Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Crystal Palace frauds

Though Robson’s history, as brought out last week at the Old Bailey, is in itself perfectly plain and straightforward— though he was a mere vulgar thief and forget, who as met with the fate common to his class—his case suggests reflections of a not very pleasant nature on many aspects of English society as at present constituted. It is mortifying to reflect that if he had possessed a little more patience, plausibility, and legal knowledge, he might have plundered his employers in a manner, as undertakers' advertisements express it, “combining solemnity with respectability." Our criminal law dates from the earliest antiquity, and was devised for the purpose of punishing the simple offences common in an early state of society. Such of its provisions as are aimed at commercial frauds, or even at breaches of trust, are very narrow, and specially framed to meet narrow and special cases. Nothing can be more surprising to the lay understanding than the difficult which lawyers find in comprehending some of the worst kinds of fraud within their definitions of crime. Cheating is not punishable at common law, unless it can in some way be made out to affect the public at large, or unless it involves conspiracy; and the various Acts of Parliament intended to punish particular kinds of cheating are most uncertain in their operation. To obtain money by false pretences is a crime, but to obtain credit in account, by the very same false pretences, is not. By the help of this distinction, frauds of the most serious kind might be perpetrated with perfect legal impunity. If Robson had taken the trouble to acquaint himself with these interesting particulars, he might have gone on plundering for a considerable time to come. There was nothing to prevent a man of his energetic veracity from ruining almost any number of trust estates or public undertakings. His downright stealing and simple forgery showed him to be a novice and bungler in that great art of living by one’s wits, which is so largely practised in the present day by persons of the highest respectability.

Whilst, however, we lament the imperfect state of the law upon the subject of fraud, it is only fair to admit that it is no easy matter to set it right. The line which divides larceny from sharp practice must always be of a somewhat arbitrary character, for the line by which sharp practice is divided from honesty is one which it is very hard indeed to draw in express words. In commercial affairs there are some peculiar difficulties of this kind to which we think sufficient attention has not been paid. Stealing may be roughly described as taking a man's property away from him unlawfully; but, with the progress of society, the notion of property becomes complicated and artificial. In early times, a man’s personal property was what he carried about with him, or what he locked up in his house; but owing to the great extent of our commercial transactions, a vast proportion of personal property has come to consist in invisible rights over bulky commodities which the proprietor for the most part never sees. The value of such property depends to a great extent on its being readily transferable; and this object is effected by the transfer of documents, instead of by the actual change of manual possession. Conflicting rights and partial interests are constantly arising out of this state of things. A man may hold dock-warrants and bills of lading as a trustee—he may have a lien upon them—he may be authorized to sell them under certain contingencies—or he may be simply in charge of them as a clerk or servant. Occasionally, as in the case of a banker, he may retain instruments of title in his possession for a great length of time, sometimes under one title, sometimes under another. here can, we think, be no doubt that such a state of things greatly unsettles men’s notions about property, especially when we consider that in a great proportion of cases it is in the power of the holder—the mere manual possessor—of such documents to make a perfect title to them by the mere act of transfer. A person, we will suppose, has in his keeping two sets of documents of precisely the same character—one set deposited with him for safe custody, and the other placed in his care as trustee of a marriage settlement. Suppose that, for some temporary purpose, either of profit or of convenience, he particularly wishes to realize them, being certain that he will be able to replace them immediately. It will be very hard to persuade him that there is any crime in realizing either, and, we imagine, impossible to persuade him that it would be a crime to dispose of the one, and no crime to dispose of the other. No doubt it is essential to the transaction of business that this complication of interests and simplicity of transfer should exist; but we feel equally sure that it is one of the sources to which we are to attribute the frightful amount of mercantile dishonesty which is engendered amongst us in all directions by the thirst after speedy gain.

It is perfectly true that juster views on the subject of property may do something, and that an intelligent an systematic adaptation of the law to the varying forms of crime may do more, for the suppression of such scandals; but these thing will be comparatively powerless unless public feeling can be properly directed upon the source of the evil. Perhaps nothing can tend so strongly to such a result as the consideration of a case like this of Robson's —a consideration, not of its detailed circumstances, but of its essential nature as illustrating a principle. We talk so much of reformatory schools, of the duties which society owes to the criminal, of the necessity of appealing to his better feelings by kind treatment, and so forth that this very circumstance blinds us to the fact that criminals are of the same flesh and blood with ourselves. We look upon “the criminal classes" as an order of bipeds who are to be petted, reproved, reformed, and managed by a superior order of beings (to which we ourselves belong), just as horses are broken in, or dogs trained; but we almost invariably associate the notion of a criminal with bad clothes, a dirty person, filthy language, and blind ignorance. It is to be feared, however, that it is not more impossible to sit by a pickpocket at dinner than to sit b one in an omnibus. It is a lamentable truth that many men of the most unblemished reputation have committed acts which are distinguishable from crimes only by a narrow construction of law.  If any of our readers had met Robson at a dinner-party, in what respect would he have differed from most of the guests? We are told that it is superstitious to believe, in these days, in the horns and tail of the devil. He would certainly be behind the age if he wore them in modern English society. What we understand by the phrase “good manners" has put almost all men on a level. We have all learnt to conceal our feelings so completely on all ordinary occasions, that a couple of judges on circuit, a bishop and his chaplain, Sir John Paul, and Mr. William Palmer, might have chatted away on a railway journey with perfect good humour. A good coat and a good address will frank a man anywhere. It is a not unwholesome, though it certainly is a humiliating exercise, to turn to the proofs of the falsehood of the universal assumption that what we, loosely speaking, call a gentleman cannot be a mere criminal. Within one year we have had several robberies, several forgeries, and at least one most frightful murder, committed by gentlemen; and yet we go on worshipping, not wealth, but the mere appearance of wealth—the claim to be rich—to such an extent that when a clerk, whose honest earnings only amount to about £150 a year, keeps up an expensive establishment, and gives luxurious dinner-parties, his employers appear to consider him rather a credit to their concern.

Constantly as the utter baseness and meanness of the idols who are worshipped for their gilding (so often counterfeit) has been displayed, we do not remember a more striking instance of it than has been afforded by the poor wretch in question. He seems to have stolen a good many thousand pounds, and what for? He was not in debt—he had no appearances to keep up—he was acted on by no one of those imperious motives which so frequently push men into crime. The one sole object of his theft was to gratify the commonest animal passions and the coarsest form of vanity. He spent what he earned at such a fearful cost as a sailor used to throw away prizemoney, or as a schoolboy makes himself sick with pastry. He kept three mistresses, he bought a whole stud of fine horses, he kept carriages, he bought absurd trinkets—in short, at the age of thirty-five, after a youth passed in mercantile pursuits, he behaved like a silly lad of twenty-one who has just come into possession of a quantity of ready money. Within less than a year, we have had three glaring proofs of the extent of the plague which has infected English commerce. The firm of Paul and Strahan, the Tipperary Bank, and the frauds of Robson, represent three phases of precisely the same thing—love of money. The first wanted money to keep up appearances—the second wanted money as a step to power—and the third because he was greedy and sensual. All of them were read to sell their very souls for it, and yet none of them manage to keep the price. If we cannot hope to see the day when the power of money will be diminished, it is surely a duty to point out how very much too dearly it may be bought. It is humiliating to think that a man could taste what he ate, or look at what he wore, with such a Damocles' sword over his head as must have hung over Robson's dinner-table. Propose the alternative in cold blood, and see how it looks. You shall either live in a mean house, with the kind of income and employment to which you have always been accustomed, and nothing to fear—or you shall live in a palace, and drink champagne as often as you please, and keep several horses and carriages, and dress rather more handsomely than your neighbour, and have a good gold watch, with the prospect of being summoned at any moment to the Old Bailey and convict labour. We can fancy that, when the catastrophe came, it would be almost a relief. To a man with the slightest sensibility, such splendour as this poor wretch lived in would be the bitterest of irony.

One of the martyrs of the Reformation used to say, when he saw a man going to be hanged, “But for the grace of God, there goes John Bradford." It is a sentiment which all men who know themselves will echo; but there is a less pious remark which the number and gravity of recent mercantile frauds lead us to fear may be made: by the members of many a firm, on reading such cases as Robson’s:—“But for the good fortune of not being found out, there go ——— and Co."

Saturday Review, November 8, 1856.

No comments:

Post a Comment