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CHAPTER V WOMEN AND CRIME
It is well known that even educated and well-to-do women are sometimes afflicted with what, for want of a better word, I will call “acquisitiveness,” though some people call it “kleptomania.” Under the power of this mania, vice or habit women become positively helpless, bringing disgrace upon their respectable friends, and ruin upon themselves.

A pitiful problem they present. People smile incredulously about them. Judges and magistrates sometimes inform the culprits, and the public, that they sit in court for the purpose of curing this habit, vice or crime. And an admiring public always endorses, and acclaims the heavy sentence of imprisonment awarded.

But neither judge nor magistrate can cure it, for a sentence of five years’ penal servitude given by a judge is quite as futile as a sentence of three months’ imprisonment given by a magistrate. Women of this kind exist among the poor even as they do among the rich, and they are just as responsible as acquisitive jackdaws. They steal, store up, and hide all sorts of portable articles, [64]and, like jackdaws, they make no use of the articles stolen.

But their lives are drawn-out tragedies, for they, in spite of, or because of numerous imprisonments, dwell long in the land. Not long since, an old woman of eighty-one was again sent to three years’ penal servitude for what was termed “shoplifting.” She had stolen a number of trifles from a well-known establishment. The old woman was comparatively rich; she owned house property; she had some hundreds of pounds standing to her credit in a bank, and she had also considerable investments. When free of prison she lived alone. When the police searched her rooms, some hundreds of articles were discovered hidden away in all sorts of queer places. The old woman’s bed was made far from comfortable by the presence of hair-brushes, combs, hand-glasses, etc. In other places were ribbons, gloves, tooth-brushes, and bits of cloth carefully stored. It was stated that there was no evidence to prove that she had either used, sold or given away any of the articles, or in any way made use of the things stolen.

Am I wrong in saying that prison was the wrong place for the old woman? Ought not restraining and protecting care to have been provided for her in some other place, and her means utilised to allow her suitable comforts? But while there are numbers of similar women dragging out their weary lives in prison, there are still a greater number in whom the passion or habit of stealing is but a passing phase, and who [65]pay a heavy penalty for belonging to the female sex. I have in my mind a large number of girls, ages varying from twelve to twenty years. Scores of mothers have consulted me about such girls, and probably hundreds still consult our magistrates. Many of those girls were disobedient and apparently wicked. Some of them were inveterate thieves, and some, even at fourteen, were addicted to vice. I have seen numbers of them charged with stealing. But they never knew why they had stolen; some of them did not even know what they had done with the stolen articles.

When in the dock or cells they behaved in a passive, bewildered way, exhibiting no anxiety or concern. Many girls of this character became a kind of charge to me, and I visited them and their parents repeatedly.

At home I found them strange creatures, upon whom good advice and kind words produced no effect. Sometimes I have given advice to their mothers; at other times I have paid for medical advice, which has occasionally brought about the desired result.

But many of them I have seen charged again and again till they found their way into reformatories or prison.

Now these girls were not thieves, although they had stolen. In most of them there was no real vice, although they were to all appearance vicious. But owing to sexual causes a state of body and mind existed that rendered them incapable of [66]sound judgment or self-control, and liable at any time to yield to vicious impulses.

To associate girls of this description in rescue homes or reformatories with the hardened and the wicked is a sure way to demoralisation. It ought to be possible, in these enlightened days, to find some sensible way of dealing with such children. What they require is the fatherly doctor and the enlightened motherly matron; nourishing food, fresh air, healthy exercise and innocent recreation combined may save many of them. Failing these conditions these girls must and will become criminals, or drabs, most probably both. But similar causes operate with serious consequences on older women. Consider, if you please, the life of a poor married woman in London. If she has no children, she suffers untold physical and mental torture, if she has children they come all too often. The constant fluctuations of her system, the constant depression of mind, the same four little walls everlastingly to look at, the same eternal anxiety as to the future, the trying and continued worry with the children, the usual lack of sympathy from the husband, and the same vile air to breathe over and over again make her life almost unbearable.

Men who have a constant change of scene little know what gloomy imaginings prey upon her; they little know what nameless terrors haunt her. For months before a child is born many of these women are not really rational. To make some provision for the coming “trouble” they steal; [67]but the inconsequence of their action is proved by the fact that many of them steal things that are of no earthly use to them.

Of our London magistrates we are justly proud, and to me it is a matter of profound thankfulness to know that any one of them will break the letter of the law, if by so doing he can perform an act of mercy to an unfortunate woman. But woman’s troubles are long dragged out. Early womanhood and the time of motherhood being passed, there comes a more trying physical and mental strain. At this time many seek relief by taking drink. True, it is a mistake, but who can wonder at it? Again, ill-health and nameless fears haunt the woman. Perhaps through it all she is to be found daily at charing work, and, in moving about the house in which she is working, temptations are presented to her, temptations that in her then state of mind and body it is impossible for her to resist.

So she steals, is prosecuted and sent to prison. I have a mental picture-gallery full of such women. “An honester woman never walked!” many a bewildered husband has said to me.

In spite of “acquisitiveness” and the prevalence of sexual disturbance, it is comforting to find that the honesty of women has for some years past become increasingly evident. It stands to their credit that while they considerably outnumber men, their proportion of crime is less than one-fourth of the whole. Were it not for the homeless and abandoned women of the streets, who are so [68]frequently convicted, the honesty and sobriety of the women of England would be still more evident.

In London, one prison only is sufficient to meet all the demands that women create for prison detention; and that one is maintained very largely for the class of women who live upon the streets, the majority of whom ought to be permanently detained. This low proportion of crime among women is the more remarkable from the fact that for many years past a large and increasing number of them have entered into the labour market, and have been exposed to many (but not all) temptations to which men are exposed.

I say this the more readily and cheerfully, because it has become quite the fashion in certain quarters to describe the women of England as increasingly drunken; a statement that cannot be possibly substantiated.

At any rate they are increasingly honest, and were it not for the causes to which I have alluded, our prisons would be practically free from women.

I know that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has a necessary and an active existence, and I know that I can be overwhelmed with their facts and figures; I also know that cruelty to a child is one of the worst possible crimes; I know all this, but I know more also, for I know that the great bulk of English mothers or matrons that are committed to prison on this account are more fit for asylums and mental treatment than they are for prison and penal [69]discipline. They demand pity instead of punishment, the doctor and the nurse instead of the governor and the warder; medicine and fresh air instead of cellular confinement.

Most of them are poor, helpless creatures, weak of mind and weak of body; quite incapable of looking after themselves, still more incapable of caring for and training children. I have seen the dirt and misery of many women, and the hopelessness of their lives long before they were committed to prison. I have helped to renew their homes, and have clothed the children while the feeble-minded mothers were in prison. But when those mothers came back, bringing their helplessness and irresponsibility with them, I have had the mortification of witnessing those homes and children sink back again to the old conditions. For neither warning nor imprisonment has the least effect upon such poor creatures.

But there is another class of women who are charged with this offence: women that seem possessed with an incarnate spirit of cruelty; who perpetrate fiendish cruelties upon children, or upon unfortunate little serving-maids; cruelties that are certain to be discovered and punished; cruelties that can neither bring pleasure nor profit if they remain undiscovered. These cruelties are not the result of impulsive passion, for they are long persisted in. They form, it would appear, part and parcel of their ordinary life.

I want to say a word for these women! Does any one in their heart of hearts doubt the madness [70]of such women! If so, let me say that my experience has taught me that they are as certainly mad as the veriest madman locked in any lunatic asylum. I have known some of them, and I have taken some measure of their madness.

Some day we shall have decent pity on the uncertified, unclassified but the undoubtedly mad.

But that will be when we are able to distinguish between disease and crime!

When that time comes, prison will no longer be the one and only specific for the cure of poverty and feeble-mindedness, mania and disease when criminal actions result from these afflictions. But judging from present procedure, that day is still a long way off.


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