Henry Herbert Goddard.

The criminal imbecile; online

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and has other marked outward symptoms ; the average
person would not find more than one or two consump-
tives among a hundred persons ; the expert physician,
however, experienced with tuberculosis, recognizes many
more by signs and symptoms which he can describe
with great accuracy, and when he is allowed to apply
his physiological tests and his clinical thermometer
and his microscope, the number increases enormously,
and he assures us that every seventh person will die
of tuberculosis.

It is hard then for many people to accept the ver-



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THE CASE OF JEAN GIANINI 15

diet that Jean Gianini is an imbecile, largely because
they do not realize what a high-grade imbecile is,

A second reason is found in the fact that we insist
upon believing the unbelievable. We view a crime like
the one under discussion and say frankly, "It is un-
believable that any reasoning, intelligent person could
commit such an atrocious act," and yet we believe
that this boy did; we believe that such a grade of
villainy exists and that it can suddenly appear in a
boy who never before manifested anything approaching
it. The fact is, that our instinctive revulsion against
such a thought is the correct view. The fact that Jean
Gianini committed such a crime is itself the strongest
kind of evidence that he is not a normal boy. But
turning from imbecility in the abstract, let us examine
concrete instances in the life of Jean Gianini, for we
shall find there the best possible illustrations of the
characteristics of an imbecile.

We may begin at the most dramatic point — the
crime itself. Since we know practically nothing of
the crime except through his admissions, we will begin
with the confession. And first, why was there a con-
fession f It is safe to say that there is not a sensible
man or boy the country over who, knowing the facts
in the case, would not say, "What a fool Jean was to



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i6 THE CRIMINAL IMBECILE

confess !*' Nobody but an imbecile would have con-
fessed under those circumstances; they had no evi-
dence against him, nor did they pretend they had ; he
testifies that they told him that they thought he was
guilty of the crime; they did not pretend that they
knew he was guilty ; there were no third-degree methods
used; they had taken his clothing off and examined
him, but they had not found any blood or any evidence,
and the clothing had only just been removed when
Jean began to tell his story. He had not been promised
any immunity if he should confess ; in fact, he had been
told that anything that he said would be used against
him, but still he persisted in telling the whole story.
But we do not have to rely upon the fact that it looks
foolish to us for him to have confessed, because we
have the fact, well known to all who have to deal with
imbeciles, that it is characteristic of them to do just
this thing. They do not always confess, it is true.
It seems to depend largely upon how proud they are of
their deeds — and frequently the more atrocious these
are, the prouder they are of them. It is perfectly clear
that such was the case with Jean. He made some little
attempt to get away, at least he made what appeared
like an attempt to get away ; there really is no evidence
that he was doing anything more than he had done many



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THE CASE OF JEAN GIANINI 17

times before, going away from home to seek work else-
where, with that wanderlust which is also characteristic
of imbeciles. He walked down the railroad track to-
ward Newport, not going very fast, not taking any
precautions to avoid being seen, and when met by some
one whom he knew, he came willingly back to Poland.
There is the highest probability, perfectly clear to
one who understands imbeciles, that almost from the
time the deed was done he had a strong desire to tell
somebody about it, to brag about it ; but a certain in-
stinct, a certain feeling that he ought not to be caught,
probably held him back. But when at last he was
taken back to Poland and into the presence of the
Deputy Sheriff ; when his clothes had been removed and
he thought his story would get into the papers and he
ivould become notorious; then he began to talk. In
spite of all the warnings and declarations that he would
suffer for it, he talked. At this point it is important
to remember that he is talking now to be heard ; he
is not confessing in order to escape punishment, he is
talking because he is proud of what he has done ; he
wants to boast, wants to be talked about and written
xip, wants to be notorious, a great criminal, as is evi-
denced in the course of the trial. Remembering this,
ive cannot believe all that he says in his confession.



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i8 THE CRIMINAL IMBECILE

As already stated, in so far as it relates to the basal
facts of the crime, it is undoubtedly true ; but when it
comes to the finer details of what he did, how he pre-
pared, and what he claimed was his motive, we greatly
err if we accept everything he said. It is not in the
sworn confession, but it was in evidence that he said he
sharpened the knife for the purpose; the fact that he
said he sharpened the knife for the purpose should have
no weight. It is precisely the kind of thing that he
would put in for effect. In fact all that he said after
the deed as to arrangements or plans or details must
ever be questioned unless his statements can in some
way be corroborated, for this tendency to elaborate
is so strong that there is no possibility of putting any
trust in his words.

It is worthy of note that whereas the defense intro-
duced many witnesses who testified to Jean's sayings
and actions that showed silliness and indicated childish
intelligence, the prosecution neither rebutted this nor
produced witnesses testifying to anything in his previous
conduct that gave evidence of good judgment or in-
telligence appropriate to his years, or that he had any
moral development that would be normal for his age.^

The evidences of his pride in the deed are scattered

iSee prosecution's hypothetical question — Appendix, pp. 131-138.



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THE CASE OF JEAN GIANINI 19

throughout the testimony. For example, at one time he
said, referring to the deed, "You would not think any-
body could do a deed like that so quick, would you ?"
When asked how he could get Miss Beecher to go so
far up the hill in the dark with him, he replied with a
good deal of pride : "That's easy ! I told her my father
was building a house up on the hill and we went up
there."

This leads us to another precaution which must be
borne in mind in considering this case. If Jean is an
imbecile, then all our previous conceptions must be
changed, since the conclusions that we naturally draw
are based on the assumption that these facts relate to a
normal man. To illustrate : if Jean were a normal boy
of sixteen, the fact that he inquired as to the time of
Lida Beecher's being at the Post Office, that he talked
with her the day before about her promise to go with
him to see his father, the fact that he went off with her
that night, that when he reached his father's house, he
lied and said his father lived up over the hill and led
her up there, and then, as he said, struck her with the
monkey wrench, and so on, would all indicate premedi-
tation and planning and forethought ; but the instant
we conclude that Jean is an imbecile, then these facts in-
dicate nothing of the kind. It is not denied that such



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20 THE CRIMINAL IMBECILE

may have been the case, or that it is impossible for an
imbecile to carry out such a plan. But it is claimed
that there is no strong presumption that such was the
fact, because the result can be accounted for in another
way. Jean being an imbecile, it is entirely possible that
he had no premeditation of murder at ally that he not only
did not grind that knife for the purpose, but that he did
not have the monkey wrench in his pocket for the pur-
pose. On the contrary, it is possible that as he walked
up the hill with Lida Beecher he had no more thought
of killing her than of committing suicide. Indeed, it
is much more plausible from all we know of imbeciles,
and of boys of his physical development, that there was
an entirely different purpose. That purpose was prob-
ably sexual. The writer is not alone in this thought.
Hardly any of the persons with whom he has talked of
this crime has failed to ask the question, "Was there
any sexual offense in the matter?" The absence of
any evidence of assault of this character has been a
surprise to many persons; but it again is no surprise
when we remember that Jean is an imbecile ; we know
also that he is a masturbator.

While the writer has no theory to put forth in regard
to this crime, yet, for the sake of clearness and as an
illustration of the imbecile type, let us assume a plausi-



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THE CASE OF JEAN GIANINI 21

ble hypothesis ; that is to say, an hypothesis which may
fit the case and is entirely plausible from the standpoint
of imbecility.

Jean was sixteen years old, an age when sexual passion
is strong. It is the middle of the great adolescent
period. The new physiological function of sex is
established, great psychic changes have occurred. The
boy is dreaming dreams, the imagination is active. In
the normal boy this means the evolution of ideals,
ambitions, moral and religious ideas, attention to dress
and appearance, interest in the opposite sex. In the
case of the morally well-endowed boy, the sex impulses
which have strengthened with the development of the
physical potency find their outlet in a kind of vicarious
functioning in the shape of polite and friendly associa-
tion with his girl friends, in chivalric attentions and
devotions, with more or less definite plans for future
marriage and parenthood. In those with little or no
moral principle we see the impulse leaping over the
social conventions and attaining complete sexual grati-
fication illegally.

With the imbecile the case is different. The fires
of sexual passion may bum as vigorously as in the better
endowed, but he lacks both the power of control and
the courage and ingenuity to overcome the social



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22 THE CRIMINAL IMBECILE

barriers. He masturbates. This banks the fires some-
what and requires no courage. If stimulated by asso-
ciation with girls, he makes crude and imbecilic plans
for conquest. Lacking moral development and igno-
rant of the more subtle means of accomplishing his pur-
pose, he may resort to violence in some one of the many
possible ways. Often he is not conscious of what it is
that is driving him and hence does not know where
satisfaction lies. Under these conditions his violence
may show no outward signs of being sexual. It may
show every degree from rough horseplay with girls,
such as pushing, pulling, grabbing hat, cloak, or other
articles of dress, bantering, teasing, and other forms of
personal contact, up to physical injury, torture, and
even murder.

Volumes could be written — indeed volumes have
been written — showing the tremendous force of this
sex impulse at this age, and the multifarious ways in
which it expresses itself — many of them not showing
any of the signs that are usually considered as indicating
a sexual disturbance. That is to say, such acts are, by
the uninitiated, not considered sex acts at all. One
incident of this kind is in evidence. "At one time Jean
took two little girls to a piece of woods and started to
take their clothes off, and when asked why he did it.



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THE CASE OF JEAN GIANINI 23

said he was going to play Indian and that Indians were
naked." Dismissing the possibility that his explana-
tion was invented to conceal a definitely conscious
sexual impulse, let us admit that he gave his real
reason for the act. Still it is clear to all who are familiar
with sex psychology that the subconscious reason for
playing Indian in that way was a sexual one. The
procedure also shows a lack of judgment and apprecia-
tion of the proprieties which argues strongly for mental
deficiency — especially as he was then between ten
and twelve years old. (For further items the reader is
referred to pp. 11 3-1 20 of the Appendix, where the
hypothetical questions have summed up the testimony.)
The imbecile is a coward. Jean Gianini is an im-
becile. Unconsciously impelled by that strong in-
stinct he seeks the company of Lida Beecher. As a
matter of fact her friend. Miss Clark, testified that Miss
Beecher had been annoyed at his attentions. He
contrives an excuse to get her to come up to his house ;
when he reaches the house, he makes another ex-
cuse to get her to go farther, not, as generally be-
lieved, with the purpose of murdering her; perhaps
only blindly following that instinct of sex and desiring
to be in her company; more probably with the half-
conscious purpose of satisfying his passion if he could



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24 THE CRIMINAL IMBECILE

find a suitable opportunity. They walk on ; where they
were going or how far they would have walked no one
will ever know, but there came a time when for some
reason her suspicions were aroused, or at least her
common sense told her that it was foolish to go farther.
Of course we have nothing but Jean's statement, which
may be true or may be false; instead of the' simple
statement that she thought she would go back as she saw
no light, there may, for all we know, have been a strong
argument ; he may have made improper proposals which
she resented; this led to blows with the fatal result.
We have no means of knowing what actually took
place at that spot. But even taking Jean's own ac-
count, when she remarked that "she thought she would
not go any further," he saw that his plan was frus-
trated. Then he struck her with the monkey wrench
which he happened to have in his pocket — for what
purpose no one knows. Having struck her once,
it was easy to strike the second and the third time.
It was only natural for an imbecile to keep at it, —
"finish the job" as he expressed it. According to
the evidence he struck her with the knife approxi-
mately twenty-four times, finally hitting the jugular
vein in the neck, as a result of which she probably bled
to death.



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THE CASE OF JEAN GIANINI 25

As already stated, the writer has no desire to advance
this as the theory of the deed. But if Jean is an imbecile,
this theory is fully as good as that upon which the
prosecution worked, and it eliminates entirely all
necessity for elaborate planning. Up to this point
we have shown that the fact of a confession and the
character of the confession, both difficult to explain
on the basis that Jean is a normal boy of sixteen, are
entirely clear and perfectly characteristic of a high-
grade imbecile.

Let us look now at his actions immediately after
the deed. It is in evidence that Jean said he took the
murdered girl by the foot because there was no blood
there and he did not want to get blood on his hands
for fear they would take his finger prints. Holding
her by the foot, he dragged her out of the road behind
some bushes and left her in the snow. He then went
back into the road, making new tracks, which he made
no effort to cover. Nor did he make any effort to
cover the old tracks or the blood spots that were left
along in the snow. Neither did he make any attempt
to hide the hat nor the umbrella nor the broken comb
which were left in the road; his care to take her by
the foot where there was no blood is cited as evidence
of forethought and judgment ; but what shall we say



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a6 THE CRIMINAL IMBECILE

of his failure to cover up his tracks when it was easy to
have done so !

Again we must remind the reader that we have
nothing but the boy's testimony as to the fact that he
took her by the foot or to explain why he took her by
the foot, but in accepting his testimony as true there is
nothing incompatible with high-grade imbecility.

The one peculiar thing about Jean is that he has read
more than most imbeciles even of this high grade. But
this peculiarity does not save him from being an im-
becile, since there are cases of imbeciles who have
read as much or even more than he. Furthermore,
there is plenty of evidence in the case that Jean's in-
terest in reading has gone along the line, childlike, of
crime. The various experts who examined him told
of his talking about the case of the New York gunmen,
of the Pomeroy case, of a murder in the South, and
possibly others. He inquired about Mahoney, the
would-be assassin of Mayor Mitchell. In connection
with these crimes his reading of finger prints had made
the same impression upon him that it would have upon
any boy. He remembered what he had read and per-
haps acted upon it, at least talked about it when the
opportunity came, and pretended that he considered it
in his action.



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THE CASE OF JEAN GIANINI 27

It needs no argument to show that all the rest of his
conduct in leaving things as he did was imbecilic.
Even many a high-grade imbecile would have been
much more thoughtful and more careful to cover up
the tracks in the snow. That Jean did not do so is in
itself almost an unanswerable argument that he was
an imbecile.

He then went home, and having washed the knife in
the snow, put it in the pantry drawer. No evidence was
produced, so far as the writer knows, to prove that this
was the fact ; we do not know whether the knife belonged
in the pantry drawer and he put it back, or whether
it belonged in his pocket and when he was through,
he put it back in his pocket or put it somewhere else.
Again, assuming that he told the truth, he certainly ran
the risk of being questioned as to what he had been
doing with the knife. He then went on an errand, and,
according to his statement, went down to the railroad,
hoping to jump a freight train. When he found the
freight had gone, he hurried back home. These actions
according to the prosecution indicate careful planning
and a desire to get away ; realizing the enormity of his
deed he wanted to get out of town. Surely no normal
youth of sixteen would have failed to get out of town
even though he had missed the freight train ; but his



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28 THE CRIMINAL IMBECILE

conduct is perfectly characteristic of an imbecile. One
simple thought having failed to materialize, without
planning further he goes back home, acts as no one but
an imbecile could under such circumstances, — goes to
bed, sleeps soundly, gets up the next morning, and goes
to work. Then he makes another effort to get away.
But how crude an effort it is. He walks quietly along
the railroad track and, as already stated, makes no
attempt to hide, but passes the trackman and goes into
the station at Newport. When he meets a person
from his own town, comes promptly and quietly back
home. Surely an act much more befitting an imbecile
than a normal boy of sixteen !

The writer was asked upon the stand whether these
incidents indicated to his mind that Jean had intelli-
gence and had planned this thing carefully. The
answer was emphatically, "No." At every turn they
indicate an imbecile. We could cite many instances
of imbeciles in our institutions who have done things
of exactly the same character. Our high-grade boys
frequently plan to run away, and often their plans are
much more elaborately conceived and much better
carried out than Jean's was.

In speaking of the confession it may be noted also
that not infrequently our boys when they have made a



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THE CASE OF JEAN GIANINI 29

plan to run away cannot keep it until they can carry it
out, but make a confession. They go to some attend-
ant or officer and, without any compulsion, actually
tell of their plan. In this way a great many times their
purposes are frustrated. When two boys plan to run
away, it is rare indeed if they carry out their scheme ;
it is almost certain that one of them will confess to
somebody.

Jean manifested throughout that love of display and
notoriety, that longing to be the center of observation
and talk, which is so characteristic of imbeciles. He
asked the alienists who were examining him if his picture
would be in the paper and what the people were saying
about him. According to the testimony of the experts
who examined him in jail, every occasion on which he
was examined was regarded by Jean with pleasure,
and his only thought apparently was that he was the cen-
ter of observation. Instead of showing some realization
of his crime and that he was exerting himself to make
an appearance that would be favorable to his case, all
the evidence was of the opposite character. None of
the witnesses for the prosecution were able to hide the
fact that he was light-hearted and frivolous, and, in a
word, "showing off," throughout these various ex-
aminations.



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30 THE CRIMINAL IMBECILE

Throughout the whole time of the writer's examination
of him Jean never for one moment evidenced by word or
action any thought as to how his conduct or his answers
to questions would affect his case. As was pointed out
by the defense, quite in keeping with his mentality was
his statement to the experts employed by the prosecu-
tion, that he had been told not to talk, in spite of which
he talked incessantly and told everything that they
wanted. The fact of the matter was that his desire to
show off so far overcame any thought of self-preservation
that he talked and acted freely in spite of his lawyer's
caution that he should not answer questions. His
conduct in the court room throughout the trial was that
of an imbecile, of a child, who had no realization of the
predicament that he was in and no purpose to make a
good appearance. He was in the limelight and he
enjoyed it. Even when the most gruesome details of
his deed were being recited, he evidenced no feeling of
horror or sorrow or fear; on the contrary he was in-
different, and frequently even laughed at the incidents
that were related. He showed no excitement after
he got home that evening; he slept well. His only
comment on his prison cell, which to a normal person
would have been loathsome in the extreme, was that
it was better than St. Vincent's, where he had been at



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THE CASE OF JEAN GIANINI 31

school. Even when the experts introduced by his own
counsel were examining him, and when, had he been
intelligent, he should have known that it was to his
advantage to make the best possible appearance, to
give them every possible help, yet when his dinner was
brought into his cell, he could think of nothing but
eating and ignored the people who had been sent to
help him. As one of the experts testified, "As between
soup and safety, Jean prefers soup."

These facts and circumstances alone are enough to
satisfy any person who is familiar with the character
of the inmates of our institutions for the feeble-minded
that Jean was an imbecile and really belonged in an
institution. But besides these circumstances several
witnesses were introduced who testified to the curious
and childish actions of Jean in his past history. Quite
recently, he had tried to catch pigeons by putting
salt on their tails. The prosecuting attorney called
attention to the fact that almost every man remembers
going through the same experience, but it may be safely
asserted that this is not done by any normal boy
after the age of twelve. It is a childish act, and in-
dicates a mentality of less than eleven.

Peter Black, the village blacksmith, testified that
some one sent Jean to him one day for "strap oil";



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32 THE CRIMINAL IMBECILE

that he carried out the joke by slapping Jean with a
strap, but was unable to make him see that the whole
thing was a joke. He teased and bullied the other
children in a way that is characteristic of the high-
grade imbecile. Mrs. Anna Newman testified that he
was a restless boy, and that sometimes he would answer
her questions and sometimes not. Every superin-
tendent of an institution for the feeble-minded would
instantly recognize these characteristics as common
among his inmates. The reader will find more of
these incidents in the Appendix, pp. 113-119.

One of the unique features, so far as court procedure
is concerned, was the introduction into the case, of
examinations by means of the Binet-Simon Measuring
Scale of Intelligence. The writer's examination of


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Online LibraryHenry Herbert GoddardThe criminal imbecile; → online text (page 2 of 9)