The “Criminal” Class by Arthur Brisbane

Story type: Essay

DID THIS VIEW OF IT EVER OCCUR TO YOU?

Much interest just now in CRIMINALS.

Much horror aroused by depravity.

Many plans more or less appropriate for making the air pure.

Many good men, politicians, women and bishops, who spent the Summer at the seaside willing now to spend a few days wiping “CRIME” off the earth. —-

What is CRIME? Who are the criminals? Who makes the criminals?

Do criminals viciously and voluntarily arise among us, eager to lead hunted lives, eager to be jailed at intervals, eager to crawl in the dark, dodge policemen, work in stripes and die in shame? Hardly.

Will you kindly and patiently follow the lives, quickly sketched, of a boy and a girl?

THE GIRL

Born poor, born in hard luck, her father, or mother, or both, victims of long hours, poor fare, bad air and little leisure.

As a baby she struggles against fate and manages to live while three or four little brothers and sisters die and go back to kind earth.

She crawls around the halls of a tenement, a good deal in the way. She is hunted here and chased there.

She is cold in Winter, ill-fed in Summer, never well cared for.

She gets a little so-called education. Ill-dressed and ashamed beside the other children, she is glad to escape the education. No one at home can help her on. No one away from home cares about her.

She grows up white, sickly, like a potato sprouting in a cellar. At the corner of a fine street she sees the carriages passing with other girls in warm furs, or in fine, cool Summer dresses.

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With a poor shawl around her and with heels run down she peers in at the restaurant window, to see other women leading lives very different from hers.

Steadily she has impressed upon her the fact, absolutely undeniable, that as the world is organized there is no especial place for her–certainly no comfort for her.

She finds work, perhaps. Hours as long as the daylight.

Ten minutes late–half a day’s fine.

At the end of the day aching feet, aching back, system ill-fed, not enough earned to live upon honestly–and that prospect stretches ahead farther than her poor eyes can see.

“What’s the charge, officer?”

“Disorderly conduct, Your Honor.”

There’s the criminal, good men, politicians, women and bishops, that you are hunting so ardently.

THE BOY

Same story, practically.

He plays on the tenement staircase–cuffed off the staircase.

He plays ball in the street–cuffed, if caught by the policeman.

He swings on the area railing, trying to exercise his stunted muscles–cuffed again.

In burning July, with shirt and trousers on, he goes swimming in the park fountain–caught and cuffed and handed over to “the society.”

A few months in a sort of semi-decent imprisonment, treated in a fashion about equivalent to that endured by the sea turtle turned over on its back in the market.

He escapes to begin the same life once more.

He tries for work.

“What do you know?”

“I don’t know anything; nobody ever taught me.”

He cannot even endure the discipline of ten hours’ daily shovelling–it takes education to instil discipline, if only the education of the early pick and shovel.

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He has not been taught anything. He has been turned loose in a city full of temptation. He had no real start to begin with, and no effort was ever made to repair his evil beginning. —-

“What’s the charge, officer?”

“Attempted burglary; pleads guilty.”

“Three years in prison, since it is his first offence.”

In prison he gets an education. They teach him how to be a good burglar and not get caught. Patiently the State boards him, and educates him to be a first-rate criminal.

There’s your first-rate criminal, Messrs. Bishops, good men, politicians and benevolent women. —-

Dear bishops, noble women, good men and scheming politicians, listen to this story:

In the South Sea Islands they have for contagious diseases a horror as great as your horror of crime.

A man or woman stricken with a loathsome disease, such as smallpox, is seized, isolated, and the individual sores of the smallpox patient are earnestly scraped with sea shells–until the patient dies. It hurts the patient a good deal–without ever curing, of course–but it relieves the feelings of the outraged good ones who wield the sea shells.

You kind-hearted creatures, hunting “crime” in great cities, are like the South Sea Islanders in their treatment of smallpox.

You ardently wield your reforming sea shells and you scrape very earnestly at the sores so well developed. —-

No desire here to decry your earnest efforts.

But if you ever get tired of scraping with sea shells, try vaccination, or, better still, try to take such care of youth, to give such chances and education to the young, as will save them from the least profitable of all careers–CRIME. —-

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Rich good men, nice bishops, comfortable, benevolent ladies–every man and woman on Blackwell’s Island, every wretched creature living near a “red light,” would gladly change places with any of you.

Scrape away with your sea shells, but try also to give a few more and a few better chances in youth to those whom you now hunt as criminals in their mature years.

God creates boys and girls, anxious to live decently.

YOUR SOCIAL SYSTEM makes criminals and fills jails.

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