Selected writings of A. Jackson Howe.
Professor Howe frequently wrote upon medico-legal topics to remind physicians and jurists of the dangers of condemning unfortunates apparently guilty before the law, but in reality so perverted mentally, though knowing right from wrong, as to be unable to resist the impulse to commit a crime. If physicians especially would give more attention to the important study of medical jurisprudence they would be slower to condemn, without investigation, those who commit misdemeanors and felonies that shock communities, when the perpetrators are wholly irresponsible through some mental defect or perversion. The kleptomaniac is one of these. For enlightenment in respect to other forms of perversion the physician should read Kraft-Ebing's Psycopathia Sexualis.—Ed. Gleaner.
KLEPTOMANIA.—In 1860 an elderly woman of my acquaintance, in comfortable circumstances in life, was arrested for stealing articles from a drygoods store. She was detected in the theft by a lady who was shopping at the time. A parcel was clandestinely slipped under a cloak while the salesman's attention was distracted. After the arrest upon the charge of petty larceny, and bail given, a re-arrest was made upon the charge of grand larceny. In the woman's house were found hundreds of dollars worth of goods abstracted from various stores, many of the parcels being in remnants and original packages with tags attached. The accused had always stood so well in the community that the extraordinary larcenies were regarded by her friends as the result of a disordered mind. When asked to give a reason for the strange and guilty conduct, she gave as an excuse that her married daughter was about to be confined, and that her expected grandchild would certainly freeze to death if she did not provide ample clothing for it. This kind of reasoning on her part led to a re-examination of the properties purloined, and it was discovered that a very large part of the goods were in the line of baby clothes. Ten dozens of little socks in unbroken packages were in the plunder. This evinced so unreasonable a procedure that the cases were dismissed on the ground of a settled state of mind called kleptomania. The unfortunate woman admitted that she knew she was doing wrong at the times she stole the goods, yet she said she could not help stealing for such a worthy object.
The English court records furnish a case of kleptomania in the wife of Dr. Ramsbottom, the eminent writer upon midwifery. She was suspected of pilfering from a draper's shop in London. She was of middle age and highly respected, yet she was watched, seen to steal, and put under arrest. Stolen articles were found concealed in different parts of her dress. The only point that could be relied upon in the defense was that the articles taken were so trivial that no sane object could exist for intentional theft; and the only suggestion that could be made in her favor was that she was not responsible for her actions, being compelled by an uncontrollable impulse, or, to use a technical term, that she was a victim of kleptomania. She was not convicted, though it was thought the acquittal was more out of regard for her husband than a belief in her innocence.
The death of the accused occurred soon afterward, and had been probably hastened by remorse and worry. After the funeral the doctor had the house ransacked; and in every drawer and cupboard were found packages of goods that had been taken years previously, and never put to any use. Mrs. Ramsbottom was a religious woman, yet probably thought the commandment, "Thou shall not steal," was written for common thieves and not for doctors' wives.
These cases, and others of similar import, call to mind the senseless remarks of the unfeeling, and the libellous comments of newspapers, when medical experts express opinions favoring the theory that insane individuals are not responsible for criminal acts. If a theft be committed the average citizen cries out, "Send the scoundrel to the penitentiary," if a murder takes place, and a suspected person be arrested, the cry is raised, "Hang him." While this may not be wrong in the abstract, we should be humane enough to allow an inquiry on accountability before the sentence is passed.
A physician should not lend himself to the bid of every attorney who may need an expert witness in behalf of a lame cause; neither should he allow himself without due consideration of the facts, and a thorough differentiation of doubts, to join the popular clamor—"Crucify him, crucify him."
The judge's charge, in alleged insane criminals, will be that the accused is responsible if he knows the difference between right and wrong as pertains to the act committed.
A man may abstain from stealing through a consciousness that theft is wrong; yet commit murder under the impulse that he is doing God's will, or serving his country.
When Ravaillac assassinated Henry IV of France, he thought he was executing God's service; and so perhaps it was with Guiteau, yet the latter only turned against the President when he found he could not use him for selfish purposes. In this he manifested no zealot's love of God or country, but exhibited responsibility, inasmuch as he knew he was not doing right. His claim that he was divinely commissioned was an after thought.
Charlotte Corday was responsible for the deed that brought her head to the guillotine. Maddened with the thought that her kith and kin had been murderously beheaded, she started for Paris with the definite purpose of killing one of the leaders of the Revolution, having in mind Robespierre, though would accept Marat. The opportunity presenting to stab the latter she embraced it. On her trial she justified the deed, and exulted in it. Her motive for the assassination was revenge. She was not insane, and therefore not irresponsible.—HOWE, Eclectic Medical Journal, 1883.
The Biographies of King, Howe, and Scudder, 1912, was written by Harvey Wickes Felter, M. D.