J. Sanderson Christison on Criminology

Crime's Cause and Cure

In a February 8, 1897, Chicago Tribune article, Christison wrote that a a child’s upbringing determines whether he or she grows up to be a criminal.

The physiological factors of parental peculiarities (parts of the personal equation) become in one way or another anatomical in the child.

Infinitely more sensitive is the plastic tissue of the embryo than is the wax cylinder of a phonograph, so that thoughts and impressions, both conscious and subconscious perceived and unperceived through their subtle physiologic correlatives, must give results which gross conditions do not explain.

Crime and Criminals

Crime, at least in the habitual form or "repeater" cases, [is now frequently] seen to be a disease, or rather a symptom of disease, and where it cannot be exactly regarded as such, it is the result of bad or defective education...

With prison inmates the forms of the head and the expressions of face in the great majority of cases will be seen to differ in some respects from the normal type, conditions which indicate something in the possibilities or dispositions of their possessors. They may be inherited or acquired, while education either runs counter or adds to the stock...

All so-called criminals may be divided into three great groups—viz.: [1] The insane, [2] the moral paretic, and [3] the selfish, or criminal class proper. A criminal may become a moral paretic and a moral paretic may become a criminal, while both tend toward insanity. An insane person is also more or less of a moral paretic and may be induced by delusion or by suggestion [personal or external circumstances] to commit crime. The insane subject is chiefly at fault in the power of discernment; the moral paretic is chiefly at fault in the power of choice; and the selfish individual or criminal proper lacks in the first principles, which constitutes the basis of love in the humanitarian sense.

It so happens that the last three persons executed in Chicago were examples of these three classes, Windrath representing the insane, Fields the moral paretic, and Mannow the criminal...

[Windrath] was working enthusiastically in his cell at times on the problem of perpetual motion, which had been a fad since boyhood, though his education was against it. He made very artistic drawings of a very ingenious mechanism.

When he was a patient at the Dunning Hospital for the Insane he had delusions of sin...

Moral paresis or palsy... is simply an abnormal weakness of the will, or rather a loss of self-control, which represents want of brain tone. The subject may know a particular act is wrong, but is unable to refrain from doing it under special exciting circumstances or provocation...

Young Fields, the negro who was executed last spring, was a type of the moral paretic. He was a hotel porter, lived with a woman with whom he had a drunken quarrel in a fit of jealousy in which the one assaulted the other, when he seized a lemon-squeezer, which happened to be at hand, with which he struck her on the head...

He was a simple-minded creature, ruled almost entirely by his animal instincts, which he frankly admitted he indulged without curb. At first he resorted to stupid lying in his wish to save himself. He had an open countenance and a genial disposition, which was almost childish. He became resigned to his fate, buoyed up by religious ideas, and went to the gallows, supposing that his execution was just...

The details of Mannow’s history are yet fresh in the public mind. He went to the gallows evincing a mixture of bravado an cowardice, and without any sign of repentance, although he had admitted his own guilt, murder and robbery, and asserted the innocence of Windrath. ...He shot the cashier of the West Chicago Street Railway Company while committing a midnight robbery in the company’s office. Windrath was supposed to be his accomplice but he was convicted on very weak evidence.

Last year [1895] more than ten thousand murders were committed in the United States, which is more than one-fifth of the total deaths in the Federal army during the whole civil war, which lasted nearly five years. Of all civilized countries the United States has the highest murder rate, while India has the lowest...

CASE IX, which I am now to describe, is a lad of the common negro type [Scott Price]. He is 17 years of age and of average height and form. At 2 o’clock one morning he struck a man on the back of his head with a piece of gas pipe, for the purpose of stunning and robbing him. The victim fell, but immediately recovered his feet and yelled, which so frightened his assailant and the two accomplices that they immediately fled. The assaulted man, who kept a fruit stand in the neighborhood, died with 24 hours.

The prisoner, who rook fright at his victim’s yell, returned to his room and went to bed, but did not sleep that night. For a week longer he served at his usual business, which was that of peddling "winnies," mostly among the saloons, between the hours of 8 p.m. and 1 to 3 a.m.

This arrest is his first, and he says he can hardly understand why he committed the crime, as he was receiving a dollar a day seven days in the week from his employer, for whom he worked during the several months he [the prisoner] had been in Chicago. But he had three associates, one being a woman, all of whom lodged together and had been out of work for some time. At times previous, the project of "holding up" somebody had been discussed by them, because considerable of that business was being done in the city, so that, after a social drink of beer in their not over-aesthetic apartments, the three lads sallied forth for game, it being arranged that our present subject should deal the blow while the other two attended to the robbing...

The psychological aspect of our subject is that of weakened will and increased suggestibility, with a blurring of the moral precepts of his early instruction. He has been excluded from helpful influences of good literature and parental interest, because of his inability to read and the early death of his parents, and thus the evils of his associations have had the advantage...

Long before the commonest signs of mental derangement are evinced, the will is being palsied and the range of thought narrowed through the creeping injury to the brain...

— J. Sanderson Christison, Crime and Criminals (Chicago: W.T. Keener Company, 1897), 7, 15-22, 37-41.

Read Christison's account of the Chris Merry case.