deep horror of the crime itaelt a deeper horror than those who judge only by the verdicts of country juries are willing to allow, and an angry shame at the discredit which the revelations of the past month will every- where bring on the English name. There is probably not a class among all those which rule opinion which would not make some considerable sacrifice to secure the suppression of the crime, or at least to remove it from the category of ex- pected offences. For in this case it must be remembered that there is no arriire pensie, no secret doubt, no hidden reluctance to move effectually, such as paralyzes the Legis- lature when it essays to diminish bribery, or prostitution, or many of the lesser offences against society. Nobody thinks in his own mind that the evil may after all be necessary, or that it has compensations, or that it is scarcely one within the reach of human law. Everybody allows in his heart as well as his speech that babies once born ought to be kept alive, that a nation which tolerates their execution wholesale has no right to consider itself civilized, that mothers who kill them are, after every allow- ance has been made, to all intents and purposes guilty of cruet murder. Upon that point there is no discord, Mr. Spurgeon sympathizes with Colonel Looselife, and the talk in the tea- room agrees with the talk in the body of the House. But there society stops. We defy the most careful observer of the public mind to affirm that there is any plan towards which opinion gravitates, any scheme which he thinks may be adopted, any general idea which can be trusted after the- usual lapse of time to produce results. One set of writers defend the institution of foundling hospitals, not as good in themselves, but as less evil than establishments like that or Charlotte Winsor. Another advocate with some bitterness a_ reform in the law which gives the mother of an illegitimate child a claim to only 2s. 6d. a week. A third argue- that the criminal law ought to be put more strictly ia force, and every woman convicted of child murder deprived in some way not explained of every chance either of acquittal or pardon. A very few, men being the legislators, recommend the punishment of the father, and a very few more in utter despair fall back upon vague chatter about the "improve- ment of society," and the influence of education, and their hopes from that condition of human affairs which they term civilization. But public opinion, as a whole, endorses none of these plans, refuses to urge them, refuses even to discuss. themwith any of the interest which implies ultimate action, turns away in discontented annoyance, resolved only to wait- and see if any one of its usual leaders has anything more practical to propose. Apparently they have nothing. The political chiefs rarely or never touch the subject of crime outside the walls of Parliament, the philanthropic leaders are- waiting like everybody else, the magistrates say nothing ex- cept that the crime increases, and the press, refusing as usual the initiative, contents itself with a controversy as to the merit of plans which no community unstirred by deep fear for the souls of the murdered babies is likely to adopt.. The real protection of foundling hospitals is the dogma that- unbaptized children go to hell, and as English society rejects that dogma with secret or open unanimity, those institutions are left to be judged by their results, and the results are bad.
Under these circumstances, the concurrent increase of the' crime, of the publicity of the crime, of the horror felt at the crime, and of conscious powerlessness in dealing with the crime, it is a relief to find a judge stepping forward with some practical suggestions for the modification of the law. Mr.. Justice Willes on Tuesday told the grand jury at Wells that. inhis opinion one cause at least of the crime was the existence of defects in the law. Judges and juries in criminal matters. were bound to accept the law as it stood, not stretching it to meet individual cases, not contracting it from any sense of obvious public advantage, and the law on child- murder was bad. In the first place, women tried on the secondary charge are punished not for concealment of birth, but concealment of the body, a distinction which not only increases the difficulty of obtaining evidence, but- exoites hopes in the criminal that if she can finally do away with the body she may be free of the law. Secondly, it is almost impossible, or in many cases quite impossible, to prove that the child was killed after it was fully born, and without such proof no conviction either for murder or manslaughter can legally be obtained, a statement which, made from the bench and repeated, as it will be, in the village penny news- papers, will of itself produce consequences Su J. Willa& would be the last to desire. He suggests therefore, as we understand, that concealment itself should be made penal, and that wilful killing at any moment after the pains have com- menced should be accounted either murder or manslaughter. Now here at last are practical propositions, suggestions with a- definite meaning, namely, to repress the crime by making the law more certainly efficient. So far as we can judge they certainly would have that effect. The first defect indeed is a. real blunder, which can never have been intended by the framers of the law, and .though the removal of the second would involve some awkward questions, such as the legal right of surgeons to sacrifice the child in order to save the mother, still these could no doubt be sufficiently well pro- vided for. If the Legislature could be induced in addition to constitute infanticide by mothers a separate and distinct crime, neither murder nor manslaughter, but child-murder, and impose a special penalty, say seven years penal servitude, we should at last have a working law, a law under which evidence would be simple and juries would be induced to convict steadily, instead of convicting one day on evidence which they reject the next. At present the criminal runs an inappreciable risk of a capital sentence, a faint risk of penal servitude for life, and a great risk of two years' imprisonment, and the exchange of all these risks for a certainty much heavier than the last might inspire a beneficial terror.
The adoption of Sir J. Willes' suggestions would therefore be a decided step in advance, but he feels, as the public will feel, that they are not of themselves sufficient. He desires, as we all desire, to diminish the inducements to the crime, and he gives a most puzzling hint as to an "administrative change" by which this end might possibly be obtained. An adminis- trative change to remove the temptation to infanticide ! Clearly the judge, as an experienced man of the world, does not imagine that any administrative change would greatly develope the virtue of chastity, unless indeed he believes, with some poor-law guardians, that the abolition of the legal allowance for illegitimate children would improve village morals. It might in a very few cases, the statute having perhaps the appearance of legalizing illegitimacy, but then we feel confident that it would also increase indefinitely the number of murders. It is poverty which causes these murders as well as the sense of shame, and without this trifling relief the burden would in too many cases be abso- lutely unendurable, would leave the mother but two alterna- tives—a crime or residence in the union. We certainly do not want to intensify the incentives which already impel her towards the former. This, then, can hardly be the "adminis- trative change '3 but there is another which, though not pro- bable, is within the range of possibilities, and which would certainly diminish, perhaps altogether extinguish, the pre- valence of the crime. This is an order from the Poor Law Board authorizing the admission of illegitimate children into the workhouse unaccompanied by their mothers, an order which, in the Judge's words, would certainly "remove" one main " inducement " to murder. No mother presumed to be sane would, however wicked, incur the risks attending a crime when she might by a walk of a few miles place her child in safety and under legal guardianship. The first object of foundling hospitals would be secured,- and this without the risk of tempting poorer households to dispose of legi- timate children at the expense of the State, the disgrace of needlessly sending children to a workhouse being almost as perfect a deterrent as the danger of killing them. The crime would probably cease, a result which cannot be predicted of any other suggestion yet made, and which of itself entitles it to close consideration. But would not such a provision increase indefinitely the number of such children born into the world, the father calculating, if not the mother, that the child in any event could be no trouble to him? It is all very well to assert in sentimental strain, as a daily contemporary does, that "loving women" never calculate consequences, but unfortunately for human nature as developed under a Poor Law the sentimental view is not the true one, as any one will ascertain who reads a few columns of the ancient Poor Law returns. They do calculate, and so do their lovers, and we greatly fear that this latest suggestion, the only one which would be certainly effective, lands us once more in the old insoluble dilemma which has hitherto prevented the adoption of any preventive measure. Whatever saves the child lightens the burden on the mother. Whatever lightens the burden on the mother increases the chance of her producing the child.