Thursday, September 15, 2016

Our Civilization

The comparative atrocity of the various cants which are canted in this canting world has been a favourite subject of speculation. Without pretending to decide the question of precedence, we may be allowed to doubt whether one of the most offensive is not that which is appropriated to the denunciation of conventionalism and respectability. A weekly paper distinguished not only by its ability, but by its indignation against the unfortunate bugbears in question, has for some time past allotted a considerable portion of its space to a kind of artistic Newgate Calendar, under the heading prefixed to this article. “Our Civilization" is denounced, week by week, as the mother of several columns of criminal intelligence in small print—the suggestion being that the orderly surface of society is but an external covering, and that it serves only as a cloak for bruises, wounds, and putrefying sores.

We cannot deny—on the contrary, we have taken every opportunity of urging—that external decorum frequently covers the most awful abysses of wickedness, and that the age in which we live peculiarly needs to be occasionally reminded of the fact; but to represent “Our Civilization” as mere hypocrisy is surely most unjust. An age in which professions of goodness are common, is probably one in which true professions are common as well as false ones. It does not follow that because knaves find it convenient to go to church, and subscribe to “missionary objects,” public worship and public charity are the causes of knavery; and it is surely wrong to publish the scandals of the day in a form which makes them look like the premises of such a conclusion. Outward decorum certainly is not conclusive evidence of goodness, but it is some evidence of it. If we knew nothing at all of A and B, except that A paid his bills, taught his children their catechism, went to church on a Sunday, and was decent in his language—whilst B was addicted to profane swearing, was separated from Mrs. B, and not separated from Mrs. C-we should certainly not rush to the conclusion that A was a saint, but, in the absence of very strong evidence to the contrary, we should greatly prefer him to B. When we see sobriety, outward decency, self-restraint in a thousand forms, spreading over the surface of society, including even, as a general rule, its most corrupt members, we do not expect a millennium—we do not expect that there will be no crimes at all, or none of a very deep dye—but we simply infer that in some classes of society, some vices will be less common, and some virtues more common, than in times of greater licence. To us, therefore, the co-existence in any community of much villany with much decorum is anything but surprising; and we deem it a libel on society to publish long accounts of the villany as something distinctive of, and peculiar to, the decorum.

An inference of this kind is, however, to a great extent, matter of opinion. So long as the evidence is bona fide brought forward in support of the charge, and not for a sinister purpose, its publication can give rise to nothing more than a difference of opinion. But to publish long accounts of crime and of criminals, professedly with the object of denouncing the hypocrisy of society, and exposing the weak points of “Our Civilization,” but really for the sake of pandering to that prurient curiosity about wickedness which is one of the lowest appetites of human nature, is a very unpleasant compound of immorality and hypocrisy.

We make these remarks in reference to the articles which have recently appeared in the Leader, on the Life and Death of William Palmer. We are sorry to see a journal, with which we are far from agreeing, but which has always seemed to us to be conducted with honesty and ability, adopt such a line of conduct. In its last number, the Leader allots to the description of Palmer's execution no less than six columns “from our Special Correspondent.” The suggestion, we suppose, is, “See what a rogue a man may be who goes to church, takes the communion, and subscribes to missionary objects.” Admitting the importance of teaching the world such a lesson, we would ask any person reading that article to say whether it is credible that it was written for the purpose of enforcing it? Is it not obvious that it was written solely, or at any rate principally, for the purpose of the prurient feelings of which we have already spoken? That Palmer was a most atrocious villain, most deservedly hanged, and that the world since his death numbers one scoundrel the less, seem to us to be the only essential points in the matter. The peculiar incidents of his ignominious exit from life can prove nothing at all—they are all comprehended in the three words, “he was hanged.” Surely it is much better to leave them there than to expand them into one of those detailed descriptions by which Dickens and Victor Hugo have debauched the public mind—frightening people by minute particularity of description from doing what it is essentially necessary to do. We suppress a great many of the disgusting minutiae which our contemporary thinks it is so edifying to publish, merely remarking that the description of what passed between Palmer's appearance on the scaffold and his death occupies just nineteen lines of small print. We subjoin a small specimen to justify our criticism:
‘The bell tolls on, sad, but inexorable. The people bend forward with throbbing hearts and straining eyes, and deem each minute an hour. The pigeons on the chimney-top plume their feathers, or murmur soft amorous notes—too low in the scale of creation to practise fraud, forgery, seduction, murder, and the other pastimes incidental to beings endowed with reason.
And now the hangman grasps the rope—Palmer bends his head—the noose is slipped over—his face grows yet more ghastly . . .  the cap, or white bag, is pulled over his head—the peak blows out from his chin by the violent and rapid respiration—another second, the bolt is drawn.’
However edifying Palmer's death may have been as a commentary on “our civilization,” what can be the moral value of such a description? Why enable every ill-regulated fancy to gloat over the details of a fearful scene like this, in the same spirit in which it would gloat over the nasty mysteries of Eugène Sue or Victor Hugo? Actually to witness the execution would, we have little doubt, have a far less injurious effect. Indeed, we can conceive that, to many minds, that rude decisive announcement of the moral indignation of society against a murderer might be salutary; but to transfer to paper a crowd of petty details, which ninety-nine spectators out of a hundred would overlook in the absorbing horror of such a spectacle, is to deprive the punishment of all its awful significance, and to degrade it into a sort of dirty luxury. This, however, offensive as it is, is not the most offensive part of the article in question. We have a long description of Palmer's person, of the appearance of his body after death, of the “blue mark” left by the rope, and the different changes in the colour of the hands.  Surely all this can have nothing to do with “our civilization.” Such details might be in their place in a book of medical jurisprudence, but how do they illustrate the peculiar state of English society? They may gratify the propensities of a certain unfortunately large class of readers; but, revolting as they are, they are doubly revolting in a paper which puts them forward with a claim to be doing a sacred duty by society. Our contemporary will find it easier to dispute the especial authority than to deny the good sense of the injunction not to make a mock at sin—that is, not to make it matter of amusement or enjoyment, and to avoid dwelling, or encouraging others to dwell, upon whatsoever things are unlovely, whatsoever things are impure, whatsoever things are of bad report. We all know that there are very bad men in the world, and it may sometimes be well to remind us of the fact; but when we find many columns filled with all sorts of details like those which we have quoted, it is difficult not to suspect the motives which prompted the despatch of a “special correspondent” to Rugeley, commissioned to collect and publish all the flying rumours of the neighbourhood about the number of women whom Palmer seduced, or the number of forgeries which he committed. Nor do we think that, because a man has been hanged for one murder and indicted for two others, a journalist has any right for the sake of throwing imputations upon “our civilization" not only to assert that he was guilty of all the murders of which he was accused, but to insinuate that he was guilty of twelve others also—not to speak of forgery, adultery, robbery, and theft in all their forms. If the commission of crimes like these is to be made the ground of an accusation against society at large, it should at least be proved in the first place that they really were committed. “Our civilization” ought not to be left at the mercy of every penny-a-liner who can give a Dickenesque description of an execution, and pick up the gossip of a country town.

The most curious proof of the bad moral effect of such publications is to be found in the writer himself. Speaking of Palmer's phrenological development, he informs us that “it was physically impossible for him ever to have been a good man.” “He was organized to care for nothing but himself.” It is well for society that most men are so “organized” as to hang gentlemen whose peculiar organization leads to such results; but the “organization” of the writer in the Leader is not of this mould. He thinks that Palmer ought not to have been hanged, but to have been punished on scientific principles. We can only do justice to the proposal by quoting it:-
‘Let us suppose that, instead of being strangled, Palmer had been placed at hard work in public, where he could have been frequently and freely seen; always under the eye of some intelligent and active-minded man, who could have learned from him his past life. Let us suppose that the circumstances attending his imprisonment should have been such as to induce him to confess; and that his labour might have been modified according to his conduct. , Let us suppose also that the proceeds of his labour should be devoted, in some indirect way, to compensate for the injuries that he had occasioned-paid, for example, towards a charitable fund in the neighbourhood distinguished by his crimes; those crimes being commemorated by the fact of the annual payment.’
We wonder that our contemporary does not expatiate on the advantages of a Palmer scholarship in Toxicology at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, or a Palmer prize essay—the prize to be delivered by the founder, with an appropriate speech. Indeed, in the same article, some considerations of the kind are suggested:-
‘Homoeopathists tell us that by a peculiar handling of drugs, their virtues can be brought out into much greater activity. The preparation of the human body by one drug will render another much more effective. This is well known in the ordinary practice of curative medicine, and Palmer, who was so earnest a student in anti-curative medicine, had probably tested the principle in that branch also. How much light could he have thrown upon the weapons by which the jealous wife, the wearied husband, the greedy heir, or the speculator in insurance, can work out his ends. Far more instructive would it have been for the world, if instead of bringing his epic to a sudden conclusion before the gaol at Stafford, he had been made to work out another volume of autobiography in the presence of the public, while contributing from time to time materials for a retrospective volume.’
It is all of a piece. Palmer's “organization” is a curious one, and leads him to do odd things; and since the Government so far neglects its duty as to prefer ignominiously expelling him from human society to making him a curious study for the benefit of toxicological and psychological science—since the law of England is so stupidly bigoted as to consider a man a moral agent, and not a more or less cleverly constructed machine—since people have an obstinate prejudice, against what they absurdly call flattering a criminal's vanity by making him a show and a study, and prefer getting rid of him in a summary manner—what can we do better than send a “special correspondent” to cull all the delicacies of the gallows? Let us measure Palmer's stature, count his struggles, describe, in a picturesque manner, the crowd, the gallows, and the hangman; and let us frame the whole picture in a pastoral description of the streets and markets of Stafford, for the delight of our readers—for the extension of the circulation of our paper-and for the utter confusion of that transparent sham, “Our Civilization!’”

Saturday Review, June 28, 1856

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