THE LAMBETH MURDER. T HE Letine murder is a striking example
of more than one characteristic of contemporary sentiment. It illustrates the cost at which emotion is roused, the lengths to which it will go, its instinctive desire to express itself in an Act of Parliament, its indifference to facts or conse- quences when it sees a chance of getting the legislation it wants. The story of Beatrice Currah—or rather, the mixture of truth and falsehood which at first passed for her story—was not a novelty when her father murdered Letine. It had been made public some time before, and had produced no effect. It was worth just as much in the first instance • it revealed the same amount and the same kind. of suffering ; it called for the same measures, if it called for any, which have been thought imperative at the later stage. But it wanted the sensa- tional incident to impress it on the popular imagination. It needed to draw colour and vividness from the medium through which it passed. It is not the sufferings, real or supposed, of the child, but the effect they had on the father, that has taken hold of the public. Philanthropists, strange to say, have paid more heed to the act of a mad- man than to the circumstances to which his madness was supposed to be owing. Letine, as was alleged, ill-treated one of his troupe ; the public receives the account with indifference. The father of the girl murders Letine, and tries to kill himself ; the public is at once infuriated with Letine.
Nor does it make any difference to the result that the story, when examined, does not prove very much if the facts are taken as true, and is further open to the objection that some of the most important facts are plainly false. The relations between Letine and Currah are enough of themselves to put a very different complexion upon the alleged. ill-treatment of Beatrice. All through the time when this ill-treatment is said to have been going on, the two men were excellent friends, and Currah used to visit his daughter—his daughters rather, for an elder sister of Beatrice afterwards joined the company—every fortnight. What changed the father's temper in the first instance was apparently not ill-treatment, but what he re- garded as wrongful dismissal. The girl seems to have been weak and ailing,—to have been sickening probably for the disease of which she ultimately died. On this account she left the company and went home, and her father thought that he had some ground of action against Letine in conse- quence. It is probable that the training of an acrobat was too much for her strength, and that in this way her death was either caused or hastened. But there is nothing to show that Letine was responsible for it, except in so far as the teacher whose business it is to give a child entrusted to him a particular course of instruction is responsible for the physical consequences of that instruction. The acrobatic stage is not a school for the softer virtues, and Letine may not have been very clever at distinguishing between real illness and that colourable imitation of it which is the natural offspring of weariness and loss of illusion. The story is a melancholy one enough, as all stories must be which show how hard life often is among the poor, how much painful labour has to be undergone to earn what, after all, is only a bare subsistence. But there seems to have been nothing about it to mark it off from hundreds of the same kind, except the tragic ending which befell through the madness of Currah.
For any effect, however, it had on the readers of the story, the rebutting evidence might as well not have been pro- duced. They had made up their minds, and in the Standard of Monday they formulated their demand This has at least the merit of looking the situation in the face. " No im- provement," we are told, in the law in regard to the punishment of those who treat children with cruelty would have been of much avail. " The performances given by Beatrice Currah were not in themselves dangerous, nor does it appear that Letine ever actually ill-used her." It might have been thought that this admission disposed. of the case for legislation, that when a child's occupation is not dangerous, and does not expose her to actual ill-usage, the case is scarcely one in which Parliament can intervene to any profit. That is not the conclusion of the Standard. It does not, indeed, defend the murder. On the contrary, it proclaims that " everybody must regret that Currah took the law into his own hands," that "even the suffering inflicted on his daughter did not justify him in taking the life of Letine." But it proclaims all the same that something must be done, and it says, truly enough, that the only way of preventing performances which are neither dangerous nor cruel is to prohibit them altogether. Pro- hibit dangerous performances because they are dangerous ; prohibit performances which involve cruelty because they are cruel ; prohibit all other performances because they are performances. This is the formula, and it has the double merit of simplicity and universal applicability. It is too late in the Session to make it possible to pass such a law this year. But the House of Commons showed on Wednesday in what temper it will approach the question when the opportunity arrives. The Cruelty to Children Prevention Bill, which is now in Committee, contains an absolute prohibition of employment in the case of children under ten. It happens that in theatres there is a con- siderable field for the employment of very young children, and that the conditions under which it is carried on admit of a certain amount of supervision and control. Consequently, the Attorney-General moved an amendment exempting from the prohibition " premises licensed according to law for public entertainments." But though he was supported by Mr. J. G. Talbot, and had secured the acquiescence of Mr. Mundella, the Committee would have nothing to say to this exception. Employment in theatres was described as meaning " hopeless ruin for the bulk of little girls," as keeping children out of bed till midnight, and exposing them to insult on their road. home. We believe that this picture is partly untrue and partly irrelevant. To the class of children from which these early performers are commonly chosen, the temptations of the theatre are not the exceptional things which they would be to a higher class. These children have to shift for themselves, morally as well as materially, at a very early age ; they hear things called by very plain names and credited with very plain consequences ; and we greatly doubt whether in these respects they are in any more danger in the theatre than they are in their homes. Mr. Samuel Smith's ideal children go to bed at 7, and are never seen in the street without a nursemaid. But it is not from Mr. Samuel Smith's ideal children that the pantomime or the spectacle is recruited.
When the statutes with which we are now threatened have had trial, we venture to predict that they will be re- pealed. by the very hands that are now so anxious to pass them. The sentiment which is now excited in behalf of the children will then be excited in behalf of the widowed mother, the crippled father, and the other picturesque and exceptional forms of poverty which by that time will have been discovered to be aggravated by these unreasonable prohibitions. Perhaps the real welfare of the children will be as little consulted. by one law as by the other. But in both cases every attention will have been paid to that im- portant factor in modern life, the feelings of the professional philanthropist.