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I hope that no one will be prevented from reading this chapter by its title, for let me say at once that I am not the least bit scientific. Whatever I have to say will be expressed in very simple language, and further, that in the writing of it I am animated with the desire of conveying to thoughtful and non-scientific readers some of the personal causes that lead individuals to commit actions that are deemed criminal.

Of the social and industrial causes of crime I shall be silent, for whole volumes have been and can still be written on those subjects, and though to me they are very inviting topics, I must within the compass of this little book ignore them.

I shall of course speak “right on” and tell of what I have seen and known during my many years’ experience of London’s criminals.

Indeed, I have no other qualification than this: that for twenty-five years I have spent my days in London police courts, and my evenings with discharged prisoners.


I may also add to these opportunities for study, frequent visits to prisons, and confidential talks with prisoners.

It will, I think, be admitted that I have had privileged opportunities for learning something, but by no means everything, of the characteristics, mentality and personality of law-breakers.

Of a certainty, considering the extent of my opportunities, I must have been dull if I had not learned much, or what is perhaps of more importance, unlearned a great deal more about the personal causes of crime.

I will therefore draw upon my own experience, feeling quite sure that a non-scientific book, though small in size and free from pretensions, will be a welcome addition to the long list of books that have been written upon this interesting subject.

To me it is a most inviting subject, yet it is a singularly dangerous one; for when any one undertakes to explain the working of another man’s mind, and to give reasons for the other man’s actions, he assumes a knowledge that he cannot possess, though he may honestly believe that he possesses it. In reality he makes statements that cannot be proved, but they are statements that cannot be disproved.

The list of scientific books on this subject is a long one, indeed it is almost interminable. Many of these books are voluminous in size and terrifying in title. Some of these, written by men of eminence, have their uses, and may be considered [3]standard works. Neither can there be the slightest doubt that the accumulated experience, research or opinions of thinking men have, and have very rightly, a title to serious consideration.

But when any book professes to be a kind of mental “ready reckoner” for judges, magistrates and others who are called upon to adjudicate upon the guilt or innocence of individuals, and to apportion punishment, I for one feel suspicious as to the value of that book for its specified purpose.

It is, no doubt, a comforting thought to many who have to sit in judgment upon others, that they can have access to books written by learned scientists that will afford them light and leading on the mysteries of criminal psychology.

But is it possible to explore the innermost recesses of a criminal’s mind, or to follow the workings of passion, instinct, mania or whim in any selected prisoner?

With all respect I venture to say it is not possible. The pretension to such knowledge is at once dangerous and misleading; and though many things in a book of this description may be true and instructive, the great bulk of it must be pure conjecture. So far as my experience goes, no two criminals are alike; but while they vary as ordinary people vary, they are far more careful than ordinary people to conceal their thoughts, and, believe me, they are far more successful in their endeavours.

As a matter of fact, the criminal, especially the habitual criminal, lives in a world of self-repression. In prison he is not only shut up, but he also shuts [4]himself up. He gives nothing away to his would-be investigators.

He is cute enough to know what the investigator is after, and clever enough to give answers that will please his questioner and confirm him in judgments that he has already formed: though probably there is not more than a grain of truth in the whole of the answers he will give. I am led to these remarks by the fact that all round me as I write are books that deal with the crime of the world, hundreds of them, and a weird collection they form.

As I sit and look at them they fascinate me, almost cast a spell over me. But when I rise from my desk, take one into my hand and read but a single page, I am disillusioned.

For I realise that the writer knows no more of the true inwardness of things appertaining to the criminal mind, than ordinary observant men may know.

True, he can mystify us with scientific terms; he can talk about the conscious and the subconscious, and many other speculative things. He can give us measurements of the body and describe the exact angle at which a criminal’s ears stand, and the angle at which his chin recedes.

But when from these he proceeds to reveal the recesses of the mind at the back of the big ears, or the little chins, we feel that we are on an equality with the writer, for we know as much upon the matter as scientists or specialists can know.

Now these books have been written by all sorts [5]of people: doctors of law and of medicine, scientists, professors, governors and chaplains of prisons, journalists and self-appointed specialists.

Mostly they come to us from the continent of Europe, where the various schools of psychological thought contend for mastery.

The Lombrosian school tells us how to detect the criminal by his physical conformation, or by the convolutions of his brain; but as the brain cannot be dissected while the criminal lives, this method of identification is of no practical use.

Another school will tell us how to detect the criminal by his behaviour whilst undergoing interrogation or standing his trial, when, not only his appearance, but his actions also are to be closely observed by judge and jury.

Should the accused smooth the hair upon his head with his hand, it is a sign of fear, for he feels a sensation at the roots of his hair as though each particular hair was standing on its end. He therefore involuntarily attempts to smooth it down. Now all this may be true, but it conveys nothing, and to take it as a sign of guilt is childishly absurd.

A perfectly innocent person may have a greater sense of fear than the most guilty criminal, for certainly the ultimate consequences of the trial are to him of far greater importance, and more likely to produce the sensation of fear. I have before me the latest addition to this class of book, so far as England is concerned. It numbers no [6]less than five hundred pages, and each page contains at least four hundred words.

It comes to us from Austria, via America. Its translation into English must have been a stupendous task, for the author has laid the world under contribution, and given us selections from, and references to, hundreds of books dealing with criminal psychology: the result being an intensely interesting book.

Just how far the demeanour, actions and traits of foreign criminals may furnish safe guidance in the judgment of English prisoners, neither author nor translator tell us. But as the peculiarities of crime and criminals are generally questions of latitude and longitude, climate, environment, social condition and national temperament, so it seems to me that the psychology and mannerism of criminals must differ accordingly, and that the rules set up for guidance in one part of the world may be quite inapplicable to another part.

The author tells us that this book is a “manual” for judges, practitioners and students; for it deals not only with the psychology of criminals or suspected criminals, but with that of judges, magistrates, witnesses and police also. To every thoughtful layman I would heartily recommend this book, for it is well worth reading and pondering; but I would rigidly prevent all judges, magistrates and jurymen having access to it. Why? Because it is their business and prerogative to decide upon the guilt or innocence [7]of the prisoner according to the weight of the evidence, every detail of which demands their concentrated attention if justice is to be done.

I can imagine nothing more disastrous to the administration of justice than a course of study of what is called criminal psychology. Students of human nature I would have them all to be, for such study is essential and leads to nothing but good. But to issue “manuals” that profess to instruct them upon the mysterious working of the human mind; to teach them to weigh the relative worth of provincial mannerism and individual characteristics; to tell the value of a look of the eyes, the smile of the face, and the movement of the hands; to teach them to notice all these things, and then by a process of inductive reasoning to decide upon the guilt or innocence of the individual may be criminal psychology, but it is rubbish none the less, and dangerous rubbish too!

Do the eminent writers of these books ever consider the effect likely to be produced on the minds of judges, magistrates and jurors who may read, believe and adopt their teaching?

Humbly, but very earnestly, I say that any magistrate, judge or juror who is steeped in this kind of teaching is quite unfitted by his supposed knowledge for the task he has in hand. For of all men, judges require the open mind and the clean slate and with them there must be no judgment formed apart from the evidence of fact. They of all men must not be inflated with the [8]idea that they can “read people”—can see through them; that they, independently of evidence, can give a correct judgment.

Let us suppose that we compelled our magistrates, great and small, to pass an examination in criminal psychology, using these “manuals” as textbooks. I venture to say that a queer state of things would follow. The action of magistrates would be dominated by their own individual psychology, and their own psychology would be dominated by the effect the “manual” had produced on their mind. The shallow man would be assured of his competence and knowledge, and he would, to his own satisfaction at least, know all about it. But the greater man would hesitate; he would be in a quandary, on the horns of a dilemma, for he would find that the formula of his “manual,” by which he was to form an opinion as to the guilt of the prisoner, applied with equal force to the innocence of the prisoner.

Let us suppose a case where three magistrates form a Bench, each having been trained according to the “manual.” No. 1 is certain; No. 2 is diffident, and No. 3 is a dreamer and greatly interested in subconsciousness.

A prisoner is before them on a disgraceful charge; he is innocent, and has hitherto lived an irreproachable life. The prisoner protests his innocence, but cannot control himself; he wipes his brow, he smooths his hair, he clenches his fist, and his eyes flash fiercely.

Magistrate No. 1 notices all these things and [9]says to himself: “The prisoner has no self-control; he is in fear, he is passionate, he is charged with a crime of passion, he is guilty!” But magistrate No. 2 also notices all these things and says to himself: “The prisoner is indignant, he feels his position acutely, for he is a respectable man; he fears the consequences the more because he is an innocent man; I am for his acquittal, but I am not sure, for his bearing is compatible with guilt or innocence.” Magistrate No. 3 has been eagerly looking for some proof of subconsciousness, and not having discovered any, he is uninterested in the mental equation that excites his colleagues.

Happy will that Bench be if it possesses a common-sensed old chairman who has not graduated in criminal psychology: who is content to be guided entirely by the actual evidence; and happy will it be for the innocent prisoner too!

So far as I have read these “manuals,” and so far as my personal experience goes—and it is not a short one—I have discovered no outward and visible signs that indicate a prisoner’s guilt that may not at the same time be taken as an indication of the prisoner’s innocence.

But supposing that our worthy magistrates, not being satisfied on psychological grounds, or for other reasons, decide to commit the prisoner for trial by judge and jury. Why, then, there will be curious happenings if judge and jury, with prosecuting and defending counsel, have been trained as per “manual.”

For the psychology of the various witnesses [10]must be examined, declared and rebutted. The mentality of the police must be exposed, dilated upon, attacked and defended, and a clever lawyer would find ample scope for his ability by probing and peering into the mind of his lordship the judge. Really there would be no end to the possibilities, and a pretty state of things would eventuate, for the jury, although having previously given satisfactory proof that their minds were in good working order, would before the end be reduced to a psychological state bordering on imbecility, and would be rendered quite incapable of any but a confused judgment.

No, I am not exaggerating, for one “manual” in my possession gives instruction upon all these and hundreds of other useless points.

This may be considered as psychology run mad; nevertheless, it is a state of things that is likely to come about if we are guided by scientists, and the present trend is certainly in this direction.

Let me, therefore, before it is too late, register a protest against the assumption that it is necessary for our judges and magistrates to be trained in what is not and can never be an exact science: criminal psychology.

But let them be trained to weigh and assort actual evidence, for this has hitherto been the glory of the English jurists. Institute we well may some training for justices of the peace, and it would be well if they were submitted to some examination that their capabilities for the work might be tested; but to put books into their [11]hands which profess to explain the workings of a prisoner’s mind, and to reveal his hidden thoughts, is a plan at once futile and dangerous.

While I am persuaded that it will be well for us if our judges, magistrates and jurors are not requested to take honours in psychology, I am still more firmly convinced that it will be a bad day for us when science or evolution provides us with mental rays that will enable us to explore the criminal mind. I would allow even the worst of men to have something of his own, sacred to himself—some corner, even though it be a dark one, into which he can retire with the certainty that no one can follow him.

Punish him if we must! pity him we certainly should! control and reform him if we can! But let us make no attempt to turn him inside out and exhibit his mental organisation to curious people by a series of mental photography.

For should that day come, it will be an evil one for some respectable people, for the rays will be turned upon us, and not to our comfort! Some very good people that I know will turn out disappointments, and our faith in each other will vanish.

For one reason, and one reason only, I would like such rays to exist: they would show us that there is little difference between the criminal and the ordinary law-abiding citizen; and in reckoning the sum total of good and evil in each I am not certain that the criminal would always come off the worst.

But I am sure that we shall be in for lively times when we are able to explore each other’s minds.


There is that fellow Brown, he is a mystery to me; I feel sure that he is a rascal; I can’t imagine how he gets a living. He is a dangerous man! I avail myself of the first opportunity and turn my rays upon him; I rake him fore and aft, nothing escapes me, horrified though I am; I find him worse than I expected, but I take my mental photograph and use it too! I think it my duty to warn my friends against him. Brown hears of it and meets me—result: physical, not psychological, reasons keep me at home for a week.

Would the world be happier, would justice be better administered if we acquired through science “manuals” or evolution powers of this description? I think not! Better, I say, a hundred times better for us to remain in our present state of ignorance, thinking the best of each other, than for us to “probe in the bowels of unwelcome truth.”

But the study of criminal psychology has its place, or ought to have its place, and an important place too, in our penal administration; and our prisons, when they are properly conducted, will become at once mental and physical observatories.

It is in this department of administration, not in courts of justice, the criminal psychologist may pursue his investigations, exercise his powers and develop his science without fear of doing any serious wrong. Not that prison is of all places the best, but for the reason that in prison material is always at hand for the purpose. But I shall deal with this more fully in another chapter.


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