George A Thacher.

Why some men kill; or, Murder mysteries revealed online

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it out by shooting a rifle, but they were young children and could
not realize the consequences of taking human life. Their horizon
was bounded by the impelling force of their impulses and their
lack of training and ability to reason about the sanctity of life.
These children were not convicted of murder, for the irresponsi-
bilitA' of the child was recognized.

In the grown up feeble-minds this same lack of ability to
reason about the consequences of criminal conduct is the most
noticeable characteristic. Their reasoning powers are too weak
for them ever to learn thoroughlj'^ and as a guide to conduct the
value of ethical teaching. They always remain creatures of
impulse except in so far as fear controls them. At the same time
their powers of perception are often very good and some of them
have unusual mechanical ability.

In 1916 a man over sixty years of age, serving a life sentence
for murder in a Michigan prison, was pardoned and drifted to
the Pacific Coast. He had been in prison over 30 years. I saw
him every day for months, but aside from a vacant eye, a marked
pallor, probably due to long confinement, and indications of
broken health there was no stigmata of mental weakness. He
carried wood for the fires and one day he appeared w^ith a sort
of harness which enabled him to stagger along with a huge arm-
ful of wood. He showed the same delight in this arrangement
that a small boy would manifest in overloading a wheelbarrow
and wasting time in doing it. Then he showed a complete inabil-
ity to reckon his wages for work done, and would become angry
when it was pointed out that there was a debit as well as credit
side to an account. He was obviously sincere in claiming that
he was being cheated because the amount which he owed was
deducted from the amount due him. His capacity for handling
an abstraction of the simplest sort was lacking.

On several occasions he called in a man who had befriended
him to secure fair treatment. This friend proved to be an ex-
guard from the Michigan prison where this man had been con-
fined. He admitted that this ex-prisoner was weak-minded and
said that he was very quarrelsome in prison and was often

10 Why Some Men Kill

engaged in fights with other prisoners. I asked what crime this
prisoner had committed and he told me that he had a quarrel
with his brother and cut his head off with an axe.

This ex-prisoner had only a child's sense of humor in spite of
his sixty odd years of experience. He finally became so incensed
because he thought he was being cheated that he left for Cali-
fornia. He could reckon his wages but he rebelled bitterly at
the thought of being compelled to pay anything out of his wages,
for his room or board. His mental machinery could not enter-
tain or adjust the two sides of a problem. At the same time he
apparently had moderate inteUigence. He had been known as a
bad man, but his old prison guard knew that he was weak-
minded and consequently irresponsible.

In some of these "aments" all the instincts are weak and they
drift through life without committing any crimes, but unable to
make a comfortable living because they are unable to plan and
lack persistence and the will to be industrious. Intellectually
they are very much like an unusually intelligent steer or horse.
However, in many of these defectives the reproductive instinct is
strong enough to keep them in constant trouble and lead them
into criminal conduct. They know no law but the desire for
immediate gratification. Of course there is no arbitrary line
between the feeble-mind and the so-called normal person, and
naturally what are known as the border-zone cases develop into
the worst criminals, as we call them in popular terms.

A young man by the name of Kemp illustrates the border-
zone type. He assaulted a young married woman whom he acci-
dentlj'^ met in a lonely place near Portland and tore every strip
of clothing from her body. Becoming enraged at her resistance
he shot her through the body and then forced her head into a
pool of muddy water. But at the moment her capacity for resist-
ance ceased he became remorseful and wrapped her in some
sacking and poured some whiskey between her lips and placed
her unconscious body in a poor shelter, and then wrote a letter
to the sheriff telling him where to go to find this young woman,
and took the trouble to go to the central postoffice and put a
special delivery stamp on the letter. The sheriff acted promptly
and the young woman, after hovering between life and death
for days, finally made a complete recovery.

The penalty for assault with intent to commit rape is from
one to ten years' imprisonment in Oregon; but Kemp was carried

The Dclinqncnl Moron 11

away by fear, and, after wandering in the woods for a few days
eluding pursuit, finally shot and killed himself with the revolver
he had used to shoot the young woman who had resisted his
criminal attempt. Kemj) showed more capacity for reflection
and abstract reasoning than did either Jean Gianini or Tronson,
but he also showed the same complete yielding to impulse that
they did.

To people, generally, crime is a horrid manifestation of
wickedness which calls for sharp and swift vengeance on the
offender, both to injure him because he has injured others, and
to frighten possible or prospective criminals from doing similar
deeds. That is popular criminology and penology reduced to
their lowest and simplest terms. From this naturally follows
the attempt by the law-making power to measure the amount of
punishment or vengeance by the nature of the offense. *

There is another possible method which would involve con-
sidering the intelligence, the character and training of the of-
fender in order to determine whether or not he is a fit person
(or may become a fit person) to return to society and propagate
his kind.

The philosophy of the latter method is very simple and goes
back to first principles. Most animals are gregarious and have
certain social impulses which benefit the flock or herd, but man
is the only animal who has a conscious moral sense. Man has a
hand with a thumb opposing the fingers so that he can grip and
handle objects, and he has the faculty of communicating with
his fellows by spoken (and written) language, and the two facul-
ties have slowly and painfully led him to material achievement
and to account to himself (and to others) for his acts. That is
to say he has a moral sense or very practical reasons for know-
ing that certain acts are right and certain other acts are wrong
because of their ultimate consequences. He might be told from
infancy to old age that certain things are wrong but unless he
could reason it out and know it as a personal, never-to-be-forgot-
ten fact he would not be a moral creature, or what we call a
responsible creature.

This is the eternal burden of educating the young. Even
where they inherit good bodies and minds and come of families

* Note: Article 1, Section 16, Constitution of Oregon —
"Cruel and unusual punishments shall not be inflicted,
but all penalties shall be proportioned to the offense."

12 Why Some Men Kill

who possess good morals and good habits, it is a commonplace
that boys and girls violate laws and morality through ignorance,
lack of experience and lack of thought. The tendency has grown
very rapidly in recent years to treat minors, not as criminals,
but as young and immature persons whose minds have not been
developed to the point of foreseeing the ultimate consequences of
their acts.

However there are certain persons who, through bad inheri-
tance or disease, have weak and defective minds and who never
can learn to reason about their acts so as to foresee the ultimate
consequences. That is to say they are not moral, responsible
creatures. Experience teaches them no lessons for they can't
deal much in abstractions, and while they may have a parrot-like
knowledge of right and wrong, it does not control their bad or
hurtful tendencies. They can perceive the difference between
right and wrong, but they have no foundation for moral char-
acter because their minds are defective and weak. In other
words they are for all practical purposes as much the creatures
of their impulses as the coyote of the plains or the grizzly bear
in the mountains. Their morality is much like the ignorant sav-
age's abilitj" to count. An abstract number means nothing defi-
nite to a savage, and the abstraction cannot be remembered and
applied to a new situation. The defective moral sense of the
weak-minded is like that lack of mathematical capacity- and
consequently cannot be applied to new situations and problems
as they arise in the defective's life.

That is equivalent to saying that the defective person who
has impulses or tendencies of any unusual strength is practically
certain to be guilty of criminal acts. He know^s the meaning of
no law and is capable of knowing none. His outlook is the crim-
inal outlook but his responsibility is nil.

A good illustration of the "aments" criminal outlook appears
in Aaron, a young man of 25 years who began his delinquent
record in the juvenile court at the age of 14 or less. Since then
he has gone through the mills of justice about ten times and at
present is in the penitentiar3\ He has been convicted of theft
and burglary and is now serving a sentence for receiving stolen
goods. He also has been guilty of sex offenses against Httle girls.
Physically he is an able-bodied man and does not look imbecile,
but the psychological test gives him the rating of a 7-year-old

The Delinquent Moron 13

Aaron never could get beyond the first grade in school and
naturally can do nothing with words or numbers. From the police
point of view he is a bad young man and could be led into any
kind of crime which his intelHgence or cunning is equal to. For
ten years punishment has been measured out to him according
to the offenses he has committed, though in truth he is not a
moral creature.

Naturally, among women, weak mentality leads to their ex-
ploitation as prostitutes — where they are not protected by cir-
cumstances. The lack of ability to foresee ultimate consequences,
even in a small degree, is obviously the chief explanation for the
army of women in the underworld. The extreme youth of many
of these novitiates in an unhappy life explains in great part the
lack of intellectual development or capacity to reason among
those who are not actually feeble-minded.

There is no sharp line, of course, between the feeble-minded
and the so-called "normal" person, and the greater the intelli-
gence short of a full capacity to deal in abstractions and foresee
consequences, the greater the danger of irresonsible and criminal
conduct. Special defects among intelligent persons are often
causes of crime.

There are a great many men and women of the underworld
who escape the technical stigma of being feeble-minded who are
altogether creatures of impulse and apparently entirely lacking
in self-control. Where their impulses or instincts are very strong
they are especially dangerous.

The high-grade feeble-minded, who under favorable circum-
stances can earn a living, are very apt to be considered as respon-
sible beings and treated as such. For thousands of years they
have been regarded as fools whose folly w as wilful. Solomon in
his Proverbs has much to say about them. He refers to fools
constantly and in the 26th chapter of the Book of Proverbs he
sums up his scathing indictment. There are tw^o significant
things in Solomon's account of fools. He points out that a fool
is a hopeless creature — "As a dog returneth to his vomit; so a
fool returneth to his folly." He also differentiates between fools
and criminals — "The great God, that formed all things, both re-
wardeth the fool, and rewardeth transgressors."

It would really seem as if the world had suffered enough from
feeble-minded delinquents to recognize their characteristic
traits. There is one particular kind of weak-minded creature
who has considerable facility in the use of language and who

14 Why Some Men Kill

aspires to be a politician and demands a politician's reward of
"office," and failing in that, takes a feeble-minded man's revenge
on the highest official he can reach. President Garfield was as-
sassinated by Guiteau, who wanted to be appointed an ambassa-
dor. It was recognized at the time of Guiteau's trial for murder
that he was not fully responsible, but there was no proof of ji
insanity (vague as that term is). On the other hand everything
in Guiteau's life, from his childish schemes for making a living,
his lack of honesty, his complete lack of sense in trying to adjust
means to ends, his unrestrained vanity in claiming alliance politi-
cally with the Stalwarts who were led by Roscoe Conklin, his
request for an ambassadorship, his excuse of compulsion or
necessity in killing President Garfield (like Tronson who killed
the girl who would not marry him — "Yes, I am sorry I had to
do it,") his conduct at his trial for murder, and finally when on
the gallows he read his doggerel verse, "I am going to my Goddy
in the sky," all indicate with a weight of cumulative evidence
not to be denied that Guiteau was a high-grade feeble-mind, or
what Solomon called a fool.

The assassin of Carter Harrison, Mayor of Chicago, was an-
other high-grade feeble-mind like Guiteau, who felt the imperi-
ous necessity of killing the Maj^or because the Mayor had not
given him what he wanted. He felt perfectly justified in doing
what he did. His childish mind in a man's world could come to
no other conclusion. "I am sorry I had to do it."

This is the nature of the creatures whose crimes are described
in the following chapters. They know in feeble-minded fashion
the difference between right and wrong but the realization does
not "trickle" in until after the event. Their impulses are the only
things which control them.

There is, of course, the further question of psychoses and
aberrations among the weak-minded as predisposing causes of
criminal conduct. There is no question but what they exist, and
in fact very careful observers consider that the mental and nerv-
ous weaklings are very apt to be afflicted with degenerative
affections which occasionally lead the subject to commit some of
the most terrible crimes known to the human race, such as
sadistic murder, as well as lesser crimes. This is perfectly logical
and observation confirms the conclusion.

Chapter II.

To the more or less morbid creature whom we designate as
criminal the desire for gratification of hmiian impulses and for
some social recognition is very strong.

I have listened to the stories of offenders who have commit-
ted various crimes ranging from forgery and obtaining money
by false pretenses and burglary to perverted sexual offenses and
murder, and the burden of the story is almost invariably the
same. It seems to be one of the absolute needs of human beings
to talk about personal experiences and attempts at achievement.
A man who was indicted for an assault on a child had a long
story about his unsuccessful career and broken family and his
fondness for children. He denied the offense and condemned
it in unmeasured terms but went on to explain the circum-
stances which he said had deceived the witnesses. His explan-
ations and admissions proved his guilt beyond a reasonable
doubt, but not content with indirectly damning himself he then
began to ask questions about the length of sentence imposed
for this particular crime. He did not w^ant to admit that he
was a criminal but his point of view was his experience and
he could not let it alone. If his experience had not been a
guilty one he would have had verj'^ little to say. He would
have asserted his innocence and been contemptuous perhaps
about the charges, but that would have closed the tale.

The disposition of men who are guilty of offenses to talk
about them and make partial admissions which lead up to the
criminal act but deny the culminating or actual performance
is verj^ common. A pervert who had made a public nuisance
of himself prefaced his statement by saying that he knew that
men sometimes did this thing but that he was a virtuous citi-
zen, and that he was getting old, and that he had too great a
respect for his fellow^s to do anything of the sort. He repeated
several times that he knew this thing was done but that he did
not do it. He did not know that he was confessing his guilt,
but the court knew and sent him to prison.

It has been said that a liar needs a long memory, but the fact
is that his memory is his undoing as soon as he attemj)ts to
weave a different story than the true one. He is so fearful of
not explaining all the damning facts that he remembers tliat he
overdoes it. Self-deception and self-pity help him to distort his
story and also to forget some important details.

16 Why Some Men Kill

There are two classes of criminals who make truthful con-
fessions when the pressure of circumstances becomes so cruel
as to make it seem possible that a clearing up of the mystery
will be of advantage, or when mental distress or remorse leads
the offender to unburden his heart. Of course the motive is
selfish in either case. In saying that the confession is truthful
I do not mean that it is apt to be literally true, but that it is
true in its main features. There may be a vital fact omitted
but enough will be told so that the balance can be worked out,
remembering that the criminal is seeking some means of justi-
fying himself. Take the confession of the man in the Green
Trunk murder mystery in Portland in 1917. A green trunk had
been found floating in the Willamette river and upon investi-
gation it was found to contain the murdered body of a middle
aged man. It was known that this man had come to Portland
a few weeks before with a male companion, but this other man
had disappeared. The horse and wagon was found which
hauled the trunk from the lodging house to the river but there
the clues ended.

The circumstances indicated, however, that these men were
homosexual lovers and a search was instituted in the under-
world of the Pacific Coast for the missing man. It was a year
before he was found and brought back to Portland for trial.
He admitted that he belonged to the tragically unfortunate class
who are born into the world with the homosexual temperament
and he explained his partnership with the murdered man. He
possessed, as all persons of that type do, an inferior nervous
system, which accounts for what is described as sexual inver-
sion. He did not find it out until he was twenty years old and
then he knew why he was "queer."

The normal ways of living and loving were closed to him
and so he drifted into perverted ways and finally while under
the influence of an unusual amount of liquor he became a homi-
cide in a moment of exasperation. He admitted that he drove
that horse and wagon around the city for two or three hours
before he put the trunk in the river. He did not tell the whole
story to one person but made partial confessions to different
ones. His opinion of his situation had a good deal of interest.
His own verdict was, "I am the victim of circumstances." In
the penitentiary he is a model prisoner and has nothing to
distinguish him except the fact that he is the man of the Green
Trunk Murder Mystery.

Confessions of Crime 17

There is another type of the nieiitally and nervously abnor-
mal who are possessed or obsessed with an ugly and contrary
disposition which impels them to defy all conventions and to
despise tlieir fellows. Breaking the law^ is in the nature of a
diversion to these individuals which gives satisfaction to a brain
and nervous system at war with itself. When the crisis comes
such a man rather enjoys telling how cleverly he defied the
law though he admits its unwisdom so far as it touched his
personal fortunes. These men have good intentions but the
world would have to be made over to harmonize with their
pathologically crooked habits of thought. These delinquents are
recidivists invariably and their performances would read like
the story of a huge practical joke perpetrated with the design
of making themselves the butt, if it were not for the tragic side.

Another kind of criminal who almost invariably confesses
belongs to w^hat is called the moron type. An adult in years and
with the physical needs of a man the moron reasons like a
child and has little power of self-control. He is extremely irri-
table and has entirely uncontrolled fits of rage and is often
outrageously profane and lacking in the sense of modesty. At
the same time he has the child's desire for approbation and
enjoys the emotional exaltation of being the center of interest.
He is very cunning and enjoys telling of his "smart" actions,
but he has no foresight.

This kind of a criminal will almost always confess if treated
with tact and he will give details of a personal nature which
no member of the class previously mentioned would allude to.

These personal revelations are so naive and childlike that
they stamp the truth upon the confession or its principal fea-
tures. At the same time these criminals may have an excessive
vanity, and if they do they are certain to lie about details of
their crimes in order to make them appear as very remarkable
acliievements. The combination of child-like remorse for wrong
done for which an innocent person may be suffering, a desire
for approbation, and possibly a streak of intense vanity which
has never had much to feed upon, leads the criminal of this
type to make a confession which is a hodge-podge of fact and

In the chapters which follow there is an account of a murder
and a confession relating to it which is of this type. Some of
the details of the confession are grotesque fabrications but the
central facts are undoubtedly true.

18 Why Some Men Kill

The other murder and confession which is the first of the
two accounts as printed in the following chapters does not have
these grotesque details but is very matter of fact and has been
verified in the majority of details given. This difference in
the two confessions indicates of course the difference in per-
sonality of the two feeble-minded offenders.

The account of the murder and confession in the first chap-
ters following involves a man of nearly 40 years old. He is
physically slight, weighing about 125 pounds, and with very
small hands and an asymetrical head and face. All his life
he has gone into ungovernable fits of rage on very slight provo-
cation and he also nurses his anger until he has an opportunity
to gratify it. After the explosion he realizes what he has done
and the possible penalty but this does not deter him from doing
much the same thing the next time he loses his temper. Expe-
rience is altogether wasted on him for while he does not forget,
he does not learn from anj'^ experience. He has a certain
shrewdness of observation and forms conclusions quickly, but
anything like patient thought is outside of his realm of mind.

The most vivid impression which I shall always retain of
him is that he is now at 38 years still in the mental attitude
of a boy of ten whose greatest delight is to play Indian and
take scalps and trot around in the woods and fish and hunt
and shoot at a mark. Instead, however, of using tin knives, a
tomahawk made out of a shingle and dipped in red paint and
a wooden gun, this boy-man when he is not in some jail or
penitentiary, carries a very business-like knife, and a small
arsenal of firearms which he can use with skill. He likes noth-
ing better than to live in the jungle with some hobo of criminal
tendencies and exist by petty stealing varied by an occasional
job. It is the serious business of life for him to know all the
criminal slang and the ritual of jungle crooks including the
significance of various marks made on fences, trees and barns
and the signs of a turned up trouser leg or a hat of a particular
color or one worn in a certain way. The deadly seriousness
with which he will tell of the significance of a certain kind of
hat and the signs by which the predatory crooks of the jungle
recognize each other would be convulsing if there were not a
grim reality behind this child's play which accounts for the
brotherhood of criminal tramps who live in the woods and
along the highways and in the suburbs of large towns, loafing
and stealing and occasionally mistreating women and children.

Confessions of (.rime 19

Their career of adventure is enlivened by occasional visits to

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Online LibraryGeorge A ThacherWhy some men kill; or, Murder mysteries revealed → online text (page 2 of 13)