16 SEPTEMBER 1871, Page 11


ONE of the most remarkable features of the greater modern crimes seems to be the very slight incentive which the public are disposed at all events, whether truly. or not, to regard as adequate for enormous crimes, especially among the more or less educated classes ;—and it is hardly questionable that public opinion on a point of this kind, though of course utterly in- adequate to justify a correct judgment on any particular case, is not at all likely to be far astray as to the general impres- sion that great crime often now springs from what seems to be the apparently least of all incentives. The Field of last week, for instance, after reviewing the circumstances of the sudden death of Mr. Renforth, the English row- ing champion in Canada, is disposed deliberately to attribute it to the administration of a vegetable poison, undiscoverable by chemical analysis, of the sedative sort,—and to attribute the motive for this most cruel of murders, if murder it was, to the rapacity of some one or more of those who had betted against him. We are hardly disposed to concur with the Field, in spite of the last words of Mr. Reuforth him- self, which naturally raised the suspicion ; but right or not, hero is, at all events, a well-informed paper, knowing as much as most of the morality of gamblers, which is disposed to think it probable that the desire to win or dread to lose has led not merely to the murder of the immediate antagonist in view, —that is common enough,—but to the foul poisoning of a stranger guest, who had every sort of claim on the respect of those amongst whom he was to struggle for the prize. Then there was the other day in New York that strange case, to which we drew attention at the time, of a learned and enthusiastic Pole' M. Ruloff, who managed to inspire all who came near him with the most pro- found intellectual admiration, who deliberately organized a gang of burglars of which he was the soul, for the purpose of providing himself with adequate means for his abstract studies, and who committed a bad murder in carrying out one of his plans rather than fail in his operations. Again, not long ago we had the Frenchman Tropmann, who deliberately planned and executed the murder of a whole family of some seven or eight souls, including young children, for the sake of a little property, one of his motives appearing to be the wish to find means for the support of his own father, to whom his conduct had always been most filial. Last of all, we have this strange and lurid accusation brought,— we trust mistakenly,—against an unhappy woman in Brighton, that she has been doing her best to poison people in all directions by spreading abroad poisoned sweetmeats under a particular shop- label,—even positively encouraging various small children to eat the poisoned sweetmeats in the street,—solely in order to manu- facture data for convincing a gentleman to whom she was attached, and the life of whose wife she had once endangered in like manner, that she was innocent of any crime in the matter, and that the poison came from the sweetmeat-maker, not from herself. We trust the trial may prove that this explanation is not true. But it is, at least, believed by the prosecutor to be a credible account of this lady's motive for not only introducing poisoned chocolate into a shop, but herself distributing it to various little sufferers, that she hoped by the frequency and notoriety of the cases of suffering, to convince the physician on whom she had fixed her affection that she had not been the cause, but only the instrument of carrying poison to his wife. It is true that even if the facts alleged in the preliminary investigation before a magistrate should turn out to be true, this is hardly an adequate inference from them. It would have been quite sufficient for such a purpose to have caused a con- siderable number of slight illnesses without any deaths ; but the strychnine introduced into the chocolate did load to one im- mediate death, and might have led to many more,—so that the incen- tive must, one would think, should the facts be substantiated, have been other than what is alleged, if there were any of a sane kind at all. Yet be the explanation what it will, and whoever may have been the chief actor, there can hardly be any doubt that some very slender motive will be found in this case to have been the origin of a gigantic crime. After this, we should hardly be surprised to hear that some lady who disliked giving dinner-parties had given poison to half her guests to prevent their accepting her invitations in future; or that a medical man had deliberately imported the virus of the cholera fresh from a fatal case in Russia, in order to force the Govern- ment of London into a more active and energetic sanitary policy. When once those who have reached a certain phase of culture avail themselves of criminal means to attain their ends, there is no knowing how lavishly they may apply an instrument of such dangerous power. The common criminal regards his crime simply as an act of war against a powerful foe who is seldom off his guard. But an amateur in these regions, while he is as unscrupulous, is not limited by the hereditary and traditional fears of the common orirninal,—has hardly gauged in the same way the power of his enemy,—and once released from all fetters of respectability, is in danger of throwing off with them even the limits of customary prudence, even the ordinary coiner's frugality in using and uttering his own bad coin.

And yet one would say, that if the habit of culture teaches anything, it teaches a certain proportionality of means to ends, a certain tact in the adjustment, a certain dislike to be wasteful of great efforts, a certain economy, in short, of the greater machinery of life, which would render this use of great crimes for small results extremely rare even amongst those who would not shrink back from crime itself. A clever novelist, the author of "Paul Ferroll,"—the man who used so very careful an economy of moral evil in ridding himself of his wife,—has cer- tainly imagined it so ; and one would be inclined to suppose that educated people, if they embarked in crime at all, would embark in it not so much on moral as on both prudential and pathetic grounds,—both as a matter of self-interest and as a matter of taste, —most sparingly and only as a pis-aller. And no doubt, as a matter of fact, culture and the habits which produce culture would utterly abjure crime as a blot and a mistake, apart altogether from its moral bearing. But for that very reason you can hardly reason at all on the use which may be made of it by those among the more educated who do not feel this aversion, and are only attracted by the enormous resources open to a man who possesses no inward moral restraints to debar him from using it. The chances are, that to such a one the mere novelty of the moral scenery caused by utterly pulling down the conventional barriers on every side, may be attraction enough to cause a lavish use of forbid- den means. Certainly during all periods when crime has been at all common among the cultivated classes,—all periods such 118 the

decadence of the Roman Empire, and again, as the period of the Borgias,—there has been observable this disposition to trifle with it almost as a toy, to experiment, as it were, with it, and watch the spread of the radiating waves which it sends forth. Wherever you see great crimes committed for small or comparatively in- significant ends, you may be almost sure that at least a great part of the end is the intellectual fascination of crime itself, which, like a scientific plaything of unsuspected power, invites to over new experiments. Whenever that is the case, we may well expect to see at the same time symptoms of great relaxation of the social. ties and duties ; for society must to a certain extent be an accomplice in the moral scepticism involved ; society must at least have begun to question the soundness of her own higher obligations, before men can play with the social conscience, and not merely sin against it, but take a certain delight in measuring the new force against the proposed disturbance of equilibrium,. and increasing the supply of decomposing power till the requisite end is reached. That is hardly possible till the canker has begun to spread a little beyond the criminal's own heart, and he begins to see symptoms of insincerity and corruption in the very heart of the social life against which he is conspiring.